Thursday, March 31, 2016

Three Wrong Theories of Learning

I am reading and reflecting on the book The Power of Play by David Elkind.

Chapter 5 - Misunderstandings About How Young Children Learn

This chapter gave me some good background and understanding on how children learn and why we adults sometimes do things that don't fit with children. It reinforced some of my beliefs and understanding and helped me think about a few things in a new way. An overarching idea in this chapter is this quote:
"It is almost impossible for adults to put themselves in the place of preschoolers and see the world as it appears to them."
We adults think about what we know and what we want children to know. We make assumptions about how children think and understand the world. But more often than not, our assumptions are wrong. This wrong thinking can lead to ineffective (and maybe harmful) teaching practices.

David Elkind examines three misunderstandings about how children learn and what the adult roles should be in learning.

1. The "Watch Me" Theory of Learning and Instruction
In this theory of learning, adults take the lead and direct what the child does. Young children know what their learning priorities are and will engage in activities to fulfill their needs. However, often an adult will interrupt what the child is doing and impose a different activity. This superimposes the adult's agenda over the child's self-chosen activity. For example, a child sitting and tapping a block on the floor may be interrupted by an adult encourage him to build with the blocks. Or to get the ball and roll it. Or something else. The adult, in effect, tells the child to stop what he has chosen to do and shift to watch and engage with the adult's activity.

Instead of encouraging a child to "watch me" or engage in what I am doing, I should watch the child, the learner. I should figure out what the child is doing and let him do it. Maybe I can engage with him as he does it or supply a narrative of what I see is happening (adding vocabulary to the activity) or just let him be.

Often adults engage in this action because what the child is doing seems random or meaningless. "Even if those activities appear meaningless to us, they can have great purpose and significance for the child." He had a pattern and organization, a purpose for what he is doing. When he is satisfied with the results, he will be ready to move on to something else. We should respect and vale a child's self-initiated activity.

2. The "Little Sponge" Theory of Learning and Instruction
The idea behind this theory is that young children learn in the same way and as quickly as adults do. Advocates of this theory contend that the early years are a time of rapid brain growth so we should throw as much as we can during this peak learning time. However, the arrangement and interconnections of neurons are limited in young children. Older children, with more interconnections, are more ready for formal instruction and more in depth learning.

Young children do not absorb information or skills fed to them. They take more processing time than adults. They understand complexity and abstraction at much lower levels. They need time to observe and practice. They need to be able to take in the world. Everything is fresh and new to them, engaging them in discovery. As adults, the world is familiar to us and not of much interest.

3. The "Look Harder" Theory of Learning and Instruction
When we master skills, the process is unconscious and automatic; we tend to externalize meaning. That is, we think that meaning exists outside of us and our thoughts. When children do not understand what we are teaching, we may think they are not looking hard enough to understand. If they examined more, paid more attention to what is right in front of them, they would get it.

But the world is not independent of our thinking. The meaning exists inside us, built on our experiences and knowledge. "[Y]oung child[ren] literally see the world differently than we do." There is much they must learn about the world before they can begin to put things together. They must develop more complex thinking (as they grow older) to understand broader concepts.
"We are not born knowing what things are sweet and what sour, what things are blue and what green. We are not born knowing that one and the same thing can be two things at once. As adults we have trouble believing that we do not come into the world aware that some objects fall when you let them go, and that some things float while others sink. The external world seems so real that it is difficult to comprehend that young children don't see and know the same world as we do. Yet they do not."
 We need to allow children time to explore the world, in ways they choose. They need to discover the world at their own pace and in their own time. They need to construct and reconstruct the world through their play experiences.

This chapter makes me think about how I interact with children. It reminds me to say yes more and follow the lead of the children. It tells me to let them follow their own agendas as much as possible and be prepared to abandon mine. It says to listen to the child, watch the child. Join the child on his learning journey.

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