Thursday, May 01, 2014

the contents of children's minds.

In the1880s G. Stanley Hall became interested in what first grade children knew and hired a team of kindergarten teachers to take them one at a time and question them about their knowledge of the world. The chart above tells the percentages of kids who did not know some of the objects named. In a way, this was a precursor to the man on the street interviews on late night TV in which Americans routinely demonstrate their stupidity about geography by not knowing certain places with which anyone having a modicum of curiosity about events in the real world would have looked for on a map.

Certainly, there are lots of things that kids need not know. Knowing the names of things certainly helps to add content to a child's first efforts to read and adds to a child's power to converse. It may be staggering that some children have learned to have so little curiosity about the world they inhabit, but we must not assume that simply because a thing cannot be named, its use cannot be understood. And I think it likely that if you were to assess the naming knowledge of adults these days, an even larger number than the children of the 1880s would be unable to distinguish between a maple and an oak.

Last night, I went to a panel discussion at Crystal Bridges Museum at which a friend of mine showed images of her work along with a panel of other artists. Museums are largely organized around the principle of assessing work and presenting it based upon the verbal explanation of it and the success of the artists and curators of rationalizing its purpose.  It is certainly not enough to just do the work and let it stand on its own merits. Too much artistic success in this day and age is derived solely on the basis of having contrived sufficient explanation of the work to awe and intellectually overwhelm the non-artists engaging with it. Oscar Wilde said that the ugliest things are made in the attempts to create beauty, and the most beautiful made in the effort to create something useful. While that generalization does not hold up in all cases, when you make something useful, less explanation is required and first grade children will likely know what it is used for, even if they don't as yet have a name to apply to it.

A member of our ISACS accreditation team had noted that Clear Spring School is unique in that skills and "ability to DO" take a more formal role in school life than simply knowing. Knowing how to DO is often the key to successful learning and sustained interest in learning. If what you do in school is to sit idly taking notes so that what the teacher has said can be dutifully recorded and regurgitated at test time, then you are likely in a common American High School, and getting ready to do the same thing in college. In that kind of setting, our minds fade in and out of attention just as mine did during last night's forum. The only way to assess learning under that kind of situation is through something equally contrived solely for the purpose of assessment, like a pop quiz, an essay question, or a standardized test. A school for doing prepares a student for real life because it engages the student in doing real things, and not everything falls into the pattern where it can be easily stated and thus verbally expressed.

And what about life, and the natural curiosity that comes from doing REAL things? I have a simple theory that doing real things draws your direct engagement in understanding and this is true whether or not it leads to knowing the names of things, and their verbal explanations.  If you have done something real, then you can assess for yourself the success of your engagement in the doing of it. Others, too can see, or even feel the success of your work, but only if they themselves have been engaged in doing real things. So in a doing school, adult assessment and standardized testing may be useful, but only as confirmation of what children and parents can already see for themselves.

My middle school students are each making a staff shaped from a pine sapling gathered from a thicket behind the wood shop building. Each is adorning his or her staff with a piece of totem wood or carved emblem representing their honorary membership in a Cherokee clan. They've been working in a social setting, so they can talk as they whittle the bark away and smooth their work. One can imagine that if they were real Cherokee, they would be working in  a similar fashion, social and collaborative and with joyful enthusiasm.

This afternoon, my high school students will be working to finish their boxes.

Make, fix and create...

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