Yesterday, I had the privilege of presenting at one of the breakout sessions for our Board’s Thinking About Thinking PD. Educators and administrators came to discuss how we create the conditions for thinking in different learning environments. During the second session, one of our conversations was about how students respond to provocations in the classroom. I happened to show some of Darla Myers’ provocations and student work during this session, and one of the teachers there mentioned this blog post of Darla’s, where she discusses how she figures out students’ interests.
This post and our group discussion made me reflect back on a topic that I’ve been thinking about for a while now, but haven’t blogged about yet. I’m having some conflicting thoughts when it comes to determining interests. This all came about as a result of our class gardening project. Earlier this year, one of the Educational Assistants at our school, Kristy Ellis, asked if our class wanted to take over the garden area at the back of our school. My partner, Nayer, and I noticed that our students love to be outside, that they really enjoy digging in the dirt, and that they’re always interested in hands-on learning opportunities. We thought that this could be some real world learning for them, and when we brought in soil and seeds and explored our gardening area out back, they were all very eager to be involved.
We initially laid out the gardening materials in the Dramatic Play area, and students quickly started to explore them.
- They put on the gardening gloves.
- They lifted the bags of soil.
- They role played with the pots and the shovels.
- One child even took some of the paper pots and started ripping them up: adding them to a bigger pot. (I thought, “Wow! She’s making the dirt in the bottom of the pot. She’s trying to pretend that she’s planting.”)
This all looked very promising … but then we went to talk to the students. What I thought was planting was actually something different.
Pretty soon, the students turned over the window boxes and re-purposed the shovels to make music.
I share these examples because they’re part of my challenge. On one hand, students used the dramatic play area more than ever before. They were working together, talking and listening to each other, problem solving, and working collaboratively in this learning space. But on the other hand, most of this play wasn’t about gardening. In fact, students were telling us that their interests connected more with music and baking than with planting: two areas of interest that this group of students have had since the beginning of the year. Now what?
We could have abandoned the gardening project, but when Nayer brought out the soil and seeds, many of the students were eager to plant.
Now they’re digging in the garden and sharing their thinking and learning.
Students are even starting to use the planting vocabulary during our explorations.
Why the difference? I’m wondering if this comes down to schema. Most of our class has never gardened before and they don’t have gardens at home. A large number of students live in apartment buildings, so they have fewer experiences digging and planting. The hands-on experiences in creating our school garden helped develop a new interest, and now the students are looking and talking more about plants.
I think about what might have happened if we gave up on this gardening project after our initial observations. What learning wouldn’t have happened? I’m not saying that we should ignore what students tell us or shouldn’t use their interests to inspire programming. In fact, we have responded to the baking and music interests in other ways. But sometimes I wonder about the long-term impact if we only pursue obvious (or maybe it’s “articulated”) interests without building schema in other areas. How much background knowledge should you build before determining if an interest is there or not? How do you know when to abandon a topic or re-evaluate your initial plan? I’m curious to hear your thoughts as I continue to look at “interests” in a new way.