Communication as a Basic Skill
Children begin to communicate with their environment almost immediately after birth. They point at things and make guttural sounds wishing to know what they are seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling. The child will mimic the sounds made by its mother and will develop a vocabulary long before a pencil and paper is given to them to form the letters of the alphabet. The reason for this is that humans are born with the innate desire to learn and discover and that eagerness is quite obvious in the earliest days of pre-school or kindergarten. Children already have an ability to communicate with their classmates in kindergarten all they need is the environment that allows them to speak more without having to learn the twenty-six letters of the alphabet and numbers that tell them a dozen eggs is equal to twelve, or 12. The teacher in this environment is the model of behavior and the kids will duplicate the sounds she makes when she speaks and will understand that, “three,” is equal to the three fingers she holds up when she says the word. It is not necessary to teach them the various phonemes in the word three.
Abstraction is easier to learn after the concepts have been concretely imprinted and assimilated at a much later age than kindergarten or even the primary grades. The experiences that children have are the real building blocks to understanding the finer details of subject matter that can be presented later. It seems unfortunate that high school English teachers, for example, feel that their students come to them without a basic understanding of the parts of speech and sentence structure. How can they actually teach their students English and parse their writing if they don’t have those basic skills? My response might be, why don’t you teach them those skills as you parse their writing? In other words pressure is brought to bear on the early grades to teach the most abstract components of the subjects so those in high school and college may get on with the real business of teaching. Does this sound logical?
Creative Teaching and Uncontrollable Learning
Teaching in today’s public schools seems dedicated to the proposition that learning requires that all things must first be broken down into their smallest parts. Those parts are then isolated and sorted into manageable components that can be presented in linear sequence that begin in the concrete phase and conclude with the abstract. The sequences are then apportioned and given an age appropriate placement in the K-12 curricula for each subject. These are then presented to the learners who are given repetitive drills in order to remember them so that they can be tested later to see if they have indeed learned them. In short, this is called the, “Basic Skills Approach,” to learning.
Concrete to Abstract?
These are the skills we usually associate with Reading, Writing and Arithmetic; Otherwise known as, “The Three Rs.” However, to break down the language into its component parts of letters, words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs which will eventually lead to essays, stories, etc. and to call that going from concrete to abstract is ludicrous. How abstract can we get when we try to teach a letter in the alphabet and ask the kids to see that as a building block in the development of language which they will use for communicating when they grow up?
Hands on Learning
A brief example of conceptual learning follows: These are some of the concepts you might find in a sixth grade social studies curriculum.
2. Forms of government
5. Gold Standard
These five are enough for the sake of discussion. In order to learn what a nation is should we first break it down into its component parts as follows?
*Confederation of tribes
Shall we do the same for the other four and all the other concepts that are in the sixth grade curriculum? From September to June all of these titles; government, laws, economics, monetary standard and any others would be covered for specific nations in a part of the world. The High School History Department will insist that the kids understand all the components before they delve in depth into the various cultures of specific parts of the world as dictated by the curriculum. The middle and elementary schools might be severely criticized if these components have not been learned.
In my sixth grade classroom many years ago I was part of the first teaching staff in a new school building. Text books had not arrived and were not expected to come until we were deep into the first semester. The principal told me that I had to deal with the problem by being creative. Later on, he probably wished he hadn’t said that. This was a self-contained classroom and I could have ignored social studies entirely until the books came in, but I simply couldn’t do that because there was also a dearth of books in the other subjects as well. So I free wheeled it and simply took it one day at a time.
My first discussions with the class went something like this and please understand I’m making a very long story short. Well, boys and girls, we have no text books, but we have ourselves and a whole lot of stuff to learn in social studies. We need to learn about countries and stuff as well as governments and culture and things like that. How do you think we should do that without text books? After the usual flurry of, “Well why don’t we just go home until the books come in?” One of the girls held up her hand and said, “Why don’t we pretend that we are a country?”
That question led to a dozen others and it was like opening a dam and watching the waters cascading down as the kids simply exploded with enthusiasm about the country they might want to create. We did create the country and we said it was an island nation somewhere out in the Pacific. We called it Tamba, but that didn’t have any meaning at all except that it was different than anything any of us heard about. We decided that Tamba should be a democracy (I had nothing to do with that. It was the result of a discussion generated in class). A Constitution was drafted by kids the class selected. They insisted and I went along with it that the representation to our congressional body was divided along gender lines. The girls wanted to be represented and the boys also wanted to be represented and so it was decided that there should be equal representation 6 boys and 6 girls which was less than half the class.
We did struggle a lot with laws and how the concept of justice needed to be enmeshed in the provisions for crime and punishment. Along these lines and quite by accident economics turned out to be one of the more interesting activities. Most of our supplies had not yet arrived, but we did manage to get a small supply of plasticine which is modeling clay and kids liked using it for making little things and putting the figurines on the window sill. As we progressed into the third and fourth week of the project we saw that the plasticine figures were disappearing from the window sill. This was a big problem and we caught a boy stealing a figurine off the window sill and he was brought to court and convicted of the crime of stealing. The punishment was the community service for one month of cleaning the chalk board at the end of each day.
Beyond the crime and punishment phase we learned that plasticine had a value that a precious metal like gold might have had for ancient and modern civilizations. Hence, you guessed it, Tamba was put on a plasticine standard with a value for each gram weight to equal so much in Tamba dollars. A currency was designed and printed and the plasticine was in the lockable drawer of my desk. That drawer was called Fort Knox. It was an easy segue comparing Tamba with our own gold standard and the value of our currency on which it is based. That activity in itself was an amazing conceptual understanding learned by every student in that class. There was no drilling and mandatory reading to learn it. The conceptual understanding simply evolved from the activities experienced by the kids in the creation of their imaginary country.
In this environment the teacher is seldom a lecturer or presenter of lesson plans. To be sure it was important from time to time in the six week span of the project (we did get our texts) that I had to actually offer guidance on material. It took a little longer than I anticipated because we went outside while the weather was good to actually build a village made of materials we were able to find on the large piece of school property. When I had to lecture it was usually because there was a glaring shortfall in information on a specific topic they needed.
Would I advise others to do this? In a heartbeat if the opportunity arises I would urge teachers to try this kind of teaching. An important thing to do is be on the principal’s good side because he will fend off any frontal assaults by parents of kids in your class who might not fully understand what it is you’re doing. I had at least four information meetings with parents to explain what we were doing and how I thought it would work. These meetings were held with the principal present. I am now retired and that project was done about forty years ago, but still when I run into one of those kids who are now middle aged people they ask, “Do you remember Tamba?” I usually smile and get a warm feeling saying, “Yes, I do.”