Tim’s Moment of Brilliance

Feb 27th, 2010 | By | Category: Thoughts

A number of years ago, I worked in a school with an Early Childhood Special Education Program. Tim, one of the students in the class, was a very quiet and happy boy. He didn’t have a lot to say but had an ever-present smile, so we called him “Mr. Smiley”. As a speech pathologist, I worked with Tim on a variety of skills, including the classification/sorting skills of inclusion & exclusion. Tim progressed in his speech & language skills through the years and appeared to be ready to “graduate” in 1st grade, so I decided to give him an exclusion task just to see how well he could group, sort and explain his reasoning.

I chose 4 pictures: a duck, a turkey, a bear, and a penguin . . . thinking that he would pick the bear because the rest of the animals were birds. A very valuable lesson awaited me when Tim made his choice for what didn’t belong. I asked the question, “Which one doesn’t belong with the others?” Tim thought a moment and replied “the penguin!” as he smiled broadly. Since I had a preconceived thought about what the correct answer should be (the bear), I was momentarily thrown off by his answer and almost reacted by saying that his answer was wrong. Something inside of me went “Wait!”, so I shifted from a thought of judgment to a thought of curiosity and said “Tim, what a great answer! Tell me about your thinking.”  He smiled again and said “because it lives far, far away.”

I was shocked. What a brilliant answer! I had come so close to stepping on a true moment of brilliance for Tim because I had an answer already in mind . . . based on my thinking! It struck me that Tim, never having been more than 45 miles from home, had been able to reason about the fact that penguins did live far from Iowa. It also struck me that had I not shifted my thinking from “judgment” to “responding through curiosity”, I would have robbed Tim of a moment of brilliance.

Moments of brilliance can be like a flash of lightning or barely a flicker of connection. The key to recognizing moments of brilliance is for adults to not lock into preconceived notions of the “right” answer, but to be open to a student’s thinking by responding to their answer and being “curious” about their reasoning. We also need to remember that “knowing” answers isn’t nearly as important as the “thinking” about the answers . . . and the “thinking” can be shaped so much better if the adult values the student’s thinking instead of devaluing their efforts.

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