K to 12 (and not much in between)

A reflection on the three stakeholder roles of learner, educator, and the carer.

For a long time now I’ve considered pre-school to be both incredibly important for learners and enormously demanding of educators. It’s social status and its rates of pay tend to suggest I’m in the minority though. Anyhow, some years ago I did a deal with my son’s kindergarten teachers. I offered to bring around coffees and cakes for their morning tea, on one of their childfree clean up days. In return I wanted to pick their brains and learn some tricks of their trade. It was one of the best investments in professional development I’ve ever made.

I wrote down really useful notes from that chat. Great insights into dealing with kids and some interesting observations on dealing with parents were acquired. I filed them away for safekeeping so, not surprisingly, this means I can’t find them now that I want to refer back to them (though I have narrowed the search perimeter to a three drawer filing cabinet at least). No matter. I remember some of the important bits. One point in particular springs to mind as I consider what to post this week. Here it is in all its simplistic glory. ‘Don’t overpraise’.

Care full at K

From a Kinder point of view this advice has very practical implications. Children at that age are producing a high volume of ‘art’ and once something is “incredible”, “awesome”, or “amazing” the only way is down. A kind of hyperbolic inflation kicks in and the words lose their impact. If everything that everyone does is classified as spectacularly super-dooper special, then that’s the new normal and that’s the new average.

What these teachers did instead was praise process rather than output. They would praise the way things were done, constantly encouraging kids to do something new or do something differently. They would comment approvingly on choices of materials, colours and techniques. Their comments always reflected on what the children did as learners rather than who they were as personalities. Cute smiles and batting eyelids got the kiddies scant advantage from these two. No favouritism was ever on show when I was around to watch them. All children were to be given appropriate encouragement to further develop the skill level they presently displayed.

When the work was done they’d say “that’s great, well done” and mean it. Next, they’d wrap up the activity by discussing where the work should go to dry or be kept safe until parents could collect both the child and the art. Then it was onto something else.

It’s when the kids are picked up and show off their work to their folks that the superlatives start to fly. After all everyone loves their kids and will take any and every excuse to express it. A finger painting in purple becomes a vehicle through which we can show our love and affection. Saying things like,

“Did you do this? That’s fantastic sweetie! I love it! Aren’t you clever!”

So one of the valuable things I learnt that day was that, when the kinder teacher plays it cool, great things are possible. Everyone has a role. The learner’s role is largely that of engagement, the educator’s role is largely that of guidance, and the parents are the bearers of unconditional love. Let’s say for example leaves and feathers are glued on coloured cardboard. The learner enjoys and benefits from the activity, the educator notes the emergence of fine motor control, and the parents delight in a priceless masterpiece. Good work all round.

Applying at 12

Working at the other end of the K-12 timeline I see the basic principles (and the roles of stakeholders) still apply. My role is not dissimilar from that of my kindergarten brethren. I’m an English teacher (amongst other things) so my materials aren’t feathers and glue. Mine are language and ideas. I introduce students to texts, encourage them to consider their implications, demonstrate styles of writing and communication and comment approvingly when I see a student extend themselves in their use of language. That’s a slightly generic description but you get the gist.

Here too, overpraise is to be discouraged. The marks students get for their work must be a reflection of what they do not who they are. An elite mark simply must be reserved for work that is truly impressive.

So how does one impress? What does it take to get the impressive marks? Application. The students who succeed are the ones who apply themselves. More specifically, they’re the ones who master the act of process. All that exploration, all that experimentation, self-discovery, technical skill development and, above all else, creativity, that started with finger painting and gluing stuff together in Kindergarten bears fruit. At a fundamental level, the role of the student hasn’t changed much either. It is still the case that they be engaged in what they do. Grow and develop from these habits. Really, they are the habits of lifelong independent learning.

Tell it like it is

But what, I hear you say, about the carers? Does the role of a parent remain the same at ‘12’ as it was at ‘K’? Well you tell me, how do you show unconditional love to a teenager? I’m very wary of offering advice, not having actually lived through that phase of life as yet. As you know, wise men and women with greater authority and expertise than me have tackled this question over the years in books that sell on Amazon and chat shows that fill daytime TV. I do, however, deal on a weekly basis with parents who are living with teenage children. My observation of that circumstantial evidence suggests ‘don’t overpraise’ is a good policy to follow.

Telling it like it is unconditionally has a ring of respect as well as love to it I think.

I’ll leave it there for now. If I find the darn notebook I’ll let you all know.