Carrie Symons, PhD

Education, Literacy, and Language in Multilingual Contexts

Solar Eclipse: Be Here Now

A whale spouting on the water’s surface.

A double rainbow after a storm.

A flower bearing fruit.

Dramatic natural events – like the Solar Eclipse on Monday, April 8th, which was visible for folks across a swath of Central and North America – remind us of Mother Earth’s awe-inspiring power.

Thanks to SK’s 1st/2nd grade teacher, Barbara, who tracked down several pair of ISO-certified eclipse viewing glasses, some students, teachers, admin, and parents at Summers-Knoll School were able to experience and witness the eclipse together.

During the eclipse, we imagined how people thousands of years ago perceived solar eclipses. It turns out there’s an entire field of study, archeoastronomy, devoted to such questions:

“We must be very careful about treating all cultures that came before us as capital-O ‘Other,’” says Anthony Aveni, a pioneer of archeoastronomy and professor emeritus at Colgate University. “They traveled a totally different road from Western eclipse science. Sometimes our questions can be misguided. Did they know the Earth was round? Did they know about the galaxy?” Those aren’t the right questions to ask, he says. “They didn’t live in our world.”

And we don’t live in theirs. With our ultraprecise clocks and compasses, we can often choose to forget the sky altogether—something unthinkable for many peoples of the past. “When it comes down to it, other cultures didn’t do things the way we do them,” Aveni says. “And that’s what makes studying them so fascinating” (Deluca, April 5, 2024, https://www.scientificamerican.com/).

But we need not wait for extraordinary natural events to appreciate the beauty all around us every day. The solar eclipse reminds us that, sometimes, we need to simply pause to remember that our life on planet Earth is small but precious, fleeting but significant, if for no other reason, simply because humanity is part of this natural world that engenders such awe. We can be reminded of this when we look into the eyes of a loved one or a stranger, when we feel the sun on our skin, or when we take a breath – we are here now. Simply being is worthy of celebration.

The Paradox of Spring

“Flowers unfold slowly and gently, bit by bit in the sunshine, and a soul too must never be punished or driven, but unfolds in its own perfect timing to reveal its true wonder and beauty.” The Findhorn Garden, from The Findhorn Community

April in Michigan hints of spring. On the backdrop of an ominous sky, daffodils withstand wind and rain, new buds emerge on branches of trees, and patches of green grass cover the soaked ground – a preface to the story of longer, lighter, warmer days ahead.

In schools, the paradox of spring is reflected in how teachers and students experience the final quarter of the school year amidst the anticipation of summer. On one hand, there’s a recognition and celebration of how much students have grown throughout the year. On the other hand, the year is not over yet – we want to make the most out of the time remaining. While growth cannot be forced, the conditions for growth can be optimized, and one key ingredient in such conditions is clarity relative to our destination: goal setting.

At Summers-Knoll, our spring professional development session on Friday, March 22nd focused on goal setting for individual students. Due to SK’s small class sizes, teachers are able to attend to each individual child’s growth and development. As a result of their ongoing (formative) assessments of each student across content areas, including social-emotional development, teachers can formulate SMART goals (goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely) for each student. Parents can also participate in setting SMART goals for their children, and ultimately, children can set SMART goals for themselves.

At SK’s parent-teacher-student conferences held next week (April 10 – 12th), the co-constructed action plans can leverage SMART goals as beacons that focus students’ efforts as they stride toward the 2023 – 2024 school year’s finish line. Informed by SMART goals, action plans provide a three-pronged approach to reaching those goals: what is the teacher going to do, what are the parents going to do, and what is the child going to do. The onus is on the whole team surrounding, and including, the child.

Understandably, our desired projections for students’ growth extends beyond this school year. We want to ensure they are well prepared for what awaits them in fall (and beyond) as well. Is it beneficial to look this far ahead? Absolutely. Long-term goals should inform the short-term goals. Preparing for 2024 Fall readiness should include a plan for continued summer learning and enrichment, as well as the 4th quarter action plan. So parents, as partners, teachers count on you to bring this longer-term visioning into the conversations about your children; together, we co-create the conditions for optimal growth that allows each child – each flower – to blossom, in their own time, to their full potential.

Knowledge is the Foundation of Higher Order Thinking

Higher order thinking (HOT) – yes, it’s a buzz word in education but that does not warrant disregarding its importance. Higher order thinking is akin to what we (at Summers-Knoll) have been referring to as “deep” and “transfer” levels of learning in rigorous project-based learning (McDowell & Miller, 2022), when our minds are engaged in applying, analyzing, and synthesizing.

In educational circles, the turn of the century (from the 20th to the 21st century) brought on conversations about the importance of schools fostering students’ 21st century skills in the “Information Age.” With technological innovations, increased dependency on digital devices and platforms, dramatic changes in the natural world, along with the globalization of commerce, people and industries, there has been a pronounced recognition of the need to prepare young people for a dynamic, rapidly changing world. They’ll need to be flexible problem solvers who can collaborate with super-diverse groups of people to address novel political, social, and environmental issues.

Much of what’s emphasized in discussions about 21st century skills is reminiscent of those cognitive domains in the upper part of Bloom’s Taxonomy: application, analysis, synthesis. And while it’s important to create opportunities for learners to develop higher order thinking skills, it’s equally important to remember that the foundation of higher order thinking is knowledge.

A set of false assumptions about the role of knowledge surfaces occasionally: students don’t need to learn content or develop content knowledge any more; if they want to learn about some topic in particular, they can do so on their own; they can read about any area of interest online; teachers don’t need to focus on the teaching and learning of discrete knowledge. Not true. Without knowledge, what will a learner analyze, apply, or synthesize? Without foundational reading skills, how will learners know how to decode and comprehend text and print information.

One of the potential pitfalls in project-based learning is a lack of attention to building domain knowledge. If we want kids to ask meaningful questions that drive and sustain inquiry, they need fodder for those questions. To get to deep and transfer levels of learning, they need to develop surface-level knowledge.

“To develop the application of knowledge and skills to new situations, students must possess a thorough knowledge base within and across academic domains,” (McDowell, 2017, p. 14).

Fortunately, some 21st century skill frameworks continue to amplify the importance of knowledge, such as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, which includes core subject area knowledge alongside 21st century themes. Knowledge begets knowledge. The more you know, the easier it is to learn new knowledge and the deeper that well of knowledge becomes if…if the learner has opportunities to analyze, apply, and synthesize that knowledge.

So yes, kids need to learn how to persevere, be flexible, communicate, solve problems, collaborate – these are essential skills in the 21st century, and I would argue they have been essential for many centuries prior. Yes, let’s keep working on how to get better at these critical skills, not just for purposes of continual advancement but perhaps, more importantly, for the sake of the planet and for humanity as a whole. And yes, let’s keep building knowledge about history, mathematics, art, music, language, science, technology, civics, and economics and applying, analyzing and synthesizing that knowledge for meaningful purposes.

Learning and the search for meaning is a lifelong endeavor. May the quest never end!

Math, Math Everywhere!

“You know, you can think of almost everything as a math problem.” ~ Mrs. Fibonacci, The Math Curse, by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

There is so much math happening every day at Summers-Knoll. As I was compiling the photos for this week’s SK newsletter, I was struck by the many ways students are engaging with math. With the Singapore Math program as the backbone of the mathematics instruction at SK, students learn math using concrete, pictorial, and abstract approaches to “actively think, understand and communicate to solve math problems.” Like all curricula, the Singapore Math program provides the “what,” but it doesn’t prescribe “how” teachers meet the needs of each individual student, hence, the art and craft of the instructional cycle: creating an environment conducive to learning, deliberate planning, responsive instructional practices, formative assessment (repeat).

Then there are the Common Core State Standards for math, which provide a recommended set of content- and concept-specific skills and sets of knowledge for each grade level, kindergarten through 12th. The Math CCSS are a combination of practices (inherent in the discipline of mathematics) and content (a balance of procedure and understanding). The practices are: 1) Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them, 2) Reason abstractly and quantitatively, 3) Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others, 4) Model with mathematics, 5) Use appropriate tools strategically, 6) Attend to precision, 7) Look for and make use of structure, and 8) Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning. The overarching K – 8 Math CCSS content categories are: counting and cardinality, operations and algebraic thinking, number and operations in base ten, fractions, measurement and data, geometry, expressions and equations, statistics and probability, ratios and proportional relationships, and functions.

At SK, teachers draw upon the Math CCSS and use the Singapore Math program to inform their instruction. In addition to the data provided on Singapore unit tests and the NWEA MAP Growth assessment in math, teachers check for students’ understanding of math concepts on a daily basis as an integral part of their teaching so they can meet each child where they are while supporting them in their growth toward meeting grade level (or above grade level) standards.

Students are encouraged to move at their own pace with no imposed limits to their progress. Although our highest grade level at SK is 8th, a number of Upper School students are already doing Algebra and Algebra 2, so we use high school-level curricula and standards in our advanced Upper School math class. Some 3rd and 4th graders go to the Upper School for their math instruction.

Summers-Knoll teachers also incorporate math into project-based learning and other content areas. For example, in the Young 5/Kindergarten and first/second grade classes, students are currently studying shapes in their projects through a lens of visual art and art history. In the 3rd/4th grade class’s current project, students are exploring “how they can transfer the energy around us to do things in a new way,” and in their construction of water wheels and wind turbines, they are using mathematical principles in conjunction with scientific reasoning to design and test ways to transfer energy. In the upper school, they are engaged in a collaboration with the University of Michigan, Place Out of Time (POOT), which provides students with opportunities to research historical and contemporary figures whose perspectives they adopt in a simulation trial. As part of their POOT project this year, they are constructing timelines of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and identifying which groups of people were affected by the various laws and how.

In Art class, students have begun constructing luminaries for Ann Arbor’s annual FestiFools and FoolMoon Parade. This requires applying mathematical computation, spatial reasoning, and problem solving to create three-dimensional, wire-structure shapes. In Music, the concepts are inherently mathematical: rhythm, musical notes and rests (whole, half, quarter), time signatures. You can’t escape math when learning how to read sheet music and play an instrument or sing a choral piece. In Languages with Madame Imogen, students learn how to count and do simple arithmetic in French and Latin. They learn Greek and Latin roots for geometric terminology (e.g., angles, sides) as well as Roman Numerals. Much of the Latin and French content is framed within historical time periods, so mathematical vocabulary (e.g., years, numeric designations) is woven throughout. Even the date on white board is written in both French and Latin with Roman Numerals.

Going well beyond rote memorization of math facts (although this is necessary), opportunities for applying mathematical reasoning and problem solving abound in our daily lives. And at SK, it’s everywhere!

Deep Learning: It’s Not Just an AI Phenomenon

Photo: Greek Temple of Segesta, Sicily (Oct 19, 2018)

At Summers-Knoll’s Friday morning meeting (aka Dragon Time) this week, the Preschool class shared what they’ve been working on in their classroom during their third quarter project: Traveling from Ancient to Modern Greece. The project revolves around three main pillars: Inventions and Inventors, The Olympics, and Gods, Goddesses & Myths. As with the preschoolers’ preceding study of Ancient Egypt, SK’s youngest explorers are introduced to the study of these ancient civilizations through stories, art, and games. This foundation is built upon throughout the grades at SK in a thoughtful and deliberate way.

In SK’s Latin program, Magistra Imogen teaches students about Latin and Greek cultures and languages in their historic context through the use of classical stories, fables, myths, and plays. In preschool, they are introduced to Aesop’s Fables and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Kindergarten, they continue with Ovid’s Metamorphoses and are introduced to the Greek Gods as well as ancient explanations for natural phenomena. In the 1st/2nd grade, students study the Twelve Labors of Hercules and what each Labor shows us about the character of the hero. In 3rd/4th grade, they focus on the seven kings of ancient Rome followed by the heroes of the early republic, which is partly mythological. In 5th/6th grade, they study one of the books of the Odyssey to appreciate the inherent messages in both Greek and Latin, and then in 7th/8th grade, they compare and contrast two ancient Greek sources, The Iliad and Odyssey, with one Roman source, The Aeneid, to analyze the characters and themes of the Trojan War.

The Latin curriculum across the grades illustrates how, as students progress during their time at SK, the content and curricula become increasingly more complex; at every stage of learning, teachers provide multiple entry points with which students can access the content and construct new knowledge as they progressively build upon their prior knowledge. Depth of understanding is cumulative; it grows over time as students make connections across contexts and as a result of having opportunities for application and transfer.

For example, in the 5th/6th grade, students study astronomy and mythology. In their Myths and Stars 2022-2023 project, the 5/6s learned about stars, the universe, scientific notation, origins of scientific reasoning, mythological vs. scientific explanations for phenomena, locating stars and navigating by them, and writing mythology as a genre. The project’s driving question was “How has looking at the sky and stars influenced culture?” Students created their own constellations and wrote their own etiological myths, two of which were entered into the Ann Arbor District Library young writer’s short story contest and one of which (a 5th grade student) won 3rd place. The 5th and 6th graders also taught interactive, small group lessons on the solar system to the 1st/2nd graders.

Students in the 5th/6th grade example above were able to apply and transfer knowledge through the process of writing of their myths and teaching science lessons to their younger peers, but they weren’t merely transferring knowledge that had been constructed during the 8-week project – they were drawing upon years of learning experiences at SK that involved Latin and Greek languages and cultures, myths, fables, cross-grade collaborations, the Singapore mathematics program, and scientific inquiry. The upper school (5th – 8th grade) is where the depth of learners’ syntheses becomes most apparent.

In rigorous project-based learning, rigor is conceptualized as an integration of learning at surface, deep, and transfer levels (McDowell, 2017). While this occurs within a single project, it is perhaps even more profound when viewed across the trajectory of students’ learning in a school where all the teachers work together to create curricula that coheres vertically.

School-Community Partnerships: The Secret Sauce in Educational Success

Summers-Knoll School has had a long-standing partnership with the Leslie Science and Nature Center and Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum (AAHOM). On Monday of this week, the whole school had the AAHOM to themselves, a signature SK field trip tradition that remains to due SK’s partnership with these local nonprofit organizations.

In a 2019 article, Schools Cannot Do it Alone: A Community-Based Approach to Refugee Youth’s Language Development, my co-author and I wrote about the importance of community organizations in the education of refugee-background youth. Schools are tasked with one of the most essential jobs in our society: educating children and youth. Yet somehow, there is a pervasive notion that schools – in addition to parents, of course – are supposed to singlehandedly provide everything a child needs in their education. There is ample evidence that schools cannot, and should not, do this work alone.

While the context of our article is specific to schools and community organizations who work with refugee-background youth, the importance of partnerships spans all environments, contexts and industries. Who or what can truly grow and expand without partnership? From mushrooms to human beings, we are not meant to do this thing called life alone.

A couple of weeks ago, the 1st and 2nd graders at SK presented on their Fungi and Rocks project, and many of the students spoke about the mutually beneficial relationship among fungi and trees. Trees provide a place for mushrooms to grow, and mushrooms’ mycelium help trees’ roots absorb moisture and nutrients from the soil – they feed off of and fuel one another; this symbiotic relationship is a key part in the survival of an entire ecosystem. If one part breaks down, the rest of it will do so eventually as well.

So what makes organizational partnerships thrive? Trust. Reciprocity. Open, honest, consistent communication. Accountability. Recognizing one another’s inherent dignity and worth. Valuing varied forms of knowledge and ways of being. Finding the places of overlap as well as the spaces between one boundary and another to create something truly new that wouldn’t exist without the partnership. In the natural world, at the threshold where one ecosystem meets another, a new and unique ecosystem emerges. I wrote a poem about this phenomenon once:

Sloughs

In the spaces between, possibilities are born. 

A slough – where one ecosystem meets another

fresh water meets 

saltwater   

saltwater meets 

fresh water

unique life forms–  

Salt Grass, Pickleweed, Leopard Sharks, Loons–

thrive on hybridity 

in this migratory destination

a third space. 

Between sleeping and waking,

we can play in a liminal space

safely explore new insights,

dream a new reality into being.

In gratitude to the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum and the Leslie Nature and Science Center, on behalf of the SK community, thank you for your partnership!

Hands-On Learning

As I scroll through this week’s Summers-Knoll (SK) newsletter, I am struck by a recurrent theme across the images of students learning in classrooms from PreK to 8th grade: learners working with their hands. In a past conversation with ArtMary (SK’s art teacher), they were sharing how they think about the importance of students recognizing how their hands can be used as tools to create. Lately, ArtMary has been thinking about how “hands are your primary way of interacting with reality. They are like antennas or feelers, a sensory organ. So they are not only for manipulating reality, they are also for gathering information and as a result, they give you a more robust experience of reality. Everything you make with your hands educates you further on reality.”

So I decided to step into the art room and ask some 5th and 6th graders for their thoughts on “hands as tools.” And here’s what they had to say:

“It helps you make the design you want to make, and maybe a tool can’t tickle your fancy. So your hands can do whatever you want because you are in command of your hands.” ~ L.L.

“You control your hands. Your hands are what you want to make, not what other people want to make.” ~ N.P.

“You have more control of your hands.You can bend down each individual finger and make them move in different ways, and they can get into places that tools can’t really reach.” ~ H.R.

“Also when you use your hands it looks more natural, more made by you.” ~ M.R.

“Working on other things and making it look like your own instead of something that a machine would make.” ~ N.C.

In contrast to images of classrooms where students are sitting in desks, arranged in rows, facing the “front” of the room where the teacher stands and delivers a lecture (a now outdated design of a learning environment), SK learners are engaged in learning through their bodies, minds, hearts, and hands. Across classrooms and grade levels, these images of engaged learners is so commonplace at SK that it’s easy to take it for granted (just like we may take our hands for granted.)

But this whole body engagement in learning through doing is not commonplace in schools, unfortunately. There are still many classrooms and entire schools where learning is conceptualized as something that happens solely in the mind, despite a robust body of research (including research specifically on project-based learning) that has illuminated how much more deeply we learn when we have meaningful opportunities to socialize, discuss, collaborate, enact, create, build, manipulate, navigate, and transfer ideas from thoughts to words to actions.

From the Singapore Math curriculum, with its emphasis on three modes of representation – concrete, pictorial, abstract – to Project-Based Learning with its emphasis on inquiry and problem-solving, SK students are actively learning through doing. You can see it in their hands.

Hey, Valentine – In case you forgot, let me remind you: I love you

“Had I been given a clear definition of love earlier in my life it would not have taken me so long to become a more loving person.” ~ bell hooks, All About Love, 2000, p. 11

Shoe boxes – decorated with pink and red, paint and tissue paper, and a rectangular hole cut in the top – receptacles for expressions of love from our classmates. Store-bought, classic notecards with the “To:” and “From:” or the homemade, construction paper versions. Heart-shaped lollipops, rock candy, chocolate.

Valentine’s Day at Summers-Knoll looks very much like Valentine’s Day from my childhood school experience in San Antonio, Texas. Some traditions hold strong. Perhaps the main difference for me now, as an adult, is the source of the sweetness. Where once it was candy, now it’s the excitement in children’s eyes as they exchange cards and candy with their peers and teachers.

Some critics of Valentine’s Day say it’s a “Hallmark Holiday,” institutionalized to generate consumerism (Bokat-Lindell, 2020, New York Times). Others point out how it reinforces limiting societal notions of romantic love. These critiques are valid and deserve sensitivity. But when viewed through the lens of a child’s day at school, Valentine’s Day engenders memories of reflecting on my classmates, how to spell their names, and picking out a type of candy I thought they’d like. While I (admittedly) couldn’t wait to receive valentines, there was equal emphasis on giving to other people.

Zooming out to consider the broader opportunity in a day like Valentine’s Day, we can think about the meaning of the word “love.” As Lin-Manuel Miranda said, “Love is love is love is love is love is love.” There are many different kinds of love.

One of the most admired authors, theorists, and educators of our time, bell hooks (1952-2021), also provides a useful contemplation on different kinds of love in her book All About Love (2020). On page 13, hooks writes:

“To begin by always thinking of love as an action rather than a feeling is one way in which anyone using the word in this manner automatically assumes accountability and responsibility. We are often taught we have no control over our ‘feelings.’ Yet most of us accept that we choose our actions, that intention and will inform what we do. We also accept that our actions have consequences. To think of actions as shaping feelings is one way we rid ourselves of conventionally accepted assumptions such as that parents love their children, or that one simply ‘falls’ in love without exercising will or choice, that there are such things as ‘crimes of passion,’ […]. If we were constantly remembering that love is as love does, we would not use the word in a manner that devalues and degrades its meaning. When we are loving we openly and honestly express care, affection, responsibility, respect, commitment, and trust.”

Teaching is one way love is expressed through action. Not just love of children, which is paramount, but love of the potential they hold and the future they will create for themselves as individuals and our society. Love for the planet, for humanity, and for possibilities we have yet to imagine. Love of learning and being a part of other people’s learning journeys. Love of the creative process and creating a learning community in collaboration with other teachers, parents, and children.

One holiday cannot possibly begin to capture all of this love – it’s expressed every day across the school year, in small and big everyday ways, through our words and actions. It’s not glamorous or effusive (except for on Valentine’s Day) – it’s just who we are at our core, our very essence, and that, my friends, is worthy of remembering every day.

Cross-Grade Collaborations Provide Opportunities for Peer-Mentorship

The work of educational psychologist, Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (1896 – 1934), has had a significant impact on the field of education and how, in particular, educators conceptualize teaching and learning. One of his central theories – the Zone of Proximal Development (aka ZPD) – helps us understand the importance of accessibility in the learning process.

The Zone of Proximal Development is “the range of abilities an individual can perform with the guidance of an expert, but cannot yet perform on their own” (Cherry, 2023, verywellmind.com). For a learner to develop their knowledge and/or ability in a particular area, they need (what Vygotsky referred to as) a “more knowledgeable other.” To be effective, this “more knowledgeable other” needs to meet the learner in their ZPD. If the “more knowledgeable other” does not meet the learner within their ZPD, the learner will have difficulty developing that knowledge and/or skill.

Educators assess each individual student’s abilities, across a vast array of domains, so that they can do just that: meet students where they are (within their ZPDs) and provide the necessary “scaffolding” for each learner to reach the next level. But sometimes peers are even better at approximating each other’s ZPDs – not because they have read Vygotsky’s work or had formal teacher training but because they are often within (or close to) each other’s ZPDs. When a peer serves as the slightly “more knowledgeable other,” they are more proximate to their peer’s developmental stages. Granted, this is a generalization; even among a group of children who are all the same age, great variability and diversity exists. But generally speaking, children are closer to one another’s ZPDs as compared to an adult’s proximity to a child’s ZPD.

Therefore, when peers have opportunities to work together on a task that requires some kind of learning (e.g., problem solving, physical activity, games, writing, reading), they learn from one another in ways that are different than how they learn from adults.

At SK, students have many opportunities to work with peers across grade levels. Each class is paired with another class for buddy time once a week: 7/8s are buddies with the 1/2s, 5/6s are buddies with the Young5/Ks, and 3/4s are buddies with the preschoolers. During buddy time, students engage in a range activities that require learning with, from, and alongside one another.

Teachers also create opportunities for peer mentorship in writing. The 3/4s, 5/6s, and 7/8s all wrote short stories in the month of January, which allowed for writing buddies to provide genre-specific feedback to one another. Although the older students might technically serve as the “more knowledgable other” in this context, it should not be assumed that they are merely “helping” the younger students.

When writers provide feedback to one another on their work, it’s a mutually beneficial experience. Reading someone else’s writing and giving feedback can often lead to a deeper understanding of what I know about writing, which then, in turn, has a positive impact on my own writing.

When structured with intent and opportunities for reflection, both the mentor and the mentee learn and grow from peer-mentorship in ways that are only possible due to being proximate to one another’s ZPDs.

Not Just Any Kind of Practice -Deliberate Practice Fosters Expertise

Teachers and parents at Summers-Knoll School are meeting for their 2nd quarter parent-teacher conferences this week. With quarterly assessments and conferences, teachers and parents regularly communicate about each child’s academic progress and social-emotional development. In my blog on October 12th (scroll down), I discussed the purposes of various types of assessments, and it’s worth revisiting and reminding ourselves: teachers are constantly assessing students, and they rely upon these assessments and conferences to inform their instruction.

An assessment is just a snapshot of what a learner can do at a particular point in time. Some skills are fixed constructs (e.g., learning the alphabet, memorizing multiplication facts); once you have learned it, you know it. Other skills are growth constructs (e.g., reading comprehension, learning a new language) – you can always get better at growth constructs over time because their difficulty varies depending on content and context. Overall growth and development are not a fixed constructs; they are dynamic.

Therefore, when parents, caregivers and teachers are in communication, they can all work on providing opportunities that are enriching and supportive of the child’s ongoing, holistic development. Identifying areas for growth enable targeted instruction, and targeted instruction inevitably involves regular practice – perhaps even regular deliberate practice.

What is deliberate practice?

Think of something you know how to do well (e.g., baking bread, performing a surgical procedure, playing a musical instrument, skateboarding). How did you learn how to do it?

I’ve asked many groups of learners this question and the answers are always similar:

I observed someone else who was really good at it. A teacher (or coach) walked me through it step by step and gave me feedback as I worked on it over time. I have had mastery experiences (e.g., “I won an award for the best sourdough loaf at the county fair.”) I practiced a lot…

…but people who develop expertise in something don’t just practice for the sake of mere repetition. They engage in deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is both improving the skills you already have and consciously choosing to work on skills that you have not mastered, working on things you are not yet good at, and doing so with focus over a sustained period of time. “Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become” (Ericsson, Prietula, & Cokely, 2007). Developing expertise takes years, 10 years (or 10,000 hours) of intense training (Ericsson et al., 2007).

So, join me in a thought experiment: Imagine a child begins playing piano at age 5, and they practice for 30 minutes a day every day. How long will it take them for them to become an expert piano player? In one year, they will practice piano for a total of about 182 hours. At that rate, it will take them about 55 years to become an expert piano player and that would depend upon the quality of their practice, on whether or not it was deliberate. Granted, if they decided to pursue music professionally, they would practice much more than 30 minutes a day, and as such, they would most likely develop expertise much sooner.

The purpose of this thought experiment is to highlight the time it takes to become an “expert.” But maybe becoming an expert in some area isn’t even a reasonable goal. Let’s say becoming an expert is not the goal, but instead, becoming good at something is the goal. Maybe we don’t need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, but it’s safe to say that we will need time.

Children need to time for their minds and bodies to develop, to build stamina, to go through the process of learning and continually expanding what they’re capable of along the way. They need meaningful, timely feedback as well as mastery experiences and opportunities to fail. They need adults to believe in them and encourage them to take risks. Assessments and parent-teacher conferences infuse specificity into the conversation about each child, and with this specificity, caregivers and teachers can keep nurturing each child’s growth.

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