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.
Such a wonderful post. I agree with your thoughts about schema here. If we only ever just followed student interest, we wouldn’t expose them to so many rich learning opportunities. Like many things, it comes down to balance. Balancing student interest and enouraging this by providing feedback, resources and modelling to extend learning with the need to introduce students to new ideas, materials and ways of engaging their world. Like the rest of us, kindergarten students don’t know what they don’t know until someone finds a way to show them. It reminds me of a class several years ago when the FDK model was in its infancy and the educators were very stressed because they thought their only inquiries for the year would revolve around Superheroes and princesses as that was all the students talked about. Giving themselves permission to open up their students to new learning led to many deep and student-engaged inquiries. I think there is room in your class for cooking and music AND gardening, don’t you?
Thanks for the comment, Kristi! I absolutely agree that there is room for all three of these things in the classroom. This gardening experience was a good reminder for me that Kindergarten students are young, are still learning a lot, and need to be exposed to a lot in order to widen their scope (and I guess really widen their world). I remember hearing similar concerns about “superheroes” and “princesses” in the past, and I think that I had some of these same concerns too. I’m glad that we didn’t give up on the gardening, but instead worked on building schema and responding to the student interests that developed as a result. Maybe if, after providing these new experiences and building this knowledge, the students still didn’t take an interest, then it would be a clue to us to move onto something new … I’m finding more and more this year that we cannot underestimate the importance of background knowledge. If we really want children to wonder/inquire, they need to know enough to ask questions and find out more.
As I read your post, it reminded me of Diane Kashin’s recent post “Below the Surface there is so Much More: The Early Learning Programming Cycle” (https://tecribresearch.wordpress.com/2016/04/10/below-the-surface-there-is-so-much-more-the-early-learning-programming-cycle/) that talks about interests. She also links other posts she had written about interests and how as the teacher you need to have intentional teaching. They’re worth the read (if you haven’t read them already) as you’re continuing to think about interests.
Thank you so much for your comment, Jenni, and for sharing the link to this post. I don’t know if I’ve read this post before, but some of the ideas in it sound familiar. It’s a good reminder about digging deeper. I really liked Diane’s iceberg image. Now I want to check out some of the other links in this blog post.
This really made me think. I sometimes get frustrated when my intermediate students, given the opportunity to share something they’re interested in, say “nothing”. I’m really starting to wonder if it’s all about the gentle nudge, as well as a lot of listening and observing. Would a class tell me they wanted to cook in French? Not necessarily. Do they love it when we do, and does it open up some great learning opportunities? Absolutely! Totally worth thinking about. Hmmmm…
Also really made me think about adult learners. I was presenting to a group of teachers about blogging, and particularly about sharing favourite blogs of mine with my students. I asked the group what blogs they loved to read that weren’t connected to education. A lot of blank stares, and then one brave person said, “I wouldn’t even know where to start to find that”. So, we went exploring instead of where I’d planned to go. Helpfully, she knew what she didn’t know. Sometimes, we have to articulate the question.
Thanks for the comment, Lisa! What excellent points. Maybe as adult and student learners, we sometimes all need that “little nudge” and/or that “building of schema.” Some students may already have a lot of prior knowledge and may willingly share a lot, but others might not, and require some more scaffolding to share more and/or articulate their likes, dislikes, etc. This is a good reminder that we’re all different, and that we might need to meet these different needs in different ways both in the classroom and through PD sessions. Thank you for making me think more too.