Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Zen and the art of early engagement...

flickr CC image via woodleywonderworks

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything;

it is open to everything.  In the beginner's mind there are

many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few.

Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi

I have been thinking about the way we introduce learning to kids at the beginning of the kindergarten to grade twelve spectrum. We are taught as preservice teachers to think of early learning kids as "tabula rasa," or blank slates. This is interesting considering that we are also taught during our preservice training that kids have learned an almost unbelievable amount in the first five years of life. We certainly don't seem to honor the widely accepted notion that kids have likely learned more before entering school than they will collectively for the rest of their lives. From the NYU Child Study Center...
During this time the brain undergoes its most dramatic growth, and children rapidly develop the cognitive capacity that enables them to become intellectually curious and creative thinkers.
It appears clear to me that we are very privileged as professionals to have such adept and capable subjects to work with right off the bat. Even if we accept that kids are born as blank slates... tabula rasa, I believe by the time they enter school, kids are chock full of knowledge, skills and attitudes enabling them to learn any number of things... each child is indeed tabula abundans; an abundant slate. Their "beginner minds" are primed and ready to learn. So how do we run with this and make it work for them?

It is interesting to think what may occur if we were to flip the pyramid. Currently in the conventional wisdom we define the entire set of learning goals for early learners. We start at the tip of an inverted pyramid learning the very basics of reading, writing and math, and then the triangle widens as we grow older, culminating in high school where kids are sometimes overwhelmed by course-load choices they aren't really prepared to make. We set a predetermined curriculum and timeline for skill and knowledge acquisition. Students don't really have much to say about the process at all until they get to middle school. What if we were to engage kids earlier in writing their own learning stories? We could do this with a small shift providing much more choice and variety in the lower grades allowing students to refine their learning paths as they get older and better at making decisions about their own learning. 

I envision a corps of specialized teachers that would travel from school to school sharing their specific skills and knowledge that support student choice in the early grades. They would collaborate with homeroom teachers to provide vibrant learning opportunities in the arts, athletics and vocational areas. Their support could be synergized with curriculum to enhance already-being-taught content, or it could stand alone as a supplemental element. Imagine the joy students would feel while studying history and  having expertly led opportunities to create art that reflected the historical context, perhaps sing the songs from that history, cook food people ate back then, build models to represent the architecture of the time, design and model the clothing of the era or put on a historiographic play to tell the story of that historical time. Could homeroom teachers do this themselves? Of course some could, however, they may not be able to support learning as experts with specific contextual skills to share. We all have teaching strengths in particular areas, but very few teachers, if any are completely comfortable in all areas. Short of adopting a high school system where all teachers are specialists, resource teachers to assist in the elementary school classroom where specialist strengths would have so much positive benefit has tons of potential.

I happened to attend a kindergarten to ninth grade school as a child. Our school had an outdoor courtyard built into the middle of the building. I remember one project involving the designing and carving of a full scale totem pole to stand in that courtyard. Our school was a K - 9 school, and the entire school had opportunity to contribute to the project. The middle school fine-arts and industrial arts instructors had the background to lead and support everyone's learning. They were specialists that, because we were a K - 9 school, had opportunity to share their talents and abilities with kids younger than they would normally work with. It was brilliant.

Creating opportunities for specialist resource teachers to support the evolving learning stories of early learners in school; giving kids more choice in the early grades regarding how they want to display learning...  why wouldn't this work?
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