If energised learning starts with dreaming and wondering what happens next?

I often think about how a baby’s brain is fully driven by learning, not development as we once thought. Brain research has given us insights that we could only surmise and guess at 30 or more years ago. And the research shows this baby’s learning can only be realised through relationship with a dyad, an incredibly strong relationship with a main adult, where a dance partnership unfolds. The very beginnings of conversation, of respect and mutual trust happen here through skin to skin contact and eye to eye connection – and love ensues. The adult and baby listen to each other’s voice, their emotions, their heart beats and the biggest learning leap that will ever happen in a person’s life, in the space of one year, unfolds. The brain map begins its relentless drive for connection, for understanding, for knowledge. So too does the notion of developing working theories which ever after we constantly review, adapt, rethink, modify, query, firm up and then reconsider. The process in fact is like that of a scientist researcher as Alison Gopnik describes babies’ brain processes in her book Philosophical Babies.

Now fast forward a few years and where is that brain? I think we might need to take a big breath here because we all know deep in our own emotional brains/hearts that many things have happened on the way to being around 5 or 6. Many good things and many less than ideal connections with adults who have enormous power in the shaping of those brains. Babies, toddlers (who I have to say are the most relentless researchers ever!!) and young children negotiate a world that they are just beginning to understand, sadly sometimes with adults who have forgotten about wonder and awe. That has to be tragic. Imagine being in an early learning setting for example, where institutionalising babies is disguised as routines and rosters and the uniqueness of those unfolding lives is sublimated inside expectations for the group. Ratios are often the root cause for this and adults who actually like order and orderliness. Oh, heading into deficit feels uncomfortable, so let’s think about the fabulous side of being connected to adults who care deeply for those babies. A baby cries, there is a listening adult who responds to the cue within seconds and the baby learns that this world is a place that cares. A growing child has ideas and plans, that perhaps they can’t as yet articulate verbally but deep inside, they are driven to experiment, pursue with depth and personal investment and find answers. Adults who enable this to happen, nurture learning intensity, offer curious environments, time and space and help to shape those brains in ways that communities long term; the world long term, celebrates as innovative, creative, hard working, diligent, socially ethical learners (how long could that list be?) who contribute to their communities and beyond.  And yet we can see these characteristics, those we generally call curiosity, creativity, determination and persistence, as two edged swords because when a child is relentlessly pursuing an idea and an adult is trying to corral them, limit this exploration  in some way – well good luck with that!

Much of this learning happens inside a social world where learning to work with and alongside others is a growing ability. Adults who understand this, work in partnership with children, modelling prosocial behaviour, rather than offering bribes, rewards or punishments to modify behaviour.  Barbara Coleroso (Her book ‘Kids are Worth It) thinks of rewards, punishments and bribes as the same thing, all limiting the notion of intrinsically doing something because it is the right, fair, reasonable, family thing to do.  Nathan Mikaere -Wallis has talked at length about growing learners and fabulously so.

What 3 to 7 year olds need to learn – Nathan Mikaere-Wallis         Updated at 12:00 pm on 8 May 2014 

The link to Radio New Zealand Nine to Noon will take you into these talks and I promise, you will keep looking for more because they are engaging, funny, and make so much sense. Of course we ought to create the thinker, not the skilled rote learner who can parrot 1 to 100 and then feel inadequate when asked “and what comes next?” Instead, consider  the learner who gives things a go, will take some thoughtful risks building on past learning, asks for help, gets on with his mates and relishes the tricky hard things that take you out of your comfort zone yet feel so satisfying. Learning to learn in essence.  And then these learners are at school! What happens next? Parents, early childhood teachers, primary school teachers – we’re all in this together because  children’s learning should never be about what we’ve always done, how we were brought up, what the tests say we ought to be teaching. Surely, we ought to use  research and theory to think about possibilities. What do modern learning environments at their very best look like? What are the Principles of Te Whāriki and the Key Competencies in the New Zealand Curriculum offering us?  Enjoy the attached Learning Story and decide.

Chelsea fashion Designer

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What if learning in early childhood settings and school started with wondering and dreaming

What was it that we loved as children?  My best guess is that it would be hands on, practical experiences that kept us intrigued, curious and made us want to come back for more. These were often challenging, tricky and required lots of problem solving and talking with friends to figure out possible, practical creative ways to find solutions. They were very often nothing to do with ‘easy’ or structured learning that was sequenced from easy to hard. It was something that mattered to us emotionally, personally, socially.  This means we really need to think about the kinds of learning experiences we offer our children and make sure they are not ‘activity based’ or ones that are based around simple, closed questioning. Any question we ask where we already know the answer, is a test. Children know we know the answer. However, raising ideas in conversations where there is a real sense of wondering, of needing to find out, keeps curiosity alive. Carol Dweck writes fabulously on the power of a growth mindset. It’s about relishing the hard, tricky problems, enjoying the process of learning, not just the reward where children will often choose an easier task to appear clever or sit compliantly to get the sticker. Compare asking “What colour is this block?” to “ I can see you’re choosing red blocks. I wonder how many red blocks you’ll need to make your plan work?” Children indicate they know ‘red’ by choosing the correct blocks but it is not a testing question. Much more about connecting to the child’s intentions for their building, estimation and solving a problem set by the children themselves. In any case how many shades of red are there and how many names do we have? You only need to see a paint colour chart to see how imaginative some of those names are. Why do we limit ourselves so narrowly to a list of the colours of the rainbow when if we could only see the infinitesimal colour spectrum we could be almost paralysed by the wonder of it all.

Lorraine Sands