Our teachers are question-askers, and our students are question-answerers.  This relationship is at the core of the construction of knowledge in our classrooms. 

Several parents have asked recently if I could share some tips on how to continue your child’s learning during the break, and so I would like to use this space to share some thoughts on how children learn and how adults can facilitate that learning. I invite you to try out perhaps a new way of dialoging with your child, one that might follow the rhythm of their conversations and activities here in school.  For some of you this may be more familiar, for others this may be like putting on a new, awkward fitting sweater. 

Children come to know things by exploring them.  Knowledge is created by the child through interacting with the world.  Eleanor Duckworth, disciple of Piaget and a formidable educational theorist in her own right, explains, “Meaning is not given to us in our encounters, but it is given by us – constructed by us, each in our own way…we need to respect the meaning our students are giving to the events that we share.” Following this school of thought, we believe that children need space and time to think through what the world, and its discrete elements with which they interact, means to them.

To concretize through an example, notice how our students come to learn about primary and secondary color combinations.  Through actively experimenting with paint, children teach themselves that yellow and blue make green, red and yellow make orange, and so on. Duckworth cautions against validating the accuracy of the student creation:  “The emphasis is on what the children are thinking, not on its rightness or wrongness.” We praise children for the process of thinking, recognizing that their initial creation, answer, or product is not the final result but part of the ongoing gestation of knowledge.  The fact that they are experimenting with paint colors, and searching for new combinations, is of more educational value than a premature adult explanation of which primaries make which secondaries.

Alison Gopnik, developmental psychologist, provides imagery for this knowledge-building process. She explains that a child’s construction of ideas is “more like wandering than voyaging – a journey of exploration rather than conquest.” While children are always busy creating new ideas, they are not often driven forward in a straight line towards an accurate answer. By respecting the wandering journey of their mind, we give them space and time to develop increasingly realistic interpretations of their environment.

So, how do we—as parents and teachers—support this construction of knowledge? We can be careful to respond to children’s nascent (and often inaccurate) understanding of their environment with questions instead of answers. We can validate the value of their thoughts instead of replace their ideas with ours.  We can wonder and marvel at their ideas and ask, “How did you think of that?” or “Why do you think that?” or “What made you think that?” This train of thought is outlined by Jacques Ranciere, French philosopher, when he requests that the adult “not verify what the student has found; [but instead] verify that the student has searched.”

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. How do you see your child learning? What are the differences you see when you give your child the answer and when you respond, instead, with a question of your own? How does it feel for you to take this role with your child?  What do you see your child learning?

Happy Chanukah and Shabbat shalom,