In David Hawkin’s (1967) critical essay on teaching, “I, Thou, It”, he shares an anecdote about a newly minted PhD Physicist that highlights my thinking about classroom pedagogy.
So often our students know the ‘right words’ and the ‘correct answers’ to the questions that we ask. Yet, what do they notice about the topic at hand; what are their thoughts about the matter; what do they understand? In the Spring of 2013, my second semester at Smith college, I opened EDC 231, Issues and Foundations in Early Childhood with a simple question: why do objects sink and float? It seemed like a silly question, one better suited to early childhood rather than a college class on early childhood, but I could see the students’ escalating panic when I told them we would go around the circle and each respond to the question in turn. Like Hawkins’ Physicist, many students knew the right words to explain sinking and floating—density, buoyancy, mass—but when pushed, not one student could explain what density or buoyancy or mass was—they knew the right words, but could not explain why. About halfway through the circle, however, one student responded, “I thought I knew why objects sink and float, but now I realize that I don’t know.” This honesty and understanding about what it means to ‘know’ versus what it means to “know” cleared the air, and the students following her openly admitted that they did not “know.” More importantly, they began to ask why- why did objects sink and float? And, like any good teacher, I told them the truth. I didn’t understand it either. But, we could do an experiment to figure it out.
And I produced a lemon and a lime, and when the lime sank but the lemon floated, we hypothesized why.
Hawkins’ (1967) anecdotal point was that this kind of confession, an admission of not quite understanding, shifts the teacher-student dynamic from one of teacher-as-authority pitted against student as submissive learner (and the more traditional lecture-listen pedagogy) to one where the teacher and the student are “in it together” (p. 62). It is through noticing, asking questions, having ‘wonderful ideas’ (half-formed thoughts) and making hypotheses that students (and teachers) can begin to understand. Yet, for Hawkins, the teacher is more than just another student; rather, the teacher has a specific purpose—to be an external loop, providing selective feedback to help students refine their own ideas about an ‘it’ (the focus of study). It is by internalizing one’s external loop, according to Hawkins (1967), that one becomes educated.
The design of my courses, from readings, to activities, to assignments, attempt to highlight a notion of an “it,” something for all of us to share and focus on. Having an “it” allows me to ask students what they think without looking to me to be the authority; they have a chance to synthesize the course material and explain to me what they think. For example, I use field observations in EDC 235, along with videos of children that we can analyze together, as a focus (the “it”). These observations and videos do not perfectly align with the theories they are meant to illustrate; rather they force us to ask “why?”. Why, in some instances of child development, does the theory seem to hold true, and why, in others, does it not? What are the limitations of the theory? What is missing from our analyses? The primary document study with the 6th graders in EDC 341 allows the students to spend time working with and getting to know children in a modern society. This provides a framework with which to compare readings about children to experiences with children and through in class and asynchronous discussions, ponder the specificity of children’s lives based on location, class, and ethnicity. Finally, the intense focus on the application of statistics through applied group activities (in a ‘flipped classroom format’) in EDC/MTH 206, including individual and group quizzes, allow us to share an ‘it’ to focus on together. It is not me explaining applied statistics to them, rather we are working through messy, complex, real-world educational statistical issues together. In all of these examples, although I am providing access to carefully chosen content meant to be contradictory or puzzling, I am not telling the students how to resolve the inherent contradictions; rather, I am asking students to use their knowledge and their ideas. I believe it is my job, as their teacher, to provide selective feedback through writing or oral questions to help them hone their own ideas, so that they can internalize this thought process, and, as Hawkins’ notes, become ‘educated’.
EDC 235: Child and Adolescent Development
Human development is always embedded in a complex network of cultural realities that change over time and place. An important part of what it means to be human is to be a part of a socio-cultural-historical milieu. Much of our work this semester will focus on understanding how historical and cultural contexts, including cultural communities, schools, parents, and peers, influence the development of children. We will pay special attention to the familiar way that we develop in order to make it strange, and in tandem, examine the “strange” ways that “others” develop in order to make them more familiar. That is, we will examine both how children develop and why they develop the way that they do.
It is my hope that by the end of the course you will see that the way we interpret and evaluate children’s development is context specific, and that you will hone your observation skills in order to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. More so, I hope that you will come to appreciate that sometimes we must embrace the “strange” rather than the “familiar” in order to help children develop in a way that is meaningful to their own cultural community.