learning is more important than teaching

Sitting at the dinner table one night recently, my son and I were making eyes at each other. Happy and content, done with my food, I lean back in my chair and interlock my fingers behind my head. Not-so-surprisingly, Jonah follows suit, messy hands and all. He wears a knowing smile – “Me too, dad!” Enjoying the routine, I wonder if I can parlay one act of mimicry into another. I move my plate out of the way and place my feet on the table, hands behind my head; true relaxation. Jonah smiles – me too, dad! – and contorts his tiny little body, finding a way to just barely edge his toes onto the table. I can imagine mom walking in – feet on the dining table, messy hands in now-messy hair – and retreat from the relaxed position. Jonah, of course, follows suit.

Learning is more important than teaching. Think of all the things your teachers tried to teach you – and then think about what you actually learned. In early childhood, the distance between teaching and learning is great. Learning is a process of enculturation – of increasingly mature participation in the social actions of others – more so than it is a transmission of information, from one with knowledge to one without knowledge. Jonah places his hands on his head and feet on the table not because of teaching (I was silent and offered no hints or instructions) but because of learning (his innate desire to emulate).

At our last Parents Association meeting, in the first of a three part series on “How Children Learn,” (Part II is February 9th) we looked at a picture of three girls in Room 4 sitting on a small couch, clipboards and pencils in hand.  Tucked into the collar of one girl’s shirt was an old flip-phone, now part of the classroom’s dramatic play area. Both elements – the literacy tools and the phone – were present because the girls are becoming enculturated to their environment. We often think we “teach” literacy…but we certainly don’t expressly teach four year olds to carry phones! No matter – both are learned as children soak up their world and participate in the actions they see others preform.

When we place learning, rather than teaching, at the center of development, we become aware of the primacy of the cultural environment in which the child participates. Who are their role models? What behaviors are on display for them to learn? What routines and habits are they exposed to?

Last year in Room 8, in a moment I will always remember, I was sitting on their rug chatting with a student when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see a four year old child, with pen and paper in hand, asking me, “Excuse me, what did you just say? I need to write it down.” She was not taught this – she learned it, by watching her classroom teachers repeat this activity hundreds of time.

Scholars have come up with a term for this – each child exists within a “developmental niche” – a set of social, cultural, and environmental factors that are unique to that particular child.  My son’s niche happens to include a father who enjoys putting his feet on the table! Children begin on the periphery of that niche, and learning happens as they move towards increasingly mature levels of participation.  But here’s the trick – learning only happens as the child participates in something they are not yet quite capable of. Allowing the child to start with peripheral participation gives them the chance to fiddle around in a low-stakes role while “getting the hang of it.” The problem is, if you wait until they have mature competence to allow them to participate, they’ll never get there!

What is your child’s niche? What levels of participation do they take in that niche? Think about ways in which they can slowly inch upwards. Can they pull the string on the bus to request a stop? Put the apples in the cart at Fairway? Mess around in the sink as you do the dishes? If learning takes place through participation, what do you want your child participating in?

Shabbat shalom,