A Note From Noah

We’re not after the right answer, we’re after the right question. Questions, not answers, drive learning. This can be tricky for teachers, students, and parents alike – we all want answers! And yet, out of respect for children’s capacity for deep thought and deference to educational theory, we eschew answers and instead seek questions.

Sitting in one of our 3s classrooms earlier this week, I was struck at the level of complex and critical thought already emerging in our classrooms. During circle time, one of the teachers shared, “Today is the first day of fall. Do you know what that means?” One child responded, “The leaves fall down!” and another, “The leaves turn color!” Interested at digging a bit deeper, I interjected and asked, “What happens first – do the leaves turn color and then fall down, or fall down and then turn color?” Student hands shot up, and we got a lively conversation going among the three year olds:

First the leaves turn color, and then they fall down.

The leaves fall down first. Then they fall down.

Well, today is the first day, so I don’t know yet. I’ll let you know when I come back.

This last answer really struck me. Such a skeptic! It is this natural questioning of fact that drives children’s cognitive development – as if they are stuck in a perpetual mode of, “Prove it! I won’t believe it until I see it.” This is where we derive one of our chief pedagogical notions from, what is termed a “constructivist pedagogy.” This implies the notion that children actively build (construct) their content knowledge from available resources, rather than passively receive their content knowledge from more-knowledgeable adults.

This is a critical point to understand not only about how we view child development in our school but also about a broader pivot in the field of education in the past half-century. “Teachers” no longer actually “teach” – they are more facilitators, or museum curators – providing a rich, provocative environment in which provocations serve to flesh out children’s questions and allow them to follow their own path in determining new answers.

The “I don’t know yet,” in the third respondent above, is so crucial in this constructivist approach to education. Learning happens not when we respond accurately to a question, but when we identify an unknown and then begin to pursue it. It is the inaccuracies, the unknowing, where the learning actually resides. Eleanor Duckworth has examined this notion throughout her long career as a teacher-trainer at Harvard University and many other institutions, and she catches this notion beautifully in a short essay titled “The Virtues of Not Knowing” (in a truly fantastic book, The Having of Wonderful Ideas, which I recommend for a fascinating exploration of children’s thinking). She cautions against quickly congratulating the right answer and instead seeking deeper thought:

“In most classrooms, it is the quick, right answer that is appreciated. Knowledge of the answer ahead of time is, on the whole, more valued than ways of figuring it out. However, surprise, puzzlement, struggle, excitement, anticipation, and dawning certainty – those are the matter of intelligent though. In the long run, they are what count. What you do about what you don’t know is, in the final analysis, what determines what you will know.”

You will see this approach to education play out in your child’s classroom this year, time and again. Our teachers are more prone to dig in to students’ equivocal and inquiring responses than they are to their confident statements of fact, regardless of their correctness. Our teachers will respond, “Tell me more” or “Why do you think so?” rather than, “You’re right!” or “Wow you really knew the answer!” It is the process of thought that we are interested in. You will hear from your teachers, through Daily Reflections, Journey Binders, Parent Night, and parent-teacher conferences, not what your child knows but how your child thinks.

I invite you to explore this with your child, as many of you do already: look for something interesting, curious, and provocative in your surroundings, and construct knowledge with your child: leaves turning color and falling down is just one example. Why does the moon shine, just so, through your child’s bedroom window? Why does the sun always set over the Hudson River? Why does the express train not stop at the local tracks? The next time your child asks a question of this nature, dive into it with them.

I was later reminded by a teacher that mine was actually a false question, as the foliage will brighten first on the tree, then the leave will fall, and then it will again change colors as it browns. But that’s a matter for another note!

Shabbat shalom,