“I’m working on an art project at home with my daughter, and I’m not sure if I should help her make the project look exactly like she wanted, or let her mess about and see what comes of it. What’s the right answer?”
Sitting in on one of our class Parent Nights this week, this question (paraphrased here) was posed to the teachers. The teachers answered by speaking about our school’s educational approach, which values process over product. They cited an example from their classroom’s current curriculum of color mixing: the children have been given primary colors to experiment with and left to explore which primaries create which secondary colors. They recalled hearing a three year old child hypothesize (children are scientists before they are even students) that yellow and red would make green. The teachers remained neutral in this interaction, stating simply, “That is so interesting. I wonder why you think that.” And why was it? Because the last two colors the child had mixed, yellow and blue, made green. Over time and through exploration, the child realized the inaccuracy of his hypothesis and amended it to match the results in front of him. Through careful environmental curation (preparation of the physical props available to students) and intentional neutrality in the face of an erroneous student belief, the teachers had allowed the process the child went through to take precedence over the product of their work.
All too often, classrooms are environments in which accurate answers are valued over deep thinking. Think back to nearly any formal learning experience you have had, from early childhood through adulthood. Picture your paradigmatic Teacher, collected from these experiences of schooling. What pleased the teacher most: when a student provided the ostensibly correct answer to her question, or offered up a divergent and partially formed response followed by a question of their own?
There is a problem in our schools, and it is the over-valuing of correct student responses. John Gotto, former New York State Teacher of the Year (three times!), explains this problem as one in which teachers create students who are either Producers or Thinkers. Producers are students who know that the teacher wants an answer, they want it quickly, and they want it tidy. Producers do a cursory search of their knowledge for key phrases that match the teachers’ speech, raise their hands quickly, and offer a packaged answer. The teacher asks, the student produces, the topic is completed and the class moves on. Thinkers, however, are students who see the construction and accretion of knowledge as a slow and unsteady journey, full of potholes and false starts. Thinkers are more likely to ponder the topic at hand, examine it from multiple perspectives, accumulate a variety of responses, and sift through them until they settle on a potential answer that they would like to explore further. Meanwhile, the class has moved on and by the time the Thinker raises her hand to offer her thoughts, the teacher raises an eyebrow as if to say, “We’ve already answered that question and moved on. Please stay with the class.” And noting down in her grade book, “This child may need remediation if she can’t keep up with the pace of learning here.”
At the JCC, we value process over product, Thinking over Producing, because in a Google-able world, it is not what you know that defines your ability contribute but what you do with what you know and what you do about what you don’t know. Eleanor Duckworth, acclaimed educational theorist, explains that, “the virtues involved in not knowing” are ultimately the key to creating excited, passionate, life-long learners. She continues, “The having of wonderful ideas is the essence of intellectual development.” In our classrooms, the thought process itself is a worthy intellectual endeavor, regardless of the initial (in)accuracy of hypotheses (Yellow and red make green). It is important to us that children see their ideas as respected, worthy, and significant; over time and through exploration, they will refine their ideas to increasingly match the reality they confront. But if the having of ideas is not valued, children will never experience the thrill of discovery. As a result of this educational approach, you will very rarely see polished art products in our school. You are more likely to see several incomplete iterations of an idea, slanted windows in the drawing of a house, mis-spelled signs on a block building, or an abandoned puddle of clay and water then you are to see a fully formed sculpture or tidy drawing of a house. While accuracy sometimes is achieved, it is not our primary pursuit. We seek out the thinking that our students put into the process of their work, and the resultant modification of their knowledge structure along the way.
All of which brings us back to the mother, daughter, and their art project. The answer found within our educational approach (though it is certainly not the only answer out there, and definitely not the single right answer) is to let your child explore the interaction between their ideas and the materials at hand. Let them follow whimsical paths that diverge from their initial image. Sit on your hands and tie your tongue as you look at the product, thinking, “But that’s not supposed to go there!” And all the while, narrate your appreciation of the process at work: “Wow, I never would have thought to color the snowman that color” or “You’re really choosing your pipe cleaners carefully!” This monologue can sound silly or sarcastic at times. But for us, it is meaningful work, and it makes all the difference in the world by putting a young child on the path to becoming a Thinker rather than a Producer.