Activity Before Skill

Last week, I used this space to write about the nature of our values and relationships defining us as a community instead of a school.  How, then, within the context of community, are our children learning? How do community activities lead to the development of new skills in our children?

We believe skills are best learned when they are given authentic expressions of meaning embedded in organically arising activities.  This includes emerging academic skills, such as reading, writing, and math, as well as social and emotional skills, such as empathy, reflection, and perseverance.

Neo-Vygotskian writers, applying the foundational theories of psychologist Lev Vygotsky to classroom curriculum, have explained the learning benefits of such an approach. Luis Moll writes that best practices are ones in which teachers “reject rote instruction” and instead “emphasize the creation of social contexts in which children actively learn to use, try, and manipulate language in the service of making sense or creating meaning.” (Stay with me, I promise we’re getting to a student example soon!)

Not only are these social contexts powerful motivators for children to learn new skills (far more powerful than a teacher or parent demanding that the child “pay attention”!), they offer the child a place to actually use the skill they are working on.  The emerging skill is not only practiced but also applied.  This is why we believe that active engagement, often in a social context, precedes and leads to the development of new skill.

Let’s take a look at this in action.  Sitting in a 3yr old classroom this week, I respectfully declined a student’s invitation to “get so messy” at the clay table. I pulled up a chair and watched instead.  As it turned out, I had sat in the last chair at the table.  Shortly, another student sauntered over from the art table and asked,

Student A: Can I play at the clay table?

Teacher: Why don’t you count the people here; it looks like you may have to wait. (There were four children, a teacher, and myself, taking up the six chairs)

Student B (said matter-of-factly): Yea, there’s 12 here.

Student A (pointing at each child): One, two, three, four. No, there’s four!

Student C (pointing at each child and grown up): One, two, three, four, five, six. No, there’s six!

Student D (pointing hurriedly and inaccurately): Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineteneleven. There’s eleven.

Teacher: I notice that you each got a different number when you counted. What are you each counting?

The children were left to discuss and determine the difference between counting only the children (4), counting the children and adults (6), or counting without accurately pointing (11).  No clear answer was agreed upon.  The answer didn’t actually matter; what mattered was children struggling to make sense of how to use numbers in a real setting.  The children in this activity are learning that the concept of “numbers” does not just represent an isolated string of predictable syllables and figures, but is a highly valuable and applicable skill that helps them navigate their community.

Moll asserts that teachers should create an environment in which “children, through their own efforts, assume full control of diverse purposes and uses of…language.” This is on display right now in one of our preK classrooms, as the students over a number of weeks have been slowly transforming the class into a “muffin shop.”  The children, with a strong sense of intrinsic motivation, have been writing signs in the block area to let everyone know that it is now a muffin shop, what is available for sale, and more details.  Rather than isolating the subskills involved reading and writing (letter recognition, sounding out words, etc), the classroom teachers have embedded them within a social context.  The students are not only learning about letters, they are learning how to use them.

Engagement and activity precede skill.  In these two examples, playing with clay and playing with blocks, our students are developing deep concepts around numeracy and literacy.  While on one level these are both spontaneous, play-based moments, on another level they are carefully and intentionally crafted moments of pedagogy by our classroom teachers.

I invite you to ask yourself as your children are playing, “What skill is in this activity?” Or, approached from another angle, “I know what skill I want my child to have – what activity can I engage them in to get there?”  Talk to your classroom teachers about this. Talk to each other about this.  By talking about what our children are playing and learning, we can together create a richer environment for them to be learning in.