Thursday, March 17, 2011

Do kids really need a teacher to get educated?

It's been a week of interesting and thought-provoking reads.  First, I was pointed to this NY Times Op Ed piece that talks about how a school in Western Mass pulled a small group of students out of the mainstream high school and let them design how they wanted to learn.  They worked with the high school teachers while they designed their curriculum which consisted of a bunch of projects to explore various topics.  Their reading list went above and beyond what the AP English class would have been required to read.  These students, by the way, weren't all over-achieving honors students -- there were a couple that were thinking of dropping out.  These kids ended up excelling and learning a ton.  This morning, I was pointed to this study round-up which focused on young children.  Two independent studies showed that four-year-olds are more apt to learn and explore more if left to their own devices.  

The ideas presented in these articles aren't new.  Most early childhood educators figured out a long time ago that putting a preschooler in front of a water/sand/rice table and giving them a bunch of items to use with that table will create hours of exploration and fun.  They even manage to learn stuff along the way.  The article about the high school kids takes this idea one step further:  it's not just the little tots who learn by doing, it's the older kids too.  (Giving the older kids ownership in what they're doing helps the process too).  Homeschoolers have an education philosophy around this called "unschooling" which when implemented correctly is all about child-directed learning.   

The general idea here, though, is something that I struggle with regularly.  Peanut is almost five.  She's still at that age the researchers say where she should be, to certain extent, left to her own devices.  Let her explore.  Let her play.  It'll spark her creativity.  On the other hand, this kid wants to learn things that are well above grade level.  She asks for it for by name.  (I'm serious).

My compromise as been to become her teacher for the rote things: phonics, basic math concepts, etc.  I am her teacher for the foundation.  From there, we've got wiggle room.  

Science is easy.  We do lots of experiments and model building.  A month ago, we built a little solar-powered oven using a pizza box to demonstrate that even in the middle of winter, the sun is strong enough to bake cookies.  (It took a loooong time, but we got cookies).   We'll build a soda can robot in a few weeks as part of a little unit on robotics.   We also do lots of reading on whatever topic we're studying.  Next year, we'll start Chemistry.  I actually purchased a Chemistry book meant for grade schoolers that I intend to supplement heavily with additional hands-on stuff and additional reading.

History is a little less easy, but still manageable.  We do tons of reading.  (If you've got a kid who likes to read and be read to, might as well take advantage of it!)  I also find activities that center on the time period.  We cook or bake a food.  We do crafts and/or draw pictures. We play games. Last year, we visited Old Sturbridge Village.  Next year, using a textbook as our spine, we'll start exploring history from the beginning and spend the next several years learning it in order.  The text incorporates all kinds of hands-on activities and additional reading sources which makes my planning even easier!  My goal at this age is exposure.  If we find something that really interests her, we'll dive deeper.

As she becomes better with her reading and writing skills, creativity is easily built into Language Arts.  We've started simple writing prompts.  We read short poems and talk about the imagery and what the poet might be talking about.  I've really enjoyed doing this -- a four year has a very literal mind, so thinking beyond those words on the paper generates some interesting discussions!  

Math has been the surprising one for me.  I remember my days of elementary math class, sitting at my desk, and memorizing my math facts and trying to puzzle my way through fractions.  The highlight of the week was when our teacher broke out the flash cards and played "Around the Room" where you moved around the room based on what you got right.  Nowadays, there are all kinds of hands-on manipulatives: geoboards, tangrams, plastic student clocks, etc.  I know some of this stuff existed long before I was in elementary school, but it wasn't something used in our classroom.  Peanut and I play with flashcards occasionally.  We spend more time with the math toys in the manipulatives bin.

In order for Peanut to go off and learn on her own and explore her creativity, she needs to have the foundation laid so she can do so. Phonics are phonics. Addition is addition. There's only so much creativity you can put into it.  And for those of you who know Peanut, you know she's got creativity in spades, so I think we're onto something with her!  And, finally, to answer the question posed in the title of this post:  Sometimes kids need a teacher.  Sometimes they need a guidance counselor.  Sometimes they need a mentor.  And sometimes, they just need to be left alone to figure it out for themselves, even if it takes them three times as long as it would have if you sat down and just showed them the answer.

With all this said, I don't advocate doing anything more than what a child's ready to do. Peanut and I started this process earlier than most kids because she made it clear that she was ready and interested. I would have also been just as content to let her play and explore on her own had she shown that inclination.

No comments:

Post a Comment