Children as Ideas Makers: TEDx Talk

IMG_0055I was invited to speak at TEDxBrum, Birmingham, UK where I shared my passion and thoughts about what happens when we value and take seriously children’s own curiosity and enquiry and turn our schools into environments that generate, foster and make visible children’s enquiry.  You can see the video uploaded to You Tube here.

In the 20 years I have been working with young children and families, I have noticed, and come to believe that:

  • Children are born with the desire to learn.  That is why they generally come out screaming “I’m here!”  Have you ever not seen a baby want to put everything to its mouth to find more about it?  They are born to learn, we could say they already have 9 months of learning by the time they are born.  Children are born innately curious about the world around them

Very young babies are motivated to engage in social communication from the beginning.  Children are born wanting to connect, to feel a sense of belonging, to feel connected to the world they find themselves inhabiting.   Colwyn Trevarthern (Edinburgh University) has the most wonderful research footage of hours old babies just doing that.  Children are sociable and seek connection with others

  • Children are born with the intent to make sense of their experience of the world and to interpret and explain (represent) their ideas about the world by themselves and in relation with others.  They crawl and make discoveries, reach out, hold and grasp, they notice their actions, the actions of others and ask why over and over.  Children are makers and expressers of meaning, in doing so the create ideas of their own

But there is something, that for some children steals these dispositions they have inside of them.  It’s called education or rather the quality of an education that desensitises children to the world and the stuff of the world.  Ken Robinson speaks a lot about this, how creativity is stifled, killed off with the result of anaesthesia and dullness to the patterns that connect (Bateson).

When children become disconnected from the learning experience it is because they feel no connection with what they are doing, they don’t feel able or wanting to participate, and hence there is no motivation, no engagement.  What they are taught no longer makes sense, there is nothing meaningful about it.

What tends to happen when children seem unmotivated and disengaged is that we blame the child, and put in strategies and interventions that focus on improving behaviour, or that trick the child by making something quite dull and boring be shiny and fun instead.  I tell you what – talking through a dull subject with children is still dull even if you have a puppet on your shoulder throwing glitter about!

IMG_0053What if we instead of deciding what children should learn we listen instead to their ideas?  I think we have much to learn from children about approaches to understanding and seeing and thinking about the world differently.  They might just be the answer to our adult problems of ‘getting stuck’ and continuing in directions that continue to damage the ecological systems of the world or that keep those in situations of poverty.  You know, we might just save an awful lot of money doing so too rather than inventing programs that teach children resilience, motivation, curiosity.  Now there is an idea!

This is Ash, she is 3 years old and lives in Wolverhampton, UK  She has something to say about ideas.

“Ideas come from my imagination and stay in your head.  They can come back and back and back.  Ideas do come out of your head but you never run out of your imaginations…not even a single bit.  Ideas look like a brain, they are really useful so you know what to think about.  Your imagination is really good because you can think about things fast.  Ideas will really protect your brain and they live in your head…They don’t eat anything because they’re just ideas…they’re happy…you never lose your ideas.”

I find this incredible, don’t you?

IMG_3064When I was asked to this TEDx talk I decided to ask teachers and families at schools I have worked with to ask their children about their ideas about the world.  I have been truly humbled by the response and honoured to share some of them here with you here in the live talk and the video now available on You Tube. 

Loris Malaguzzi,  Teacher, Founder and First Director of the Infant-Toddler Centres and Pre-Schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy reminds us all that:

 “Ideas fly, bounce around, accumulate, rise up, fall apart and spread until one of them takes a decisive hold flies higher and conquers the entire group.”

What I see, and interpret in these examples I share is the ability of children to think big.  If we have children thinking about big ideas, then why do we in schools teach them little ones.  Do we think the children are stupid? We need to let their ideas rise up.

Thankfully there are so many great teachers out there and fantastic schools doing the kind of work that creates the conditions for creativity and for the expression of ideas and theories, that evolves greater capacity for critical thinking and enquiry.  But we need more…

I am passionate about the world of early childhood education and in how we can all help develop our places of education as amiable places for young children that has as its approach to teaching and learning the value of listening to children, of valuing their ideas.

There is a very real danger I am aware of the global pressures and trends to standardise education, a one size fits all, a curriculum of facts and figures to be fed to children, to be digested and regurgitated when asked.  It is of course easily measurable but it creates a normalising effect that denies children the kind of education that enables democratic thought and action.  The kind of thinking that enables children to do things for themselves.

So, what can we do to make our education system shift from the paradigm of consuming pre-packaged knowledge to one that considers the child as capable of thinking and expressing their own ideas.  Maybe each of us can think about how we must:

Listen to children, to come to know their potential

Generate the right kind of educational environments that foster ideas to accumulate, bounce around and rise up

Share what is possible, to make visible the competencies of children so that others may listen to.

By listening to children, by generating the fertile conditions for their ideas to be born and grow and by sharing these with others we can change the paradigm of education to one that sees the creative, thinking child who is capable of ideas worth sharing.


Mathematical Thinking: Play and Learning

Mathematical Thinking: The Pattern of all Patterns

images-5Tomorrow I present at the British Council here in Dakar, Senegal.  The subject is the creative ways of approaching mathematics in the classroom.  From the teachers I have had the honour of speaking with thus far in my trip there seems to be a significant challenge in how mathematics can be taught in an engaging and meaningful way that is less theoretical and is more about and of life.

I have said many times before that:

“I believe we are all born with creative capacities but suspect that these creative dispositions become diluted and lost when conditions for creativity are not met.”

Our challenge as educators, as parents and as contributors to children’s learning experiences is to create the right kind of contexts for learning to germinate, grow and evolve.  So how can we do this?

imagesMuch of it depends on how we view mathematics.  Do we see it as a separate subject form science, writing, the arts, geography?  Do we teach the theory of maths and not its application?  Do we consider the outcome more important than the process of arriving at a possible answer?

Fry (2015) challenges us to consider the pattern and nature of mathematics.

“Mathematics is ultimately the study of patterns – predicting phenomena from the weather to the growth of cities, revealing everything from the laws of the universe to the behavior of subatomic particles…

Mathematics is the language of nature. It is the foundation stone upon which every major scientific and technological achievement of the modern era has been built. It is alive, and it is thriving.”

Fry (2015) The Mathematics of Love: Patterns, Proofs, and the Search for the Ultimate Equation

Unknown-1So we can see how Mathematics can be about life here in Senegal.  About how we survive and thrive with patterns and predictions of weather, to population growth in the cities that grow at exponential rates, the maths of engineering, of construction, of building, of tides and ecology. It is inherent in daily life too, the trips we make to the local boutiques, when tabs or monies owed lists are made, in the handling of money for exchange in the market, in the measurements of the street tailor, and the space, patterns and designs in the local cloths and fabrics.…mathematics we could say is part of the woven cloth of everyday life here.

images-1Children’s mathematical thinking originates in the meanings they make in their play.  We can help in this by making their school based mathematical lessons MORE PLAYFUL.  Research backs this claim up.  The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF,2008) in England commissioned a review into mathematics and teaching to find out about the effective learning in mathematics.  It concluded that effective learning in mathematics was:

  • Rooted in playfulness
  • Social in nature

DCSF (2008) Williams Maths Review 

images-3The Williams Math Review reminded us also that the young child’s intrinsic drive to play and learn ‘through play’ was the beginning of ‘messing around’ around with mathematical ideas and creative thinking.  More alarming was that it was usually us as adults who failed to recognise this, or failed to offer an environment where this could take place.  In other words, these thinking dispositions were being diluted and lost because conditions for mathematical and creative thinking were not met.

images-2However there are things that we can do and can take charge of in our own classrooms.  We can look for local materials and situations where mathematical thinking can be explored and played with.  We can set smaller groups of children off on smaller tasks whilst teaching others, we can create caravans of learning experiences giving opportunity for mathematics to be lived and be connected in more contextual and culturally meaningful situations for children.

UnknownWe have dilemmas to face that are not just relevant here in Senegal but are part of a global crisis in education that asks for us not to continue the separation of subjects into distinct and different categories, to stop the over reliance on testing of knowledge and to embrace and create conditions for creativity, innovation and critical thinking to emerge.

Our challenges are:

  • To make the teaching of Mathematics more context and culturally meaningful for Senegal’s children?
  • To re-imagine Senegalese children as rich and competent makers of meaning?
  • To ensure our children are higher order thinkers, that display habits and minds of mathematical thinking?
  • To cross the threshold between the theoretical classroom of yesterday and the concrete and practical classroom of tomorrow?

Therefore, we must for our children create the fruitful conditions for learning in our changing world.  To create contexts that value children’s play with ideas that involve mathematics and combined subjects and images-4dispositions.  We have to change the dominant paradigms that continue to emphasise testing and instruction and that view the child as weak, and empty.   This is not just for children in Dakar, Senegal but a call for revolution in education globally supported by a growing global family.  If we fail, then I fear we will leave our children unprepared for the challenges in our rapidly changing society and economy.  We can make change in our own classrooms, and each small change is an act of humility towards a better place for the children of Senegal.  Together as a community, we can begin to extend those ripples of change and find our supportive partners who wish for the same goals.  The goal being to give the right contexts for learning that enables Senegal children’s to thrive and seek meaning in their cities and places that they live, breathe and play.