Let Them Have the Cookie!

Do you know the children’s book, if you give a mouse a cookie? A boy gives a cookie to a mouse. Then the mouse needs a glass of milk. Then a litany of requests: a straw (to drink the milk), a mirror (to avoid a milk mustache), nail scissors (to trim his hair), and a broom (to sweep up). After that he wants to nap, which requires a story read to him, time to draw a picture, and to hang the drawing on the refrigerator. Looking at the refrigerator of course makes him thirsty, so the mouse asks for a glass of milk. And what goes better with milk, than a cookie?

If you give a child the love of learning….

Except children already have a love of learning. As they grow and go to school, we manage to take that away from many of our students. I had a recent conversation with a teacher about when to start having students investigating their own questions and doing their own inquiry. I got the answer I so often get. “We can’t do that until we get the basic skills down first—then in more advanced classes students get to do that kind of learning.”

No. No. No. No! This is backwards. The American Psychological Association has recommended teachers reconsider constructivist methods, contending that students are active learners who should be given opportunities to construct their own frames of thought. Students need to be put in learning situations where they are doing the work of learning, not the work of listening to and memorizing the teacher’s understanding of a topic. They need to be free to infer and discover their own answers to important questions. To enjoy learning.

To dig deeper into what this might look like, see my recorded presentation, Thematic, Inquiry-Based Biology.

There is a notion among many educators that we can’t do progressive or constructivist education until we have “taught” them the basic skills. Do you see the contradiction here? This is especially the practice with students who are disengaged or disenfranchised from school and worse, from a life of learning. It is especially true that as these students get older we need to use these methods. Why does the learning in school look less and less like how children learn—asking questions, making mistakes, seeking guidance, exploring, and play?

Ask most teachers how they learned something complex, say for example how to teach, and they won’t cite a great lecture where they were told how to teach. They will cite doing it and figuring it out, hopefully with the help of a good mentor. Why do they then assume their students can’t do this until they are “taught” the basic skills? I’m not saying there aren’t times for teacher-centered, direct instruction. But, it should be the exception, not the norm. Students would learn the basic skills much better if they weren’t memorizing another’s understanding of those skills and basic content, but instead were applying those skills and concepts as they were investigating something that had meaning, with the help of a good mentor. That’s where the teaching comes in. Don’t lecture about a topic, then have them look at it, and then tell them again what they saw. Instead have them consider what they already know, explore it to construct some meaning, and then lecture, or better yet dialogue with them, to allow them to confirm what they saw and deal with the cognitive dissonance with what they thought would happen.

The problem isn’t that we have gone away from or quit teaching the basics. The problem is that is predominantly all we are doing—especially for students on the wrong end of the achievement gap. I think we don’t so much have an achievement gap, but instead a learning gulf that we have created. It mirrors our country’s economics. The rich get richer. The poor get poorer. Those engaged with school, get the fun learning. Those behind get the boring learning. If this was you, would you want to keep learning? Why take students that haven’t succeeded in learning the basics through teacher-centered models and slow them down even more and continue to do more of the same that didn’t work the first time? How will that catch them up?

Instead of decreasing the amount of inquiry, exploration, and play, our students are doing, we need to increase it to keep them loving learning. For Pete’s sake, give them a cookie. Who knows what will happen next? Well, maybe that is what scares most teachers.

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