Choice

Would you rather have supper in a castle, breakfast in a balloon, or tea on the river?
John Burningham

We do best, and engage most readily in, that which we experience as freely chosen.
Margaret Donalson

At PDS we build in options for students wherever we can. Making constructive choices and managing timewell are important skills for learning and life, and we start this early. Even the youngest children have the opportunity to manage aspects of their lives in school and make choices. In many of the younger grades, the day begins with “choice time,” when children are allowed to choose an activity for the start of their day. In the Middle School there are electives, and, of course, this continues into 7th grade and beyond with the richness and variety of the Central Studies Electives program. It is our task as educators to design these electives to meet the needs of learners so that they may focus their time and energy and have the opportunity to develop interests and passions.

The second quotation above is from a wonderful book – Children’s Minds – by the Scottish psychologist Margaret Donaldson. Ithas been many years since I read Children’s Minds, but that sentence has stayed with me. And of course it is the word – experience – that provides the key. The task of the school is to design the program and create the environment within which the children choose. It is all about how we support and engage students so they invest their time, energy, intellect and imagination in meaningful ways.

Donaldson’s work was essentially a respectful critique of Jean Piaget’s research into the development of intelligence. Piaget developed a theoretical framework based on the concept of age and developmental stages. Children, he posited, moved from the early infant sensory motor stage, to the pre-operational period (approximately age 2-7), to the period of concrete operations (approximately 7-11) and finally toward the adult stage of formal operations and abstract thinking. Piaget saw intelligence and reasoning as moving through these essential growth stages. His research involved close observation of children as they worked through problems of logical reasoning.

Donaldson’s research led her to be critical of some of Piaget’s conclusions. She found that he underestimated children’s ability to think through higher level intelligence tasks. Her work with young children took the social context into account, and she found that when children’s intentions were engaged they were able to function at levels hitherto regarded as developmentally impossible.

Donaldson argued that we do not learn by first mastering an abstract set of skills. Rather, she contended, children learn when the context is meaningful and the learning intrinsically rewarding. We get better at something through persistence, trial and error, and not necessarily in an ordered sequence of acquired skills. The best example of this that I can think of is watching children using technology. They don’t sit down and read the manual, but – if they are interested in the task – they start with the trial and error of pressing the buttons.

When it really comes to guided choices, however, the children’s author-illustrator John Burningham provides the best options. “Would you rather have supper in a castle, breakfast in a balloon, or tea on the river?”

The whole book is a series of bizarre and wonderful alternatives that range from silly to gruesome – just perfect for many growing minds. “Would you rather…an elephant drank your bath water, an eagle stole your dinner, a pig tried on your clothes, or a hippo slept in your bed.” Now there is a real set of compelling choices.

I have just bought a copy of Would You Rather. If you would like to borrow it, just drop by.

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