Re-Blog: Lessons from a 7-Year-Old by @LPLDMEng

A lesson from Liane Pitcher-Leigh's son

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Liane Pitcher-Leigh, and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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We learn best when we have control of our own learning when we use the resources available to us to teach ourselves.[/pullquote]

Recently, my 7-year-old son trotted home from school with his homework ‘mat’, looking very excited. What had got him so positive? I can tell you: it wasn’t the mandatory tasks, which bore both him and me to tears. No, tucked in the corner was an optional task: design your dream classroom.

Alexander was in his element. So much so, in fact, that I had to rescue him from the cardboard recycling box. “But mummy”, he insisted, face screwed up in exasperation: “this is IMPORTANT”.

He was quite right, too. And I am all in favour of blind enthusiasm, too, but I was intrigued. What would his 7-year-old brain do with this challenge?

I should explain at this point that Alexander is a doer. He’s not a ‘sit down and shut up-er’. He struggled to read, although is now about 8 months ahead of his chronological age. He is also almost totally number blind. Maths is something he can only do with practical assistance. At home, I use Numicon, an excellent resource used at his school. Although Alexander likes school, he also experiences a lot of failure in a day and that must be tough. So…what will he do with this challenge?

I wanted to start with a chat about the purpose of school, but Alexander wasn’t having any of it. He wanted to get going, so instead I asked him: “What shape is your classroom going to be?”

No hesitation: “square”. So I asked him: “do classrooms have to be square?” Confusion. I pulled back a bit: “Could a classroom be round?” He chewed thoughtfully on his lip. “I suppose so” he said, but without enthusiasm. I could see I wasn’t getting anywhere: Alexander didn’t share my belief that classroom shape is important…AHA!

Of course. MY belief. Not his. My careful questioning wasn’t going to help him to think deeply about this – it was merely going to make him mirror my own beliefs.

I started again. It was my last chance: I could see Alexander was beginning to lose patience. After all, many other mothers would have stuck their child at the table with paint, glue and cardboard and it was clear that, at this precise moment, Alexander was wishing I was one of those mothers.

“What do you think you should be able to do in class?” I asked. And finally, there it was: the question that helped him to unlock what I was trying to unlock earlier: the deeper thinking behind this task. Alexander’s eyes lit up, as he started to describe a fluid environment, with a space to chill out “because I get very tired learning all day, mummy”. He spoke with passion about a space for Science and Enquiry, where he could follow his own way through a task with help from iPads, books “and a good TA”. I was fascinated. “Why a good TA?” I asked. His response left me speechless (for the second time in 43 years): “Well, a teacher just teaches you stuff, mummy, but a good TA works with you to help you teach yourself”. And then, just when I thought I couldn’t be more gobsmacked, he said, in a forlorn little voice:

“I’m not very good at anything I’ve been taught, mummy.”

I will be honest: I was struggling a bit by this point, so I asked:”what about the things you teach yourself?” Alexander beamed at me: “Silly, mummy, I can do all the things I’ve taught myself!”

So there it is. Yet again, in the space of 30 seconds, my son has taught me far more than I have taught him in seven and a half years.

What he said has monumental implications for the way in which we teach. Somewhere in a classroom in my school, there is a poster that ends with something like “we learn best when we teach it to someone”. It seems to me that something has been missed, there. We learn best when we have control of our own learning when we use the resources available to us to teach ourselves.

Allowing my Year 8’s to have control over their Gothic Horror unit has shown me, time and time again, that they are hungry to learn; they are both thoughtful and reflective, challenging themselves, in some cases further than maybe I would have challenged them at this stage. Their enquiries have taken them into areas of the genre normally ‘reserved’ for A Level students, but it hasn’t been a negative experience: they have risen to the challenge and I have helped them to make it relevant for them. They are genuinely fascinated and completely engaged, going home and carrying on finding out what they want to know.

So Alexander and I – and his 9-year-old sister – constructed his dream classroom: a homage to self-directed learning, although, fairly obviously, he doesn’t call it that. And, in true self-directed style, this took us through maths (measurements, estimates), literacy (spelling), metacognition, engineering (how do I make this damn thing stand up?), art & design and ICT.

I wonder did his teacher realise…she could chuck the hated homework mat in the bin, suggest one ‘Thinking task’ for the week, then stand back and watch her little students be completely immersed in things she had no idea that they could do?

It’s definitely worth thinking about.


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