Trust vs. Naivete

Another #makered chat on Twitter tonight, and once again, my brain is on fire.  Twitter does not lend itself to depth, of course, but it’s a great spark.

What I am thinking about now is a bit too jumbled to articulate completely, so I’m going to grab one piece of it and try to start there: the question of trusting kids to drive their own learning.  It’s easy for me (especially as a librarian; I did teach in the past, so I’m not completely naive about the idea of having a certain set of skills or curriculum that you are expected to teach, but I am admittedly ignorant about a lot of it) to say that kids can be trusted to be curious and proactive and engaged in their own learning if they are given power over choosing what to learn about and set loose to construct their own learning.  I’m not talking about unschooling, but I think there is something to be learned from unschooling–that is more radical than what I am talking about, but it is interesting to me.

Rewind about 10 years ago, to when my own child was 3-4 years old and going to a Reggio Emilia preschool.  I drove 30 min each way to this little school out in the country, which was pretty insane considering there were plenty of good preschools much closer to home, but there was just something about this place.  It wasn’t the space (although it was very inviting) or the teacher (as great as she was).  It was the kids.  I had visited another school that, on the tour, pointed out how the preschool kids were learning their letters and numbers and would be ready for kindergarten.  The students were working quietly on worksheets at their tables.  This was supposed to impress me, but it actually horrified me.  I didn’t want my 3 or 4-year-old doing worksheets quietly at a table!  How is this a good thing?

At White Oak (the Reggio school), the kids were busy, but they were spread all over the room, doing all different things, all kid choice.  There was a hum of activity.  And then something happened that blew me away: a kid asked to share his work with the class, and they all got on the floor around him, and he talked about what he was doing (building something, can’t remember what), and then he got feedback from the other kids about what they liked about his project, and what he could do to make it better.  And then they all went back to what they had been doing.  These were preschool kids!  And it was completely natural for them.  The kid getting feedback was comfortable with the criticism–he didn’t take it personally, and he could say, “Nah, I like it this way because blahblah,” or, “Hey, I’m gonna try that,” and it was all good.  I mean, I can’t speak for how every kid felt every time they presented their work, but it was just so much a part of the process, it wasn’t nearly as loaded as it can be with older kids or adults.  These kids were learning how to: come up with their own ideas for projects; bring those ideas to life; share their work; and incorporate feedback into revisions.   During the year my daughter was there, kids did individual projects and group projects.  The projects were incredible; it has been too long for me to remember many specifics, but I do remember thinking that these kids were doing work that was far beyond what one would expect from preschool kids.  Kids were motivated to learn to read because they wanted to be able to get information faster for whatever they were working on.  Kids learned about measurement because they wanted to make a life-size whale and had to figure out how to do that.

There was an energy in that classroom that I cannot describe; if you have seen it, you know what I mean, but if you haven’t, you probably don’t realize how possible it is.  If you had told me about this class before the year my child was in it, I wouldn’t have understood.  Because it was so different from what I experienced as a kid, and also because it assumes something that I had no idea could be assumed: that kids WANT to learn.  That they are intrinsically motivated to learn.  That they will go so much deeper than you ever thought, even as little kids, when you trust them and trust their curiosity.  The hardest thing for the teachers to do was to not butt in and get in the way.

I know that it’s not radical to say that kids want to learn.  If you have spent any time with a baby or toddler, you realize that they are sponges.  But it seems to me that at some point, we (as a society) start feeding kids education like it is food, and we feel the need to fix their sandwiches for them, when actually they are not only capable of fixing their own sandwiches, they could probably make the bread and grow the veggies and whatever else with far less input/direction from us than we think.  It won’t be the same sandwich that we would feed them, necessarily, but maybe it is more nutritious in the end.

So that is where I am coming from.  I know that K-12 education is not preschool education, and I know it’s more complicated, and I know I am naive.  But I deeply, deeply believe that our kids, every one of them, wants to learn about something, has some questions they want to answer, has some thing that they want to build.  I have faith in that.  My hope for maker education, and for education in general, is that we find more ways to tap into that desire and those questions.  For EVERY child.  Maybe I am naive, but I am not going to stop believing in this, so I might as well work to make it happen, right?

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