The Flow of the Project

I’ve been doing some form of project work with my classes for the last two or three years. It hasn’t been quite as structured as I’m learning to do project work because I didn’t have as much knowledge about it, but it has been there, based on what I learned through the reading that I did do. As I work in a center that is more focused on providing opportunities for project work as an educational philosophy, I grow to appreciate the flow of the project and of the day. There are times when the teacher has to facilitate a discussion, or plan an activity, or devise an addition to a center to enhance play. And then there are times when the teacher needs to just stand back and watch it all unfold.

I have long been a proponent of observation as a key – THE key – to high-quality teaching. There is no way to know what the class is interested in without observation. There is no way to know what the children are learning from discussions without observing them as they play to see what aspects of the discussion they are carrying with them and using. There is no way to know what direction to take the project without watching observing to see what the children are wondering or what misconceptions they show through their play. There is no way to truly understand the hearts of the children in the classroom without observing them.

Observation is so important, and taking the time to observe actions, words, and interactions is the key to being able to figure out what truly needs to be taught. Academic knowledge is wonderful and it has its place in my classroom, but I like to think of myself as a teacher of life. In order to teach about life, I have to clue myself in to the lives of the children in my care. I can’t do that by standing in front of them spouting out facts and then viewing their play time as a time for me to get some of my busy work done. I am just as involved in their play as they are, but I am noticing, noting, planning, questioning, and documenting. I am finding ways to help their learning come alive. Taking time to be still and let the children show me their lives is an essential part of the flow of the project.

Rewards vs. Cognitive Skills

In the Dan Pink video that I posted about a week ago, he said something that interested me: he said that rewards motivate mechanical skills, or skills that do not require much brain power or reasoning. Rewards actually hinder cognitive skills and make it harder to reason through a problem.

One of the things I love about kids is their ability to reason. You wouldn’t think that a two-year-old has the ability to reason very well, but they do. They don’t understand general, abstract statements, but they do understand that we perform an action for a specific reason. We clean up our toys so that we don’t trip on them and fall. We walk when we are inside so that we don’t trip and fall. We don’t jump on the bed because we might fall off and bump our heads!

If we can assign purpose to our actions, we become much better at assigning goals to ourselves. Our brains become better at reasoning through the steps that we need to take to reach a desired end because we have trained it to think that way. In contrast, doing something for a reward does not train our mind to look at the bigger picture or the higher goal. We can’t even reason through the steps we need to take to reach that reward, much less the goal, because we are so intently focused on the reward. It is almost like tunnel vision. The process of learning how to reason through steps or creating a goal is a practiced skill, though. We have to practice using the reasoning part of our mind in order for it to work well.

Learning cognitive skills is vital for a child of any age, but especially so for young children who are just learning about how the world works. If we simply tell them that we don’t want them to behave in a certain way and bribe them with rewards, then they don’t truly understand why we are asking them to behave a certain way. Understanding leads to a change in behavior, but at the same time it is important to remember that it takes 21-30 days to create a new habit. That means that it may take 21-30 days of a teacher explaining over and over the reasoning behind a certain action before the child makes a habit of behaving in the desired way. Even with the added benefit of an explanation that fuels the reasoning skills, the child may not stop behaving in the undesired way right away. It takes time and a lot of patience on the part of the teacher to actually teach children the correct social way to behave, and do it in a way that stimulates the cognitive skills of the child.

Self-Determination Theory

Okay, I am reading a new book. I am not going to say much about the book right now, as I plan on reviewing it very soon. However, I have learned a lot of very interesting information that I am going to share on the blog.

So I ran into the Self-Determination Theory during the reading of this book, and stopped reading to do a little more research into the theory itself. The theory is based on motivation and what motivates people to do things or to act a certain way. It focuses on intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, how environments influence motivation, what psychological needs are required for people to become motivated, and how goals play a part in motivation.

I have talked a lot about motivation on this blog, and how the way we interact with children affects how children are motivated to learn and behave. This book has been great because it has provided a lot more pieces of the puzzle of what motivates us into the mix. For example, the book states that feelings of autonomy within a lesson, putting a lesson in context, making a lesson personal for the students, and giving the students choices will help increase students’ intrinsic motivation to learn a lesson. And not only that, but students will approach the lesson with a desire to understand the material on a deeper level, rather than the surface-level understanding that is so common these days (think: memorization).

We all want to find ways to motivate the children in our class to learn. The implications of the Self-Determination Theory are many, and if we pay attention to what the theory is actually telling us, we may have a better shot at increasing the level of understanding happening in the classroom.

I will be writing much more about this in the very near future. For now, for more information on the theory itself, visit this website.

Curiosity and Further Learning

I have been reading the book Socratic Circles by Matt Copeland, in preparation for workshops through Project: Preschool. I came across this quote, which made me think:

Unintentionally, we teach students at an early age that having questions suggests a lack of understanding, rather than suggesting that having questions reveals a curiosity for further learning. (Copeland, 50)

This quote makes me think about this attitude that we have: deep knowledge about a particular subject can only be achieved by specialists, and specialists are the only ones that can speak to or about a particular subject. Deep knowledge about a subject usually comes about by an intense curiosity to learn more about the subject, whether or not one is in school to receive that knowledge. If students are not taught to question what they hear or read, do not learn to seek information from other sources, or do not learn how to make connections between sources, they will not expand in their knowledge about anything.

As teachers, our job is not to condemn questions or stigmatize them, but to use them as a jumping off point to teach about how to dive into a topic and really explore it.

How did this quote make you feel? Post thoughts in the comments – I love to hear from readers!

Stigmatizing Mistakes

Steve Jobs had a reputation for not releasing a product until it was “perfect”. He knew what he wanted and didn’t stop until that ideal was achieved. Decidedly, he had to make a lot of bad attempts before the perfect product was achieved, but did any of those bad attempts equal a mistake?

Mistakes have a bad reputation. Many schools have actually banned red ink because of the fear that pointing out mistakes with red ink would lead to increased stress and lower self-esteem.Standardized tests have increased the negative connotation of mistakes as high test scores have increased in value – at least to school districts and administrators. But the score of the test tends to be where the mistake stops. Instead of viewing a mistake as a learning opportunity for students, mistakes have come to be viewed as a flaw on the part of the teacher or even of the student. A test with a lot of mistakes threatens the reputation of child and teacher, rather than signal that the child just doesn’t get it and may need additional help understanding the subject matter. On top of that, multiple choice tests do not allow teachers to see the thought processes of the students, making it harder for them to try to figure out where the students’ understanding of the subject matter breaks down.

Case in point: my journey learning math. The entire time I was learning math when I was in school, the entire process seemed arbitrary – except for addition and subtraction. And I kind of understood the point for multiplication and division, but that took me a while. Once I got to algebra my understanding of why I was doing what I was doing disappeared. I understood how to do algebra; I didn’t understand why. Once I hit trigonometry my understanding of how and why was non-existent. I failed trig, and I never attempted to try again. I was completely convinced that I was horrible at math. Now I watch my 16 year old daughter taking pre-calculus and dreaming of being an architect and I wish that I had understood math as well as she does. When you get to the core of it, math is so beautiful and helps us understand so much of the world around us – if you understand it. I think about all of the pioneers of algebra and calculus and I wonder how many mistakes they made before they got it right. And think about the creativity that had to be involved! Each of those pioneers had to think outside the box to come up with the math that we teach in schools today – no one had come up with it yet. Imagine what would have happened if they had gotten it wrong and had been hit by the negative stigma that mistakes carry today.

One of the hallmarks of true creativity and creative genius is the ability to see mistakes not as something negative to be frowned upon or avoided at all costs, but as a stepping stone to the right answer. As I have been writing this post, it has occurred to me that a better way to describe a mistake would be as an attempt. An attempt to get to the right answer or to create the best that you can. There may be bad attempts along the way, and there may be good attempts, but in the end there will be something that has been created or understood through learning about what it is that is being attempted. And the most wonderful part is that the learning process is continual. More knowledge can always be gained in order to understand and create even more. If Steve Jobs had simply stopped when he created the first Mac, we wouldn’t have all of the great Apple products that we have today. But creativity tends to build on itself, and innovation is achieved through that building.

How many creative geniuses have we lost simply because we have stigmatized mistakes and valued right answers over understanding? I don’t think we will ever know, but I plan on changing my own vocabulary and mind frame. I believe I will substitute the word “attempts” for “mistakes”.