I Never Met a Child Who Couldn't Already Read

What is reading? Here is a story from my kindergarten class:

On the first day of the year, my assistant and I sat on the floor with our 16 students, most of whom had attended our pre-k program. We introduced ourselves to whatever degree was comfortable, and everyone relaxed. When I introduced myself, I included telling my class why I do what I do (and it isn't exactly teaching as we know it from our school experience, so I avoid the term teach and teacher. See post on Why Stop Teaching?). I said I am come here to this class because I really enjoy having fun, learning, and being with other people who are learning new things and like to play. And I wouldn't do it if that weren't happening. Then I said that we would be learning about a lot of things, and that what they were interested in was even more important than what I was interested (though one of the things that I was interested in is what they were interested in). Then I had the following conversation and demonstration (which, by the way, is what teaching means - show and tell, only!).

I started with: "One of the things we are going to learn about is reading

Read More

Measuring Learning, Part 2

In Part 1 we discussed how and how much young children learn when allowed to explore it, focusing on the physical "stuff" and their relationship to it - when allowed to explore it.

Next, let’s think about what young children learn about social living in the world successfully - in their view.  Of course they have no idea what success in the world is except, in some way, to become an adult, to survive. Who do they begin learning from?  Whoever is around them.  And whoever is around them meets their criteria for being successful: it is someone who is alive and is actively engaged - in anything.  What do they learn?  As mentioned in Part 1, they learn how adults use objects - tools and materials - from kitchen items to parts of games and toys to computers, telephones, and other high tech and low tech objects. And they also watch and see how "big people" talk and interact with each other.  This is how they learn how to relate to others.

They learn, by responding, how to respond to the people around them by experiencing what happens, meaning: whether they feel safe and accepted, or threatened, and how to increase the former and decrease the latter. And the only way they feel any agency (self-determination) in the outcome is by doing some “things” and not doing other “things.”  What doing those “things” - that is, their responses (aka behavior) mean is determined by what happens, what is said or vocalized, what others do.  Then, learning what to do next: how to move, what facial expressions to make, what is or isn’t allowed and what happens when a boundary for acceptable behavior line is crossed - whether it is a line that has been clearly drawn, unclearly drawn, not distinguished at all, or is now in a different place than it was the last time or times.

They also learn how to read others intentions: what their vocalizations mean, what gestures and expressions mean, again with regard to sensing a threat or not, whether the other is open to engaging in some kind of relational action or not, whether they are close to a boundary line, or whether they have crossed a line. And of course they must cross lines to learn about them and about the impact on, in the earliest years, their relational security, amount of desirable engagement (i.e., play) with a parent, and whether there is a threat or a potential restriction of their self-determination.  They learn that each parent, and any other adult, all have differences in their reactions, and most importantly, learn that what they themselves say or do matters, or doesn’t matter, with regard to what and with whom.  They are learning whom to trust or not, who has reliable or useful information or not. Importantly, they are learning what is "normal," and that becomes their model, their goal - no matter what any other less significant adults - e.g., you, me, their teachers - think about it. And as they experience and practice conforming to their learned survival model, their thoughts, feelings, and actions become wired it: neurons that fire together, wire together. This does not mean they cannot change, but it does mean that no one can make the change, or teach them something to change them. Only they can make the change, and feeling secure and accepted unconditionally allows them to try on new ideas, open up to feeling new feelings, reconsider the meanings of past events, and try on new behaviors. The unconditional love and acceptance is critical, as they will make mistakes frequently as they make attempts to think, feel, and do things differently. A parent or teacher or mentor who understands and can do this consistently is of unimaginable potential worth.  And anyone can learn to do this if they have a mentor who can do it AND knows how and why what they do works - it is transferable if not teachable.

Now back to "measuring learning." How can this kind of learning be measured in school? Note that the social learning for surviving as best he/she can in his/her environment has already happened at home!  So some children will not have to "un"-learn and relearn much in the way of acceptable social skills, while others have much to "un"-learn and replace with new learning, learning and accepting a new model of social behavior, one that may or may not be accepted by the child's home environment. Accepting a new model for survival may seem easy to us socialized adults - but not at all easy for a young child, finding that his/her model no longer works, that how others have responded is no longer familiar, and that what was acceptable is no longer acceptable, and what wasn't acceptable may now - all of sudden - be required. And what will be the impact on this student's relationship with the adults at home? Change is threatening to everyone, but what is it like for a young child whose primary relationship (parent) requires, or may appear to require, significantly different behavior and have different expectations?  If we had designed how to measure something determined by such a diversity of previous experiences, of what relevance is it for any other particular child?

I do not have an answer for this question. I look forward to your thoughtful comments!

As John Holt wisely said many years ago, "learning is a function of the activity of the learner, not the teaching of the teacher," if I remember correctly!

Measuring Learning? No Way. Pt 1


Schools, and thus parents who have children in school, want to know how effective their schools are in educating their students. Of course - so do I.  There are several basic parts of schooling that bear examining: what should be being taught, how much of that is being taught, and then, how much of what is being taught is being learned. Of course, there are many thoughts on what should be taught but that, though extremely important, is another discussion.

Curriculum and Standards are what a school system has decided should be taught by when, and testing is the attempt to determine what has been learned to evaluate the teaching (teachers, methodology). Testing has been known for years to be an unreliable measure of learning, and more importantly, there is little correlation between test results and success in college or life. This blog, in several posts, is, however, going to address the fallacy of our attempts to measure how much children learn, and indirectly address why testing is a poor tool for assessing learning for success in life.

The Early Years

First, when it comes to acquiring factual knowledge about the world, you and I, and our children, have learned or will learn more facts about our environments and how things in them work by age 3 than we will over the course of the rest of our lives. When I first heard this, I was skeptical, but curious.  I had already been working with preschoolers for five years and was surprised at the amount of learning they were doing by just interacting with everything in their environments as much as they could (at least, as much as we allow them). Then I spent some time just making a mental list of all the things I could see and reach on my own desk, and how each item consisted of various shapes, colors, and uses, and most had parts that could be grasped, bent, broken, twisted, snapped, clicked, torn, unscrewed, turned, (most to varying degrees and some with additional manipulate-able possibilities) or removed - or none of the aforementioned. Each item has a different weight, not necessarily correlated with size, and some would roll whichever way the surface tilted (like a marble), and some would only roll down if turned to some degree (like a pen), or not.

If you watch an awake and well-fed baby or young child over a period of time, they will explore each reachable item using each of their five senses, including exploring all sides and ways of manipulating each one, and later, attempt to take complex ones apart or put various combinations together. They will see what sounds they make on their own, such as the click of a pen, what sounds they make when they hit other objects or not. And every new item multiplies the possibilities of learning new qualities and relationships by some range between (the total number of items) and (the number of items)2.

In the a currently available video titled The Salad Spinner, I caught the last two+ minutes of a 15 month old “playing” with various unrelated items: a salad spinner bowl, insert, and top. A couple of weeks earlier he had played with the spinner after watching his grandmother wash and spin lettuce. He learned how (his grandmother let him!) and practiced making it spin, and even got it to spin by standing next to it and pushing the top plunger down with one foot. Over the course of this video, he added a small shaker-rattle, a cylindrical block, a jar of diaper cream, and a Frisbee ™ (hmm ... they spin, don't they?). He had been engaged with most of the items for about 10 - 15 minutes by the time I started recording, and I’m sure he had spent earlier time with each of the items separately, including observing how the adults around him used (played or worked with) them.  In order to view this video, please send a request for The Salad Spinner to me here. When you watch it, what - how much - is being learned at each moment, including gross and fine motor skill and hand-eye coordination. There is a lot of experimentation going on. By the way, the link to this and other videos later will expire after an as yet undetermined amount of time, watch it soon! Then think about the questions below.

What would happen if I or a parent were to be making comments and suggestions?  What would happen to this process if his parent or a teacher were to come up with a test to see how much he learned?  How many 15 - 30 minute free play time does your preschooler or older child have in school to engage in such personal unfettered engagement due to his or her own learning interest?   Please share your thoughts!

Watch for Part 2 soon!     Yours, Marty





"Be nice ... share!"

Teaching a young child to share, as in 'requiring' or 'guilt-tripping' him or her to share, usually interferes with their willingness to share. Here are a couple of things to think about:

1 - Young children are keen observers of adult behavior, and in the adult world, they likely, by even age 3, have perceived that adults are not as willing to share their own personally valuable and meaningful items with strangers or even acquaintances as they are in being sure they (their own children) do.

2 -  They are in the middle or at the end of learning what "mine" means - from how their parents and siblings (if any) use the word. Again, in the adult world, "mine" means "I get to say (control) what happens to it, including who gets to use it."

3 - Finally, and critical to understand: force causes resistance. Our attempts to "get our child to" do anything always results in resistance (at some level, in some way). [aka The Parents' Dilemma in Beyond Good Parenting]

Imagine for a minute that your parent was visiting, and a neighbor came by and asked to use your car, and you feel very uncertain about it at best, and maybe your first thought is'no way!' Then your parent steps in and says to you, "Let your neighbor use it! Come on, give him the keys. Be nice!" And imagine your parent has the power to make you give the keys to your neighbor, either through force or by withholding something from you that you depend upon (maybe that's why, by adulthood, we try to have as few dependencies on our parent as possible!).

What is the alternative?  Give and support your child having control over his or her own belongings. This also means giving up trying to get your child to be nice. (It is okay to be nice, but being nice only works under certain circumstances. As or if you read more posts, you'll see that being respectful and honest trumps being nice.

Then, role model appropriate sharing at every opportunity. For me, this meant bringing my own toys, balls, etc., to the playground or to my classroom. I did this for two reasons: it gave me something to play with (!), and gave me an opportunity to role model sharing with others. My own child or students could see the impact of sharing, as well as see how sometimes I wouldn't share, such as when the child who wanted to use what I brought seemed likely to break it (whether just to see what happens or by accident)

Summary: Giving your child complete control over their own belongings facilitates their willingness to share, and also facilitates them learning to be responsible for their own things.

Enjoy!   Marty                      Comments?  Please share!

The revised edition of Beyond Good Parenting is now available. It goes into these matters of relationship and social learning in more depth with more stories and suggestions, and will assist you in giving your child an understanding of behavior and responses that leads to increasing respect of others, of diversity, and in effectiveness in dealing with challenging social situations.


"Say 'please'," or not - What Really Matters

My family now knows that insisting that children say "please" and "thank you" will likely result in their saying that (especially in our presence), but whether others feel the gratefulness or feel the appreciation depends. Is it from the heart? Or because they "should," a part of "being nice."  "Be nice!" is what many of us were told by our parents. While there is certainly nothing wrong with being nice, it can become an act that obscures honest and heartfelt appreciation and empathy as well as potentially upsetting but real feelings. Good social learning skills include integrating honesty without being offensive, and that means understanding the power of context and the creation of contexts. How we say what we say is often more powerful than what we say. How we say what we say is determined by a context. What we say is determined by our circumstances. We may not have a say in our circumstances, but we do have a say in our context. Here is an example:

I learned this from preschoolers in my classes many years ago. I would hear a preschooler ask her parent, "I want some banana!" and the parent would respond, "Say please!", and the child would say, "I want some banana (in the same demanding tone) ... PLEASE!" And she would get it. And I would ask myself, "what did this child just learn?" That "please" is a magic word?

Wouldn't you rather be asked in a way that respects you, that trusts you, that loves you, and know that you value that love and respect?  I never insisted that my own children or the children in my preschool classes say 'please' when asking for something. I did several other things, however. I let them know that "I want ... " is not asking anything, it is just saying what you want, and that we all want things that we don't have. If someone can get something for you that you can't get yourself, it works to ask for it.  Asking sound like this: "Mr. Marty, may I have some more juice?", or, "Will you pour me some more juice?" You may or may not get what you ask for at the time you ask, but people will enjoy being with you and will more likely feel good about getting something you ask for. It works to ask. By the way, you can say "please," but here (in our family or in my class) you don't have to and it is fine to add "please."

Having said that, we do occasionally say please with each other, we tend to say please as part of the asking in more formal social situations, and my children at home and at school did likewise. Finally, think about this: when a child is taught to say "please" as a magic word, the asking part - as a social skill - can then be ignored, and the please becomes a form of begging. It does irk me to see young children being taught to beg in place of showing how to ask (along with learning the difference between a statement and a question).


Broader Understanding: We could say "pushing" polite terminology as what one "should" say overrides the intrinsic experience of personally choosing to show gratefulness, appreciation, and interferes with development of personal responsibility in having powerful social emotional learning (skills) (aka, SEL). "Should" is a problematic term in many ways, especially in a child's navigation of his relationship with his parents while successfully integrating his/her own autonomy and desire for learning how life really works.

Upcoming post on "Say you're sorry!" as a human social skill - or being a parrot!

NOTE: The revised second edition of Beyond Good Parenting - The Art & Science of Behavior, Learning, and Partnership is now available at Amazon.com (blue cover), or, if you are in San Francisco, I'd be happy to deliver a signed copy in person!!  (send me a message!) Marty


How to Help Toddlers Up Their Own Development ...

... by letting them play with (safe!) everyday household items.

Last evening, while all of us adults sat around the living room/dining room engaged with our own reading/working, my daughter let my grandson Phin (18 months) have the salad spinner on the living room floor, as his "Ama", one of his grandmothers, had showed him how to use it earlier. In addition to the three parts: the bowl, the spinning strainer bowl, and the top with the large push plunger to make it spin. Phin very elegantly found he could push the plunger down more easily with one foot when he stands next to it while holding onto a chair to keep his balance. Then he added, one piece at a time: a jar of diaper cream (with the lid on), a Frisbee, which just fit in the top of the bowl, and finally a 3-4” wooden shaker-rattle. He spent 20 - 30 minutes putting these things in the bowl in different combinations and trying to see if he could spin any one of them, any combination of them, or all of them. His experiment showed that he couldn’t (neither could you or I, if we put the smaller pieces in before the spinner bowl). It was inspiring to watch him examine each piece, examine the bowl and other pieces, and trying almost every possible combination at every possible angle, and really look at what was happening and what wasn't. And to notice that he never tried to spin anything without putting the inner spinning bowl shows he knew that the connection of the lid to that inner bowl was essential to the spinning, as was having the top seated properly on the outer bowl.

 Imagine how many neural connections were built during this process: that some things cause others to move, some don't, finger-hand-arm-eye coordination, balance, and repeating-movement patterns: ones that would help him understand how so many other things work in the real world and build his balance, confidence, and strength!

And how different it would have been if one of us had gotten up to show him how to put those things in the spinner!

 Read my post on Facebook re Alison Gopnik’s NYT article (Our kids don’t need to be taught in order to learn..)

Q: Why was he willing to spend so much time with something apparently (to adults) easy to spin and boring? That is, this was not some toy or set of blocks, supposedly designed to keep children's interest. My thoughts on this: 

First, he had seen us use these items frequently, though not exactly in ways that he tried. But the fact that he could put them together, whether the spinner worked or not, made his activity very experimental. (What "seems obvious" to us adults about how these items do not work together is not due to our superior intelligence, but to our own past "experimenting" and use of the items.) Children want to find out how things work, and the most effective way (which also develops eye-hand coordination, spatial acuity, and finer motor skills) is by experimenting. So, second, there was a huge developmental opportunity in his (all children's) innate motivation.

My last point here is that there has been a detrimental belief (perpetrated by various sources) that young children have short attention spans. Not so. Children learn very fast, and so get bored very quickly when they have little say in what and how they are allowed to see and do things. Being "taught" is a two- or three-dimensional experience, though children "adapt" when they have no choice - as most of us adults did. Boredom is a bigger problem for more children than is struggling to keep up (though it looks similar - a struggle - to keep paying attention). Phin's interacting physically and autonomously with the salad spinner is hugely multi-dimensional, exercising not only all the senses and developing sensory acuities, developing co-ordination and thinking/manipulating purposeful actions, but also is essential for developing a trust of self and responsible self-determination. The earlier value of my wife letting Phin watch and handle as much as she does when cooking lead to his exploring on his own how these utensils worked, providing 20 -30 minutes of development, the value of the sum of which later in his life is immeasurable. The value for parents? Sit back and read. Being encouraging when no encouragement is necessary is annoying - even to young children!

[to see a video of a couple of minutes of his activity, request access to "Salad Spinner video" here.]