Monday, February 8, 2016

Enticing Beginning

What has 41 years of teaching taught me about children and education? What qualities of teaching are virtually foolproof ways to engage and motivate kids? What simple truths would change schools as we know them and make children happier and smarter? Anybody interested in finding out? Read on.

1.     Education is relationship: Without a connection between teacher and student, nothing else matters. When students feel the teacher is interested in them, then they’re more interested in what the teacher has to offer.

2.     Education is context: When students feel some relationship to something they know, something they care about, something that’s interesting to them, they’re eager to explore more.

3.     Education is storytelling: The human brain is built for storytelling. Facts are facts, but when someone begins a story, “So yesterday I was having lunch and…”, we move closer to the edge of our seat to find out what happened and how it turned out.

4.     Education is activity: Talking about something is like the painted cake that will never wholly satisfy hunger. Doing things that awaken the mind and body to discover, figure things out, make sense of experience is the way we actually learn. The poet Hafiz says, “Why just show me God’s menu? We’re all starving. Let’s eat!”

5.     Education is a question: Activity also means activity of thought and nothing moves the mind faster than a question in search of an answer. (I began this blog with this boring sentence “Here are a few non-negotiable truths about effective education” and then took my own advice. Did the opening paragraph hook you more?)

6.     Education is surprise and mystery: Every day is a new opportunity to awaken our sense of wonder about the world and ourselves. When a school lesson tickles our curiosity and leads us by surprising paths to astounding places, we are gifted with the larger lesson that life and learning is a glorious endeavor.

Now imagine the children walking into my music class. They enter energetic and eager and I say to them: “In today’s class, we will learn about quarter notes and eighth notes. You need to be able to read them correctly and also learn how to write something. I will be checking at the end of class to see if you properly learned the lesson.”

Now pass this approach through the six points above and you’ll see it’s 0 for 6. Nothing to let the kids know that I’m more interested in them than the lesson’s objective. Nothing to entice them to consider why they should care about quarter and eighth notes. Nothing that introduces intriguing characters and exciting plots (“Once the world was all quarter notes and one day, one fell and split into two…”). Nothing that gets their bodies immediately moving and doing and then asks them to reflect. Nothing that gets their minds moving and wondering, giving them the answer before the question. Nothing that shows any sign of intrigue—just plain, unadorned and boring fact. O for 6.

And yet some clever people who never taught kids or taught and never liked kids or taught and are seeking revenge on kids decided that beginning lessons with clearly stating objectives and then clearly reviewing them at the end was not only the golden road to great education, but was so important as to be the mandatory way to teach, at risk of your job if you dared to object. This has happened in the United States, in Canada and (much to be great sadness to learn the other day), in Australia. It is an adult fantasy of effective education that blatantly ignores the kid at the other end of the lesson and ensures business as usual, i.e., school as some weird cultural institution that kills curiosity, demands students to merely behave and conform, answers questions before kids ever ask them and reduces the whole enterprise of active exploration and investigation of our fascinating and complex world to merely ticking off lists of disconnected facts and skills. Excuse me for a moment as I step outside.

I taught eight classes in a row yesterday with kids I never met and each one was a marvel of 100% engagement and excitement and understanding and skill development. Here’s how I began each class, no two alike. (Note: No one introduced me. I didn’t introduce myself. Just jumped in with both feet. At the end of one class, one kid asked “Who are you?” But mostly they didn’t care, because they know I liked to play the way they did and understood what made them tick.)

1.     What did you have for breakfast today? Who can guess what I had for breakfast today? No, not cereal. No, not peanut and butter sandwiches. No, not vegemite. Potatoes? Yes!!! And off we go singing “One potato, two potatoes, three potatoes, four…”

2.     What holiday is coming up soon? You’re right! Today is Chinese New Year! Gung hay fat choi! But there’s another one soon. Yes, Valentine’s Day. And did you ever get these little heart-shaped candies that said something? When I was your age, I got one from Francine Badalmenti and I kind of liked her, so it made me so happy. And do you know what it said? “Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet and so are you!” And off we go for 30 minutes of doing things with that poem.

3.     Kids, have you ever had a headache? What do you do when you feel sick? Yes, stay in bed. Take some medicine. Where do you get the medicine? The store. Where does the store get the medicine? Ah, the doctor. Well, that’s where old man Mosie went when he felt bad. And off we go singing “Old Man Mosie, sick in the head, called for the doctor and the doctor said…”

4.     Who can guess what’s in my backpack? No, it’s not a kangaroo. No, not lots of money. I’ll give you a hint. (I squeeze the backpack and it makes a sound). A rubber ducky? No, but close. A rubber chicken? Well, let’s see. Slowly and dramatically, the chicken’s head pops out and we start singing “Who fed the chickens?…”

5.     When you feel really, really sick, do you feel like getting in the car and driving a long way to the doctor or the hospital? I didn’t think so. Do you know that in the old days, the doctor used to come to your house? You could just stay in bed and he or she would come to you to see what was wrong. Until one day, something happened to one of the doctors and they stopped coming to houses. His name was Doctor Foster…

There was more, but you get the idea. Each beginning a story, a question, a mystery. Each beginning provides an intriguing context and then springs into activity. The kids are with me with 100% of their attention because I’ve hit the things that make us pay attention. And then we go off to do things that continue to unravel surprise and mystery as we explore variation after variation of the song or text with movement, games, instrumental playing and more.

And the end of the class, I’ll ask “What did we do?” Reflecting and viewing the activities in our mind helps the learning sink in deeper.

“So what? What did it mean to you?” Here the kids get to share their “takeaways,” not guessing what right answer I want for them to show I taught the perfect lesson, but the actual thing they learned in the experience. That can vary from “I really want to buy a rubber chicken” to “I really liked working with this partner who I usually don’t play with” to “Doing that game helped me really understand how the last phrase was different from the first three” to “ I did a good job playing the drum, but I had some trouble with the guiro.” Real assessment. Meaningful assessment. Not just playing the game of pleasing the adult and showing you learned what you think they wanted you to learn.

“Now what? What will we do next? What will you do with the information?” “We need more practice on the woodblock part.” “Maybe some could play the instruments and some do the dance.” “Let’s make up new words to the chicken song.” The seeds are planted to anticipate and look forward to the next class. Engagement. Involvement. Motivation. The real deal.

So many of us teachers—and our students—are suffering from the constraints of narrow-minded education bureaucrats trying to stifle our own imaginative way of crafting our lessons. Please invite me to a debate with the people promoting the “Mandatory Way to Begin and End Lessons” and let the sparks fly. My opponent will teach a class with his/her method and I’ll teach one with mine and let the children decide the winner.



  1. My favorite workshop at National this year was given by Judith Thomas Solomon. The whole thing was about asking questions - the right questions at the right time. I came back and did just that in my first lessons - even directions framed as questions. Magic. I did Marco Skace as a pet dog and had kids relay stories of their pets to me. Ding dong as looking for a lost pet - who's ever lost a pet? Charlie Wag as a search for children's favorite treats (the list of ostinatos was long). Indeed its all about the relationships! Thanks for continuing to share your ideas Doug!

  2. Thanks Doug, for answering the question I had some years ago as a beginning teacher, and more inspiration for the nascent school year. And keep me posted on when that debate is scheduled, please.


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