The Importance of Curiosity

Teaching should satisfy the curiosity of the children and stoke the curiosity of the teacher. – Sarah Riley

Last week I attended a professional development workshop that had us defining some of our values as teachers. I had done this activity a few years ago because I feel that it is important to know what you value in your life and in your classroom, because it defines what you do, how you act, and… well, it defines pretty much all aspects of your classroom. If you haven’t sat down and defined your own values, I recommend that you do so. It helps so much when it comes to planning, goal-setting, and other aspects of your teaching.

Anyway, because I had already done this activity it was easy for me to write down the three values that were required of us during this activity. Since I finished before most people, I wrote down little sentences to highlight why I find these values to be important. In case you were wondering, curiosity, independence, and exploration were the three values that I wrote down. And the quote above is what I wrote down under the value of curiosity.

I have found that curiosity is a driving force – maybe the driving force – of everything I do in the classroom. I plan around the things that the students show curiosity about, and I learn so much about those things because I have to find resources and plan activities to help them learn about those things. I find myself curious about the things that the children do, how they learn, how they interact with each other, where they need me to take the direction of their learning. There is so much to be curious about in the classroom, and so many ways to satisfy these curiosities.

Reflecting on this quote at this time, I think that I would change it a little bit: I think I would say “Learning should satisfy the curiosity of the student and the teacher, and stoke their curiosities in order that they can learn even more.” When you learn about something, it doesn’t satisfy that desire to learn. Usually when I learn something, it brings about even more questions about even more things that I want to learn about. This is what I mean about stoking that curiosity; it is satisfied about one thing, but it keeps going when it comes to something related or even something totally different.

I heard a great quote on a podcast today (which was quoted from a different podcast that I don’t think I’ve heard yet): the opposite of depression is curiosity. I’m not sure I completely agree with it, but it does make quite a bit of sense. When you are curious, you are striving to figure something out or learn something; you have a goal and a purpose. When you are depressed you don’t have any of those things. No goal, no purpose, no anything. When we are teaching, we should have a goal in mind, something that we are striving for. Interested in how to foster productive relationships in the classroom? Develop a curiosity for how children resolve conflicts, how they learn empathy, and how to teach these skills to them. This is the essence of curiosity in the classroom, and curiosity leads to learning.

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“I’m Telling!”

This past weekend I spent most of my time reading a book that I have spent much of the past year saying that I would read: Peter Gray’s Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Now that I’ve read it I really have to wonder what in the world took me so long. Maybe it was school. Or recovery from school. Or switching jobs. Anyway, now I’ve read it, and I will be doing a review of the book sometime in the near future. For now I will just say, if you have wanted a good read about how children learn, this is the book for you.

Today I want to talk about one phenomenon that this book caused me to think about: tattling. Now, before you run out and buy this book because you think that it will help you solve your tattling problems in your classroom, let me make one thing clear: this book never specifically mentions tattling in it anywhere. What it did mention, however, caused me to think about implications in the classroom, one of those being tattling.

Peter Gray talks a lot in this book about how children, when they are left to play on their own with very little involvement or interruption from adults, will negotiate and compromise their way through play. The reason why they can do this is because they realize that if they make someone mad, then that person will leave, and play will stop. No child wants play to stop, so they work on rules and circumstances in their play that will make everyone happy. Gray poses this story in the book to show the point:

Annie (age five years, eleven months) and Beth (five years, two months) were video-recorded by researchers Hans Furth and S. R. Kane as they played an imaginary game in the dress-up area of their after-school day-care center. Annie started the game by saying, “Let’s pretend that we had a ball tomorrow night and we had to get our stuff ready.” Beth responded by picking up a dress and saying, “This was my dress,” thereby demonstrating her implicit acceptance of the play idea and her eagerness to get the prop she wanted most. For the next twenty minutes, the two picked their clothing and accessories and discussed what would happen at the ball. Much of this time was spent haggling over who would play which role and who would get to use which props. They haggled over fancy items of clothing, a telephone, a table, a pair of binoculars, and where each would sleep the night before the ball. In each little argument, each girl gave reasons why she “needed” or “should have” that prop or role, but did so tactfully so as not to offend the other player.

Then, when Annie and Beth had come to a fairly satisfactory agreement on these issues, another little girl, Celia (age four years, nine months) came into the dress-up area from outdoors and asked to join them. They let her in, and then all three began a new round of negotiations about props and roles to include Celia. Each girl felt strongly about such matters as which clothes she would wear, what exactly would happen at the ball, and who was older and had higher status in the play. For the play to go on, they had to reach consensus on every major issue.

Free to Learn, pg. 165

I have done much more in my classrooms to try to allow children the opportunities to work arguments out for themselves, but one of the classroom phenomenons that has constantly baffled me has been tattling. Why do children tattle? Reading this section of this book has put me on a path toward an answer.

As teachers, we position ourselves as the final authority in the classroom. Children are expected to follow what we say, the schedule that we impose, and the rules that we put into place. We are like the president or policeman of the class, I suppose. So if a child gets into a disagreement with another child and something happens that they don’t like, it is much easier to go to the policeman of the classroom than try to work it out on their own. And we perpetuate this by choosing sides in these disputes rather than teaching children how to settle the disputes on their own. It is a lose-lose situation for us and the children; the child we agree with comes out of the argument feeling good, and the child we don’t agree with comes out of the argument feeling angry or upset. No one has learned how to compromise, and no one is more mature about how to work through relationships after an exchange like this. Relationships are all about compromise and working through disagreements. All relationships are built on this, from friendships in preschool to marriages in adult life. We all must learn how to negotiate and compromise so that everyone in the relationship is happy; if we can’t do that then the other person in the relationship will walk away.

I’ve done a little bit to try to turn this trend in my classroom, but to be honest, the children in my classroom don’t tattle too much. But when a child comes up to me with a problem that I think can be worked out, I usually say to them, “That sounds like something that you need to talk to (insert name of other child here) about. How about you say to them (insert appropriate words that can begin a negotiation between the children)?” And then I will observe what happens in an unobtrusive way. Usually one of two things happens: either they go over to the other child and begin to work things out or they decide that it isn’t worth it to them and they walk away. I don’t push them one way or another, and I respect what they decide to do. Even though I recognize that they need to learn how to negotiate, they will only begin to do that when they recognize that I will not be their safety net. And sometimes it really just isn’t worth it, which is why I try to accept what they decide to do. It is their play, after all. Not mine.

This is one of those situations where we have to trust the capabilities of children and trust their ability to learn how to get through those sticky social situations. After all, they aren’t going to have the policeman watching their back and their interactions for the rest of their lives, and they have to learn how to get through those moments. It is time that we gave them the skills they need to work it out on their own, rather than just handing down our own judgments.

 

My New Adventure: Day One

I started my new adventure today, teaching at a new school. I have been wanting to teach at this school for a while because the educational philosophy of the school is very closely aligned with  my own. It has never worked out until now, and I am very excited to be a part of a new school community.

My first impressions of the school were made when I was sitting in the parking lot waiting for the time to come for me to go to work. There were kids already out on the playground, this early! And what a playground it was; this was the first place I visited during my day. The playground has gardens, loose parts, a sand pit, and many other wonderful features. Children are encouraged to engage and explore all of the elements of the playground, and generally aren’t held back in any way. It was a wonderful sight to see.

The classroom was pretty typical, which surprised me. After looking at the wonderful playground I guess I expected more, but the teachers are wonderful. Respectful and calm, inviting and engaging, they acted every bit the teachers that I have been wanting to work with my entire career. The lead teacher and I had a wonderful conversation about how the class flows and what to expect, and she let me know that she is open to collaboration and working together. She also said that she is not that familiar with how to approach the project approach of teaching, so this may very well be a journey that we can go on together. I am looking forward to it.

A Clash of Philosophies

Today I went to visit a school. I had visited it before, and came away with the feeling that it was a very nice school. This is a school for early childhood students, ages 2 through kindergarten. The directors are very nice and extremely proud of their school. They should be proud. Their school has a reputation for being one of the best early childhood learning facilities in town.

During my visit I asked the director about their educational philosophy. “Oh, we are very academically oriented,” she stated. “Our pre-k is usually reading by the time they move on to kindergarten.” Indeed, a glance around told me that they are very academically oriented. There are very few toys in the classrooms, and a lot of tables and chairs. I recalled that during one of my previous visits the director mentioned that they only get the small amount of centers materials out to play with when their state consultant comes to visit. During our discussion about educational philosophies the director said, “I know that there are a lot of centers out there that are more hands-on…manipulative-based…” She was searching for a word. “Free play. They are more centered on free play. I have found that a lot of chain centers are like that. Are you like that?”

I said, “Yes, I teach through play. Hands-on, project-based learning. I write workshops designed to teach others how to teach that way as well.”

Her demeanor towards me changed almost imperceptibly after that. It was almost as if she felt that I had been contaminated by them. Those play-based educators who have no idea what they were doing because all they do is let the children play all day. Do their children read? Before kindergarten?

When I left the center, I felt disheartened. I understand that the directors of this center have the freedom to have whatever kind of center that they want, and the parents of the children enrolled there have the freedom to have their children in whatever type of program that they want. However, I know from educating myself on developmentally appropriate practices that children who are in a play-based program develop better social skills, creativity, problem-solving skills, and other life skills better than schools that simply focus on academic achievement. The school’s enrollment is quite high; the director said that most of their classes are full, which means that a lot of the parents in this area value the academic approach for their children.

It is all about value, after all. The directors of this school and the parents who enroll their children value academic achievement above all else. And as a culture we have been taught that academic achievement has to be valued in order to have a successful life. But the tides are turning. Innovation, creativity, and the ability to problem-solve are valued more by today’s businesses. Innovation, creativity, and the ability to problem-solve are best learned through playing with ideas, developing strategies through brainstorming with others, and using imagination to create. These skills aren’t built through simple academic instruction.

I remember a boy who was in my class at the age of two. He was bright and precocious, creative and full of fun. He had a wonderful sparkle in his eye and a curiosity that ensured learning. He left my class and enrolled at this school. He came to visit a few months after he left, holding a worksheet that he wanted to show us. The sparkle that I had so loved about his eyes was gone. I have never forgotten the change that I saw in that child from just a few short months in a purely academic environment. His parents were proud. I was shocked.

As I said before, it is all about values. His parents obviously put more value in the academic education than the building of creativity, imagination, and social skills that the play-based environment provided. Some parents do. Perhaps most parents do. Our culture has taught them to.

Building Positive Relationships: Teachers Make Mistakes, Too

I read something about mistakes and consequences the other day that made me think back to an incident that has happened countless times in my classroom, usually at lunch or snack time. I will be pouring milk and I will inevitably spill some on the counter or the floor. After this happens, the children start going nuts, talking about how I made a mess.

Of course, this all comes back to stigmatizing mess and mistakes. Everyone makes a mess at some point, and if you are anything like me, you make a mess several times a day. But the key is to clean it up and move on.

So I model this for the children. If we make a mess, we simply clean it up and move on. Since I have been working with two-year-olds, messes happen on a continuous basis. We simply clean it up. They clean up their messes. Sometimes they even clean up messes that aren’t even there. One child was wiping a wall in the bathroom, and I asked him, “Are you cleaning the wall?” To which he replied, “Yes, I am wiping your clean wall.”

Recently I helped out in a different classroom and a child spilled their milk. It was treated as a capital offense, and the child lost it. I instructed her to get some paper towels to clean up the mess, and she cried for half an hour. Over spilled milk. I haven’t seen anything like it in my classroom, so it was a bit unnerving to watch the process of this child go through what looked like humiliation over a cup of milk. I never want to see it again.

Messes happen. All of our lives we will be cleaning up messes. If you are anything like me, your house has several messes that need to be cleaned up right now but this blog post is a convenient way to postpone the inevitable. Teaching children that messes are a part of life that need to be cleaned up in order to move on is a life skill that we should be cultivating. Messes should not be treated as a punishable offense; if they were, we would all be punished, because we all make mistakes. What we should do instead is teach children the skills needed to make less mess. Pouring proficiency only happens with practice. Depth perception is only cultivated if we use the skill. Hand-eye coordination happens when we practice. And we can all use this practice. After all, teachers make mistakes, too.

Five Things Learners Expect From Their Educators

I ran into this article about what learners expect from their educators. In light of what has been mentioned about motivation and creativity on this blog in the past two months, it is interesting that a lot of the ideas fall directly into the line of what is necessary for creativity. I urge you to read the article and see the connections for yourself:

5 Things Learners Expect From Their Educators

Is Early Childhood Education a Dead End Job?

This semester I am taking two courses on administration. They are required for my major, but I have been eyeing an administration job for a couple of months now – something that I once said that I would never do. Never say never. You never know where life will take you.

Anyway, I ran into an interesting thought while completing a homework assignment for the course. Apparently, childcare is viewed as a dead-end job by many people. The whole idea of it is funny to me, because I have never viewed it that way. Sure, the job doesn’t pay very much, but it really is one of those jobs that you have to love in order to do it effectively. I’m sure that if you don’t love it, it can be one of the most miserable jobs in the world, especially since it really doesn’t pay.

However, the main reason why I am surprised at this view is because there is so much that goes into the idea of teaching children and education in general:

  • The psychology of how children learn and how people think is intimately tied to Early Childhood Education. If an educator does not understand the basic principles of learning and thinking, it is very hard to be effective in the classroom.
  • Psychology is also involved when it comes to classroom management and the way that children behave. Not understanding the basics of what makes us act the way that we do can make it very hard to maintain control of a classroom of that many children.
  • Philosophy is necessary when a teacher needs to define their beliefs about teaching and learning. Basic knowledge about the nature of man and how one views man in general is key to how we treat children while we are teaching them.
  • Knowledge of child development is necessary so that we don’t overstimulate, over-challenge, or under-challenge children. This fits right into the psychology category, as well.
  • In some cases, a basic knowledge of interior design is needed to be able to create workable spaces for children to learn in. I have seen many, many spaces that have been inspirational to me, and have studied what other people have done that they say works – and what they say doesn’t.

The list of the knowledge requirements for being an effective teacher goes on and on, and there is so much to explore and learn in the quest to be an effective teacher that I have never viewed the field or the job as dead-end. But, as I said at the beginning of this post, it is something that you have to have an active interest in and love doing before doing the work that is required to learn the aspects of education becomes enjoyable.

Defining My Own Direction

I have been inspired, which is great because school starts here in three weeks. I am beginning to define the direction of my classroom. Is it odd that I want to define a direction three weeks out, before I even have had an opportunity to observe the children in the space to come up with a direction that is in line with their interests?

No. My planning has to do with me. I have specific things that I want the children in my class to learn this year. They need to learn to recognize the letters of the alphabet and how to write them. They need to sharpen their counting and numeral recognition skills. But these are academic skills that every three-year-old begins to learn. There are other areas of knowledge that my students need to learn. And I ask myself these questions in order to prepare:

  • How am I going to teach my children social skills this year? How am I going to help them interact with each other productively?
  • What sort of discipline methods am I going to put into place?
  • How am I going to go about creating invitations to play this year – something that I have always wanted to incorporate, but haven’t had the time to plan or coordinate? And how am I going to plan and coordinate this?
  • What about science activities? How can we incorporate cool science activities that will help these children understand cause and effect and learn more about their world?
  • How can we incorporate music exploration? How can we make music in the classroom more hands-on and more interactive than simply using rhythm sticks or tambourines, or dancing to music that has already been made?

As you can tell from the links, I have more than enough inspiration to work with. I want the children in my class to have a fun, exciting year that will pique their curiosity and inspire them to create on their own. I think we all want that. But the art of teaching (and it really is an art) is to reflect on what we have done in the past and figure out ways to make it better in the future. Even though I have not had a chance to observe the children as a group in the learning environment that we will call home for the next year, I can still plan ways to encourage productivity for our entire classroom experience. So while I continuously encourage planning through observation – and use that skill myself – I also acknowledge that it never hurts to reflect on the classroom as a whole and make changes accordingly.

Gain a Sense of Direction

Recently I wrote a post about writing down goals in order to be successful at fulfilling them. However, that was only part of the advice that I wanted to give.

As you know – if you have been reading this blog with any kind of regularity – I am in the process of creating a workshop for teachers in early childhood education. The experience has been very thrilling because I am going back and doing many things that I should have done the first time I tried to create this workshop. The main thing that I have done is gained a sense of direction for the workshop, and I have done this by writing everything down. Not just the goal of doing the workshop or what the different workshop sessions will be generally based on, but the direction of each session and what I want the participants to gain from it.

It hasn’t just been thrilling, but very eye-opening as well. As a teacher I see the impact that gaining a sense of direction has on the quality of the lesson and the information that I want to relay. I can see how important it is in any teaching capacity in order to be truly effective. It is a lot of work, but all of the work has been worth it because I am creating something that is truly magical and inspirational to share with others. And that is how our classrooms for children should be as well: magical and inspirational. It is worth the time and effort of the teacher to provide this for their students.

I am a big proponent of emergent curriculum and project-based learning. When implementing any of these teaching strategies in the classroom, planning and direction is a must.

Building Positive Relationships: The Three Areas of Classroom Management

The other morning I was going through a brainstorming session, wondering what to write about next. I have been doing a lot of writing about observation lately, and because I use observation for so many different aspects of the classroom I began to think about it in terms of classroom management. And then I began to think about the big picture of classroom management.

Let me first just say that I hate the term “classroom management”. I only use it because that is the going term these days within the education community for how to get the class to accomplish what you want to accomplish with the least amount of behavior problems possible. I prefer the term “Building Positive Relationships” because that is what I do. I don’t necessarily manage. I hate feeling like I am “managing” the classroom. The children don’t seem to appreciate it that much either.

So what do I do? Well, a few years ago I realized that there are several elements that are involved in dictating a child’s behavior. These elements work together to define the atmosphere of the classroom, which helps define the behavior of the children in it.

1. The Teacher

The teacher is probably the biggest factor influencing the behavior in the classroom. The way that the teacher reacts to behavior, how she/he conducts lessons, and how she/he interacts with the children sets the tone of the classroom. If the teacher is very overbearing and likes to micro-manage children, this will affect the mood and tone much differently than if she/he is more easy-going and flexible in the classroom.

How the teacher views children is usually evident by how they handle these different aspects of the classroom. In workshops and in talking to colleagues, I strongly encourage teachers to take a step back and really think about how they view individual children, as well as their class as a group. The attitudes that we feel about the children manifest themselves in our actions and reactions in the classroom, and impact the tone and mood of the class.

2. The Child

We all know that children come into the classroom with their own temperaments, their own baggage, and their own way of wanting to do things. Kids are kids. Kids like to move around, question everything, and experiment with life. These are things that we need to remember when we think about behavior in the classroom. I am actually working on a workshop right now that talks about the nature of children and how we view them. Want to see what I have so far?

RESPECT

 

It really is another post for another time, but it outlines different aspect of not just children, but people. All people have these different needs or qualities about them, and we need to remember that children have them, too. These different needs and qualities enter the classroom with the child, and every child has differences in the degree and kind of these needs and qualities. The mix that results is different in every classroom, and teachers need to be aware and structure the environment and atmosphere accordingly.

3. The Environment

I mentioned in a previous post that I do not view the classroom environment as a static entity. This does not mean that I move desks or tables around once a week – although that does help. The exploratory items in the classroom – from the manipulatives to the art selections to the blocks are ever changing and evolving to fit the interests and needs of the children in the classroom. This helps keep the calm as children explore new things (although the first few minutes of excitement over new items is kind of crazy) and keeps the children engaged. Playing or working with the same items over and over again in the same ways can get boring – we all know that – so we should change things up in the classroom, or provide new ways to experiment with old items.

These three areas can always be broken down into smaller elements, such as how the different areas of the classroom can be arranged so as to stimulate curiosity and excitement, or how to react when a child does X, Y, or Z. This post is intended to be an outline to get teachers thinking about the big picture and how it all works together. Sometimes I think that it is important to step back and remember the big pictures in the classroom, and reflect on our place in that big picture.