About Cindy Hoisington
Cindy Hoisington is the science advisor for the Emmy-winning educational television series Curious George, for which she received recognition from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. She has also developed online science materials for “Peep and the Big Wide World” and “The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot about That!”
In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, John Dewey and other progressive educators decried traditional education for young children. They advocated for classroom experiences that were hands-on and minds-on, and for curricula that addressed critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, communication, and collaboration. Sound a little like 21st-century skills? Considering our advances in digital technology since 1900, what recommendations might John Dewey have for today’s K-2 educators?
Collect open-ended materials for constructing and creating.
Collect blocks and other building materials, wood scraps, cardboard, paper cups, craft sticks, play dough, straws, yarn, string, oak tag, and collections of recycled materials to engage children in building things. Introduce engineering challenges (build a bridge that will hold 25 matchbox cars; make a model of a neighborhood building out of straws, or invent and build a machine that ….). Then have children work in pairs or small groups to plan, build, test, and revise their constructions. Introduce science concepts (properties of materials; pushes and pulls) and math concepts (balance; symmetry; patterns) in context. Encourage children to document the process using a tablet, and display and share their photos and videos with classmates on a Smartboard and with a wider audience on a classroom facebook or twitter feed.
Turn recess into opportunities to explore nature and the outdoors.
A patch of grass, the area around a tree, and even the uncultivated edge of the school parking lot most likely includes a variety of plants, insects, and other minibeasts (snails, worms, pillbugs) available for ongoing study. It may also provide opportunities for bird and squirrel observations. Encourage children to collect and examine the plants and animals they find; record their observations by drawing and writing; and think about the characteristics, needs, habitats, and diversity of living things. Extend their research to include field guides (hard copy or digital) and websites that stream live footage from bird and squirrel nestcams and beehives. Help children plan, design, and set-up an indoor terrarium as a habitat for a minibeast and observe, record, and document its behavior over time using journals and/or a digital portfolio.
Integrate problem-solving into daily routines and learning activities.
Take advantage of daily opportunities to promote children’s problem-solving such as snack times (How can we divide the crackers so everyone has the same amount?), transition times (How could we measure the distance to the cafeteria if we didn’t have a ruler?), and routines (What is the most efficient system for distributing classroom materials?). Integrate authentic problem-solving into mathematics lessons (How can we use a graph to compare the heights of the towers we made?) and integrated lessons (How can we design and build a structure that will keep the squirrels from raiding the class birdfeeder?). Once the problem is solved help children create a “How to” manual or write a kidblog about how they did it. Incorporate opportunities for children to think about problem-solving in other learning contexts. Children might, for example, write and illustrate a story on paper or using a digital app like StoryboardThat, about a time they addressed and solved a problem in their own lives.
Ask children questions you don’t know the answers to.
The best questions for supporting children’s critical thinking are ones that draw out children’s prior experiences and ideas and have many possible answers (Where have you seen shadows before?); support their inquiry and investigation (How did you make that shadow so long?); or promote their reflection and thinking (What did you notice about how moving the flashlight changed the shape of the shadows?). Although they can begin in any way, high level questions often include the phrase do you think as in What do you think about…? What do you think would happen if…? How do you think …? and Why do you think….? Share these questions with children in face-to-face conversations as an exploration progresses or in a digital venue such as Padlet.
“The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think — rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves…..”
– James Beattie
Facilitate classroom conversations using talk circles.
When children sit in a circle they are in a better position to see everyone in the group. This makes each child accountable to the conversation, promotes child-to-child talk, and shifts the teacher’s role away from “the sage on the stage” to “the guide on the side”. The teacher’s role is to support and model agreed-upon speaking and listening guidelines (one person talks at a time and remember to give a reason for your idea), to facilitate communication between and among individual children, to draw out and help children express their thinking, and to ensure that key concepts and ideas on the topic are under consideration. Use talk circles when children’s curriculum-related observations, experiences, and ideas are being discussed, shared, and debated in response to driving questions such as How do you think living and nonliving things are the same and different? or How many different ways could we group these items to show the number 20? The teacher can digitally record the conversation and use the recording later to facilitate a collaborative reflection on how children’s ideas have changed or stayed the same.
Our educational situation today is different and more complex than it was in 1900. But John Dewey and his contemporaries forged a movement that impacted public education in the United States for 50 years and set the stage for the project-based learning, inquiry-based instruction, flipped classrooms, maker spaces, interdisciplinary learning, differentiated instruction, and even the STEM of today. On the other hand, by the 1950’s the progressive education movement had lost its steam and a traditional approach to teaching had been reinstated. For that reason alone, it makes sense to pay attention to any lessons John Dewey has to teach us about promoting and sustaining educational change in K-2 classrooms.
This article was originally posted by Cindy Hoisington August 29, 2016 on edutopia.org, a George Lucas Foundation.