Monthly Archives: June 2012

Why would we expect our children to become skilled at something if they never see a skilled practitioner doing it?

I have spent the last several years of my educational life as an administrator and a consultant. But I remember with considerable clarity my time as the teacher of a combined grade 1 and 2. I was determined to make every one of my students literate,  numerate and able to think as effectively as possible.

I read to them a lot. They read every day and in every spare moment. They also wrote a lot. But it dawned on me that they saw plenty of adults around them reading, but they hardly ever saw any adults writing in the extended, creative and thoughtful manner I was trying to develop in them. Children learn to talk by being immersed in language and striving to join in with the communicating buzz that envelopes them. They learn best to read when they see the adults doing it, when their drive for mastery and independence insists they become able to do it for themselves. How do they become writers if they never see it modeled? I decided  to do something about this.

At the beginning of the next writing period I told my six and seven year olds that I didn’t see why they should have all the fun, that I was going to write too and that I didn’t expect them to bother me. I took a large pad of chart paper to the floor and sat down in front of it, felt tipped pen in hand. Our routines were pretty well established by now, so the kids were all sitting at their tables or sprawled on the floor. Some were drawing and labeling, others  were writing their own often almost indecipherable sentences and some were putting together pretty well formed paragraphs. I had taught them what to do when they got stuck – ‘ask three before me’, check the words on the walls, go to a book and look and just ‘have a go’. They were becoming increasingly independent during this first drafting stage.

But when I started thinking out loud and writing they became curious. They heard me say things like, “Right, what will I write about?” “What is my first sentence going to be?” “That’s a boring word.” “Oh dear. I’ve already used that word. What else can I use?” “Hmmm. How many syllables? What’s the first syllable?” and so on.

One child asked “What are you doing?” and I replied “Shhh. Don’t distract me. I’m thinking.” Another wandered up to me and asked me how to spell a word. I feigned impatience and pointed wordlessly at the chart on the wall that listed what to do when you are stuck on a word, and kept on writing. A little later I sighed dramatically, scribbled through some of what I had written, muttering in a stage whisper “well that sounds just plain silly” and rewrote. I got up, went up to a word chart of adjectives, ran my finger down the list, said “yes!” enthusiastically and then went back to my writing and used the word in the sentence. Every now and then I took a surreptitious look around the room. The curiosity had gradually abated and almost everyone was industriously focused on their own work again. When the bell rang for play time, I exclaimed. “Oh, no. I was just getting in to it. Do you think we could do some more writing after play?” The kids looked at each other, a bit bemused that I was asking their permission, but enthusiastically said “yes”.

We moved together that week from first drafting, to editing to publishing of our stories and reading them to one another. From time to time I would have a parent in the room to help with the process. I still have my little published book “The Day the Teacher Sneezed”. This opportunity for my children to see how it is done provided the boost in their writing that was needed. They had the opportunity to see what the practice of writing actually looks like. In particular they saw the intimate link between thinking and the act of writing. Why would we expect our children to become skilled at something if they never see a skilled practitioner doing it?

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A Vaccine for the Internet Virus

Do you find emails in your in box that make you gasp with amazement that something so terrible could actually be true? Are you amazed to discover that one of your political leaders is even more unscrupulous than you had suspected? Are you disturbed to discover that your worst fears are supported and that there is, in fact, a giant conspiracy operating? Or are you just sleeping less soundly at night because the Mayan’s have predicted the end of the world in 2012?

These emails are often the result of well-meaning friends reposting something they came across on the internet. They repost it to their friends, their friends repost it to their friends and on and on – suddenly it’s gone viral because we were all vectors for infection!

Maybe there has never been a more important time for us to deepen our thinking. One of the Habits of Mind tells us to gather data through all our senses. I would like to add a little to that and suggest we need to gather data through all our senses AND all our sources. And keep in mind that it is data we need to be gathering, not just opinion.

These emails are often filled with a kind of data – quotes, descriptions of events, sentences from press releases – but I remember being taught at school to go back to primary sources and documents whenever possible. And why is this? Because it is so very easy to completely distort the message if you change the context. Let’s take a recent case. The author and television presenter  Clive James, was recently interviewed by Radio 4 in London and in the course of the interview he mused on his own mortality and the fact that he was a lot closer to the end than to the beginning. This interview with its nuances, tones of voice, pauses, laughs and the like was then taken up by a print journalist from the Daily Mirror and without all these subtleties his written article looked as though James was teetering on the edge of the grave. James was highly irritated by the rumours of his imminent death that this article sparked.

Teachers encourage their students to question what they read and hear. They are skilled in helping young people drill through the surface layers and get to the sources. One of my most useful web sites to help with this task is Here you can type in the latest rumour or viral ‘fact’ and begin to test its veracity and reliability. Snopes will provide information about where it came from and what other information is available to help us decide if it is ‘true’, ‘false’ or ‘undecided’.

Skilled thinkers ask questions and take in data through all their senses and from all their sources. The internet serves the rumour mill like nothing ever has before. Thinking is the tool that can apply a vaccine to control viral emails. Think before you hit the ‘send’ button.

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Play is the work of childhood.

“Play is the work of childhood”. Whether this was originally said by Piaget or Montessori is unclear, but there is no lack of clarity in the meaning. Our children learn when they play.

As we look towards the successes of the Finnish education system it is worth pointing out that their elementary school children have 75 minutes per day of unstructured recess and playtime. I recall when I was an assistant principal in Australia, the teachers complained that during the 45 minutes of lunch time free play there seemed to be a spike in small injuries. Disagreements in the playground increased during the final fifteen minute period. They wanted to cut the playtime to thirty minutes, matching the thirty minutes of free play that all the children had mid-morning. The request was taken to School Council where the parent members roundly dismissed the request. “Play time is when my kids learn all about team work, negotiation, and cooperation. If there’s no friction, there’s no need to learn how to compromise”, argued one father. So we maintained the daily 75 minutes of free, unstructured play.

It came as quite a shock to discover in the last school that I led that the school district permitted only 20 minutes each day for recess. The school near my house had done away with recess altogether. I was also surprised when some of my teachers complained that the children kept running into things and each other during recess, so I went outside several times to specifically focus on this. They were right. The kids walked down the steps and then broke into a run that often resulted in collisions. Why? My observations persuaded me that they were so pent up that they were like springs suddenly released when they hit the open spaces. They also had so little experience with physical play that they had not learned how to play actively around one another.

What are we doing to our youngest children when we keep them penned up in classrooms for 6 or 7 hours a day? They walk in carefully monitored, silent lines from classroom to lunch room and back again. They largely remain seated and hopefully following instructions while they are in the classroom. At the end of the day they line up for the bus, sit quietly (I’m being hopeful again!) on the bus until they get home. This amounts to an eight hour day with 15 minutes of running around!

We are training our children to be compliant because we are refusing to allow them the freedom to sort things out for themselves. Playgrounds are the places where children learn what is fair and what the consequences will be if you act unfairly. They learn how to take turns and what happens to them when they won’t. Children learn how to function as social beings in the playground, not in the classroom where the teacher arranges, resolves and manages everything.

In schools where children have extended unstructured play times the supervising teachers provided constant support as the kids learn how to negotiate and compromise. How many times have I sat on a seat outside with a crying, outraged child sitting next to me? We would explore what had led to the crisis, talk about possible solutions and then I would send the child back into the group to re-establish himself, with a lesson or two hopefully learned through experience.

The world is a very deep pool indeed, and many of the pressures and problems of the ‘real world’ exist in the hustle bustle of the playground and not in the classroom. As educators we should be providing the opportunities for children to learn how to safely stay afloat in the shallows of the playground, teaching them the things they need in order to survive successfully when they move into the deeper waters of the world outside school, when they will no longer have our protective arms to keep them afloat.

What do you think? What is your experience now and how does it compare with when you went to school?

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The world is a very big pond.

When I decided to become a classroom teacher of young children I was more than a little surprised to     discover that I would also need to learn how to teach them to swim. This was several decades ago in Australia, but even today Aussie kids are expected to be ‘drown proofed’ before they leave grade two.

The first task was to help them feel at home and safe in the water. We encouraged them to put their faces in the water, to splash and be splashed, to venture out of their depth but with something to hold onto. As their confidence grew and as they learned about doggy paddle, and a rudimentary stroke, they began to venture into deeper water. Soon they were confident and skilled enough to venture into the deep end without fear of sinking.

It’s a useful analogy. The world outside the school is a pretty big pool and in parts the water is very deep. It’s easy to drown out there. We see some kids who leave school and continue to play in the shallows. Others plunge in fearlessly, take on big challenges, and hopefully have the skills they need to make sure they can swim safely among the bigger fishes.

It’s my belief that if we teach our kids how to think effectively we are giving them the skills they need to negotiate the uncertainties of deep water and the pressures of the tides and currents that will pull them this way and that throughout their lives. Thinking will help keep them safe in the deep end.

I am looking forward to exploring how we can best teach our kids to think in the deep end. I will be sharing my thoughts but I also look forward to hearing the ideas and experiences of others. It is always encouraging to explore with like-minded people, but it is very exciting to find yourself changing your mind about a long held belief because of the power of an alternative argument. I love to be challenged.

So tell me, amid the pressures of each day, in the classroom or in the home, how do you make sure your kids are thinking and not just remembering, are working it out and understanding and not just doing as they are told?


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