‘If they’re not being assessed and tested, how will you know if they’re learning?’
‘What do they do all day?’
Today I’m not meaning to go into why ‘testing’ can be counter-productive to learning (but if that catches your eye, please do read Jolisa Gracewood’s bleak report of US testing terror and read or listen to this interview with researcher Yong Zhao on whether we are testing the right things).
Today I just want to share what I’ve noticed my kids are learning, right now, outside of any formal schooling or assessment, just by living their normal lives.
Each month this year I have collated photos of what we get up to in daily life (thank you, smartphone in my pocket) into a sort of photographic learning diary. I want to document what my two kids (4.5 and 1.5 years) are interested in and spending their time on. I don’t annotate it or keep any other records at the moment. I just upload the photos into a post on a private blog to jog my memory.
I don’t take many photos of SBJ watching hours of The Wild Kratts and Dinosaur Train, or of the books they read, and I’m not recording our conversations throughout the day, but in terms of activities, I think it gives a pretty even and representative picture of what they get up to.
If I look at the monthly visual learning diary from a few months ago, and put it next to the most recent one, that’s a pretty good way of telling how they are growing and developing. Four great things about this process of documenting their learning stand out:
- It’s not at all time-consuming;
- It helps me, as one of their key adult guides in the world, reflect on them and their learning and interaction with the world;
- It’s not intrusive (since they are used to being photographed through the day);
- Unlike much formal assessment, especially of the problematic GERM variety, this method of recording progress doesn’t dictate the material being studied. There’s no ‘teaching to the test’ in our house (although the day my kids decide they don’t want their photo taken will be a tricky one for me!)
When they’re older, and more literate, there will be other ways of collecting this documentation, but for now, action shots of them imitating kangaroos on the trampoline (complete with joey) will do the trick.
I tend not to put up photos of my kids very often here, so I won’t show you the full month’s spread in this post, but here are a few things I noticed when compiling the June 2016 learning diary, and some thoughts about what it shows about what we are ‘covering’ in their education.
I started writing this in early July, when the month of June was done, so I’ll talk about ‘this month’ meaning June. But of course it’s taken ages to draft the post, so I’ll also add a few three-months-of-hindsight-and-progress notes as I go.
A note on the pseudonyms
I’m trying to stick to using only initials for all the kids featured here, so here’s a quick cast summary if you get lost at any point!
SBJ = my 4.5 year old. Curly hair in the pics.
H or Little H = my 1.5 year old. Loud (it even shows in the pics).
NR = our wonderful friend and helper who is with us five days a week, helping with the kids, the housework, and our language. She’s multilingual, of Karen ethnicity, and speaks to us exclusively in Thai.
PG = her three-year-old daughter (who goes to school full-time, as is normal here)
Ms I = SBJ’s friend who comes to play at our place at least a day a week
Ms N = her sister, three years old, who comes to play, too
The photos of chalk art remind me of my role and its limits
The delicate dance of ‘strewing‘ the kids’ paths with things I think might stimulate or interest them, but still letting them choose their own things to be stimulated or interested by, is often on my mind.
Our unschooling approach doesn’t mean we absent ourselves and let our kids educate themselves without adults. My role is to expose the kids to things they might not discover themselves, and let them decide how to engage with them, and for how long.
The idea is that one of the roles of the adult in a kid’s life is to strew their path with things they can encounter and decide how to engage. Deep learning is most likely to happen, so the argument goes, when people make their own choices about what to explore. The more someone else is directing or dictating what a child (or adult) does, and how they do it, the less likely they are to be deeply engaged, and deeply learning.
The photos of our chalk art on the tiles in front of the house remind me both a) of some of the art exploration the kids got into in June and b) how unrelated that exploration was with my starter ideas.
I count it a success that I showed them the chalk and spent time using it myself (to encourage them to use it, because they often like being where I am) and that I then didn’t mind too much when they wanted to do all sorts of things that were nothing to do with my smart ideas.
What else do these pictures show (or remind me of, since I was there)?
SBJ is still in love with symmetry and plays with spatial ideas in his art, whatever the medium. H will draw on anything she finds (including the wallpaper of our rented house, sigh), in a way I don’t remember SBJ ever doing.
H enjoyed picking up the chalk, replacing it in its box and tipping it out again, as much as she did drawing with it, which reminded me to provide those kinds of opportunities in other play areas later on, giving her assorted boxes and little objects to put in and take out. (If this rings a bell, you might like to check out this wonderful chart on play schemas.)
SBJ was happy to join me in my very educational tile pattern drawing every so often, and did a few experimental tiles, but he was really just humouring me, and preferred to opt out and do something else nearby, sometimes with chalk, sometimes entirely different.
He did want to be where I was, but he didn’t feel compelled to do what I was doing. Which is as it should be.
Themes and repeated interests show up over the month of photos
Animals are a central interest for my little guy, SBJ, who is now four-and-a-half.
His favourite television shows are all animal science ones (though they’re also just ripping good yarns; we are in a golden age of educational adventure cartoons, it seems): Dinosaur Train teaches palaeontology, zoology and the scientific method; Wild Kratts explores animal features, behaviour and habitat; and Octonauts does the same for marine life, at a slightly younger level.
When I’m having a wobbly, is-he-watching-too-much-TV? moment, it’s good to see the spread of play that is connected to this interest in animals and zoology.
SBJ and his buddy Ms I have turned the Sleeping Bunnies song into Sleeping Dolphins when they’re in the pool. This month that developed further, and SBJ showed us his ‘dorsal fin’ (hand on the back) for the game, and then they imitated other marine animals.
When they moved to the trampoline, it continued, and they pretended to be kangaroos, and we chatted briefly about marsupials. I think they were snakes at one point, too.
Earlier in the day, when I left for my Thai class, they discovered a snail by the gate, which helped the transition of me leaving. When I got home four hours later, they were still going on snails, and had created little snail habitats in boxes to collect ‘pet’ snails.
There were all sorts of different plants in their boxes and they had hunted around the garden for snails to put in them. We had a good conversation about where snails would be happiest (not in boxes, sorry) and they put them back out in the garden. Except for the one that had got loose in the house in the meantime and was later found squished on the floor. Through some effort of will, I refrained from saying ‘I told you so’ to the well-meaning, worried entomologists.
Another day, with other friends (more on this below), we visited the Night Safari park, and had hours of fun and casual conversation about animal features, habitat and behaviour, building on what SBJ has learned from the TV shows and our other explorations.
All the kids practised being flamingoes standing on one leg.
Two popular games in our house, usually initiated by SBJ, are ‘guess what animal I am’, where he imitates an animal, using what he knows about their distinctive features, and animal Twenty Questions, where we guess what animal someone is thinking of, by asking yes/no questions. The latter has been brilliant for learning and using zoological classification and thinking. Is the animal warm-blooded? Is it a reptile? Is it a quadruped? Is it feline? Does it live in water? Is it only found in New Zealand? Is it a marsupial?
Much of SBJ’s independent play continues to be making or gathering toy animals and going on imaginative adventures with them. He can go for aaages playing all the parts of a melodrama, with predator and prey, as well as more anthropomorphised storylines.
Most of his Duplo play is also animal-based. He’s been making specific animals out of Duplo for a few months now, experimenting with how to give them the right features in a way that will also successfully stick together. Often when he asks us to guess what animal it is, we get it right, because he’s latched on to something distinctive about it and portrayed it.
Here’s a triceratops from May, with featured frill:
SBJ and his Dad have developed a bedtime routine that includes looking up a homeotherm and a poikilotherm on Dad’s phone. Yeah, I had to ask what those words meant, too. It’s the technical language for warm-blooded and cold-blooded, as it turns out.
And we continue to have lizard adventures at home. H is delighted whenever she hears the clicking of a jinjok (common house gecko) and runs to wherever the noise comes from. At dusk the nocturnal tokay geckos come out. The male makes a loud, distinctive call, about every half hour, so we quite often go out just before bed to find where on the house it is hanging out, hunting insects.
Last month we also discovered a baby jinjok in some discarded rice (where my phone had been drying out). Both kids (and both adults) were entranced.
This month we found an injured tokay during the day, by the washing machine outside. It was hardly moving, and had an injured leg, but we couldn’t tell if it had fallen because it was sick, or was badly injured for some other reason. It seemed to be near dead. We relocated it to a shady final resting place.
SBJ gave a lot of thought to why it was out in the daytime, why it wasn’t moving much, whether it was sick or injured or both, where it would like to go, and so on. He wanted to take it to a vet, but we agreed in the end that animals living and dying was just part of what happened in the world.
H was also fascinated, of course. Her main lesson of the day was not to touch tokays (they have a strong bite – don’t worry, she didn’t find out from experience), and she did very well at getting close but not too close.
We found another unknown lizard by the side of the road near Night Safari. We took a picture so we could try and identify it later, but we forgot. Ah, well.
These photos remind me of cross-cultural experiences and learning
We are a British-Kiwi family, living in Thailand, so every day is a cross-cultural learning opportunity.
A word about languages, first, since they’re not recorded in the photographs.
H, at 18 months, has become bilingual by magic. Our friend and helper, NR, is with us, speaking exclusively in Thai, five days a week, so that just happened. Every so often I start to translate Thai to English for her and find that she’s already understood and is heading off to do whatever has been spoken about. She can do ‘where is your nose?’ and so on, in both languages. Her few spoken words are spread across both languages (plus a few signs that she’s just started using).
SBJ speaks stilted Thai with NR each day, and when he’s in the mood, enjoys putting the building blocks of vocabulary into sentences, and learning in what ways word order is the same and different in Thai and English. He is happy to order all our food in a restaurant in Thai, and is confident with colours, food, animals and everyday objects, as well as greetings and polite small-talk. He’s not in the window of magical language acquisition that H is in, so he is consciously learning, rather than just absorbing, but he’s still young enough that it’s a pretty easy task, especially when it comes to pronunciation and tones.
He’s quite interested in the Thai alphabet, and can identify about half the consonants (there are 44! And that’s not even including the vowels and tone markers!). The other day I was practising with our flatmate and he decided to help. So he went through the alphabet flashcards and read out to us the ones he knew and got us to write them down.
We also use a bit of te reo Māori (the native language of Aotearoa New Zealand, and one of three official languages there) at home, which was also used in SBJ’s pre-school settings when we lived in NZ. Little H has had much less exposure to that, so we will need to be conscious of incorporating Te Reo as she grows up away from home.
My husband’s family and mine all speak French, too, to varying degrees, so we use a bit of French at home, particularly in songs, and the odd phrase of other languages we (used to) know. SBJ is very aware of the differences between languages, and often makes a guess when he hears something he doesn’t understand, about what language it is (‘Mum! I think this Octonauts is in Russian!’). He has two good friends who are American, and so is our flatmate and a few of our colleagues, so he also talks confidently about the differences between American English and English English, though he is adamant these are in fact different languages.
Three special outings
As well as everyday opportunities to speak other languages and interact with people from other places, we had three adventures (as we call outings in our family) in June that were particularly rich cross-cultural experiences.
Chiang Mai Night Safari with NR and PG
We had a great trip to Chiang Mai Night Safari with NR and her three-year-old daughter PG. They normally speak Paganyaw, a Karen ethnic minority language, together, so we had three languages going on, and it was fun for me to hear NR correct or extend PG’s Thai (which she speaks at school) at a level more advanced than mine.
Little PG is fluently trilingual in daily life, speaking Paganyaw with her mother, Akha with her father, and Central Thai at school, as well as beginning to learn English. She probably also speaks or hears Northern Thai, a distinct language, in the community, so PG’s brain is working very hard at learning several languages. Astonishing, really.
SBJ and PG did really well playing for four hours through Night Safari, interacting with the animals and then playing in a playground. SBJ used all the Thai he could, and it was pretty sufficient for the context-rich circumstances. I don’t remember NR or I doing much translating for them.
Visiting NR’s sister’s rice farm
One afternoon, on a whim after an errand, NR and I took the kids to visit NR’s sister who is a rice farmer not too far from us.
She wasn’t home in the end, but we met her husband and spent an hour or so at their farm, looking at the paddies, picking fruit (including a bumpy citrus good for hair-washing) and meeting the neighbours, who were fascinated to see farangs (Westerners) in their very Thai neighbourhood.
H adores dogs, and followed the farm dogs all over the place. We also saw some unusual butterflies and other insects, and experienced hospitality at a Thai farmhouse.
Huay Tung Tao Lake with my Thai class
The third trip was organised by my kind classmates from Payap University’s Thai Intensive programme, to Huay Tung Tao lake.
We ate Thai food in little huts on the lake, and SBJ learned to say hello in Mandarin and Japanese (we didn’t quite get to the Korean and Spanish that were also on offer).
A highlight for both kids was the repeated journey from land to hut (our class was spread over three huts) along a little beam. I guess we could call that PE, right?
The photos show the power of learning with friends
Tuesdays are Ms I days, when she comes over for a whole day of tearing around with J. We love having her!
She usually brings a bag of books, which is good for variety, and a few costume changes. As with most of SBJ’s little friends, you might think they don’t have a great deal ‘in common’ but that doesn’t bother them, and it means they stretch each other in all sorts of unexpected ways.
Ms I is right into writing and drawing, and that has spurred SBJ’s interest. He’s long been into spelling and (early) reading but not remotely interested in writing until Ms I came along. This was so noticeable that I started supplying sticker activity books to give him something fun to do that required fine motor control, to help when he eventually did want to write.
One day Ms I wrote her name on a drawing they were doing, and that was that. He wrote his, and he’s kept going since then.
Last month, on a whim of her own, she started practising Thai writing in a kid’s printing practice book I have (for my own learning, originally), sitting at the dining table, tracing the letters with close attention. Again, that got J interested, and the next morning he was sitting at the dining table, tracing Thai letters through breakfast.
It’s been reassuring to note how fast J has ‘caught up’ from doing absolutely no drawing or writing. It looks to me like he writes and draws pretty much like most four-year-olds who are writing and drawing, and the fact that he didn’t start at one or two or three, like some other kids choose to, doesn’t seem to have made much difference.
I’m remembering that quite often now, whenever I worry that he’s not spending any time on something. He will actually have plenty of time to ‘catch up on’ most things in the future if he wants to.
Say it with me, folks, ‘there’s plenty of time!’
The photos show I have two climbers on my hands
SBJ is famous in our circle for his love of climbing and clambering, and it’s now clear his sister is cut from the same cloth.
The photos show how great it is to have kids of different ages and stages learning together
We like having other little people come to our place as often as they are available. Both of our kids are very extraverted and sociable and it’s good to have company.
Three-year-old Ms N comes regularly to play with H, and while SBJ sometimes struggles with that – because then he feels like neither of the little girls are really his playmates that day – sometimes it brings out the best in everyone, like this drumming party we had in the kitchen one afternoon.
Ms N also uses quite a bit of sign language, which has helped us learn a few signs that H now uses.
We also have a few new babies in our circle now, so H is learning how to be gentle with newborns, and how adorably magnetic they are.
The photos show the possibilities of outdoor free play
We are lucky both with the weather here – usually fine and warm – and the layout of our outdoor space, which includes lots of covered areas, so it is almost always a good option to be outside.
I find that everyone is more relaxed when there are no walls to worry about being drawn on (chalk all over the outside of the house is okay, we decided), and the noise level can get high without hurting poor Mama’s ears.
And if you just stay outside long enough, and if the adults keep out of the way, you never know what the kids will get up to.
Here are two of SBJ’s plant art projects, entirely invented by him as part of free outdoor play by himself: sticking three ‘horns’ to his head to be a triceratops, and making shoes for himself by cutting pieces of leaves to make a foot shape. Not things I would have thought to initiate – and it turns out, I didn’t need to.
The photos show that play and work are the same thing
I am hopeful that we’ll be able to preserve this convergence.
SBJ and Ms I had fun learning how to handwash and wring out cloths with NR, and H never passes up an opportunity to sweep. And of course watering the garden is always a winner.
A few things the photos don’t show
For a more complete overview of the month’s learning, we’d need to list the books they are interacting with, and recount some of the more significant conversations we’ve had in the car, walking to the shops, sitting on the sofa, and so on.
So a few quick notes to fill in gaps:
- SBJ’s bedtime chapter books were Snake and Lizard and Charlotte’s Web
- Little H is getting more articulate, with lots of imperious pointing and yelling in between her few clear words. She beckons in the Thai way, palm-down.
- Both kids loved having a world map go up on the living room wall. It kept falling down, so we need to try again.
- Little H spent a lot of time with simple jigsaw puzzles (the ones where you put a piece in a hole, rather than putting pieces together). We had several borrowed ones we are giving back, so need to get some more for her.
So, what are they learning?
Dozens of things! There are so many ways to approach an answer.
Our kids are learning to choose good character and values
The Words of our House, as Game of Thrones would put it, are ‘wise, kind and brave’. They’re the touchstones that we speak about daily when we’re helping our kids (and ourselves!) reach for desirable choices and attitudes. Unpacking them is a whole nother post, of course (half-drafted – feel free to lobby me to complete it if you’re interested!), but they’re words that sum up all sorts of other important things like generosity, self-control, empathy, and so on.
Character comes first, I reckon. Children need to develop these kinds of qualities to have any hope of a satisfying adult life, and society needs to be filled with such people to have any hope of surviving the coming century. Any ‘education’ – at home or at school – that doesn’t support our children to grow in these areas is manifestly failing.
This month, as usual, there were lots of opportunities to grow, learn, and to practise being wise, kind and brave.
SBJ practised being kind to a visitor he didn’t initially want to come to our house. He chose kind words and actions dozens of times when dealing with small frictions with his friends and family members.
Little H practised being wise in choosing to take her beloved shoes off at the door (an important cultural practice in Thailand) even when she didn’t really want to. I didn’t take photos of this, but it was a big thing we were focusing on. She adores shoes.
H is gaining wisdom in how to approach or stay a sensible distance from animals and insects. She’s practising being wise about not eating hot food straight away – she blows on it, though more in mime than effectiveness – and not walking on hot concrete with bare feet.
SBJ had a lot of chances to practise being brave (which for us means realising when something is scary or difficult or daunting, and responding in a healthy way, including getting help or company to tackle something where appropriate) this month.
He practised being brave about meeting new people, which is a biggie in our situation. He’s building up a stock of experiences of when bravery has worked out well, and remembering to remember them, and be reassured. This is big stuff!
There are loads of other examples from the last month. It’s stuff that happens a few times every hour, right? Interwoven with every other part of life are opportunities to help kids grow in character.
What knowledge and skills are they amassing?
This is the question that comes to mind first for most of us when we consider educational goals. What are they learning? Like, what stuff are they learning?
In modern educational thought, it’s the transferable learning skills that are more important than the content knowledge. Here’s how, just for an example, the New Zealand education system describes the curriculum goals for little kids, and where the photos from June show evidence of matching up.
How does this month’s learning compare to formal curriculum goals?
In New Zealand, the learning of children from 0-6 years old is addressed by Te Whāriki, the Early Childhood Curriculum.
It has four principles and five strands:
The early childhood curriculum empowers the child to learn and grow.
The early childhood curriculum reflects the holistic way children learn and grow.
Family and Community
The wider world of family and community is an integral part of the early childhood curriculum.
Children learn through responsive and reciprocal relationships with people, places, and things.
How affirming this is! The environment my kids are growing and learning within gets four ticks against this list.
Strands and Goals
The strands and goals arise from the four principles. The whāriki is woven from these four principles and from the following five strands, or essential areas of learning and development. The principles and strands together form the framework for the curriculum. Each strand has several goals. Learning outcomes have been developed for each goal in each of the strands, so that the whāriki becomes an integrated foundation for every child’s development.
Strand 1: Well-being – Mana Atua
The health and well-being of the child are protected and nurtured.
Children experience an environment where:
- their health is promoted;
- their emotional well-being is nurtured;
- they are kept safe from harm.
Strand 2: Belonging – Mana Whenua
Children and their families feel a sense of belonging.
Children and their families experience an environment where:
- connecting links with the family and the wider world are affirmed and extended;
- they know that they have a place;
- they feel comfortable with the routines, customs, and regular events;
- they know the limits and boundaries of acceptable behaviour.
Strand 3: Contribution – Mana Tangata
Opportunities for learning are equitable, and each child’s contribution is valued.
Children experience an environment where:
- there are equitable opportunities for learning, irrespective of gender, ability, age, ethnicity, or background;
- they are affirmed as individuals;
- they are encouraged to learn with and alongside others.
Strand 4: Communication – Mana Reo
The languages and symbols of their own and other cultures are promoted and protected.
Children experience an environment where:
- they develop non-verbal communication skills for a range of purposes;
- they develop verbal communication skills for a range of purposes;
- they experience the stories and symbols of their own and other cultures;
- they discover and develop different ways to be creative and expressive.
Strand 5: Exploration – Mana Aotūroa
The child learns through active exploration of the environment.
Children experience an environment where:
- their play is valued as meaningful learning and the importance of spontaneous play is recognised;
- they gain confidence in and control of their bodies;
- they learn strategies for active exploration, thinking, and reasoning;
- they develop working theories for making sense of the natural, social, physical, and material worlds.
Tick, tick, tick.
The New Zealand Curriculum for primary school and up has a similar list:
The New Zealand Curriculum identifies five key competencies:
- using language, symbols, and texts
- managing self
- relating to others
- participating and contributing
People use these competencies to live, learn, work, and contribute as active members of their communities. More complex than skills, the competencies draw also on knowledge, attitudes, and values in ways that lead to action. They are not separate or stand-alone. They are the key to learning in every learning area.
At this macro level, I don’t have any big problems with the curriculum goals. My key reasons for not being super keen on engaging with formal schooling aren’t about curriculum, but about the social school environment (a bunch of kids the same age, put into one room together for a year) and the limited ability to tailor teaching to the individual. I find these curriculum documents helpful as another lens through which to look at our kids’ learning.
So what are they learning?
Any way you look at it, lots.
All right, folks. This is a post that has got slightly out of hand, so I’m stopping here! Please add your comments, questions and learning stories below in the comments.
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