How to Facilitate Children’s Learning

Apr 6th, 2012 | By | Category: Brain

By Dave Krupke and Jeff Knox

Education is generally a series of adults asking questions – this has been so since the time of Socrates. Questions are asked with the hope or even expectation that the children will respond with answers that adults have pre-conceived, either by their own thoughts or based on what a subject-area curriculum tells them the answer should be. It can also be said that adults don’t ask questions for which they don’t know the answers. For adults, “sameness” is important – we want children to have the same answers as we do.

Some educators feel it is important for children  to be able to explore their world and come up with their own reality. For this to happen, in the home or in a classroom, there must be a sense of shared learning – a perception on the part of both adult and child that curiosity and discovery are fun and have utility for making sense of the world. Shared learning, especially with young children, occurs when adults limit the number of direct questions they ask, such as “what’s this called . . . or what color is that?” When adults ask pointed questions, there can be a sense on the child’s part that there is only one correct answer – the adult’s “reality”.

We must ask ourselves this question – what can adults do to facilitate but still shape the learning of children? That question leads to another – is it through adult questioning . . . or is it through curiosity, noticing, wondering and commenting that children develop their own reality?

Going back to the premise that children need to be able to explore and come up with their own reality, what dynamic needs to be in place between adults and children? It seems logical that there needs to be more of an equality of roles in learning . . . that the adult should not always fulfill the role of “expert” – the one who imparts knowledge onto children. The dynamic that needs to be in place is a common language for wondering and thinking, and most important – for expressing.  Having a common “language” provides common “ground” for both adults and children in the “wondering, thinking and expressing”.

Here are some examples of adult questions that are specific and narrow in scope:

What’s this?                       What color is this?                           What do you call this?

What do you call this shape?       What letter is this?          What number is this?

What should ___ do?

Observations of young children at play reveal that they do ask questions to find out about the world around them. However, before they ask questions, they notice things and have curiosity and may comment on what they see. As an adult, thinking that we can find out what children know by asking a barrage of questions may seem logical, but the logic is lost on a young mind that begins to feel encroached upon. What makes more sense is to pretend to be curious about things, notice things and comment – this is much more child-friendly. Not only that, but the “wondering” will generate many more opportunities to learn what children know and know about, and open the door to having mini-conversations with the child that involve a very important skill – conversational turn taking.

In contrast to adult questions, here are examples of child-friendly interactions:

  • Curiosity – I wonder what this is called? I wonder what you can do with this? I wonder if there are any ___ in this picture . . . on this page . . . in this story.
  • Noticing – I noticed ____.;           I see ___.; I see ___ (plus point to what you see).;  I see + description. ( example – I see an animal that has black and white spots and is eating hay)
  • Commenting – That elephant sure has a long nose. OR That elephant sure has a long nose – I wonder if that big nose has a special name. Maybe it will be in the story.

Children use their own schema to investigate the world around them. As well-intentioned adults, we must be mindful of the schema children are already using and ask ourselves if our notions of learning schema are proximal to that of the child. Vygotsky addresses this concept in his work on Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) – the range of abilities that a person can perform with assistance, but cannot yet perform independently. Asking a barrage of adult questions makes what is learned completely our choice – our “choices” can limit their choices when recalling specific information, and could limit their abilities and experiences in exploring and reasoning. Just consider the choices that curiosity, noticing and commenting bring – the choice to think, reason and discover! Besides, asking questions is not teaching!!

A related child and brain-friendly technique involves the use of “find” or “show me” prompts in replacement of direct questions. For example, rather than asking “what number is this?”, use a small field of numbers and ask the child to “find” or “show me” the number 4. In the same vein, rather than asking “what shape is this?”, use a limited field of shapes and make the request for the child to find or point to a shape. Use of “find”, “show me” or “point to” verbal prompts does not replace direct questions in the bigger picture of finding out what children may know, but it certainly provides valuable information when children do not verbally respond and/or appear not to know.

In a recent conversation with a preschool teacher, a great idea was shared. The teacher was explaining one of the ways she helps parents understand how to help their children learn the family’s address. Typical adult thinking would structure the learning to memorize the numbers of the address as a unit and just rehearse saying them as an adult would. For example, if the numbers on the house were 2417, adults might ask their preschooler to say it as “twenty-four seventeen”. Since many preschool children are not aware of what 24 and 17 look like (even though they may be able to say those numbers), let alone “twenty-four seventeen”, it doesn’t make sense from a child-brain standpoint to expect them to be able to process the group of numbers as an adult would. What would be appropriate from a child-brain standpoint is to help them become aware of the individual numbers that are in the address and then to foster their recognition as a unit by combining them in a meaningful way.

Here is where “finding” and “show me” come into play. Since recognition comes before expression, it makes sense to ask the child to find or show the number 4 or 2 or 7 or 1 rather than asking them “what number is this . . . what number is this” . . . etc. A different way of assessing number awareness would be to hold up a number 4, for example, and ask  “is there a 4 in your address?”  . . . then later on ask if they have a 4 without giving them a visual model.

When we consider that knowing what something “is” will be strengthened by knowing equally well what it “isn’t”, an additional step in cementing the knowledge of the numbers in an address would be to ask the child if a certain number was in their address, using a number that isn’t in the address. For example, while showing the number 5, we could ask if 5 was in their address – this gives them a visual referent with which to compare. If the child confirms that the number isn’t in their address, the opportunity to affirm the child’s thinking arrives, as well as the opportunity to restate which numbers are in the address. A step beyond this last level would be to ask if 5 was in their address without showing a number. A way to build address unit recognition – the whole number address – would be to print the address on a card and then have 2 other cards with numbers on them . . . one with numbers that are not the address and one with the address. Show each card and request the child to “find”, “show” or “point to” their address. The flip side of this recognition activity would be to also request the child to “find”, “show” or “point to” addresses that were not theirs.  Assisting the child in recognizing the way their address looks and ways it doesn’t will make the learning of their address stronger.

While education of children does involve questions posed by adults, it also should involve alternative ways of assessing what children know and have learned. Asking pointed questions that narrowly define the choices about which to think can limit what adults can really discover about what children are learning or have already learned. Being sensitive to where children are in their discovery of the world is aided by the use of Vygotsky’s ZPD. Shared learning via curiosity, wondering and commenting brings a common ground and provides more opportunities for social interaction – the very medium that helps define each of our realities.

© 2012  Dave Krupke  All Rights Reserved

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