This unit stresses basic learning priorities like maintaining children's sense of wonder and curiosity, binding cognitive learning to affective experience whenever possible and accompanying it with language. Young children should be encouraged to think creatively and produce original ideas. Divergent thinking, the inquiry method and creative questions are effective in stimulating thought. It's essential to be sensitive to children's genuine interests and keep their explorations focused.
More and more teachers are combining the more traditional styles of teaching with new and creative learning techniques that emerge when the educator teaches by collaboration rather than by instruction. In this unit, we're going to look at cognitive development and what we can do to enhance our children's ability to think, reason, remember information and solve problems.
The most important thing we can teach children is that they are valued. Unless children have a basic sense of self-worth, it's very unrealistic to expect them to embrace the challenges of learning and problem solving.
The more traditional way to teach children is by providing facts and information. Traditionally, teachers plan in advance everything they want children to learn. But in more and more classrooms around the country, teachers are engaging in a much more interactive style of instruction often referred to as emergent learning. In this more collaborative approach, the teacher and children seek out answers together. The teacher continues to make plans but adjusts them as she pays attention to the children and finds out what is particularly interesting to them. She is also constantly looking for problems to present to the children so they can propose their own solutions.
The children's solutions to such problems will unfold gradually and often spontaneously in response to the teacher's questions. Instead of just telling her their ideas, they can even show what they mean, perhaps drawing what they have in mind - or helping to make a model of their idea. Of course, it is all right to include more traditional approaches, too, such as finding out some facts on the subject. The "whole teacher" is someone who combines both the traditional and emergent approaches in order to present a truly balanced curriculum for the children.
Involving the Family
It is very important to keep the family informed about all the thinking skills the children are using in order to reassure them that their children are really learning something. Encourage family members to visit your classroom, to look at the "experience boards" and newsletters, and to come to slide shows illustrating the children's adventures. These are all excellent ways to keep the family informed about the value of this kind of learning. When a child's family is informed and pleased with what is happening, they often contribute suggestions of their own to further enrich their child's education.
A key component to teaching in the emergent style is to listen to the children's questions and think of ways for them to seek out and discover their own answers. Once again, it all comes back to self-worth, the foundation of learning. There's nothing like mastery over a problem, challenge or difficult question. When we know what we're doing, we feel capable, competent, in control and empowered.
Of course, children can't teach themselves everything and find their own solutions to all their problems. As teachers and parents, we're still the primary source of the children's early education. It remains our responsibility to assess the children's ideas and plan ways to develop them.
Outside the Classroom
Not all learning takes place in the classroom. Field trips are excellent opportunities to learn because they encourage and stimulate the child's sense of wonder and curiosity. One way to maximize the effectiveness of field trips is to emphasize hands-on experiences. Allow plenty of time for the children to make their own observations and ask their own questions. Write these down and explore them later when you return to school. Your curriculum and teaching plans will emerge before your eyes. Of course, this doesn't only apply to out-of-class excursions. Inside or outside the classroom, leave time for the child's own view, questions and interpretation of what he experiences.
A truly emergent curriculum requires the attentive and active engagement of teachers to lend a sense of support, purpose and direction to children's learning. It's important for us to understand how valuable it is for children to come up with their own ideas, figure out answers for themselves and try a variety of their own solutions until they find one that works for them. Besides paying attention to their questions, we also need to ask them questions and wait for their answers.
Traditionally, we're used to asking questions and expecting facts or information as the answer. But the emergent approach requires that we ask questions in ways that provoke children into thinking for themselves and which elicit an original idea or solution from the child. For example, questions that begin, "How do you think we could?" or "What do you suppose would happen if?" We call these kinds of questions "open-ended" because we can't anticipate what the answer will turn out to be, and often there is more than one answer.
Once we ask our thought-provoking, open-ended question, it's important to wait and listen to the children's own answers with genuine respect for their ideas. This emergent approach to teaching requires much more time, patience and ingenuity but is well worth the effort because of the possibilities it provides for the children to think for themselves.