Monday, April 7, 2008

An Inspiring Home for Learning, #1

1. One of the most powerful and natural ways a child learns is through the ordinary daily conversations that occur in the home.

That sounds painfully obvious and mundane, doesn't it? I'm not insinuating that I'm the only one who knows this, and therefore I needed to make a list to inform the rest of the world about this secret. All I'm trying to do is underscore what is obvious on the surface. Maybe conversing with our children is such an ordinary, everyday thing that we fail to see its power. If we could only fully realize (or remember) how influential ordinary, daily conversation is in the intellectual growth and development of the child, we might rest easier about not only language development, but also about education in general. The happy chatter of children and our engagement with them in it is exactly what they need.

Lessons have their place, to be sure, but there's a lovely, free life a child should lead, and if simply engaging fully with him in conversation is one of the most powerful ways to learn, why do we want to short circuit this by too many lessons, or lessons that start too soon? As with younger children, it is also true with older children, and even teenagers, (and even for us, as adults) that relaxed and natural conversation-- the very ordinary, daily kind that occurs on its own in a good relationship-- has incredible shaping power intellectually, spiritually, morally, emotionally, and socially. We shouldn't overlook its importance!

As I read through the following this morning, I sort of groaned and realized that it's quite obvious it was written quickly. Why did I choose these particular quotes? I don't know. I can think of passages in books that seem as good or better, but I'm not going to rewrite this (or the other nine points), so I hope this will make some kind of sense to you, and I hope, too, that in spite of the roughness of it, that you will be encouraged. What could be easier than to engage lovingly with our children in daily conversation?!

And the nice thing about recognizing the power of conversation in intellectual growth is that it is equally effective for all children, whether they are prodigiously intellectual and read at barely age two or whether they're those happy, playful "slow" starters that are so busy moving and learning in other ways that they aren't ready to read until they're nine or ten. And it's wonderful way for a child with learning challenges to develop, too! Our part is not to sweat and worry, but to press forward as gently as we can with our children and to continually converse in ways that are appropriate for a given child. Read on, and I hope I can explain what I'm getting at:

"While everyday conversation is essential for normal learning in the early years, it is what happens when conversational leaning is deliberately extended that strikingly demonstrates its pedagogical potential... Conversational learning also seems to play a major role in the early origins of giftedness. Howe (1990) demolishes the popular belief that gifted children are born that way. Following a review of a large body of research into the origins of giftedness, he asserts that '...the majority of people are born capable of acquiring impressive levels of expertise in most spheres of competence.' With regard to learning: 'One especially important finding is that the appropriateness of the speech that is directed to the child is more crucial than the sheer amount of it. The most effective kinds of language teaching occur when an adult and a child are together in a one-to-one situation, and the adult knows what is momentarily engaging the child's attention.'

"It should come as no surprise to learn that the parents of most child prodigies devoted themselves to their children's education from the earliest years (Bloom, 1984; Feldman with Goldsmith, 1986). As these children grew older they continued to enjoy personal contact with mentors or models (usually relatives or teachers) 'who directly guided, discussed furnished resources or otherwise interacted with them in intellectually stimulating ways.' (Fowler, 1990, p.199). Similarly, Sosniak (1990), in a retrospective study of twenty outstanding young people, found that as young children 'they learned a good deal in informal ways about knowledge and skills associated with the activities in which they would eventually excel.'" (Taken from Educating Children at Home by Alan Thomas)

The authors of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards (Hirsch-Pasek and Golinkoff) also stress the vital importance and the powerful learning benefits of "common, ordinary, mundane daily interactions" with our children. They state: "research shows that a child's intellectual awakening takes place during the normal adult-child interactions that occur in everyday, purposeful activities." I believe that not only is a child's intellect awakened through our daily routine conversations, but that the intellect continues to grow as we continue to converse (and extend conversations) with our growing children.

Notice above (in the first quote), that it states "the adult knows what is momentarily engaging the child's attention"? This is the key to the kind of conversation that is intellectually (and morally, spiritually, etc.) beneficial-- a conversation that is about what is engaging to the child right now. It's not about trying to fill their heads with information; it's not about what we want them to know today; it's not about lecturing. It's about what is currently engaging to the child. Pay attention. Listen. And take advantage of this! There's certainly nothing wrong with sharing what is engaging to us with our children, and then if it also seems to engage them, we have the start of a good conversation. Conversation is two-way, but we don't force others to listen to our long ramblings about what is not interesting to them. Better to let conversations happen naturally.

Scholar, professor, and author, Jacques Barzun, and Harvard classicist, Mortimer Adler, have both stated that the best kind of education comes from reading and discussion of good books. This refers to the education of older children and young adults, but I'm persuaded that the ability to have this sort of sophisticated discussion begins in the common, extended conversations that we carry on daily with our children as they are growing.

Children wouldn't see these conversations as anything more than conversations, but there is much more to them than that. And we shouldn't become anxious about making sure our conversations are of the right kind. Anything at all that is on a child's mind is the most important thing to talk about right then, no matter how mundane.