Mean It!

I recognize many of the teachers I support (not to mention myself as a teacher) in this vignette from Michael Gramling’s recent book, The Great Disconnect in Early Childhood Education (Redleaf Press, 2015):

“Tell me about what you’re building,” a teacher asks a child during open choice time in the block center.

“A house,” the child replies.

The purpose of the open-ended question is to provide opportunities for the child to think about his answer, to express ideas, to respond with more than one word, to be creative and to use a larger vocabulary. Naturally, then, the teacher had expected more of a response than “A house.” Although it was not what she had hoped for, she resists the temptation to hit-and-run with a quick “That’s nice,” and instead she asks a follow-up question, hoping for a better result.

“A house! Who lives in the house?”

“My family.”

The teacher pauses. Now what?

“Your family! What do they do?”

“Watch TV.”

A longer pause, then, “Watch TV? Tell me what they watch.”

“Judge Judy.”

The teacher surrenders. “That’s nice,” she says. (p. 92)

Despite the high value early childhood education and educators place on quality interactions with children, teachers often find themselves engaging with children from a script: a set of objectives or strategies, a developmental or pedagogical philosophy, an Individual Educational Plan. Somehow, we aren’t always present in our interactions with children. We don’t feel real curiosity or excitement. We (usually) have clear ideas of what we want to do and say with children, but it’s hard to really mean it.

It’s not just that we sometimes approach children based on external guidelines. Lots of things can get in the way of authentic interaction: there are many children seeking support or attention at once; there are a million things to remember and do (many of them, like recording attendance or cleaning up spills, seemingly unrelated to interacting with children); we have multiple modes of interacting with children; spontaneous conversation, managing transitions, leading group times. But still, when I taught young children, I was always confused: I wanted to make interactions count, yet they rarely seemed to measure up.

Now that I observe teachers from a distance, and make a point of noting concrete details, I can see a little more clearly what’s going on:

Teachers get worked up. When teachers are searching for the right thing to do or say, I see them tense up. They start talking and moving more quickly. They may be very good at displaying authentic interest through their words and choices, but their nervous systems seem to interfere with real connection.

Teachers put out more than they take in. As teachers focus on the content and learning goals of their interactions, they tend to do more talking than listening. They strive to elicit children’s abstract thinking. They cram to find math and literacy learning opportunities. They push themselves to promote pro-social behavior. Even though many teachers make sincere efforts to get children to think and talk, the teachers do most of the talking.

Teachers focus on abstract goals and content. Many interactions between teachers and children –even spontaneous exchanges about what a child is doing - resemble lessons more than conversations. You can almost see the gears turning behind a teacher’s eyes as she attempts to mobilize the dozens of overlapping goals for quality interaction –language development, emotional literacy, critical thinking, science and math, this week’s topic, and on and on. The focus is on the content and outcome of the interaction, and not on the interaction itself.

As Gramling points out, this is all very different from the kind of authentic engaged conversations we have in real life. We may get very excited by authentic interactions, and we may have specific ideas we want to get across. We may sometimes do more talking than listening. But we are engaged. We share information. We modify our ideas based on what we hear from others. We commiserate, and celebrate and empathize.

Of course, interactions between teachers and children are not exactly like conversations between grown-ups. Children are not as sophisticated as adults in their ideas, language or conversation skills. And teachers do have important learning goals in mind when they engage with children. It is to be expected that teacher-child interactions will be more simple and choreographed than a totally spontaneous adult conversation.

But, as Gramling points out, research on learning and brain development has shown that children actually learn more from conversation mode – the natural flow of language and ideas – than instruction mode – the deliberate presentation or guiding of ideas and content. So, despite the differences between adult conversation and teacher-child interactions, we can in fact do our most effective teaching if we pull in more elements of authentic conversation.

Here are a few specific ways to increase the authenticity of interactions:

Ask real questions. When we ask questions in an authentic conversation, they are usually inspired by something we heard or noticed. We generate questions to extend our understanding of what we have learned so far. So, instead of taking a quick look or listen and then concentrating on what kind of open-ended questions you can use, take a long look or listen and let real questions come to you.

Pay close attention and remember what you learn. As you focus on the interaction and let real questions occur, pay close attention to the answers. They will tell you volumes about the child’s level of development, thinking and learning style, way of engaging with others, sources of passion and strength. These are all extremely valuable for ongoing assessment (they might even help you complete your DRDP!). So take the time to record what you learn. It can be both encouraging and educational for children to hear teachers say, “wait a moment – I need to write down what you just said.” But even beyond understanding individual children, you can use what you learn from quality interactions to plan ongoing curriculum. This is at the heart of inquiry or project-based curriculum: authentic interest in children’s questions and ideas.

Share real information. (This idea also comes from Michael Gramling). We often forget how effective it can be to offer information about our own thinking, ideas and lives in a conversation. We know how important it is to connect classroom experience with children’s real lives. But we can feel like our own real lives are off limits, or of no use to children. However, when children seem unsure how to respond, or in need of a little conceptual scaffold, they love to hear something real and pertinent about what the adult is thinking.

Know and reflect an individual child’s world. One of the keys to our authentic adult interactions is how they draw upon our understanding of individuals and context. When a friend tells us about tension at work, for example, we might say, “Oh no! And you had just talked this out with your boss last month!” This can work with children too. Comments such as “I remember you saw a big spider in your house not so long ago,” or “It must be a little harder to use Legos at home now that your baby sister is crawling,” not only show our sincere interest in a child, but also help them model their own world and their own thinking.

As you can see from the above, authentic interaction is very much tied to ongoing development of observational skills and habits. It may seem contradictory, but you will do and say the right thing more often if you put more effort into looking, listening and reflecting. That is to say, if you want to generate the right output, you need to carve out more time and energy for collecting input. Real interaction is a two-way street, after all.

So, above all, slow down the game. Relax and have fun. Look for what excites you about children’s ideas and exploration. Focus on keeping your regulation at that “just right place” where you are excited and curious, but able to really see and hear the cues that children send you.

Validation – showing children that we really see and hear them and that their initiative is important and valuable -- is one of our most powerful teaching tools. But we really need to care to do it right. And authentic interaction, while useful in terms of concepts and content, is also about modeling the joy of interaction. We want to use ideas to promote learning. But even more than that, we want children to gain an understanding of what ideas and language are good for, so they can use them as tools for their own independent learning. As Vygotsky made a career of arguing, it is the interaction between humans that drives learning. When we truly collaborate on co-constructing knowledge, we can know that we really mean it.

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