February 24, 2012

Learning from 9 yr olds...

Deirdre Bailey

As we explore the value of collaboration and inquire into effective learning, the most valuable discovery that I have made this year is that children have a lot to share; the more I listen, the more I learn and - beautifully - the more they learn.

I started the year with the expectation that I would help them discover what it was that I wanted them to know; I expected that I would never lose sight of where we were going and my goal was to track their progress and ensure that their path was tracking in the right direction. I wrote a blog earlier in the year on how the process of inquiry was like climbing a mountain where the destination was the peak, identified by the 'teacher' but the path was freely chosen by the 'learner'. The first time the kids went up a mountain, the paths were varied and hesitant. By mid-January they were almost exclusively ploughing ahead without much need for re-direction. Most recently, I have been discovering that the peak is not where I thought it was, it reaches higher, to a destination originally obscured by the clouds of my own prior knowledge and prejudice. Nine-year-old students have been taking their learning beyond the ends I envisioned and they have been finding faster routes to the peak. It is to the point where when we ask a question, their thinking takes them places I never expected it could go.

A week ago we started a conversation about characteristics and terminology for 3D shapes drawing on their previous knowledge. We had managed to define a point as a location where 3 edges meet which led to a conversation about cones and how to explain the point on a cone as there are no clear edges. Based on previous conversations in class related to the concept of infinity, one of the students defined a cone as a 3D object with an infinite number of edges. Boom. Grade four.

A few days ago we had a conversation about the differences between 3D and 2D in which they were easily able to engage, in particular drawing from their experiences with 3D films and video games. Definitions ranged from descriptive and sensory to mathematical. One student defined 3D as a piece of paper and 2D as the writing on the paper which led to a counter-argument that writing exists on paper as a result of ink molecules which are 3D on a miniscule level but nevertheless 3D. The question was then raised whether anything not 3D could exist in the world. One student responded with: "Nothing in the world is 2D. 2D is just an image in your brain. 2D is a thought, not a thing." Boom. Nine years old.

Yesterday a student suggested at the end of a Math period that we refocus our discussions by defining as a class units of measurement for 1, 2 and 3 dimensional entities. Today a student suggested we use Google Sketchup to expand on our exploration of three-dimensional shapes. "I'm thinking you could challenge us to construct a building within some parameters, maybe we could only use certain types of 3D shapes..."  Another student had been researching 4th and 5th dimensions and wanted to talk about the ambiguity of chance. We are becoming accessories in their learning. It's beautiful.

I continue to understand the inquiry process through the mountain exploration metaphor where we do not drag students to the top or march them up the well-worn path as might typically have been done in a more traditional system. As the guide, not the prison guard, I have come to understand that we are constantly engaged in empowering students' own decision-making such that they discover the peak for themselves. Most recently, I have realized that the more we let them think, the more they think, the more they know, the more they understand and the more we learn together. I wish I could have explained multiplicative commutativity with their conviction when I was in elementary school. Maybe I could have if someone had given me time or permission to play with rotating arrays. Opportunity is everything: tell them that the sky is the limit, point them in that direction, and they will land on the moon. Cheesy. Cliche. Fact.


  1. Well-written! Even though you're speaking of a different age-group myself, I feel like I've got the same mentality in my high school classes.
    I've also realized that you don't fully need to set the target - that they will help you to define the target (I think you've also achieved this).
    I'm starting a class business where our initial target that I set out was to raise the extra $2500 needed for our trip to Portland to present at a conference in May. I got them to see if there were any other objectives or targets that could coincide with this initial target. Because the class is in 'Sustainability', THEY set the other targets for our fundraiser to be
    * Making the community more sustainble
    * Creating more private partnerships - extending sustainability into businesses
    * Learning social entrepreneurship
    * Making what we do repeatable and recordable - so that other communities could achieve the same thing

    Their result is now to start a business where groups of students will perform 'sustainability audits' on local businesses with a common framework and the local Community Sustainability Plan as a guide. There will be communication officers that will promote the business, recruit and hold a celebration awards gala at the end of the project.

    My role has been as an 'accessory' as you've said. I'm asking the questions and researching the base knowledge for what they'll need to know going into a business.
    They've already expressed ways of making our 'business' more attractive and ways to make them come across as a took/key to make their business more sustainable and ultimatley, even more profitable in the future. We'll see what happens in the coming weeks...I actually love not know how it will go actually, I know that learning will happen even if the business fails.
    Sorry about rambling, you just seemed to have hit the right chord.
    Thanks for writing and sharing.

    1. Hi Adam!

      Wow I am so sorry I missed this and not sure how... I will have to play with my notifications. Thanks so much for your reply! I am excited to share your story with our students. As our Grade 4s are increasingly empowered to take initiative in their learning, it is motivating for them to see examples of what students can accomplish. I'm excited to follow your students' progress. That kind of work gives me so much hope for the future.

      Thanks again for your note!