Thursday, May 05, 2005

Developing natural learners

Developing environmental awareness Posted by Hello

I have always believed that ‘before the word comes the experience’. That literacy is built out of, and from, the emotional or felt experiences children have as they play and explore their environments – preferably in the company of others and, even better, a perceptive adult.

This understanding was the basis for the language arts experience that was as once such a feature of New Zealand Primary schools. The idea that early literacy should arise from children’s own thoughts from exploring their environment (and their own personal life experiences) was developed early in New Zealand. Sylvia Ashton Warner first developed the idea of students writing their own books in the 50s. Elwyn Richardson, about the same time, developed both environmental poetry and prose, and personal writing, based on personally felt themes. To value children’s ideas Elwyn developed a process called ‘scribe writing’ that allowed students to express their ideas without worrying about spelling.

These are ideas that deserve a revival in our junior classes. Such writing, based on focused oral expression, is the true basis of literacy. I believe we have rushed students into books too early and, in the process, lost the concept of the valuing of students own sense of voice and identity. Most importantly we have lost sight of the idea that children build up vocabulary naturally in the process of exploring their thoughts and environment; ‘before the word comes the experience’.

Rachael Carson is another name from the past. An environmentalist rather than an educator, her ideas are equally valid. Rachael Carson’s book, ‘The Silent Spring,’ some say, was the beginning of the environmental movement. In 1956 she wrote a small book for her nephew called, ‘A Sense of Wonder’. It contains great advice for teachers and parents.

Exploring nature with your child is largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies around you .It is learning again to use your eyes, ears, nostrils and finger tips, opening up the disused channels of sensory impression.

Her technique is ‘to just express my own pleasure in what we see, calling his (her nephew) attention to this or that’.

She writes. ‘A Child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonders and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most their clear-eyed vision…is dimmed … before they reach adulthood.’… ‘I should ask ( for) each child in the world a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life as an unfolding antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years…

Another author, Deborah Meier, writes that it is:

The power of children’s ideas that our pedagogy should centre on.’… ‘children should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on this complex world.

Teachers should capitalize on student’s natural linguistic appetite. They should surround them with a rich sensory environment, build on their desire to develop their own self identity as discovers and sharers and, most of all, help them realize the power of their own ideas.

These are the ideas that are too often lost when teachers stick to delivering an alien curriculum. Lots of practical ideas to help on our site.


Anonymous said...

I think the development of reading through personalised writing an excellemt one. We need to see more of it. Childen, in my experience, begin to write from an early age and we should make more of this desire. The idea of education to develop a sense of self and identity is a powerful one. A focus on functional readinmg can actually get in the way of this and as for this emphasis on 'jolly phonics'!

Anonymous said...

Interesting observations!

I believe the strength of 'voice' and the unique perceptions of children should be clearly evident in their learning. How visible these components are is a good indicator as to how genuine or 'natural' the learning is.

Bruce said...

Could not agree more. When I visit classrooms I look for evidence of student's 'voice', ideas, questions and theories. Usually I can't see these because the teacher's curriculums and plans get in the way.

Anonymous said...

Personally I think we have been bullied by 'reading experts' who have little understanding of children's creativity; nor any appreciation of the importance of real experience, as the basis of language development.

In the UK, one writer says, the curriculum has been taken over by the 'evil twins' - literacy and numeracy, which have 'gobbled up' the rest of the curriculum!

At least though in NZ, we seem to have kept phonetic awareness as a means to and end ( used in context) and not reverted to an obsession with phonics as in the USA.

NZ teachers ( or the ones I know) still value student responses, but usually around issues predetermined by the teacher. But at least their classrooms are bright and cheerful.

What you write about is so important.

Anonymous said...

I think you make very important observations!

It is unfortunate that the children's natural interest in nature and the environment is so often overlooked.

'The Geranium on the window sill just died but teacher you went right on (Albert Cullum).'

Bruce said...

Now that is a great teacher picture book. Very few people know about it - a voice from the past perhaps?

Anonymous said...

Yes, published in 1971, and unfortunately remains highly relevant to todays scene.

The complete verse from which the title of the book is taken is as follows.

'The robin sang and sang and sang,
but teacher you went right on.
The last bell sounded the end of the day,
but teacher you went right on.
The geranium on the window sill just died,
but teacher you went right on'

I guess the book is long out of print now.

Bruce said...

I have found the book you mention.I had forgoten how great it was. See the Sunday blog .