Thursday, October 11, 2012

What is the most important thing we can teach your child?

Last week I had the good fortune to teach in P1 one morning when a lot of teachers were out sick.

I had a wonderful time with old friends and new ones. I rode on a make-believe-train, cared for some beautiful babies, sang songs with Wayne, pretended to be a monster and then witnessed a really interesting game of queens and kings. In a Reggio Emilia-inspired classroom we carefully watch children's play, identify the learning that's happening so that we can extend it and record it, then offer it up for children, their families and our peers to think about. In an hour and a half I saw:
  • literacy skills: as children wrote notes about the babies they were practicing drawing letters, sounding out words, and growing their understanding  of how written communication functions
  • math skills: as they made sure that there were enough seats on the train for everyone, adding them and subtracting them as children joined and left the game, and arranging them in symmetrical shapes
  • social skills: They asked for a turn, named problems to be solved, resolved conflicts, stated needs and balanced them with the needs of others
These are all important skills and are part of the conversation when we talk about "school readiness". However, through another lens, I saw children developing what we call "dispositions", what Paul Tough calls "character" and what a lot of people are talking about in education circles today.

Perhaps you've heard about Paul Tough's new book, "How Children Succeed" about how certain character traits seem to help students succeed academically and elsewhere even more than IQ does. Or perhaps you heard him and others discussing "non-cognitive skills" on This American Life last month. If you haven't, take a look. It's fascinating, and makes intuitive sense that success comes from more than just the abilities to remember facts, integrate them, communicate them and create new knowledge. In early childhood, when we talk about character, or about what we want for children's futures, we often talk about children's dispositions. The Reggio Emilia approach encourages children to develop not just skills, but the dispositions of artists, of scientists, and of leaders and citizens to name a few.

When I went outside with the children from Preschool 1, F. immediately asked me "Will you be a monster?" I said "Yes!" and tore after him with my arms high above my head, growling and gnashing my teeth. (F and I have had lots of practice playing monster together.) He ran beneath the bushes by the fence.

F: This is my safe spot.
Kendra: It sure is, the monster can't get in and get you! I turned my attention from F to K. I experimentally growled at him and he smiled, so I growled at him again. Some children grabbed onto Erin. K ran from the monster and then turned to face her with his teeth bared. 
T: grabbed the monster. "I've got you!" 
S: Can you be a person? Can you be a person?
Kendra: Sure, S. I can be a person. In a little while I'll be a monster again.
S: Some people were a little bit scared.
Kendra: Some people like to be a little bit scared and some don't.
R, T, F and M: I DO! I like to be scared! 
K2: I like the monster game too!

Later, F was playing in the little house outside with some friends.
Y: Can I come in?
F: Sure! It's only for kings and queens...and you're a king.
E and J watch Y sit down with F and R at the table. F points to the spectators.
F: and you're a princess and you're a king.
Emma: running inside with J. What's T?
F: T's a king too. Here, have some soup. This is my cup. You can have it.
Emma: Thank you, F.

Here, I see tremendous self-awareness, bravery of different kinds... running from the monster, standing and opposing the monster, or advocating for their own and their friends' needs when they feel scared. I see real integrity in S and K2 knowing themselves and speaking up in the monster game, and such flexibility and open-hearted generosity in F's kings and queens game. These kids are developing the dispositions of care-givers, of collaborators. This is the kind of learning that may determine how these children will navigate the struggles they encounter later in life. For older children some of these habits of mind and deed can be discretely taught, but at this age, they are best learned through the kind of struggle and negotiation that occurs in children's unscripted play. Educators of older children are learning about how to teach these habits later, and debating whether or not these traits should be quantified the ways that other kinds of learning are.  As teachers and loved ones, we can encourage these dispositions, avoid squashing them and help children to build character through our attention (both in the moment and through documentation). 

Lillian Katz, a professor, writer, editor and early childhood educator has spent much of her career thinking and writing about learners' dispositions. She defined “a disposition as a pattern of behavior exhibited frequently . . . in the absence of coercion . . . constituting a habit of mind under some conscious and voluntary control . . . intentional and oriented to broad goals” (Katz,1993). For me those words "intentional and oriented to broad goals" really resonate. Our goals for children are broad indeed. When we try to make lists of what we want children to do, have, know and be, they are endless. Rather than teaching them everything we want them to know, let's teach them to be great at learning, at looking closely, at trying, at loving one another. This is what we do when we focus on dispositions.

 When I worked in Seattle, I ran the Big Kids' after-school program at a preschool that used a Reggio Emilia inspired approach. I met the kids' teachers at their public school when I picked them up to bring them back to our program. Over and over I heard from veteran teachers of all grades that they could recognize the children from our program; they spoke up in class with a respectful and confident manner, they asked a lot of thoughtful questions (and challenged the teachers!), they made logical leaps right away, spoke up about unfairness, approached their work with the same excitement that they brought to their play, they were very creative and comfortable with a range of artistic media, or they loved reading and writing. These teachers were describing exactly the kinds of dispositions that we tried to engender at my old center, and that we are fostering today at PTCC; the dispositions of artists, scientists, thinkers, authors, journalists, investigators, and historians to name a few.

Here are just a few ways that PTCC teachers help children to develop the dispositions that we want them to have:

In Infant South, teachers check in with our youngest babies, letting them know before they get picked up. They let babies encounter one another without a lot of adult intervention. This fosters self-determination and independence that can later become the dispositions of self-love and critical thinking.

In Preschool One, children answer "the question of the day". They think about all kinds of questions then dictate or write their responses. Their parents and teachers respect their meaning-making by transcribing their exact words and reflections without interpretation or correction. They are encouraged to develop the dispositions of scientists and big thinkers whose ideas are valued, who wonder about things, talk about them, test out their theories and change them when needed.

All over the center, children's art work is hung up with great respect so that children and adults can consider it. Children are invited to think about the work they did in the past, and add to it if they like. This fosters the dispositions of artists, the ability to take new perspectives, to think graphically, and to continue concentrating on their creation over time.

It feels great when we get to read in the newspaper about the kind of teaching that we're doing here! It's also beautiful when something links the learning happening across ages, and character education does just that.

What dispositions did you learn as a child, and which did you have to learn as an adult? 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing on this so very important subject.

    Your insights on treating children with total respect while allowing them to become self-thinkers is, perhaps, the most critical developmental learning tool for parents and educators to base EVERYTHING else off of.

    You show a deep understanding of Paul Tough and Lillian Katz writings. Please, keep up the wonderful work.