At Food for Thought we have tried many different ways of presenting activities to children. In the beginning, it was, ‘This is what I think you need to learn, this is how long the lesson will take, and all of you have to be involved in it’. We had varying levels of success with that method. The kids who weren’t interested in the lesson would lose interest and make the class very difficult to teach to those who were interested. At teachers college, this was the style of teaching that we were taught and was the way that I taught for many years.
Admittedly, here in Argentina, I was forced to search for a different style, because my old style wasn’t getting great results. I would love to claim that it was due to my expertise, instinct or intelligence that brought about this change, but unfortunately, it was not. It was a sink or swim situation. I believe that this style had more or less worked up to that point within the formal settings that I was teaching in because of a type of trained obedience that children had learned. I now believe that is important to ask the question. Are these kids doing this because they are interested, and excited by the lesson, or are they following a routine that they have incorporated because not doing so gets them in trouble?
To take this a little further. We are led to believe that our lessons have been successful because the children followed the instructions, completed the tasks, and acquired the knowledge stated in the learning objective of the lesson.
Example. Learning objective: learn 4x tables. The children do the activity with little fuss, learn the 4x tables and afterwards demonstrate that learning by repeating the 4x tables. Success…
Does that mean that we are brilliant teachers and the kids are getting the most out of their schooling? Possibly, but possibly not. This could also mean that the children have incorporated obedience and are completing their role as good students to make their teachers and parents happy! A child's reward system is activated in their brain when they make an adult happy!
I’m not saying that we have to scrap the whole education system and start again (that would be nice, but also completely unrealistic). What I am saying is that us teachers should be aware of this. Children are constantly changing their behaviours to best benefit themselves within the environment within which they function. They are amazingly conscious, and adapt to best fit into their surroundings. What is one of the best ways to fit into your surroundings? By making the most influential people within that environment happy! I’m just saying.
Afterwards, we tried ‘Here are the lessons that we are going to teach today. You can choose which one you would like to do and if you don’t like any of them, then you can have free time.’ We also had varying levels of success with that method. In the beginning, we would have a good spread of children in each activity. Some engaging in the lessons and some involved in free time. After a while, we noticed that there was a trend developing. Those kids who most needed emotional support within the project, because of their difficult home situations, were always choosing the free time and isolating themselves more and more from the rest of the children.
In this instance, we made a decision to change this method because the most beneficial changes that we noticed with the children who needed the most support were happening because of them belonging to a group. The better the whole group cohesion, the better the emotional states of the children. Now, this could be, and probably is, due to this specific context. The social/emotional needs of children who live traumatic lives are different to the needs of children living in less difficult circumstances. This may be an excellent style of teaching within a different environment. To be honest, I really wanted this method to work! I wanted to give children 100% choice. Within this context, it wasn’t possible.
Our method now is a mixture of both of the teaching styles that we have experimented with. We offer two different activities every day. We divide the children into two groups. They aren’t exactly age-specific, but they are more or less one group of children aged 6-9 and the other group aged 10-13. Sometimes we will have a child switch groups for a specific activity because of her or his ability or maturity level. The age is a guide, not a defining characteristic.
The bulk of the activity is short and sharp. Usually with a simple objective in mind. We talk about that objective at the start of the day so that the kids understand what we are trying to achieve. The lessons don’t have a specific finish point. We encourage all of the kids to take part in the activities. What usually happens is that all kids start in an activity and decide when they want to leave and engage in free play.
If there are kids that are enjoying the activity then they stay on and continue as long as they want. I talked in one of my blogs about every child’s personal time. Some children can only manage a short period of time concentrating on a particular task. Those kids start with the lesson and after about 15-20 minutes they leave to go play. Depending on the child, sometimes we see it as a success when a child can engage for 10 minutes in a lesson. I think it is very important to respect every child’s personal time.
Now, this is what is currently working for us. That might, and probably will change in the future. Yesterday it worked perfectly, which is not always the case. It was a beautiful day which allowed us the luxury of having the whole outdoor space at our disposal. It is a different story when it rains. The older group was painting our mural with Soledad and our volunteer Johnny. The mural spans across a wall for more than 10 meters. The younger group was sifting dirt with our local volunteer, Pamela, and I. We are preparing the dirt for a bioconstruction workshop that we are doing in a couple of weeks. We are going to build a brick, wood-fire heater for the main hall of the project. It is freezing inside during winter.
The younger kids love playing with dirt, so it was an opportunity that served several purposes. Learning for kids, and the preparation of the dirt for your workshop. When the children tired of sifting dirt and making mud snowmen, they could play with toys close at hand or run around on our large sporting pitch with the sporting balls supplied. The older kids painted the mural until they desired not to paint anymore and left to play basketball.
I like this method because it has several positives. The first is that the child is expected to at least start the activity. I believe that it is important for kids to learn self-control and responsibility. The agreement is that if they are going to show up to Food for Thought then the least that they can do is have a crack at the learning opportunity that we are providing. The second is that we are showing them the respect and trust to make their own decisions in relation to their learning. If they want to engage in more, then we are available to continue on that path with them. Showing them trust and respect is not only the key to our deep personal relationships with the children but also the soil on which the childrens’ seeds of confidence are sown.