This morning I went back to kindergarten and what I saw there really got me thinking about education. As part of the “Titles and Treat” program at our school, I had the chance to read a book to a class of kindergarteners. I chose the book “Perfectly Percy,”which is about a porcupine who loves balloons. Of course, Percy’s love of balloons is a problem because who he is destroys the very thing that he loves the most.
While this may be making a giant leap,what I love about this book is that parallels a lot of what I see in education. As educators, we got into education because we love teaching and inspiring students. The problem is, for whatever reason, is that the “education establishment” turns us into porcupines that end up destroying the very thing we love. As we force ourselves, and our students, to meet externally defined standards, suddenly we feel as if we have deflated their love of learning, instead of letting them float freely full of inspiration. Much like Percy, we end up feeling that our happiness too has been “popped,” as we find ourselves dictating curriculum, giving tests and enforcing standards we know go against the best interests of our students.
So, what is a possible solution? Oddly enough, I was just talking with my co-teacher Joe Bonnici the other day and he said something that struck me. In the midst of a conversation about why we move from more holistic instruction in the early years to subject defined instruction in the later years, Joe said, “school for everyone should really be more like kindergarten.” This comment reminded me of a paper I read awhile back called All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten* by Mitchel Resnick.
In his paper, Resnick proposes a “kindergarten approach” to education “characterized by a spiraling cycle of Imagine, Create, Play, Share, Reflect, and back to Imagine .” I think this process, which is beautifully simple, offers a really nice framework for what education could be. By enabling students to design, create, experiment and explore based on their interests, students are actually learning how to be innovative thinkers. Instead of being told what to learn, the “kindergarten” philosophy pushes students to focus instead on how to learn. In this way, the process becomes more important than the product.
To me, it is exactly at the juncture between process and product that the spines of the porcupine come out. When teachers and students become focused solely on grades and outcomes (the product), versus the process of learning (the process), both leave the whole experience deflated. On the other hand if we can provide students with learning opportunities through which they can “develop their own ideas, try them out, test the boundaries, experiment with alternatives, get input from others – and, perhaps most significantly, generate new ideas based on their experiences,” then everyone involved gets to enjoy the process of learning.
The key to providing these learning experiences to students is through what Resnick terms “Froebels Gifts.” Referring to the educator Friedrich Froebel, “Froebel’s Gifts” are used as an example of finding objects, activities or questions which “engage learners in personally-meaningful design experiences.” By providing students with the opportunity to design or create, rather than dictating a rigid curriculum, teachers can foster creative thinking skills while students can take charge of their own learning. In this way, the “balloon” of passion and engagement in the learning process remains full for both the teacher and the student.
While there is no easy solution to the problems we face in education, I think the “kindergarten approach,” provides a great framework for thinking about approaches to learning. It reminds us that we should focus on delivering “gifts” which guide learning journeys, rather than providing facts to improve standardized test scores. In this way, we can discover how to stop “popping” the balloon of engagement and passion for learning, just as Percy eventually found out how to keep his precious balloons intact.