Learning from Early Childhood Education: Higher Ed and the Process of Becoming

Learning from Early Childhood Education: Higher Ed and the Process of Becoming

This is the first article in a series focused on creating a dialogue among K-12 and post-secondary pedagogies and pedagogues. We will be accepting submissions for the related CFP throughout Summer 2013. Click here to find out more.

On my luckier days, I am gifted a few invisible moments at pick-up time before my son or one of his preschool classmates calls my name. It’s my time to see them as they are without me — a rare opportunity for a parent. Today is a lucky day, and I covertly watch a good friend’s daughter balancing in the low branches of a tree. She hesitates for a moment, one last look at the leaves above and the ground below. Her knees bent, lips set in a determined line. Then a slight bounce and she’s in the air, arms high, eyes wide, a miniature Amelia Earhart. But even Earhart struggled. The ground is there before she’s ready, her surprised feet don’t stick the landing and her knees and palms meet the woodchips roughly. There’s a short silence before her tears well in time with the pink scrapes on her knees.

Then her teacher is there, sitting calmly next to her, a hand lightly on her shoulder, “I saw you jump from the fork in the tree. That’s a big jump. You landed on both feet, then fell and scraped your knees and hands.” He’s quiet for a moment, hand still lightly on her shoulder. She nods, tears running down her cheeks, “It looks like you are having some big feelings. Is there something I can do to help you?” She leans into him and he hugs her shoulder. “Sometimes when I fall, I feel surprised, or angry, or embarrassed,” he says. They sit together with those words lingering, until she wipes her eyes, jumping up to run to the sandbox.

I’ve just come from a day of observing classes at a Research One university. I’d seen some impressive things, but I hadn’t seen anything like this.

Praise vs. Encouragement: Moving Beyond ‘Good’ and ‘Right’

“I saw you jump from the fork in the tree. That’s a big jump. You landed on both feet, then fell and scraped your knees and hands.”

One of our main and often laborious jobs as educators is evaluating students. We empathize with one another over the chore of grading, bidding for the most sympathy, “I have sixty midterms and forty-five final papers and …” We bond darkly over students who, rather than valuing the learning process, take a class, write a paper or complete an assignment “to get an A.” But, we should not act surprised by this. For years our students have been rewarded for writing the way teachers want them to with statements like “great work” and “nice job”, statements which easily translate to evaluations of the student, rather than evaluations of their work. Great work becomes you are great. The opposite is devastating: you are a failure.

Early childhood education offers a different model, calling on educators to focus on encouragement instead of praise. Popular in the Montessori approach, the Praise vs. Encouragement model avoids evaluative statements and instead strives to use observation to encourage children to be process oriented rather than product minded. Though the teacher’s statement to the child that falls may sound obvious to us, by using language that focuses on process over product, early childhood educators are able to help students see their work in ways they might not be able to see it themselves, opening opportunities for learning about their own learning (heutagogy). For example, rather than using praising language such as “What a beautiful picture!” a teacher might observe, “I see you used three colors in your picture. Your lines go from the bottom of the page to the top, and some curl in a lot of different directions.” This kind of language is helpful in supporting children to nurture an intrinsic rather than external sense of value. Further, if a student adopts the notion that a picture only has value because it is beautiful (or a student has value because she can create a beautiful picture), then it may become difficult for the student to engage in an activity when he or she does not feel confident. The experiential process of drawing a picture becomes — with the language of praise — a chance for success or failure based on perceptions of the end product.

In our own practice in higher ed, it has been difficult to escape from scrawling “good” or “great” down the margins of student papers. After all, we still remember how validating and rewarding such comments felt when coming from a respected professor. However, rather than saying “good” when a student makes a remark we find insightful, we can repeat what we understand the student to be saying, “Ah. So I hear you saying that because the second story gives us more information about Rosa Parks’ background and intentions, it more accurately portrays her as a rational agent.” If this was indeed the student’s intention, this statement recognizes her success in achieving her own goals (rather than ours) while simultaneously giving new words and perspective to the student’s writing.

We see using encouragement as one way of supporting what Carol Dweck calls a “growth” rather than a “fixed” mindset in students. However, we see a lot of challenges to this method. To begin, are students’ expectations of “praise” already so deeply embedded in their experience of school that to offer anything different is simply interpreted by them as a failure to completely succeed? Does the phrase “I see that thought connecting to this one” offer something less by way of encouraging further thoughts than “Great idea! Let’s connect that to…”? Our plan for the Fall is to talk with our students transparently and to invite them into the process of trying and evaluating this method with us. The process of communicating this change with our students is important because being transparent about the method seems in line with the respect the method intends.

Care: Learning Beyond the Banking Model

He’s quiet for a moment, hand still lightly on her shoulder. She nods, tears running down her cheeks, “It looks like you are having some big feelings. Is there something I can do to help you?” She leans into him and he hugs her shoulder. 

In a higher ed classroom, physical touch = potential lawsuit. While we can easily imagine a three or four-year-old leaning into a teacher’s embrace, this kind of physical affection immediately draws red flags with older students. However, early childhood education embraces care for many reasons, including providing a foundation for appropriate risk taking — risk taking that promotes growth. If students know that they will meet care, rather than praise, blame, or indifference, the risk of falling is limited to a few skinned knees — a much lesser consequence than loss of pride, affection or respect.

Though our students may be older, many still fear loss of pride, affection and respect. So, while we may be (rightfully or not) concerned about physical affection, we believe the lesson from early childhood education is of great importance. With this in mind, we have tried to find other ways to “hold” our students. In these ways we hope to separate our care for them as persons from assignment grades or other elements of class. One way to do this is relatively easy (if you don’t have a million students): In addition to providing feedback on the “form” of assignments (e.g. “try moving this paragraph”, “change from passive voice”), teachers can engage the content of what students write. A response might be, “I’m curious about the direction you took the topic for this paper, does it connect to your interest in education?” This kind of attention to students’ personal lives and developing interests might also take place in one-on-one meetings. Curiosity can range from “How are you?” to “I was struck by what you said in class the other day…” All of these demonstrate care and interest that build a foundation for students to risk and fail, knowing that your care about them is not contingent on their success, and further that you will be there to help them back to their feet and encourage them to try again.

We see care as an important, and perhaps often overlooked, element in support of Paulo Freire’s call to move beyond a “banking” model of education. Freire critiques pedagogy that “deposits” information in the knowledge bank of a student. While his call has been heard by critical pedagogues, it is still often missed in higher education more broadly. Further, while many models of learning, including progressive active learning practices, more effectively enable students to absorb and utilize information, they do not often help us learn to support students in better engaging risk with courage, shame with vulnerability, ambiguity with leadership, and failure with resilience.

“Loving them Just as They Are”: Treating Students as Human Equals

“Sometimes when I fall, I feel surprised, or angry, or embarrassed,” he says.

It’s scary to be vulnerable. Perhaps that is in part why, in higher education, students and teachers often collude to construct professors as mythic beings, distant and detached from the everyday risks and falls of human life. When presented with an academic’s curriculum vita (the curriculum of a life) we see only a list of accomplishments and successes. This is usually no less true when we stand in front of a classroom. The absence of failures and disappointments makes it difficult for young adults to imagine, and therefore inquire into, the complexity of life. Further, it sweeps away the opportunity to see the way others lean into life, taking risks, and sometimes failing, while simultaneously remaining open and dedicated to growth.

To be honest, I think emotional accessibility is a shame trigger for researchers and academics. Very early in our training, we are taught that a cool distance and inaccessibility contribute to prestige, and that if you’re too relatable, your credentials will come into question – Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, Daring Greatly

But early childhood educators model vulnerability as a path toward a relationship of respect, rather than power. Contemporary educator, Teacher Tom calls us to remember, “We are each fully formed, fully valid, fully functional human beings no matter our age.” His call echoes the radical premise from which progressive early childhood education greats (e.g. Reggio Emilia and Magda Gerber) orient themselves. We see the respect that follows from this kind of premise in the story above, when the teacher shares his own experience of falling. His words model vulnerability in the face of failure, attentiveness to emotional experience, and the possibility that in spite of these feelings, he continues to do things even though he might fall. In this small exchange, he models the idea that we are all peers in life, continually learning and growing, no matter our age or experience.

With these thoughts in mind, we are concerned that some things accepted as standard practice in university teaching make it difficult for instructors and students to experience one another as human equals. For example, the standard lecture model holds that teachers have information, and students receive it — the transfer of information and ideas is a one-way street. Likewise, classes and syllabi are often planned far in advance, minimizing the space for students to influence the direction of the course with their knowledge, experience, and interests. It is almost as if we make a deal with students: we will give you information if you leave your self, who you are and what you otherwise care about, at the door (and we promise we’ll do the same). Learning will be better, we imply, if it’s not mixed up with actually being people.

In order to create classrooms that model and practice the ways scholars and professionals engage in work and civic settings with courage, teachers can minimize traditional forms of information transfer (lecture or videos). In their stead, we can create environments where students care about practicing, feel supported in practicing, and are challenged to practice both disciplinary and soft skills. Problem-based learningchallenge-based learning, and case-in-point teaching offer strong pedagogical models that re-situate students and professors as co-investigators working learning edges together.

Additionally, we can work to reorient our students attitudes to one another, as we find our students often struggle with a similar dynamic: feeling they must find ways to impress one another. Inquiring together into this dynamic can begin to genuinely work everyone’s learning edges. In some ways, this feels more like coaching than teaching — coaching is not built solely on a history of being a superior player, but rather on using that experience to develop structure and provide resources for other players to improve their skills.

Conclusions

Trees are scarce in college and university classrooms. But it is not for a lack of trees that students rarely jump and instructors rarely hold them when they fall. At some point along the road to our classrooms, students learn to keep their feet firmly on the ground and as academics we learn that it is detachment, not attachment, that provides a fair and professional environment.

The K-12 system has a lot to gain as universities become more open-access and learn to prioritize public engagement alongside research and teaching. However, universities have allowed scientific attitudes of objectivity and detachment to permeate even the social life and fabric of professors and students. For the most part, people seem to accept this as the way things are — there’s an unspoken myth that sometime between childhood and adulthood we lose our inclination to experience life, as Max van Manen writes, as a process of becoming. We forget that what we have accepted as the way, is simply away. Van Manen reminds us that the way is always a myth, and suggests that when we open ourselves to a child’s world, we see that life, regardless of one’s age, is a continuous exercise in possibility. In this way, van Manen claims, children are our teachers.

Children are children because they are in the process of becoming. They experience life as possibility. Parents and teachers act pedagogically when they intentionally show possible ways of being for the child. They can do this if they realize that adulthood itself is never a finished project. ~ Max van Manen, The Tone of Teaching

We can learn a great deal from those who have practices deeply respecting human beings as beings that are continually in the process of becoming. We believe these educators can help us create classrooms that challenge the way and embrace possibility: Classrooms where students jump, and instructors hold them when they fall.

[Photo by Rafael J M Souza]

About the Authors

Marisol Brito

Marisol Brito (@MarisolAlhena) has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Minnesota. Her work explores interpersonal relationships, learning, and growth. She is also a parent, which has made her a better learner, teacher, philosopher, and human. She is a contributing editor with Hybrid Pedagogy. More at marisolbrito.com.

Alex Fink

Alexander Fink (@alexfink) is a doctoral student in Youth Studies at University of Minnesota. His research takes place at the intersections of teaching and learning, youth participatory research and activism, and critical social work history. More at www.alexfink.com.

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