Are there fish at a zoo?
This was the question posed in Classroom 7 this week, on the heels of an extensive and extended investigation into animals, pets, and zoos, dating all the way back six months to the first week of school. During that week, one of the students pondered out loud, “Does Clyde [a guinea pig and then-class pet] have teeth? And a tongue?” Since that query, the students have been on a meandering journey of knowledge-accumulation – and question-accumulation – about animals. It has led them to creating several versions of zoos in their classroom, which after much discussion, yielded the above question. Two children offered accurate-yet-contrasting answers (extracted from a longer Daily Reflection):
There are no fishes [at the zoo]. They are [only] in the sea.
There are dead fishes in the zoo because some animals eat fish – polar bears!
I find their two answers so intriguing because it offers a perspective on the fallibility of knowledge and a wavering quality to truth. It reminds us that only rarely is there “one way” to understand something. A “classic” pedagogical response to “are there fish at the zoo” might be for the teacher to inform the students that zoos have animals and aquariums have fish. This presents the world through a lens of unequivocal, rigid taxonomy: certain things have certain places in which they belong, and all you-as-the-learner need to do is absorb that ready-made, stable information in order to progress along your learning-journey.
Our stance as a school, however, stands in stark contrast to that outdated pedagogical model. In its place we posit that learners need to be engaged in a relationship with knowledge which respects the fact that the content of knowledge, truth, or information only matters – has a degree of salience – when we also attend to the context of that knowledge, truth, or information. This is why you hear our teachers respond to students’ factual statements with: How do you know that? Why do you think that? And why we respond to their questions with more questions: How can you figure that out? Why are you asking that question? Who might be helpful in this exploration?
And so the Room 7 teachers did just that. A small group of students walked around the school to ask this question to multiple people and see what their answers might yield. As the teachers explained in the Daily Reflection, “Each student was empowered to share ideas, figure out a research method, and enact that method.” This is being-in-relationship-with-
knowledge, being liberated from the constraints of “I talk, you listen/ I teach, you learn,” being engaged with building knowledge rather than receiving it.
Are their fish at the zoo? The second answer astounded me. Of course there are, but it takes a non-taxonomical rendering of the world to realize this: a more-fluid, less-static relationship with knowledge. There is more than one way to answer a question.
Likewise, in Classroom 4, the students have been on a year-long investigation about bowling alleys (I mean, what could be more fun!?). In advance of a class-wide field trip to a bowling alley, a small group of students was tasked with determining the best way to get there. They approached me weeks ago to ask if taking a bus was possible. We went over the different options – a private bus would cost X amount of dollars; a public bus would entail a metro card. We discussed the difference between “private” and “public” and they found examples of each in their lives. We talked about the value of money and appropriate spending. We talked about different routes to get to the bowling alley. We poured over a map of Manhattan and all available options; the map was appropriately crinkly and marked-up by the time the students were done.
In the end, the children decided to take the public bus. Having thus decided, a teacher took two students from that group on a scouting expedition, on a dry-run to the bowling alley before taking the whole class. The children learned on that prefatory trip that, in fact, the bus would not work for their needs – it did not come frequently enough and presented its own obstacles. They did, however, learn that they could take the 2/3 train to Times Square and use the underpass to Port Authority to arrive directly, and efficiently, at their destination. They returned to Classroom 4 and reported their findings; they outlined what route, and mode of transportation, the whole class would be using for their field trip.
The teachers explained in their Daily Reflection: “This opportunity gave the children ownership and responsibility for the trip that they worked so hard to plan.” Our students don’t follow the map; they make the map. This is their relationship with knowledge. Was the public bus the most direct route? Yes. However, it was also the wrong route, because of the contextual factors the children learned-through-doing. There is more than one way to solve a problem; context and experience matters.
This pedagogical vision that we enact daily here with your children is representative of the world they will both create and inherit as they age into adulthood (yes, it does happen eventually). A postmodern world requires that we have a relationship with information as opposed to non-critically consuming it. We are challenged by the exponentially-changing worlds of technology and information to understand not only what we are engaged with but how and why we are engaged with it. A Reggio-inspired pedagogy sets up our children-as-learners to question knowledge, to critique information, and to actively seek out methods to build their own foundation from which to understand the world.
The key to this relationship with knowledge for our young learners is that we, as adults, must pull back. We must recede as we restrain our proclivity to explain, to teach, to inform (to be pedagogical) and instead allow our children to confront the world, to grapple with its ambiguities, to navigate its complexity. Along the way, our children will be actively building a powerful and long-lasting relationship with knowledge.