Saturday, December 29, 2018

Recipes and Experiments in Intentional Teaching

Over the past few weeks I’ve been baking a lot of cookies. I’ve been adjusting recipes, trying to figure out how little changes in the ingredients can change the texture or taste? How much brown sugar or white sugar? What can I use instead of flour to make the recipe gluten free? Does it make a difference whether I use baking soda or baking powder?

None of this was random experimentation. Knowing what ingredients can be substituted, how a recipe can be “tweaked” stems from an underlying understanding of how to bake. Using brown sugar instead of white sugar is one thing, using salt instead of sugar would be something else entirely. I know that I can’t simply leave out the flour, or the eggs, I have to replace them with something else that has similar properties. Baking isn’t just a random combination of trial and error, it’s a science that’s based on knowing what and how different materials interact when combined and heated.

A few weeks ago I wrote about play and learning – that children learn through play, but just because they’re playing, doesn’t automatically mean that they’re learning. Simply having an experience doesn’t mean that learning, development, or growth will automatically follow. 

 It’s the content of that play experience – the materials that children use, the investigations they pursue, the interactions and conversations they have – that lead to learning. That’s where teachers come in. With our knowledge and experience about how learning happens through play, we can play alongside the children, interacting with them and scaffolding their explorations. We can provide materials and present them in ways that encourage children to think “What can I do with this?” Yes, there are some times when adult interaction interferes with children’s activity or navigates it away from the child’s agenda to the adult’s. But finding that perfect point where we can both follow the child’s lead and use our own experience and expertise to co-construct with the child is the core of intentional teaching. We aren't planning what the children should do. We're planning in consideration of all the possibilities of what the children could do, and based on our knowledge of these children and of development, what they likely would do.

Teaching isn’t all that different than baking. Following a curriculum guide word for word, just like following a recipe word for word, interferes with creativity and limits innovation. But at the same time, curriculum, just like a recipe, has some scientific basic for what works and how it works. If you put in a cup of white sugar instead of brown sugar, the consistency might change a little, but you’d still have a cookie. If you put in a cup of salt instead of sugar, your cookies would taste unrecognizable. If you left out the dry ingredients all together, you’d have a puddle that wouldn’t bake into anything. Teaching follows the same principles – just like random materials from our kitchen shelves wouldn’t necessarily bake into a cookie, children’s random activities don’t necessarily lead to learning. Curriculum objectives and standards and teachers’ experiences and professional knowledge are all pieces that contribute to the interactions of intentional teaching.  Adults need to be careful not to overwhelm children with our own agendas, but we also need to be confident in our abilities and experience to be true teachers in partnership with children. That’s where the magic of learning happens - when we strike that balance between our sharing our knowledge and helping the children to build theirs.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Learning Through Play - But All Play Isn't Learning

“Children learn through play.”

“Play is children’s work.”

 When we say “children learn through play”, we’re recognizing and acknowledging the important process that play, as a self-directed, intrinsically motivated activity has for providing opportunities for learning and development. When we say, “play is children’s work”, we’re demonstrating value for play as an essential aspect of children’s learning, and validating its role as a centerpiece in early childhood programs.

But even though children learn through play, is all play learning?

When I mentored student teachers, their lesson plan assignments always ended with a section for them to self-evaluate the activity they had planned. Often, the student teacher would simply write, “The children had fun.” I see and hear this same evaluation in online forums, in product reviews of classroom materials, and in discussions with teachers of all levels of experience. “The kids loved it!” “They had so much fun!” “They were really interested in what they were doing!”

Is fun – or interest – or enjoyment – the same thing as learning?

Play can have many purposes – some of them involve the sheer enjoyment of the activity, or the total engagement in the moment – the “flow” as referred to in psychology. Finding joy, fun, and flow in what we do are essential to who we are as human beings, and we want to provide those opportunities for children. But just because an activity was fun, doesn’t mean that learning happened.

“Learning”, by definition involves change. It involves development and growth. Children learn through play when those play experiences lead them to do something new, or think about things in a new way. It isn’t enough for children to “just play” - teachers need to provide classroom environments, materials, and interactions that encourage children to share ideas, negotiate, experiment, hypothesize, and evaluate. Teachers need to encourage children to say “What can I do with this?” and provide them scaffolding to extend their thinking and encourage them not only to play, but reflect on what they are doing. Teachers need to ask open ended questions, provide feedback, and help children think about their own thinking

Play is the starting point, not the finish line. Play can - and should - be learning, but there are many steps along the way. And many things that teachers can – and should – do to help children get there.