kitchen table math, the sequel: children taking risks

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

children taking risks

The subject of very young children "taking risks" in school came up the other day, in a comments thread, I think.

Here's where it comes from.* Whole language. Children being taught to read in a whole language classroom are risk-takers.

I think we can take it on faith no one teaching children to read using a field-tested synthetic phonics program would conceive of his or her students as risk-takers.

There's a reason for that.

* NCTE links to this group.


Laura said...

It's a very selective idea of "risk taking." They don't want to risk children not immediately loving reading, so they don't instruct how to read. They don't want to risk children figuring out (as if you can stop them) who can already read and who can read more and faster, etc., so they won't group by skill level.

Basically, they don't want children taking any risks that might reflect badly on them. All the risks are on the child's end--risk trying something when the odds (if you're not one of the lucky 40-60% who can figure out basic decoding more or less on your own)are against you.

And then if you fail, it must be because you didn't risk enough.

Kind of like an education version of "The Secret." If you don't learn, it must because you don't want it enough.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'll tell you the way I interpret it, which may be wrong.

I get the sense that they want kids to be able to tolerate the constant guessing and missing --- they want the kids to be cheerful and resilient enough ('safe' enough) to keep on guessing & missing until they get it.

Basically, 'predicting' a word on the basis of the 1st letter and the context is a form of guessing, which means you're going to have lots of misses and mistakes.

They want a happy classroom where the kids aren't discouraged by mistakes; they just forge ahead predicting the next word and the next.

That is the sense I get.

This gets back to the fact that kids like to get the right answer. In the case of reading, that means kids like to read the word correctly in the first place.

Laura said...

You're absolutely right, that makes perfect sense. That clarifies it for me. Actually, it clarifies a whole aspect of progressivism for me that I've been puzzled about.

And there are some people with something close to that kind of temperament (highly resilient), but I don't see why we need a world full of people with that temperament, even if we could somehow achieve that solely by insisting kids deal with a high level of frustration (which, obviously, I don't think we can.)

Nor, again, obviously, do I think that's what the bulk of school hours should be spent trying to achieve.

Catherine Johnson said...

There's also a reference to teachers being risk takers that I find a bit sad:

5. Teachers and students are all learners, risk-takers, and decision makers.

In whole language classrooms, teachers and students often collaborate in making curricular decisions. Teachers too take risks, trying new materials (e.g., trade books), new ways of organizing the curriculum (e.g., reading and writing workshops, theme study), and perhaps most important of all, new ways of helping students learn and new ways of responding to students' efforts. By observing their students, teachers learn what kinds of assistance the students need and how they might modify their own teaching accordingly. And sooner or later, whole language teachers develop new ways of assessing students' learning and development, and of evaluating their own teaching as well.

In this passage, the teacher isn't an expert who knows how to produce a certain result (young children decoding proficiently).

Instead the teacher, too, takes 'risks' in the sense that she is constantly trying to figure out how to do what she's there to do.

Catherine Johnson said...

One them I see, time and again, is the near-conflation of 'education' and 'teaching' with 'extra help' or remediation.

The one-on-one, differentiated instruction vision constantly hits on themes of teachers helping children who are struggling ----

Catherine Johnson said...

And there are some people with something close to that kind of temperament (highly resilient)

What I never see is NCTE, NCTM, ASCD, or any of these folks asking themselves: what do children actually like to do?

Do children like to take risks in Kindergarten?

Maybe they do --- but, reading passages like this one, I get the feeling that these people have never actually met a real 5 year old.

The fact is: children like right answers. They like to know what the right answer is and they like being able to know the right answer themselves & know it quickly, too.

When NCTE/NCTM authors acknowledge this, they talk about the importance of "teaching" children tolerance for ambiguity, etc.

They know kids don't **naturally** enjoy guessing or being told to do every math problems '3 ways.'

Catherine Johnson said...

I have to go on....

This is not an original point but it bears repeating.

For all the talk about differentiation and different 'learning style,' in fact NCTE/NCTM/et al never acknowledge the fact that children have very different temperaments.

Some kids aren't happy working in groups.

Some kids **are** happy working in groups.

Why should kids who aren't happy in groups be forced to work in them?

Or, if kids who aren't happy working in groups somehow **should** be forced to work in groups, why shouldn't the sociable, verbal kids who like working in groups be forced to work on their own - and for the same amount of time the shy or anxious or individualistic kids spend working in groups?

Schools should not privilege one temperament over another.

Laura said...

The one-on-one, differentiated instruction vision constantly hits on themes of teachers helping children who are struggling

I was just reading about the problem with this in Fred Jones's Tools for Teaching (as usual, Palisdesk's recommendations prove invaluable)--that if you don't present material in a clear, easy-to-follow way in the first place, you will get flagged down repeatedly by students who want you to tutor them on the spot (making it nearly impossible to keep the rest of the class focused and on task).

The solution for encouraging kids to work independently (and, eventually, I suppose, take real risks) is to be clear and direct in the first place, so that kids don't
have to waste their time trying to puzzle out what you are asking them to do.