Fires in the Mind

Just Listen: Put Kids in the Learning Picture

Kids recognize on a gut level what cognitive science has shown: you can’t separate emotion from learning.

Carla knows she’s going to tune out when a teacher “follows all the rules” and “has no emotion.” And when a teacher shows lively interest, she realizes “we’re obviously going to have fun in this class . . . and we’re actually going to learn.”

Fun might seem like the wrong way to measure whether learning is happening. But the science makes clear that (along with other emotions, and not always happy ones) it can actually help material stick in our minds.

We can see Garlyn light up as she talks about learning the craft of beading with a group of her friends. We can hear Thomas’s pride at creating a graphic novel in his English class. It’s pretty clear that these students are excited by the learning process itself—because it’s fun.

At first it seems like Wilson is explaining a routine problem on distance and displacement. But then something changes. He imagines himself into the picture—and we can see his mind catch fire.

What can a teacher do with this, in planning for Tuesday?

Take 10 minutes to watch the full series of nine short clips. Then—especially if you agree with how Arielle sums them up at the end—please pass along what these kids say to others!

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Pick up the baton!

Watch 3-year old Jonathan joyously wield his conductor’s baton to the 4th movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and you just have to ask: What happened here?

How many times has he listened to this music, making its rhythms and phrasing part of his physical and emotional world? Whose encouragement led him with baton in hand to express his whole-hearted glee? How often did he observe other conductors on the stand, soaking in and imitating their movements? And how often did he repeat his own rendition, fine-tuning it consciously or unconsciously each time?

In the answers, we might learn something about what contributes to building other skills that we hope our children will develop. Wiping his runny nose as he bounds through Beethoven, Jonathan overflows with innocent joy in his exploration and expression of the conductor’s craft. And the video’s last seconds, as he collapses in helpless laughter on the rug, vividly show the glorious stretch we feel when going to the limit for the next great thing we can do.

Unless we don’t feel that—because frustration or humiliation bring us down. Someone helped Jonathan get there, freeing him to celebrate every step and take another. Just think what our kids could do if we figured out how to be that person for them!

Starting today, I’ll be posting a series of reflections on a parent’s role in practice–whether our kids are practicing music, or athletics, or schoolwork, or getting to bed on time. Calling on your contributions as well as the research about cognition and development, we’ll create “A Family Guide to Practice” with ideas for parents and close-in caregivers. Please write in your questions and experiences—and stay tuned!

Fun as serious business

The elementary school teacher who calls for more fun in the classroom in a post on today’s Gotham Schools community blog is talking about serious business–math, reading, science, and history. When children are totally absorbed in their time outside schools–straining to reach the next rung on the jungle gym, or caught up in imaginative play–they may not have happy smiles on their faces, C. W. Arp notices, but they certainly report that they’ve been having fun. More fun than in the classroom, he says:

So here is my radical new way of thinking: The children in my elementary school need to be taught how to have fun. They have not had enough experience with fun. They are too often discouraged from having fun, or even chastised for having fun. I once said to a particularly active student, in my first year, “Do you just come to school to have fun? School is not a playground!” Frequent admonishments at my school: “You play too much,” or “All he/she does is play around.” But the students’ lack of focus is precisely because they are not having fun. Fun is engagement. Fun is interested activity. Fun is very serious business.

I’ll be watching for the suggestions Arp promises to make in future posts about how to help younger students find that sense of absorbed satisfaction as they master classroom learning. Send in yours, too!

TIP! Play it out

“That’s not fair!” “We were there first!” Creative play gives kids practice in negotiating, pretending and imagining, rethinking and revising, arguing and demonstrating, taking leaps, inventing new realities beyond self-interest and kinship. It’s crucial daily practice in democratic habits, says Deborah Meier in Playing for Keeps, her new book with Brenda Engel and Beth Taylor about a public school playground.