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Showing students how just makes sense

By Nancy Salvato
web posted October 16, 2006

Throughout my career in teaching, there has been no shortage of colleagues who have made the remark that faced with a blank sheet of paper; kids don't know what to do with it.  Sadly, many have not developed their imaginations enough to conceive of their own ideas.  Others believe they cannot draw and therefore won't accept the challenge to create something on the paper.  With middle school students, I discovered that when asked to draw something that relates to a story we read in class, students still have problems getting started. It is as though they haven't formed any pictures in their heads about what we read.  Some simply try to copy the artist's depiction offered on the cover of the book. 

To achieve any modicum of success with an open ended assignment, whether it is writing, drawing, or through some other medium, requires some type of direction in order to nudge a student to begin.  Sometimes, this nudge can take the form of an outline which the class begins together, a brainstorming session to generate topics of interest, constructing the beginning as a group, and so on.  Research has indicated that students living in environments where the child is either over-stimulated for extreme amounts of time or under-stimulated because there is a lack of social interaction; often require more structure than others.  It is believed that safety and consistency provided through an ordered, structured environment allows children from disadvantaged homes to open up to new experiences. Furthermore, imagination and creativity can bloom in a structured, ordered environment.   

Many preschool teachers have been educated to follow a strict constructivist philosophy which dictates that in a developmentally appropriate classroom, teachers are not supposed to direct children's activities and they are only supposed to facilitate their learning by creating an interesting, ordered environment in which children choose to interact.  As a matter of fact, just by creating an environment, these teachers are actually directing their children's learning.  By limiting choices, teachers are directing their children's learning.  And by bringing children to circle and teaching them to sit for a specified period of time and not to speak out of turn, these very same teachers are directing learning. Yet, direct instruction, validated by research as early as 1978 and found the most effective of all different methodologies, has been deemed unacceptable by the education establishment. Structuring environments and facilitating learning is more acceptable and politically correct. 

In strict Montessori preschool, the teacher is specially trained to keep order and structure within the classroom. Moreover, Montessori schools use specially designed materials which engage students in tasks in order to isolate a single concept or achieve one goal. (Implementing the Montessori Method is very expensive, one reason why Montessori hasn't caught on.)  In choosing an activity, students are intrinsically motivated to reach task-oriented goals. Only a specified number of students can engage in an activity at one time, and space in which to interact with materials or others is clearly delineated.  Indeed, teachers are called Directresses.  In a regular preschool, children might invent alternate ways to use materials.  In my classroom, I often must direct students not to use the long pieces in the triangle puzzle as swords.  I have to remind them that they must use the toys appropriately and that weapons can be used to hurt people and we cannot have that in our classroom.  In reality, teachers are often directing students in the appropriate use of materials.  Hmmm, whether to be called a facilitator or Directress…what an interesting twist in the use of our language.

For all the structuring and facilitating going on, there is very little if any direct instruction happening with regard to literacy. According to Lilian Katz,

"Much of the current contentiousness between the "instructivists" and "constructivists" revolves around the extent to which formal academic instruction may be appropriate or even essential for those young children whose early environments may not provide sufficient experiences for spontaneous informal learning of basics such as the alphabet and the names of colors and shapes."

Elucidating further, she explains,

"On the constructivist side, it is assumed that child- initiated exploration, well "scaffolded" by adults, is the developmentally appropriate way to support children's learning. By contrast, those favoring a large component of formal instruction in basic academic skills put children in a passive-receptive role of internalizing the transmitted knowledge and systematically practicing the literacy and numeracy skills to be learned."

Finally, she cuts to the chase.  Some skills may not be learned spontaneously or through discovery.  Developmentally appropriate classrooms may support both instructivist and constructivist goals through the use of projects.  We have reached a consensus, then. 

A qualified teacher can and should provide materials and direction to students who are ready and eager to dramatize a story the way it's done on a flannel board by showing them how to create a bridge by pasting Popsicle sticks onto a sheet of blue paper and gluing prefab drawings of goats and a troll onto additional sticks for puppets. This idea might never occur to them otherwise.  Once it has been introduced, they might want to do the same for another story.  Sequencing, determining that print has meaning, these are critical to the development of literacy.

Sometimes a teacher may have to directly instruct a student in how to write their name or show them how they can copy it from a sample card.  Other times, a teacher can use a student's knowledge of shapes and colors to direct them in constructing a picture. Finally, a student and teacher can construct a story together.  A teacher might draw a circle, the child might draw one underneath, the teacher draws one on top, the child draws a rectangle on top of that, the teacher draws two circles inside the top circle, and you get my drift.  They've created a snowman.  The teacher can ask what we shall call him.  What is this snowman doing?  The teacher can write what the child dictates.  All of this helps develop imagination while fostering literacy. 

Sometimes common sense (validated by scientific evidence) trumps all these theories or ideologies.  If students don't know how to draw a pumpkin and want to learn, show them how.  Then encourage them to take it a step further.  Show them how to draw a cat. Ask what they could do to make it night time.  Suggest they explain what is happening in the picture.  Try to appeal to all five senses.  There's nothing wrong with scenting play dough to smell like pumpkin pie. What real difference is there between providing prefab cook cutters to use with play dough and prefab pictures with which to construct puppets?  Kids can write stories about three dimensional creations, too.  If a teacher doesn't introduce the idea, sometimes it might never come up. And to borrow a phrase, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."  ESR

Nancy Salvato works as a Head Start teacher in Illinois.  She is the President of The Basics Project, a non-profit, non-partisan 501 (C) (3) research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country. She is also a Staff Writer, for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets, where she contributes on matters of education policy. Copyright © Nancy Salvato 2006

 

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