Friday, March 16, 2012

I Want To Go Back to Kindergarten

A couple of weeks ago, the administrators from our school district had a Professional Development session.  We were assigned to groups of 5 or 6 seated at circular tables.  We had wi-fi access for our tech devices (which ranged from people who had basic cell phones and notebooks to others who had smartphones, tablets and laptops that were connecting using a Google Doc).  There were pens and pads available.  There was water. The chairs were quite comfortable. There was even a little glass bowl filled with candies.  Terrific.

Then came the structure of the activity.  A quick video to pique our interest, followed by a three or four minute talk from the facilitator.  Then, it was time for us to discuss a scenario in our groups.  There was some joking, a bit of banter with another table, and it was down to business.  We had choices on how we wished to approach the activity, and were going to report out to the rest of the group when we were finished.  Our discussion was lively, and we had multiple contributions from each member of our mixed group.  The time came for us to report out as groups, we gave our impressions, got feedback, exchanged thoughts, and moved on.   It was very relaxed and incredibly productive.

While sitting there with my colleagues, I suddenly had one of those moments when I stepped outside of myself and pictured watching us from a distance, learning as a group of professionals.  But then I pictured a very different learning situation.  With uncomfortable chairs.  In rows.  Facing forward.  With someone speaking at us at the front of the room.  With limited opportunity to interact with those about us.  For 75 minutes without a break.  About a topic in which we might have limited (or no) interest.   And while this may not describe every classroom in every school around the world,  if we asked our students, I wonder how many might say that this is not too far from their current learning reality.

Recently, I had the opportunity to see Larry Rosenstock (founder of High Tech High) speak at the Spring BCSSA Conference in Vancouver.  He said something that resonated with me when he stated "secondary school classrooms could learn a great deal from kindergarten classrooms".   I started to think back to my own Kindergarten classroom and a few that I have visited over the course of my career.   I remember comfortable furniture, sitting on the carpet working in small groups, gathering as a class on the beanbag chairs during story time, self-directed time to visit learning stations around the classroom, hands-on manipulatives and activities, even singing and dancing!   I loved Kindergarten.  I loved going to school (although my mother would remind me that I cried pretty hard on that first day of K).   I loved telling my parents what I did at school that day.  I loved learning.

I also had a chance to reflect on my experiences as a Kindergarten teacher.  Let me qualify that--my VERY brief experiences in the form of three teacher-on-call days early in my career.  With my high school training, I strode into those classes thinking that I would whip the little rascals into shape and have them eating out of my palm in no time.  Seriously, how hard could it be?

Wow, was I ever wrong. 

I discovered in about 30 seconds that if Kindergarten kids are disinterested, they will literally stand up, turn around, and start doing something that they are more interested in.  I quickly realized that Kindergarten teachers must constantly engage a group of students that can be VERY difficult to engage.  By incorporating a multitude of strategies that address different learning styles, senses, and levels of ability along with a student-friendly learning setting, Kindergarten teachers do a tremendous job of captivating their students and instilling a love for learning.

As a result of these contemplations, I want to explore a two additional threads with our students over the next couple of months in my "If I Could Ask Students Anything About Schools", focus group project:

- What happens to levels of student engagement between Kindergarten and high school?  What are some of the reasons that this engagement level changes?
- What are things that we can do in terms of physical learning spaces, classroom amenities and school amenities (such as the library) that might help increase the engagement of students in their learning?

I know that many educational jurisdictions are going to be looking at different pieces with respect to student engagement such as curriculum, instructional techniques, and assessment practices.  I agree with all of these efforts wholeheartedly.  However, after reflecting on my own learning experience last week and thinking about how engaged young students are in their learning, I wonder if we can't look at some simpler solutions in the way that we set up our classrooms and our schools that can pay some immediate dividends. 

I look forward to talking more to our students in the next few weeks. 

Perhaps we will be going back to Kindergarten!


  1. Good bit, Cale.

    I was thinking similar thoughts when I picked up my daughter from preschool today. She was quietly reading while some of her friends were building with Legos and others were in the dress-up station pretending to be pirates.

    The level of choice -- paired with the level of engaged 2.5 yr. olds -- was probably not coincidental, huh?

    But honestly, I don't know how I could pull off a similar learning environment considering the ridiculously huge curriculum that I'm supposed to get through each year.

    Or if I'd even be willing to try given the high stakes of "failing" (read: having students with low test scores) here in the States.

    Any of this make sense?

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Bill!

      There are so many jurisdictions with the bloated curricula that you describe, and it must be frustrating. Yet within those classrooms, I wonder if there is a way to physically configure them so they are more comfortable and conducive to the ways that students learn. As well, it would be interesting to have a group of us get together to look at ways that might give students choice in how they learn certain outcomes. While this may not be possible for all of them, I think there could be a few outcomes that would allow kids to explore their passions while learning what curriculum designers require them to.

      I also wonder where that 'tipping point' might be between the value of covering curricula and the expense of lessened student engagement. I think this is something that we all have to wrestle with, and I very much feel your pain! We are fortunate that we have a bit more flexibility in BC in terms of curriculum coverage, yet I know this is something that each of our teachers wrestles with every day.

      Thanks again.

  2. Cale and Bill,

    Perhaps we can go back to kindergarten. It will mean we have to change the misguided notion of standardized testing being the sole measure of learning.

    I like this video by Mitch Resnick, director of MIT's Lifelong Kindergarten group.

    May we all get to experience the joy of lifelong kindergarten!


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