A Note From Noah

We are not after the right answer, the accurate response, or the correct formulation.

Surprising?

We are after intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and a growth mindset.

You may hear our classroom teachers respond to children’s statements – accurate as well as inaccurate – with neutral statements such as, “I’m so interested in that – can you tell me more?”, or, “I wonder why you think that”, or even, quite simply, “Hmm…”

Why is that? Why do we shy away from confirming a child’s answer or idea as correct or incorrect? Why don’t we jump and simply say “Yes” or “Not quite”?

We believe that confirming either way will lead to what Peter Johnston refers to as “premature cognitive commitment” which “locks people into a particular version of information or reality.” We arrive at these premature commitments “when the context suggests that it is not necessary to reexamine the information, such as when an authority presents it.” And that’s just it – we want our children to always be examining, and re-examining, the information and the world in front of them.

Earlier this week I asked a parent in the school how her elementary-aged son is doing. She marveled at a recent remark of his – while playing a game with 31 playing pieces, the question was asked, “Why are there 31 pieces?”, and the boy replied, “It’s an odd number, so if two people are playing it can’t be a tie.” The mother built on his response and said, “And it’s not a multiple of three, so if three people were playing it couldn’t be a tie either.” The boy, with the flexible mind of a child, responded, “No mom, it could be 11-11-9.” As adults with fixed commitments to facts, we often forget to re-examine!

When we move away from seeing adults as omniscient-authorities, children show us the value of re-examining information and reality in order to come to multiple conclusions. In Classroom 3 last year, I was privileged to listen in on the following conversation (some of you heard this on your Admissions Tour last winter):

Teacher: Today is the first day of Fall
Student 1: I know what happens in Fall! The leaves fall down and then turn colors.
Student 2: I know what happens in Fall! The leaves turn color and then fall down.
Student 3: (holding up a finger to rebut the previous statements) I’m not sure yet, cause it’s just the first day. I’ll come back tomorrow and tell you.

It is this skepticism that fuels our intellectual curiosity, the proclivity to never settle for an answer until we’ve turned the question upside down and inside out. Only then do we feel that we can prove to ourselves the veracity of our own statement. Think of this as a journalist triple-checking her sources rather than settling for a rumor. Why should I believe this is true? What else might be at play here? How else can we consider the information in front of us?

The hard part as parents is that we are so PROUD of our children and burst with pleasure when they show us their new-found knowledge, which happens at a breath-taking pace during these nursery years. And we should be proud – but we should also be careful to praise their effort and their thinking, instead of, or not only, their accuracy.

The other day, Jonah came home from school and shared, “Dad, I know that five plus five is ten.” I had never heard him say something like this before! And since Jonah is stuck with an educator as a dad, I shot back, “What does that mean?” He was taken aback and stumbled of course, but it led to a rich conversation about numbers, taking out some blocks and moving them around in different piles, exploring what his statement meant – but not the accuracy of it.

There are some great resources for this:

--This sheet from the National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning lists great, clear questions to be asking your children that encourage them to be critical thinkers, focusing on their thought process and not their answers.

--This blog post on Edutopia has five fantastic, easy-to-remember questions to ask your child. These are all questions that your children hear from their JCC teachers on a daily basis.

--“The Virtues of Not Knowing”: I’ve excerpted four very rich pages from Eleanor Duckworth’s book, which examine the values of surprise, puzzlement, and struggle, in contrast to the “right” answer. (Buy this book and read it! She is a disciple of Jean Piaget and has taught at Harvard Graduate School of Education for decades. This book is a phenomenal exploration of how minds generate knowledge, and has been truly instrumental to my own development as an educator)

--Growth mindset: Carol Dweck introduced the phrase “growth mindset” to refer to the notion that intellect and smarts are earned, not given – that our minds can “grow” if we see intelligence as dynamic rather than fixed.  Check out a good video by Dweck here, her book here, and Peter Johnston’s excellent two-page summary here. The book covers diverse contexts such as parenting, business, and relationships; Johnston’s summary is an excellent, super-succinct reference guide and deals with classroom settings.

--I would also guide you towards two previous Notes I’ve written around this topic: Respecting Divergent Thinking, and We Are Not Interested In The Right Answer.

I would love to hear your feedback on this topic. How do you work through question-and-answer sessions with your child? Where do you see the value of a correct answer, and the process that got your child there? Are you uncomfortable not showing your child where they are inaccurate? What do you do to encourage your child to think critically?

Shabbat shalom,
Noah