Wednesday, May 9, 2018

What If Thinking

The other day I was playing a game with a group of 4 year olds. We had cards with animal pictures. We were sorting into three groups - those with fur, those with feathers, and those without fur or feathers. Why were we doing this?

Well, my primary reason was that it was the first activity of the session and I needed something to do as kids arrived. Children could easily join this activity while it was in progress. I could quickly explain what was going on, and kids were immediately engaged in something when they arrived so they wouldn’t be left to their own devices.

We were doing this because our focus for this year is the world God made and thinking about animals relates to that overall focus.

We were sorting animals because grouping things into sets is a good math skill. And thinking about similarities and differences is good foundational thinking for literacy comprehension and science/social studies thinking later on.

And we were doing it because it’s a fun thing to do together, building community and camaraderie.

As we were going through the activity, I heard myself asking questions, not preplanned questions just spontaneous ones. The questions started off helping clarify thinking as kids sorted: “Does a bear have feathers?” Then the questions sharpened a little as some differences of opinion came up: “Does a zebra have fur? What is on the outside of a zebra’s body? Is that smooth hair a kind of fur?”

When things came to these types of fine distinctions, I let the child who drew the card decide. A cow has a hide but is that fur? Does the cow picture go in the fur column or the neither column? In the spirit of compromise, we decided to put the card between the two columns.

This seemingly simple sorting activity began to generate some higher level thinking skills, some refinement to the this, this, or this nature of what we were doing.

I began to ask other questions as we went along: “If a fish had feathers, would it be able to swim under the water easily?” The kids giggled at the thought of a feathered fish. But they thought about and talked about what might happen if there were feathers on a trout.

After we sorted all the cards, the kids wanted to go again. This time we sorted into two groups: “I would want one” and “I would not want one.” A more subjective sort. The child drawing the card would decide if he would want one of those animals living at his house or not. I didn’t really ask questions (except would you want one of these or not) but I did narrate as we played. “He would not want a lizard. She would want a cat.”

But thinking was still going on. When a boy placed the cow in “would not” column, I said, “He would not want a cow.” A girl spoke up: “But if you lived on a farm….”

“Yes,” I said, “if you lived on a farm, you may want a cow. But if you live in a regular house it would be difficult to have a cow there.”

I’ve seen this type of activity in worksheet format. Students draw lines or print words to sort categories. I’ve even seen where the items are cut out and glued into the appropriate space. Is it the same activity? Would the same type of learning and thinking occur?

It could. After all, most of the thinking occurred as a result of our conversation not the activity itself. Those conversations could still take place while kids are doing a worksheet. But in playing our game, the focus was on one animal at a time and everyone was thinking about the same one at the same time. In worksheets, even in directed practice, some kids are thinking about the current one, others are lagging behind, and still others are racing to be done. The same dynamic would not be in play.

I can see how play - the game - leads to better thinking and learning than the worksheet. But the most important factor is engagement. Teachers and kids working together, thinking together, talking together. Often there is too little of this in the classroom.

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