Transform How Kids See the World

One of the biggest mistakes that we can make as educators and adults is to let kids go through school thinking that learning only happens at school.  In fact, it should be made clear early on that school is where you get the tools, and the world is where the real learning happens.

Unfortunately, with the current increase in standardized testing, we seem to be getting further and further away from sending that message.  Too many children are growing up thinking that “learning” is when you complete multiple-choice worksheets or fill-in-the-blank exercises.  Or, that learning has been accomplished when the test comes back and the answers are all correct.  Not enough kids understand that learning never stops; that the most meaningful learning happens through exploring, asking questions, and seeking answers to those questions, whether you’re 8 or 80.

I come from a school that puts a lot of energy into teaching social studies really, really well.  Most of us probably have a pretty negative association with social studies (BORING), but when you think about it, social studies is “IT”.  Laurel Schmidt, author of Social Studies That Sticks, puts it perfectly:

Rather than approaching social studies as a bunch of unrelated events lashed to a time line, the goal is to help your students discover that social studies is a multimillennial chronicle of human beings trying to solve a handful of basic problems through experimentation and invention.  And guess who’s writing the latest chapter in the story?  They are, along with their parents, friends, enemies, and strangers across the globe.  Driven by curiosity and necessity, we the people, persist in our quest to find solutions to the four basic problems that mankind has faced, tackled, solved, or botched over time:

  • How do we survive?
  • How do we thrive?
  • How do we evolve?
  • What causes us to devolve?

There it is.  Social studies: the most obvious way that the world is indeed our classroom, from childhood to adulthood.  If we want the future generations to be informed and involved citizens, the kinds of people who are interested in current events– who will TAKE ACTION when something needs to change– they need to become active participants in their learning, and in the world around them.  They can no longer have a passive role in the learning process; less sitting and being lectured to, less “read the chapter and answer the questions in the back.”  Instead, teach them about what a researcher does when she wants to know more about something.  Gather books, images, and videos, go to museums, talk to experts, get out in the field.

THIS is more what learning should look like:

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My own awareness of the world around me has changed drastically as a result of setting kids up to learn this way.  Before guiding my students in a study of Central Park, I would think very little about anything other than, “I’m in a park right now” as I strolled its paths.   Don’t get me wrong, I would appreciate the beauty of the scenery and the architecture, and marvel at such a vast green place in the middle of Manhattan, but it was a shallow appreciation.  Now, whatever park I enter, I take in every detail and appreciate its history and purpose.

The question that gets the ball rolling and lights a fire under my students (and me) is this:

What problem were people trying to solve when they created Central Park?  

Think about it.  All of a sudden, we’re all trying to imagine a New York City without Central Park.  We’re imagining that Central Park was created because of some kind of need.  A need for what?  What problems could there be that would make people say “We need a park”?

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Using images of old New York, some imagination and discussion, these second-graders come to realize that a long time ago, kids just like them played in the dirty, dangerous streets because there was nowhere else to go.  After that, the fire is lit.  They become invested in understanding all the ways that the problem was solved; they devour books and travel to the park weekly to sketch landscapes and structures.  They come to understand that everything in that park was designed and created to meet the needs of the citizens of New York City.  They also begin to understand that it takes people with a vision, people with imagination, and people willing to stand up and make their needs known, to affect meaningful change in their city.  Lastly, and most importantly, they realize that the problem hasn’t been completely solved.  There are still kids in New York City and all over the world that need more safe places to play.  So who’s going to solve those problems?  Probably not the person who spent her school days filling in bubbles, sadly.

Did you consider anything like this as a second-grader?  I sure didn’t.

Back to Laurel Schmidt.  She suggests starting what she calls Effect –> Cause thinking exercises.  For teachers, she suggests presenting an image and asking them “What problem were people trying to solve when they invented…”  If you’re a parent or caregiver, you can point to an everyday object and ask the same question.  What I love about this is it can be useful for any age.  For younger kids, you might use her example of a brick.

Adult: What problem were people trying to solve when they invented a brick?  

Child: How to build a building that would be strong.

Adult*: Why would they need a building to be strong?

Child: So it wouldn’t break, like if it was windy.

Adult: Any other reasons?  Why not use wood, like our house?

*If you’re in a classroom, having the kids talk to each other with adult facilitation is even better!

 You can see how this conversation could go in a million wonderfully interesting directions.  It might lead to a child’s exploration of the need for shelter and basic survival.  It might get him to realize that different materials are used for different purposes.  Suddenly that child is seeing his neighborhood, town, or city in a new way.

Another great example in Schmidt’s book which would be great for older kids, is a judge.

Adult: What problem were people trying to solve when they decided to have judges?

Child: How to make sure people follow the rules; How to settle arguments; How to deal with dangerous people.

Adult: Well, why do we need judges?  Why can’t we just do it ourselves?

Child: People don’t always agree and sometimes they need help.

Again, you can see how this conversation could become an exploration of a pretty complex topic.  Here’s Schmidt one more time:

Thinking backward to find the link between solutions and problems isn’t just an intellectual exercise.  In the process, students get ideas for solving problems in the present, and they’re constructing a working model for improving the future.  This is a big shift for students (and adults) who see contemporary problems such as poverty, violence, pollution, or the crisis in health care as simply facts of life.  Effect –> Cause thinking suggests–none too subtly–that problems are opportunities for people to create solutions by thinking.  That’s what humans have been doing for eons, and its time that your students get to work, too.

It’s time to get to work!  Let’s create a future generation of thinkers and doers.  Let’s model for them by being agents of change in our own communities.  Push for positive change in education, especially if you are a parent.  Parents have the power, and if you want to see less mindless work, more active engagement, and have an enthusiastic learner on your hands, stand up and make your wishes heard.  Model for your child that sometimes people need to gather information, organize, and take action in order to affect positive change.

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At PS 234 in Tribeca, parents, teachers, and students staged a large demonstration to protest the 2014 ELA exam.  Photo: Petr Svab/Epoch Times

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