Reflections on my classroom experiences. I am an early childhood educator inspired by progressive practices. As a teacher inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach, this is an online journal of my time in the classroom.
I once spoke about my core values and educational philosophy. I reread that post recently and realized how much has changed in the last year. I have revisited these values, and (no doubt because of my time spent at the Helen Gordon Child Development Center) I have become much more articulate about my beliefs.
My teaching decisions seem to come from two different places. I either make a decision based on what I sense feels like the right thing to do, or I make a decision based on academic literature written by people who specialize in different competencies of teaching practice.
It is hard to truly hone your decisions to reflect academic knowledge for a number of reasons (namely because the research comes out rapidly, sometimes new research turns old research on its head, and there is just so much of it out there), but I aspire to get to a place where all my teaching practices are grounded in solid empirical evidence and knowledge. I aspire to teach in a way that is not grounded in my unfounded beliefs or biases, but rather in a way that is most efficient and effective for the child’s experience. Who I am and what I get out of it all should be a limited variable in the equation.
Dr. Jane Nelsen (author of Positive Discipline) said it best, “When did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first you have to make them feel worse?” As ridiculous as it sounds, we see it all the time. Undesirable behavior is met with punishment. Children go through painstaking efforts to avoid even being in school, and who would blame them? The children who hate school are the ones who feel like they don’t belong, and they don’t feel appreciated. Even our legislature, our highest governing body, takes away money from schools who are not doing well.
Surely the structure and limits we provide as teachers send messages about expectations to children, but there are certainly ways to provide an enriching learning environment without running it like a prison.
I can reword this to say, “I believe in individualizing education.” Top-down mandates that say that all ten year olds need to know a prescribed set of knowledge by a certain date in the year is not just preposterous. It is harmful to children, and it comes from people who have a limited scope of what learning looks like.
We all have asked ourselves throughout our educational careers, “Why do I need to know this?” Sometimes I learn subject matter that spurns new interests within me, but oftentimes I go through what I have come to call “Circus Hoops of Knowledge Fire” that I just have to jump through or else be met with pain and shame.
Children who take the driving seat of their academic pursuits feel better about what they are learning, learn more, and achieve great things that teachers never expect because the teacher isn’t in control of the endgame (there is plenty of academic knowledge to support this, just read some Alfie Kohn).
This also means that my role as a teacher is drastically different than the traditional teacher. I am not a knowledge dispenser that fills empty vessels with knowledge. I am a listener that asks questions and teaches processes for thinking. I control environments and not children. I am a researcher alongside the children trying to find the answers to questions with them as opposed to giving answers to them.
We live in a world that is focused on the product as opposed to the process. People want quick results and answers. Like teachers who despise calculators, we know that without understanding the process, children are doomed to finding the answers from other people, wanting others to do the work for them, and being helpless when expected to problem solve or think critically.
If teaching processes is the primary goal of education, than instilling values of lifelong learning is a very close second. There is only so much that a student can achieve in the school setting. The truest test for the success of education is what the person is like long after they leave school.
I am much more interested in the questions a student asks, as opposed to the answers they have about the world. In the Project Approach, that’s actually where we start: “What do you know about this subject?” And we move forward from there pushing ever forward with more questions. What a person knows is not nearly as important as what they do with that information.
The young child in America is protected. We value our young children and keep them behind the scenes so as to protect them from the less appropriate aspects of what the world is like. This perspective is so wildly pervasive that in the classroom, we treat children with disrespect to their capabilities.
Young children are fantastic learners with an unending curiosity for the world. This almost uninhibited thirst for knowledge is never seen again in their lives. The proof is in the pudding. When I start to let go of the leash and allow children to express themselves is when I become the learner. I just have to let go of the steering wheel…