A Little Wiggle Room

May 5th, 2010

My wife recently sat in on a field trip to the desert with our middle daughter. Volunteers led the small groups of kindergarten students. Classroom teachers were present as well. At one point the field guides showed students a number of desert animal skins and skeletons. One boy, unable to see well from where he sat, rose to his knees to get a better view. The teacher reprimanded the boy, telling him he needed to remain seated. A few moments later the field guide passed around a small animal skull for students to examine. The same boy made an animal noise while holding the skull. The teacher again scolded the boy, telling him he had spent two of his three strikes. He sat subdued for the remainder of the tour. My wife was dumbfounded. In her estimation the boy’s behavior did not warrant such a constricting response.

The teacher seemed to perceive the boy’s behavior as an impediment to the learning process. This is a perspective most of us absorbed growing up: a model of education in which the teacher is like a computer server and students are computers in need of software updates. What the teacher wants most is for the student to be passive while he or she updates the student’s software. Anything else is like disconnecting your computer from the Internet mid-download.

No model could be further from how we actually learn. In the real world we learn a snippet about something. Upon hearing we want to know more. We’re confused. We’re unsatisfied. We’re eager to understand. We learn when we feed this appetite. Ever year tens of thousands of high school graduates move from their hometowns, presumably to learn. Can we blame a kindergarten kid who, in his desire to learn more, rises six inches off of his seat?

But we don’t often see things this way. We can easily see a person’s attempts to better understand as an affront to the learning process. What the teacher saw as an obstacle was, I believe, critical to that young boy’s learning process. In order for him to interact with the material the boy needed to sit up, and he needed to convert the skull into a puppet.

This boils down to a simple question: Are we in fact trying to help people learn? If we are then we ought to encourage others to express their natural learning abilities. We ought to see their attempts to exercise these natural abilities not as obstacles, but as a two-fold opportunity:

1. For students to learn more by learning more naturally

2. For those we teach to in turn teach us

Let’s replay the desert scene with an educator who welcomes such opportunities. The boy sits up in his seat to see better. The teacher works to make sure he and every student can see. The boy, with animal skull in hand, makes a bodacious animal sound. Out of her own curiosity the teacher asks the field guide, “What kind of sound would this animal make?” There is certainly a need to set boundaries for a learning process. But we mustn’t relegate to the outside of those boundaries people’s natural tendencies to ask questions, voice concerns, and even challenge what we say. Such impulses are jet fuel for learning.

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