This is something that has been at the forefront of my mind lately. As I program plan and think about addressing the needs of each individual child, I have reflected on the balance that is important in the relationship between teaching and learning.
Since Full Day Kindergarten has rolled out there has been a gradual shift for many educators towards less structured whole group learning and more learning integrated in the children's play. This has been a significant and important shift in our education system that is beginning to impact primary and junior rooms as well. Although many educators taught with an inquiry stance and through play prior to FDK, it has truly shone a spotlight on the potential of student led learning in Ontario.
Although I strongly feel and believe that most children will interact with the curriculum through play, projects, and inquiry I do believe that intervention is also important for some children. Children come to school with so many different backgrounds, experiences, and exposure. Further to that, the developmental needs of the children in the classroom vary significantly.
Cheryl and I plan short, small group instruction on a weekly basis in both literacy and numeracy. Our groups are intentional, purposeful, and planned to meet the needs of the children in them. Our small groups are short and we aim to make them as engaging as we can. When we do a math small group, our learning often takes the form of a game that will reinforce mathematical skills or problem solving. In our literacy groups, we are always interacting with books (sometimes levelled readers, sometimes a large shared text) with a focus on early literacy skills and vocabulary development.
Our small groups take up 20-40 minutes combined in the day which leaves a significant amount of time for both Cheryl and I to be in play with the children to support their development and learn alongside them.
Sometimes students will work with an educator on a skill such as fine motor development. In these small groups, I find that we sometimes offer activities that would be considered "prescribed" and are certainly not open ended tasks. Today, two children used a colouring book that one had brought from home and crayola triangular crayons. We would not provide our whole class with a colouring page, but for these particular students there was an interest and a goal. We worked on techniques for holding the crayons and worked to control our hands/wrists to stay within the lines. The children were interested and engaged, but a part of me wondered...is this ok?
Many of our students also receive Speech Language support and are left with activities that are somewhat prescribed to practice and reinforce the skills that they are working on (e.g., sorting pictures based on an attribute or sound). At first I hesitated and tried to find other ways to get at the skills, but then I realized that the activity had a purpose and intention based around their speech goals and wondered why I was making extra work for myself?
I have also been reading a lot about learning sight words or letters and sounds. Many of our students develop letters, sounds, and words from environmental print, shared experiences, and often in their writing. But...is it ok to play a game with sight words after reading with a small group? Why do I feel guilty sometimes including these types of activities?
At our Kindergarten book club last night we talked about iPad apps and games that reinforce mathematical concepts. For examples, a game that practices subitizing by flashing dot images and then inviting children to press how many they see. Do I think that this app can teach subitizing? Certainly not. I recognize that subitizing in a small group or working one on one with students would be more effective. But practicing skills independently can also be important. So I wonder...are those types of apps good for practice? Is it ok for students to use them to reinforce skills? I'm still not completely sure how I feel, I grew up playing games on my computer that supported me in developing math and literacy skills ... does it harm children? does it help?
The more I reflect on it the more I realize that it comes back to what it usually does for me...balance. I don't use a sight word game in isolation as my sole method of teaching, but rather as a way to practice...when appropriate and when connected!
All of this thinking brought me back to listening to Suzanne Axelsson (http://interactionimagination.blogspot.ca/) speak last year at Acorn School. I remember she talked about "crafts" being a challenge. She wanted us to think about how a "craft" could be intentional and have a purpose (listening, fine motor, following instructions). Perhaps crafts could be a challenge for children if thought through and intentional. She said "if we only look at the product versus the process it is challenging to understand what the intentions were". I think this is really critical to think about as well!
Ultimately, I think when we rely too heavily on only one way of teaching and learning we will run into roadblocks. I think we always have to be reflective about each child, their needs, and what they need the most from us.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself and others on this journey. Sometimes there are intentions behind activities, provocations, or learning that may not be obvious to an outsider. Ask questions, support your colleagues, and move forward as learners together.