Are there times when the terms do matter?

Just over a month ago, I read this great blog post by Shelley Burgess that really made me think. I am a strong proponent of making classroom decisions based on what is “best for kids.” I used to tell teacher candidates to start conversations with the kids in mind. If you’re making decisions about approaches to try and activities to do, always consider the child first. I still believe in all of these words, but Shelley’s post made me finally really understand the value of “presuming positive intentions”: even if we’re all fighting for something different, could we still be doing so with the child’s best interests at heart?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I continue to reflect on Full-Day Kindergarten. In the summer, Ontario finalized its Kindergarten Program Document, and this school year, Kindergarten educators have all been working with this new document. We all seem to be at different places in our learning, and that’s okay. I continue to contemplate the following questions about the document, and when talking to other Kindergarten educators, I’m not alone in doing so. 

  • How do we support students with various learning needs?
  • What might a play-based program look like? How do we capture and support learning in this environment?
  • What role do students play in co-creating the learning environment? How do they help create this environment (both in planning and set-up), and what is the value in having kids take on these roles? (A special “thank you” to Cory Jobb for asking me about this on Twitter and inspiring me to add these questions.)
  • What does the role of the educators and the role of the child look like in this classroom environment?
  • What might direct instruction look like in the classroom? How much is too much? How much is not enough? How do you decide?
  • When the document says that “literacy development and mathematics learning occur throughout play and inquiry, and not within isolated blocks of time,” does this mean that language and math centres are out all day long or that language and math are reinforced meaningfully through play? Does this distinction matter?
  • When the document says that we view the child as “competent and capable of complex thought,” what role does this play in terms of how we design the classroom, how we interact with students, how we respond to student ideas, and what learning opportunities we provide for students?
  • When the document reinforces that we start with the child’s interests and connect the expectations to these interests, what might this actually look like in the classroom? How do we also provide new experiences that may lead to other interests?

Depending on how we answer these questions can significantly impact on what our classrooms look like, what we’re doing throughout the day, and what our students are doing throughout the day. I keep thinking back to Shelley’s post and reminding myself that every educator is making decisions that he/she truly believes are best for children. 

These classrooms all look so different though, and as I look through Instagram posts, tweets, and blog posts that discuss inquiry-based learning, play-based learning, and Reggio-inspired environments, I’m left questioning my own definitions of these terms. What do these words really mean? I am not a fan of edu-jargon, and I think that all learning environments should be more than the words themselves, but with a program document that explicitly outlines expectations as well as pedagogy, I wonder if we have to come to a common understanding of these terms. Do we all have to be at the same point right now? No. I even think it’s okay to say the words that Sergio Pascucci and Laurel Fynes have shared with me so often: “I used to think … but now I think …”. Our thinking and learning should be evolving, just as we want it to be for kids. We may even be comfortable saying, “I am not quite there yet, but I’m trying this and continuing to make changes.” My concern is though, if we call so many different experiences inquiry-based learning, play-based learning, and Reggio-inspired, but they are not actually thatwhat’s the impact of these mixed messages on parents, educators, administrators, and the students themselves? To increase the benefit of the program for kids and learn more from each other, I think we need a shared understanding. What do you think?


6 thoughts on “Are there times when the terms do matter?

  1. Hi Aviva; this post struck a chord with me! Terminology is all over the place, and as a speaker/consultant/author/teacher educator, I have to be super-aware of the words that I use.
    And yet….as you say, we are all interested in doing our best for children, and what we are trying to do, maybe, with all this terminology, is to describe ‘our best.’ What does that look like? How does it relate to the frameworks we are required to use? This will be part of my exploration in my upcoming book ‘Environments that Support Inquiry.’ I am including in this exploration of inquiry the topics of play, reggio-inspired practices, and different forms of inquiry from around the world.
    Your other questions, about math and literacy being embedded within play, are interesting too. Personally, I’ve always embedded math and literacy learning within centres such as construction, drama, science and so on. It’s just so easy to make the opportunities to engage in math and literacy available, yet more challenging to capture the meaningful moments. It really takes a team effort to document these. I think the intentional set up of invitations and play areas has a huge role to play, and can ease the process of capturing the learning taking place. Photography is my biggest helper. I can photograph a child tallying birds coming to the feeder, and write about this later….it was part of play, and it’s also a math experience that can be articulated. Eager to see others’ thoughts on this! Sue

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Sue! I am very eager to read your book, as I think that this is such an important topic to explore. Maybe how we use these terms really are how we describe “our best.” This does make me think again about the comment, “I used to think … and now I think …”. As we continue to engage in conversations with others and reflective practice, I think we also have to continue to update and share our new understanding of these important terms. If we want to name them or not, the thinking behind play-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and Reggio-inspired practices are so important.

      I love your comment about math and literacy. I completely agree with you. I think there’s so much meaningful math and literacy that can be embedded through play and different areas in the classroom. Photographs and videos help me a lot too. Your book on pedagogical documentation is one that I refer to a lot. I go back to it often. Thanks for continuing this important discussion. I hope that others also chime in.


  2. I am grateful for your post at this time. I just found out (as did all teachers in public schools, I believe) what my next year’s assignment will be. For the first time in many years, I was open to the idea of teaching another grade, to try to experience learning with older students and with more interactions with others in the overall school (as K can be isolating at times with our outdoor schedules differing from recess). I have been both excited and somewhat overwhelmed this year: excited about our new document with its front matter that justifies my approach to planning, teaching and learning as honed by my classroom experiences and PD (AQ specialist, conferences and study groups, among other collaborations). Overwhelmed by so many changes imposed by circumstance (losing my teaching partner, taking on more leadership at the school level and thus having less time for my collaborative work outside of school, the loss of our outdoor learning space or “no-mow zone” due to ongoing work that dammed our creek and saw the removal of hundreds of trees along our school border, change of both principal and vice principal, structural changes necessary in class due to presence of several students with greater safety and support needs, and the loss of a shared planning time period for kindergarten due to difficulty in scheduling).
    I’ve felt that no matter how much I try, I’m falling short – not enough attention for all, not enough resources for daily use that are safe to use for all students (a rethink of both the space and the materials was necessary this year), not enough focussed attention during group meetings to do the sort of knowledge-building circles I’ve come to rely on in past years to spur inquiry thinking on, not enough outdoor exploration for my taste (something I’m passionate about but accept the limits of the current set-up).
    This sort of “poverty mentality” thinking is tempting when you’re always seeing posts by classes out in the woods, or writing books together, or creating beautiful spaces together… and I am ashamed when I catch myself falling into that sort of mindset. What we bring to the class every day is our love, our attention, our willingness to suspend our own hopes or plans to allow the creativity and problem-solving skills of our students shine. It isn’t lacking in language, it’s a classroom in which several newcomers from Syria now express themselves with confidence in both English and Arabic. It isn’t lacking rigor; we ask our students to do their best every day, with the understanding that for each child that looks very different. While the long walks and creekside picnics aren’t possible right now, we’ve still developed a culture of looking closely and noticing nature, pattern, and wonder. We’ve developed relationships, earned trust, and helped students know their capabilities. We’ve helped families see their children as capable of deep thinking, creative work with materials, social awareness beyond their own wants and needs (compassion and desire for fairness) and how their drawing for meaning is communication is meaningful and shows their development as writers.
    You’ve quoted my absolute favourite project zero critical thinking prompt, “I used to think (this)…, but now I think…” and for this I thank you. It is so important to remember how we grow as learners and when things are very busy and demands keep you from stepping back to reflect, having a friend hit the reset button (like you did) is valuable.
    I’ll give you my other favourite saying as an explanation of how I think we all relate, no matter our understanding of the terms – “the kids are the curriculum”. That’s it, right? Relationships come first because without knowing the children one has no basis for interacting, planning, moving forward. Seen in that light, I feel better already. This year has been hard, but it’s been amazing for research. I’ve learned so much this year that will help me help students well beyond this year. I’m tired, sure, but I’m proud, too. I’m proud of the work we’ve done together as a class. I’m proud of the connections we’ve made and the growth in our class community overall. I’m proud of the little moments of brilliance and the overall growth we see in every student.
    I’m proud to call you my friend. You always inspire me, Aviva. Thank you!

    • Thanks for such an incredible comment, Laurel, and for truly leaving me in tears (but in the most thoughtful of ways). I know that we’ve had some conversations about this in the past, and in many ways, I can relate to the experiences that you are describing here. These are not my experiences this year, but some of them, were my ones last year. Yes, these experiences can be challenging, but the learning (as you indicated here), is so very powerful. The growth we see in our students is amazing! I will also say that having moved schools this year and having a different experience, it’s what I learned last year that continue to help my partner and I as we support some children. There is always learning to do, and you make this so very clear in your comment. I also love your line, “the kids are the curriculum.” So well-said! Relationships do matter most, and I definitely felt this in both of my FDK experiences. All of our experiences are different, and it’s easy to see what’s shared online and compare our classroom to those of others. I did that last year. I’ve done that this year. And many times it’s caused my teaching partner and I to question our approach and again wonder about some of the terms that I mentioned in this blog post. Questioning is good though, and regardless of if we choose to make or not make any changes (or even if we find that we can’t make changes at the time for any number of reasons), the conversations themselves are still valuable. Thank you for inspiring so much of my learning! You were one of the first FDK educators that I connected with online, and you’re one that I continue to look up to. I don’t know what you’re teaching for next year, but I will say that your students are very lucky to have you: it’s clear how much you care about kids, believe in kids, and want them to succeed. The other night, I was involved in an online discussion, and two high school students spoke near the end of the talk. I find it so interesting how they also came back to highlighting “relationships” as key.

      Your comment reminded me how true this is in all grades.


  3. Thank you for your post Aviva! You bring up many points with which I think we all struggle. Are we doing what’s best for kids? I like to believe that we all do what we think is best for children and that we bring our “best” to our interactions everyday. But, regardless of how we label our beliefs about how children learn, for me, it comes down to our image of the child and how that is reflected in our decisions about our interactions with them. If we truly believe that they are “capable and competent, and full of potential”, then we need to be able to let go and trust that they will help us understand how they learn so that we can respond in ways that support their learning in ways that are developmentally appropriate. As Laurel so beautifully put it, “the kids are the curriculum…and relationships come first because without knowing the children one has no basis for interacting, planning, moving forward.” I think this is part of our belief about the way we learn with children. It involves a shift in our thinking from the educator being the keeper of the information, to a co-learner with the children. So many of us have seen how powerful the learning is when this shift happens. Opening the discussion as you are doing also helps us support each other as we construct this understanding for ourselves and reflect on our own practice. Thank you!

    • Thank you for the comment, Sergio! I love how you echoed Laurel’s point about the importance of relationships, and emphasized this point about learning WITH the children. It was a conversation on Twitter with Cory Jobb that made me add in the questions around co-creating the environment. I initially thought that this question was addressed in other areas around children being “competent and capable” and around “the role of the educators and the role of the child,” but I do agree with Cory that this is such an important point that it really deserves it’s own bullet. I just love how passionate you are about kids, and how much you believe in them and all that they are capable of doing (this comes across so well in your comment). There is such value in having these kinds of conversations so that we can look at our own relationships with students while also reflecting on our classroom program and what more is possible. Thank you for teaching me about “I used to think …, but now I think …”. I use these words when reflecting a lot, and I have started to have our students consider using them too. (I’ve even mentioned this to parents on a few occasions.) So powerful!


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