January 22, 2013

Fire Building With 9 Year Olds

Deirdre Bailey

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!”

Jack Kerouac

The more I learn as a teacher, the more I marvel that I was any "good" at school as a student. As I come to understand learning more deeply, I realize with increasing clarity that through most of my own schooling, I never really learned anything.

It is impossibly hard to explain to former high school or university classmates that I have learned more about mathematics teaching grade 4 than I did studying matrix algebra or vector calculus. This point is often met with dismissive assumptions that I must not have done well in school, that I had bad teachers, or that my brain capacity has deteriorated since. However, this realization is more a comment on the shortcomings of educational systems than of myself. To consider as fact the suggestion that I am now challenged by mathematical discourse with 9-year-olds would require the acknowledgement that in our school systems, it was perfectly possible for me (and countless others) to gain university credit in math for attention, obedience and careful reproduction without any real depth of understanding.

I'm not saying that I never thought in school, or that the odd piece didn't stick; just that I never really thought for myself. As a “quantitatively successful” product of the system, I grew-up viewing academia as a checklist to be memorized and regurgitated, not the abstract world of interconnected patterns and possibilities it is. I spent a lifetime happily checking imagination and personality at the door of each classroom for the sake of a grade. In the words of John Dewey, I put "seeming before being."

I now know the difference. I ask "what if?" and "how?" to questions I don't know the answer to. I lead investigations into uncovering exceptions to conjectures, ponder the concept of zero, inquire into the function and origin of place value or the properties and applications of prime numbers. Most days are spent in awe of the ideas, connections, and revelations that come from students as they explore the freedom to reorganize and reflect. "WHAT!?" "HOW have I never noticed that before?" "OH MY GOD that's CONNECTED to THIS!" "THAT. Is the BEST idea I've ever heard...” “DUDE!"

That's inquiry; it's not the topic, or the problem, or the technology, or the answer. Inquiry is engagement in the question, a connection with the community, and a nongoogleable search for truth and meaning. Real inquiry fuels a fire.

 © Deirdre Bailey 

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