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How My 3-Year-Old Taught Me About Education

By David Polochanin — October 03, 2008 5 min read
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After months of touring preschools, investigating their programs and talking to parents whose children have already been through the process, we have finally secured a spot for our son Ethan, who is 3 years old and announced the other day that school is his “favorite place.” (His school experiences: A toddler cooking class and a once-a-week “Play and Learn” group. You have to love his enthusiasm.)

Teachers in public schools ourselves, my wife and I of course want the most ideal placement possible for Ethan. We want his imagination to flourish; we want him to grow socially and play well with other children; we want him in a safe and nurturing school setting where he will listen to his teacher. And we want him to be excited to learn.

Not too much to ask?

We believe we have made a good choice, registering him as a “peer model” in our local elementary school, four mornings a week. Some of his classmates will have learning, language, or other difficulties. Other students will serve as models, like him.

Preschools, we’ve discovered, are generally happy, colorful places. It had been a long time since I’d been in one, although I’ve been an elementary and middle school teacher for the last 10 years. One of the few memories I have from my own preschool experience is of breaking the shell of an egg I was supposed to color for Easter and the teacher yelling at me. (Not a positive memory.)

Today, preschools have names like “Discovery Depot” and “Bright Horizons.” These programs, while administered in their own unique way, are generally similar. There is time for creative play, stories, crafts, and projects. There are opportunities for singing and socializing. Kids’ artwork is abundant; some of the children have classroom jobs; traditional supplies like blocks and bricks and dolls and costumes litter the play area.

My son, meanwhile, is looking forward to playing with the toy trucks.

For me, the preschool-selection process, while interesting and eye-opening, turned out to be more than finding an appropriate match for my son. It shed light on education in general, and particularly the curricula and priorities of the nation’s public schools. The experience also afforded me for the first time a view of education from the perspective of a parent.

An emphasis I noted among preschools was on discovering, exploring, creative play, and socializing. I like this approach, particularly the discovering and exploring. Aren’t these, after all, the foundations of learning? Beyond that, they are essential habits that adults need in order to live successfully—from scientists seeking to find new medical treatments to prospective inventors hoping to dream up the next technological breakthrough. Discovering and exploring happen all the time, in every vocation and role—as parents, coaches, musicians, architects, or the manager of a supermarket.

And yet, it is obvious to me that the emphasis in many of today’s public schools is not on discovering and exploring. I haven’t heard many education leaders at the K-12 level pledge to focus on discovering and exploring as yearly goals. These words aren’t part of the mission statement of any school system I’ve seen.

They ought to be. As school districts worry about accountability, adhering to state and national standards, and increased pressure to perform adequately on tests, they should be concentrating on the foundations of learning. Assessments are worthwhile, but we don’t hear many stories of their inspiring students to like school. Exploring and discovering are what inspires.

Giving students time to explore in all curricular areas, allowing them to make discoveries and draw conclusions based on their own observations and self-initiated acts, is not conventional, but shifting instruction in this direction would not be difficult.

A few years ago, for example, I felt that my 6th grade English class was moving too rapidly between units. Just as students were becoming interested in what they were studying, we would wrap up, have a culminating assessment or project, and move on. I felt that I was valuing the quantity of what we covered over the quality. And so I started to change in a subtle way how I taught.

Assessments are worthwhile, but we don’t hear many stories of their inspiring students to like school. Exploring and discovering are what inspires."

At the beginning of several reading units, I gathered 30 or 40 documents, online printouts, brochures, books, and journals—“sources,” I called them—that related to our new area of study. I spread them out on the floor and put a Post-it note with a number on each. My challenge was for students to explore the sources, at their own pace, and record—or “discover”—interesting, new, or unusual facts and ideas. I demonstrated how I was hoping for students to do it, in two columns with the sources marked. I allowed two days for this and then asked students to gather in groups to present their findings.

I’ve done this activity prior to a unit on the American Revolution and My Brother Sam Is Dead; before reading Katherine Paterson’s Lyddie, about a mill girl’s experience in Lowell, Mass.; before reading Cynthia DeFelice’s novel Under the Same Sky, a story about a boy who works with immigrants, some illegal, on his father’s farm; and with Laura E. Williams’ Behind the Bedroom Wall, a novel set during World War II and featuring the youth groups Hitler convinced to follow him.

Now, rather than provide students with the ideas I want them to learn—as a batch of notes in an outline, for instance—I encourage them to select what appeals to them. Some students need more direction than others. But in the end, I always learn something new, which probably wouldn’t have occurred if I had lectured to them or given them a standard handout. And because of the quantity of what is presented by students, we usually cover—or discover—more than what I would have been able to tell them. The students also listen, and the process is more invigorating.

I have found, even with my limited involvement, that students enjoy the learning process more and retain more when they are guiding themselves, browsing through printouts of government Web sites, timely articles from magazines and newspapers, book excerpts, and other relevant informational texts.

Meanwhile, I circulate around the room, answer questions, clarify vocabulary that might be beyond some students’ reach, and direct them to check out other sources. There is actual research, albeit at a low level, happening in my classroom, and it’s exciting.

Sometimes I don’t have the answers to their questions, and that, I remind the students, is acceptable. Occasionally, if they encounter conflicting information between two or more sources, we try to make sense of it together. In this way, the students are making the most of their education—having serious conversations about the subjects they’re learning.

Opportunities for discovering and exploring exist in every discipline. Teachers must have the time—and the support from their superiors—to create them, to think of instruction in this new frame of mind.

As my son gets older and moves beyond his primary elementary years, I hope he will have many opportunities to discover and explore in his classrooms. Formal assessments will not disappear, but that’s not what I want him to remember most from his school experiences.

A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2008 edition of Education Week as How My 3-Year-Old Taught Me About Education

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