“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn't be. And what it wouldn't be, it would. You see?”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland / Through the Looking-Glass
The Looking Glass, as it were, is a curious metaphor to explain a young child's perception of the realities of school. Traditionally, the school has been a tool of social engineering, a place to stratify kids according to ability and how well they fit the construct of school, an institution that varied little from one to another. The school was a place that attempted to homogenize its subjects according to a rigid set of educational and social norms that suited many, but not all. Have schools changed much in this regard? One would surely hope, but I'm saddened to say that I do still occasionally observe the opposite.
I observe teachers working hard, and probably well-intended, to figure out how to mold the individual child to conform to the 'shape' of the classroom as opposed to altering the classroom to fit the child. The classroom in this sense represents an image through the looking glass that kids don't and quite possibly cannot comprehend. No matter what the environment of the classroom looks, sounds, and feels like, rest assured it will be very new to kids entering grade school for the first time. The most important formative years they will experience in life will have already occurred at home, and that is not necessarily to say in the most advantageous and purposeful of ways. Kids who may not necessarily have had stories read to them, experienced rich early learning opportunities, or been exposed to environments that stoked their curiosity will feel very foreign in an early learning classroom. There isn't much we can do to positively impact the preschool realities of our youngest students, but knowing that some of them will be arriving in our schools without the privileged preparation that others would have experienced from birth to age five, we need to accept that the looking glass classroom will be a difficult place for them to feel safe and purposeful. Lamenting the reality of this does nothing to help us more clearly perceive the possibility we see for kids on the other side of the looking glass. We only see the reflection.
Instead of frustratingly and confrontationally trying to coerce kids' acceptance of rigid learning environments in unproductive ways, perhaps it would be a better plan to stretch their perceptions by altering the learning environment to suit their needs. There is much research around instructional design and the brain-body-environment connection. In this article from Edutopia, for example, a question is pondered,
…designing a space is not decorating. Instead, it should impact learning and have a purpose. Teachers often re-create the same classroom year after year without assessing whether their design guides students’ learning. Websites such as Pinterest give teachers ideas for decorating a room, but do these ideas support student learning?
We can't control how prepared our students will be for the unfamiliar context of our classrooms, and we can't change who they are and what they've experienced prior to arriving, but we have complete unilateral control over the ways in which our classrooms can accommodate them. We control the schedule, the people, the physical layout, the lighting, the sounds, the learning activities, and every other element of our instructional spaces. We are the architects of our own learning environments.
“I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass
Teachers who understand that it is they who must change and adapt to accommodate their students are the ones that will ultimately feel less stress and anxiety about the progress of their students. The effort they make to stand with kids on the same side of the looking glass gazing collaboratively and empathetically at the possibilities on the other side is the key to unlocking the hope and learning potential that they all possess.
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