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What Vacationing With a Five- and Three-Year-Old Taught Me About Teaching and Learning

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Most of my posts have focused on schools. But it's summer, and I just got back from a week of vacation with my wife, my parents, and my sons, Alex, age 5 ¾, and Nico, who just turned three. If you indulge me, here are a few reflections from that week, along with their educational implications.

A few provisos. Parenting and teaching differ in a number of obvious ways: teaching involves more kids, who are not your own, and usually with some pressure to cover a formal curriculum. These are important differences. Also, the below post will mostly focus on good moments. Like any other vacationers with small kids, we had our share of meltdowns, which a psychologist might see as vital territory to mine, but I see as something better not to relive.

  1. Successful parenting and project-based learning have a lot in common. It seemed like we were at our best when the day was viewed as a series of small projects--"go on a walk to collect 'Nico pinecones'; turn those pinecones into a little diorama of our extended family; help Grandmom cook dinner; help Granddad set the table; join me for a race on our boogie boards." Each of these activities, prosaic as they are, have a beginning, middle, and end, and they have a purpose, something which is valued either by one of my sons or by other members of the family. As such, they proved much more effective as means of behavioral control than did "STOP CHASING YOUR BROTHER." For schools, this underscores the value of ritual, the importance of opportunities to contribute, and, most of all, the defining of important purposes as critical for engaging our young charges.
  2. Opportunities for learning are everywhere; formal learning somehow makes those things seem less alive: We tried some actual teaching--here is an art book, look at this painting, isn't it gorgeous--but no dice. But using the events of our life as moments for teaching was much more successful: From Alex: "Why do the tides go in and out? How do gymnasts do flips on the balance beam?" From Nico: "How come the moon is following us home?" I'm often struck by how in classroom situations as teachers we go to the end of the earth to make the situation feel less artificial and more relevant, while the world presents itself with seemingly limitless questions that demand answers. The job of the teacher, as Dewey so presciently articulated, is to connect the small but growing tree of knowledge in the child's head with the much larger tree of knowledge developed over the centuries.
  3. As both a parent and a teacher, you can only share what you know and love: One of my oldest friends, Jeff, has a son a year older than Alex. His son lives in a mystical world of superheroes and villains, complete with capes and elaborate stories. When I first saw this, I thought I'd failed my sons. They have a few costumes, which they pull out when friends come over, but they have no one to routinely do what Jeff does. But, over time, I realized that I just wasn't equipped in the same way--Jeff loves movies, the more fantastical the better, and loves the worlds that they generate. (He is now a scholar of Jewish humor and film.) And, as his wife conveyed, he loves to invent stories with his kids - it's one of his favorite ways to spend time; not something he does out of an obligation to nurture their imaginations. Viewed in that light, I realized that we have given our sons a number of things, just different things, the things that we love. Which brings me to...
  4. Apprenticeship is a particularly powerful form of learning: As Robert Halpern has eloquently written, apprenticeship brings together a number of distinctively powerful aspects of learning. The act of showing someone how something works (the cognitive dimensions of understanding), combined with showing them through your actions why someone would want to do it (the affective or motivational aspects of learning), is hard to beat. My wife has inducted them into the fellowship of violinists; I've thrown them a thousand balls and shot with them a thousand baskets--each of us welcoming them into our respective tribes. On this trip, it was chess. My Dad gave Alex a set, the same way he had given me a set when I was about six--and we gradually began to show him how the pieces moved. My Dad told him it was the grandfather of all games, and he seemed to grasp that it was a little different from Uno or Connect 4. And then we played--Alex with me helping him, against my Dad - sometimes with him choosing the moves, sometimes with me making suggestions. After a few moves he was hooked. With the board had come a book, and he wanted me to read him the book to figure out more about how to strategize. And, when we finished the book, I told him there were other chess books at the library, and so a potentially lifelong journey had begun.
  5. The norms of communities send moral messages about what matters: For months I've been trying to get Alex to set the table and to help pick up around the house. For me it's a moral issue--we all create the mess, and thus it is all of our jobs to pick it up. But I haven't had much luck. Recently though, things have changed. First, another family member (not on the trip) had introduced a system in which he earned a dollar a week for doing seven chores. This is not quite what I was imagining, but, to be fair, it was more effective than my Kantian moralizing. So, on vacation, he began by counting chores to earn money. But, over time, he stopped counting in a direct quid pro quo, and began to ask my Mom if he could help. Help cook meals, help set the table, in particular. Why? Part of it is the complex interplay of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation--what began as extrinsically motivated gradually began something he found that he liked doing--helping with meals--and then, even as the extrinsic motivation faded, the desire remained. But I think there is another aspect to it as well--perhaps because we were on vacation, perhaps because my Mom is a good cook--meals took on a greater significance than they usually do. And, seeing this, being part of the production of meals suddenly seemed like an important and honored role. And, to the points about apprenticeship and projects, he likes my Mom, he likes to do things with her, and this provides a way for him to both connect and contribute. Incentives trump duty, but community, ritual, and relationships trump incentives.

I once read a quote, possibly by Ernest Boyer, that said, "We provide the best education for our kindergartners and the worst for our high school seniors." By this I think the author meant that education for our youngest citizens is most likely to be responsive to their needs and connected to the world around them, and our education of high school students is the inverse. Student Gallup poll data similarly reveals that the longer students have been in school the less engaged they are by it. We might thus do well to take a lesson from our smallest learners; perhaps because they are too young to mask their feelings, they show us directly which kinds of learning experiences are powerful and which are not. We could all learn something from them.

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