Is the ‘right way’ always the best way?

Giving children opportunities to question, to be creative, and to problem solve are high on my priorities. Children need to be given the time and opportunity to figure out things for themselves. While it is sometimes easier just to tell or show them what to do, or even do it for them, it is generally better for their development, to let them have a go at finding a method or solution. Please note: I am not talking about dangerous things here like playing with fire, testing to see how fierce that dog really is, or driving a car.

If children are constantly told there is a right way of doing things, they will stop exploring, discovering, and inventing their own or new ways of doing things. This is an issue because, if we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll never progress. There is generally no harm in, but much to learn from, each successive attempt.

Opportunities to explore, discover, and use intuition are also important to the development of mathematical thinking. When children are developing understanding of number, they often invent their own strategies for working with numbers. Sometimes, as attested in this paper by Heirdsfield, Cooper and Irons, the strategies used display more advanced thinking, and are more efficient, than those taught as ‘the’ correct way of solving a problem using pencil and paper.

I have noticed a change in the speed and agility with which my seven-year-old grandson works with numbers now that he has learned there are certain ways of; for example, adding two numbers. He tends to second-guess himself as he attempts to mentally calculate using the pencil and paper method he has been taught, rather than other more effective strategies he had previously invented and used. Perhaps you have noticed something similar.

Provocations, such as these 3 Fun Inquiry Maths Activities for the Last Week of School by Steph Groshell on Education Rickshaw,  are great to get children thinking about different ways of solving real problems.

Little Koala’s Party – a story for problem solving in the readilearn mathematics resources also encourages mathematical thinking and planning. Children help Little Koala organise a party for her family and friends, deciding who will be invited, the number of guests, and what’s on the menu. The suggestion is made that children plan a party of their own and they are asked to consider how they would go about it. The discussion and sharing of ideas, rather than the imposition of one ‘right’ way, is the important thing in developing mathematical thinking.

Now it might seem a stretch to tie this in with a piece of flash fiction, but I hope you’ll be able to follow my thinking through the mist and into the light.

The right way

Father and Son sat side by side. Father cracked his knuckles and sighed repeatedly while Son sharpened his pencils, each pencil, and arranged them meticulously according to undisclosed criteria.

“Come on. Just get it done. Then you can play.”

“I’m thinking.”

“Think faster.”

“I know it’s 96.”

“Well write it down.”

“Sir says I have to do the working out.”

“Then do it.”

“I don’t know how.”

“Like this. See.”

“That’s not how we do it. Sir says…”

“Then do what Sir says.”

Slowly it dawned on Dad: Sir’s way may not be the best way for all.

Noticing and Wondering: Kicking off and supporting enquiry

I have written previous posts about the importance of nurturing the ability to wonder in young children and in ourselves, for example here, here and here. It is always a delight, then, to come across a post that expresses ideas similar to, but extending, my own.
This post by Aaron Eden on Edunautics, Exploring a World of Learning questions whether there could be any skills more important than noticing and wondering. He says that in school students are generally told to think and wonder about what someone else (the teacher, the curriculum writer, the policy maker) thinks is important.
Eden argues for the importance of learning to learn; of learning to identify what is important and of understanding how to learn it. He promotes developing an environment of questioning and suggests ways of extending students’ learning through participation in genuine inquiry based upon their own wondering and questioning. His suggestions help make the process more explicit, and therefore possible, for teachers to implement.

Visioning a better school, a better way of educating

I spent a good part of the 1990s working towards creating an alternative to traditional schooling for my own daughter and the children of similarly-minded parents. For an assortment of reasons, none of which had anything to do with education, we didn’t get the school operational. There is a big part of me that still longs for that alternative and I am always interested to hear of situations which espouse similar beliefs and attitudes to mine. When I do, my heart starts to race and I want to holler and jump for joy, shouting from the rooftops, “See it can be done! This is how it should be! This is what children need!” I want to be in there with them, a part of it all, learning from and with them, and perhaps even adding a little to their learning, should I be that impudent to suggest it possible.

Yesterday was one such occasion. I popped over to Tara Smith’s A Teaching Life blog and read her post “Preparing for a student teacher”. I always enjoy reading Tara’s blog and could identify with much of what she was feeling while preparing to welcome a student teacher into her classroom. But what got me most excited was a video of a talk given by Chris Lehmann at the 2013 MassCue (Massachusetts Computer Using Educators) conference.

Chris Lehmann is the founding principal of the inquiry-driven Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in Philadelphia. The achievements of both Chris and the SLA are rather impressive. You can read about them here, here and here. Chris is one excited, enthusiastic and inspiring educator.

The video of Chris’s keynote address to the conference is rather long at almost 1 hour and 8 minutes (in comparison the mostly 15-minute TED talks that I often watch). I admit that when I saw how long it was I baulked, wondering if I had that amount of time to “spare”. Fortunately something in Tara’s words induced me to do so. After all I didn’t have to watch it all, did I? But watch it all I did. How could I not? His dream was my dream:

‘all these people showed up and breathed life into that dream’

Here is his talk. If you don’t have time to listen to it all, I give you a few of my favourite quotes. (You may have already encountered some of these ideas before on my blog!) But who knows, he may have other thoughts that resonate with you.

Chris says that many people often ask why schools can have so many problems when there are so many passionate, dedicated teachers. He answer is simple: ‘We have a systemically screwed up system and if you put a good person in a bad system the system wins way too often.’ He says that ‘the factory model of education . . . no longer works for our children if it ever did.’

Chris says that one of the biggest problems with many schools is that students are being repeatedly told to do stuff that they may never need or even care about. He says, ‘If we were to write a students’ bill of rights the first statement on it should be this question:

‘Why do I need to know this?’

He then goes on to say that ‘They shouldn’t even need to ask it because the reason should be so apparent through the work that they are doing that is meaningful and relevant to their life right now.’

He says that kids can do amazing things but that the sad thing is that unless it can answer a question on a state-wide test, no one will care! He says that using data from standardised tests is dangerous and that the best data comes from the work students are doing in class every day.

He says that better questions to ask of schools would be:

‘What is your college persistence rate?

How many of your graduates five years out are either in school or in a job where they are over the poverty level?

What does a student survey of your school tell you about whether or not the students feel valued and feel that their education is valuable?’

These are just some of the things that Chris Lehmann says schools should be:

• Inquiry driven
• Student centred
• Teacher mentored
• Community based
• Places of collaboration and incredible passion with
• Integrated learning
• Project based

In traditional classrooms the assessment tool is a test. Chris talks not about tests but about projects. He says,

“If you really want to see what a kid has learned it’s about the project, it’s about what they can do, what they can create, what they can transfer, what they can make, what they can do with their own head, heart and hands. A true project is when kids get to own it.’

His goal is to educate people to be ‘thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind’ and says that

‘ what were really trying to do is nothing less than trying to change the world.’

This brings me back to my two previous posts How much of a meliorist are you? and Can you make a difference? which drew quite a debate (unintended) about whether we believe we can, or should, try to change (i.e. improve) the ‘world’. I think Caroline Lodge who blogs at book word sums it up quite nicely for educators, saying

‘ I am a meliorist. How can someone in education stay there if they are not? The kids improve their skills and understanding, the world turns, and sometimes (like this summer) seems on the way to hell in the proverbial handcart. But there are SO MANY people working to improve the world. Educators as special people in this.’

For Chris,

‘The link between an inquiry-driven education and a care-driven education are three simple questions:

What do you think?

How do you feel?

What do you need?’

He says, ‘Everything you do should empower children.’ Thanks Chris. My words exactly!

He says,

‘Kids can do real work. We have to dare them to do that, we’ve got to help them, we’ve got to facilitate the work and we’ve got to get out of the way.’

These are just two of the many wonderful schools out there empowering learners. If you know of others, I’d love to hear about them.

What you don’t know . . .

One of my favourite quotes is that of Manuel in the BBC television series Fawlty Towers: “I know nothing.” I love quoting this but, just like Manuel, I too am learning. And what a wonderful gift it is to be able to learn.

Recently I read a post This time it’s personal by Tony Burkinshaw on his blog.

He explained unconscious incompetence in the following way: “A total ignorance of just how much you don’t yet know for the simple reason that you don’t yet know enough to recognise that you don’t yet know what you don’t yet know.”

This got me thinking about knowledge and learning and about some of the subtle ways in which our attitude to knowledge and learning is manipulated.

When I was a teenager, my brother wrote for me in my autograph book: “What you don’t know won’t do you any good either.”

My father was not impressed and stated quite emphatically, “What you don’t know won’t do you any harm.

I think he subscribed to the same philosophy as many of my teachers: “Ignorance is bliss.”

I mentioned in my article To school or not to school, a belief that the natural curiosity and eagerness to learn I’d had as a young child had been somewhat diminished during childhood by the attitudes of others around me. That’s not to say that they didn’t want me to do well in school, for they did, and always encouraged me and supported me to do my best; but it was my best at what the teachers told me to do and what the teachers told me to learn.

Ready for school – year 2

Knowledge is power; and one of the easiest ways to suppress and maintain power over others is to keep them ignorant.

While I am certain that my own willingness to be manipulated and need for acceptance also contributed, an encouragement of curiosity and active inquiry would have had the opposite and more positive effect. I am sure there are others who may not have bent so willingly under pressure and whose natural love of learning flourished despite it or even in response to it. But I know there are many more who bent and failed to rebound and are now trapped by their “unconscious incompetence” in an unassailable comfort zone; not knowing what they don’t know, for “Ignorance is bliss”.

I am one of the lucky ones for, while I know a lot about some things, I know that there are things that I don’t know, and lots of them! Rather than make me a conscious incompetent, it makes me a willing learner, and passionate about ensuring the flames of curiosity and love of learning are maintained in others.

Throughout their childhoods, I encouraged my children to question everything, including me, for I wanted them to arrive at their own understandings and did not want their thinking to be restricted the way mine had been.

For many of you, a love of learning and an ability to acquire knowledge may have been a constant throughout your life. I ask then, that you do not dismiss those who don’t have the advantage of your information and your education. Many do not know what they do not know and they can’t even begin to imagine the questions they could start asking to ignite their learning. If they have had their natural curiosity suppressed and their wills broken, been convinced that submission and conformity were the way to being “good”, and willingly entered the cage and threw away the key; instead of judgment, derision and laughter, what they need is to be shown the open doorway … shown what they don’t know so they too, can start asking questions and filling in the gaps in their knowledge to regain power over their own lives.

The saying “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” is very true.

How many times have you heard someone bemoan, “I wish I knew then what I know now”?

What can you do to encourage a love of learning or pique someone’s interest today?

How has your attitude to learning been influenced by the attitudes of others?