Learning In Chunks

In the four months since we have become a home-schooling family, the depth and breadth of topics and content we have covered has truly astounded me.  Our first few weeks centered around Greek mythology, with Greek shields and mythological fact cards being researched and made.  As this interest began to wane, a new interest began around endangered animals, exotic creatures and conservation, which has most recently morphed into a fascination around New Zealand’s native bird species.  Significant research has been undertaken on habitat and conservation issues.  Persuasive arguments have been written as to the importance of Zoo organisations.  Flyers have been constructed and books made.  Within numeracy, geometric concepts, basic facts, multiplication, division and fractions have been adequately covered as we move on towards basic percentage knowledge.  Within greater exploratory play, measurement has been a big focus, with the children exploring their urges to mix and concoct a variety of potions, mixtures and recipes.

The rate of learning and the way in which the children move quickly through their various interests has made me reflect on the way in which I planned as a classroom teacher with my own students.  At the beginning of the year the long-term plan would be set out, with term plans, unit plans, weekly and daily plans whittled away to ensure I was well and truly covered for every event possible.  The curriculum would be divided up and topics would be assigned blocks of time for coverage.

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From what I have since observed, the way these blocks of topics, themes or ‘unit foci’ were planned does not do justice to the way in which children learn.  Children, when ‘hooked’ learn with such enthusiasm and veracity they cannot be interrupted or stopped to think about another unrelated topic.  To truly be engaged in the learning, they appear to almost need to live ‘in’ the material, breathing it, tasting it, touching and listening to it.  And then it is done.  Without warning, the interest is over and a new one takes its place.  How long this process takes is entirely up to the child, but certainly does not appear to be a long and drawn out commitment.  It is short but intense and if well-supported, deeply engaging.

When my daughter was 5 years of age, her entire junior syndicate initiated an inquiry of ‘maps’.  She spent over a term investigating maps, drawing maps, learning about atlases and so forth.  A term of over 10 weeks.  While I like to consider my child to be of above average ability, even I know that at age 5 maps did not rock her world.  At age 5, fairies did. Fairies who wrote to her at home and who visited her in the garden.  And yet, for over 10 weeks, she plodded away at ‘maps’ at school.  She, like many above average girls, quietly and obediently followed the classroom program.  But her levels of motivation and enthusiasm for what she was learning were far from high.  In fact, it grew dangerously close to her not ever wanting to pick up an atlas again.

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Why, as teachers, do we feel the need to ‘chunk’ big blocks of time on one set topic, when children simply don’t learn in this way?  By ensuring we cover the curriculum, we are in fact, not truly responsive to the learning needs of our children.  We are not offering a flexible learning environment.  For the child that is not at all interested in maps, what options have they got to explore what truly interests them – when we are locked in to the structure of long term planning and unit/theme plans?  What do we do with that child that says ‘no thanks’ to maps but ‘yes please’ to the wild west, native flora and fauna, or princesses?

It is time to reconsider the way we plan for and teach the students we have, and the interests they hold about the world around them.  Rather than asking yourself as a teacher ‘what will interest my students’, ‘what kind of activity can I plan for today’ or ‘what are some different ways I can teach ….’ – ask them.  Get them thinking about what matters to them.  Get them wondering and noticing and observing and then connecting, investigating and exploring these wonderings and noticings with others.  This is where true learning happens at its best.  Connecting with what matters to the individual, making sense of it, and then sharing that knowledge with others.

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This process does not happen in 10 week blocks, nor in a nice and neatly structured framework whereby there is a tidy beginning, middle and end.  The process at times is chaotic but calm and tidy but messy.  Students drive their learning and are actively engaged in seeking out understanding to their own knowledge, that is meaningful and relevant to them.  This process cannot be ‘chunked’ into allocated time blocks, but allowed to happen until the end of the process naturally occurs.

In adopting this method of student-directed learning, very often the ceiling and walls come down around a child and what they are capable of knowing.  Passion for learning is ignited and the child becomes the driver of their own inquiry.  ‘Learning’ then becomes a truly intrinsic and motivating event.

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“We Are Not Playing Now We Are Learning”

I was recently observing in a classroom, having being alerted to a child who, at 5 years old, was struggling to complete the tasks expected of her by the teacher.  In fact, in the teacher’s eyes, she was being ‘non-compliant’.  As I observed, the child self-selected a task outside of what the teacher had asked her to do.  As the teacher moved to intervene, she stated to the child “No, we are not playing now, we are learning”.  I was absolutely stunned.  This teacher, in one sentence had managed to contradict the very nature of childhood.  That learning and play are two separate entities, and that one must certainly not engage in play (and presumably any frivolity that comes with it) when one is committed to the serious task of learning.

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This seems to be the prevailing attitude of our current education system.  What stunned me the most with this teacher was that she was young and trained in a degree that covers a student age of 3-8 years of age.  I had assumed that this meant she would have a clear understanding of the work of children, and the literature and research around the importance of play and the subsequent learning that comes from this.  I am forever learning not to assume anything in my work.  There seems to be a belief by society in general that up to the age of 5 years, children can have a bit of a play – a bit of a lark about – but come time for school then that nonsense really has to cease in favour of the important stuff.  The real learning.  The ‘get-ready-for-NCEA’ attitude narrow-minded focus.  It does seem to feel like childhood is a very endangered species.

What is a shame even more than this, however, is that this focus is starting to seep into many early childhood facilities.  Daycare facilities are now re-branding themselves as ‘Educare’ companies, offering to ‘prepare your child’ for school.  While I am all in favour of having children school-ready, it is the definition of this that concerns me the most.  School ready should encompass a level of socialisation, independence, level of oral language and an understanding of the reasons why we go to school.   When a 3 year old is expected to be compliant in the ‘classroom’, this is displaying an ignorance about child development that is difficult to stomach.  Companies responsible for the provision of care to children under the age of 5 should take their responsibilities extremely seriously.  They are in the position of preserving childhood, not extinguishing it in favour of the pressure to have children learning the ‘important stuff’.  They should be advocates for the children they care for, teaching parents and the wider community about the important life-long learning that occurs in these early years, and how we, as families, can assist our children with their milestones.  And above all, they should work hard to correct society’s perception that earlier is better.  That if children are pushed harder, sooner, they will be achieving quicker and better.  And when they get to school at 5, they won’t bother with all this play stuff – they will be busy doing actual learning.

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What 5 year olds need, particularly when they have come through a system such as an Educare facilities, is time to explore, discover, create and connect with the world around them.  To inquire.  To question.  To delight and to consider.  Of all the ‘subjects’ of childhood – play encompasses all these skills.  And so much more.  At 5, students should be in classrooms that have the flexibility to encourage students in their play, not to stop them at the first step.  That are resourced enough to allow children to explore their ideas and create from their imaginations.  This is not in conflict with the need to have children learning to read, write and develop their numeracy skills.  But if in an environment where children are engaged in true play, these tools will be used in context and with purpose.  Children will have real reason to draw on and develop these skills.  They will be learning through their play, not separately from their play.

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Growing Great Readers

Please take a look at my latest article published today on Parenting Informer “Growing Great Readers”. A must read for teachers and parents of young children.

http://www.parentinginformer.com/growing-great-readers-early-childhood-literacy.html

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