Our toddlers are constantly being encouraged to think and play creatively. We even structure the classroom physically in an attempt to stimulate creativity—using bright colors, informal seating, and allowing children ample room to move. Contrast that to the staid colors and fixed rows of desks found in most upper school classes, where “follow the norm” has replaced “think outside the box.”
A couple of years ago, I attended a lecture by American artist Erik Wahl. As part of his presentation, he splashed paint around a canvas while creating a portrait on stage. Afterwards he turned to the audience and asked, “How many of you consider yourselves artists?” Out of an audience of several hundred people, only a few hands were raised. He then related how he often goes into preschool classes and asks the very same question. The difference is that almost every hand in the room immediately shoots up.
The sad fact is that school squashes our inner sense of creativity as we get older. Instead of inspiring our students to be imaginative and create, we tell them to follow the rules: “Do what I tell you to do … and make sure do it exactly the way I asked you to do it.”
We understand that young children are social by nature and encourage them to mingle. We don’t seat them alone in fixed desks facing the front of the room. Instead, we allow them appropriate time to roam and socialize. Importantly, we recognize the value of getting them to work together in small groups.
When students get older and try to work together, we often label the activity “cheating.” They’re usually told to sit alone, face the front, and work quietly on their own. Socializing is considered an extra-curricular activity that has no place in serious academics … well, not until you get out into the workplace!
Children are curious and love to explore the world around them. They naturally observe, ask questions, and demand answers. Kindergarten class might be spent exploring a bug brought in from the playground or listening to a story from a parent with an interesting profession. Their world is a playground that they constantly explore.
As they get older, we tell them that their world is divided into nicely delineated courses with predetermined content. Important questions and issues that would normally require discussion and explanation are shelved, because they don’t fit into some arbitrary course curriculum. How many times do you hear “we don’t have time for that today”? If coursework is completed, then there might possibly be some time left to explore a topic of interest. In the meantime, exploration is put on hold.
Effective learning occurs when children build new understandings based on experiences that help them construct new knowledge. Kindergarten teachers help provide a myriad of experiences for their students. We don’t read about hamsters—we keep a pet in class and observe how it eats. We might even allow each child to take the pet home for an evening. We encourage children to bring things into class so that others can feel, taste, experience, and learn from them. These experiences provide a scaffolding for the children to build upon and extend what they already know. We understand that children learn most deeply and effectively through experience.
However, content is king when they get to the older grades. It seems that the only valid experience for learning is reading from a textbook or listening to a teacher.