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A kindergarten project at the Institute of Child Study offers a
glimpse into neuroeducation, where kids learn by discovering
rather than memorizing
Alanna Mitchell Special to the Star
Published On Sun Nov 1 2009
AVOIDING ‘DRILL AND KILL’ AT THE INSTITUTE OF CHILD STUDY
The Institute of Child Study (ICS) laboratory school has had a string of
policy home runs from its research since it started in 1926.
Among them: Helping establish war nurseries during World War II in
England and establishing research that led to Ontario’s first nursery school
legislation in 1944, then a radical proposition.

It has also been crucial in teaching teachers and school psychologists in
Canada. For several years during the 1970s, ICS had Canada’s only twoyear
advanced elementary teacher program.

The school, part of the University of Toronto and the Ontario Institute for
Studies in Education, is one of a North American network of laboratory
schools created on the model of John Dewey’s school founded at the
University of Chicago in 1896. A laboratory school is the applied education
arm of a university and is where teaching practices are evaluated.
Dewey was a fabled psychologist and education reformer who stoutly
disagreed with the idea that schooling ought to be delivered in an
authoritarian manner as if it were a fixed body of indisputable facts. It’s also
known as the “drill and kill” method of teaching.

Instead, he believed teaching ought to be based on scientific principles of
how children experience learning. Dewey was, in essence, the prime
neuroeducator of his day.

Many of Dewey’s ideas about education were later put aside by those of
the American psychologist Arthur Jensen, who argued that intelligence is
mainly hereditary.

Over the decades, like many other universities with lab schools, U of T has
cut part of its funding for the institute.

Today, pupils pay tuition of more than $11,000 (parents say that’s a figure
rising by 12 per cent a year). That makes ICS a rare public-private hybrid.
But the fact that it gets funding from both domains is a sticking point that
has led some policymakers to ignore its research findings.

It is sometimes mistaken for a school that only accepts the wealthy or the
highly talented when, in fact, admittance is mainly by lottery plus a policy of
having students represent Toronto’s cultural and economic mix.
Ontario Education Minister Kathleen Wynne says the province remains
keen to plug into the school’s riches.

“The tradition of public education in Ontario is excellent and ICS grew out
of that in order to better education,” she said at a meeting with officials at
the school. “It’s a shame if we can’t cross-germinate.”
- Alanna Mitchell

Video: Letting the imagination soar
The senior kindergarten kite-making project at Toronto’s Institute of Child
Study started by accident.

Teacher Carol Stephenson says it evolved out of a months-long chat about
China, which took a side trip into papermaking and finally meandered into a
class-wide fascination with kites.

That led to a four-month extravaganza of 5-year-olds designing,
constructing, testing, researching, seeking expert advice, redesigning,
reconstructing and retesting kites.

“I never quite know which direction it will go,” says Stephenson, sitting at a
child-height table with three of her pupils, lending a hand with the first
incarnation of the kites. “It could have gone anywhere: teapots, claymaking,
anywhere.”

The year before, her senior kindergartners had become so immersed in the
life of bees that, when tested, they had high-school-level knowledge of
apiaries.

Last school year’s kindergarten project, which onlookers began calling a
PhD in kites, provides a rare glimpse into what the growing international
neuroeducation movement might look like in the classroom.

At essence, neuroeducation is about reinforcing connections among the
brain’s nerve cells (neurons) so that they form a well-worn pathway. The
more often that pathway is used, the easier it is for the brain to pull up the
information laid down in the nerve cell connections. That’s the definition of
learning: being able to pull up and use the information later.

These sturdy pathways can be formed, for instance, by making sure the
child uses more than one sense (hearing, seeing, moving) to learn. Or by
finding out information rather than memorizing it.

The Institute of Child Study, a nursery-to-Grade-6 school on Walmer Road
in downtown Toronto, is Canada’s very own neuroeducation Petri dish. It
didn’t set out to be that and its leaders wouldn’t call it that. But because of
its unusual, historic role in public education research in Canada and
because it is the only full laboratory school left in this country – lab schools
evaluate teaching practices – it has the potential to change policy across
the country.

“Our mandate is to explore exemplary education so we get better education
for all,” says Elizabeth Morley, the school’s principal. (See story for more on
ICS.)

In the senior kindergarten class, the children don’t care about the school’s
history: They are kite-obsessed. It’s just after spring break and some of the
5-year-olds spent part of the holiday thinking about how to change their
intricate blueprints – complete with written details about paper weight,
shape and length of tail – to make the kites fly better. (This is not all they’re
doing. They also have regular classes in math, reading and writing. Kitemaking
will take up an hour or so a few days a week but will form a theme
for months.)

The design modifications are part of exposing the children to what Morley
calls “improvable ideas.” That means the teacher picks up on a concept
from a pupil, or introduces a concept, and the whole class, teacher
included, embarks on a quest to find out even more. Getting the child so
involved in what’s learned makes those neural connections resilient and
powerful.

When the children start building their kitesat the table with Stephenson,
(while the others are amusing themselves with blocks and other building
materials), they are reading their own instructions, measuring, cutting out
and constructing. They are imagining the aerodynamics of their creations.
There’s a dolphin, a butterfly, a heart, a shimmering five-part dragon and a
quizzical creature the kids have dubbed “Mr. Eggy” because it looks like a
mobile of egg-shaped formations.

In most classrooms of 5-year-olds, a kite project would be the teacher’s
idea. The teacher would be the expert and tell them what to do and how to
do it. And the kites would be made in the whoosh of a day or two, not over
the exploratory span of four months.

At the lab school, the kites are even made of different papers: one of
wrapping paper, many of construction card, one a heavy clear plastic.
Frames are twig, straws, even metal.

It’s Nathan’s turn. His blueprints call for heavy construction paper and he’s
debating colours. Blue is his final choice and Stephenson gives him a large
sheet so he can transfer his small diamond-shaped design onto the big
page, a huge conceptual leap for a child of his age.

He starts cutting, another challenging skill for this age group. The first long
line is okay. But when he cuts the second, he veers from what he’s drawn
and calls Stephenson. Some kids might expect a rebuke, a response that
would halt the neural connections. Stephenson is unconcerned.
“If that really worries you, you can ask me to help. Meantime, I’ll hold the
paper,” she says, reaching out with one hand as she juggles another child’s
project with the other.

Nathan keeps cutting, finally producing his huge blue paper diamond, plus
the four corners he’s cut off the big page. He looks at them for a few
moments, and then realizes that he can put the four together in a puzzle to
make another diamond-shaped kite. He plops to the floor, rapt.
“Wow, you made another kite,” gushes Stephenson. “Did you know you
were going to do that?”

Nathan, thrilled with himself, replies: “No!”
It’s not all rosy. Daeja’s having a rough day. She’s cut a series of purple
construction-paper hearts to decorate her kite’s tail. They are all different
sizes and that’s tragic. She starts to mope and then tears trickle down her
cheeks. Stephenson ignores her for a while, then turns to her, providing a
lesson in the critical skill of self-regulation, or making the brain ready for
learning.

“Your voice is getting a little whiny and you’re focusing on what you don’t
want. I need you to focus on what you DO want and tell me and then I will
do everything I can to help you.”

Daeja lets out a few more tears, then pulls herself together and begins to
cut out blue hearts the same size. She has risen to the challenge.
Some of the children can’t do it so quickly. One boy needs help just to be
still and listen when the class forms a circle on the floor. A student teacher
often sits with him on her lap to remind him to focus – extra help that would
admittedly be expensive to provide in the public system.
When most of the kites have their shapes and frames and tails,
Stephenson collects the children on the red carpet for a delicate
conversation about which of the kites might fly better.
The challenge is to focus on aerodynamic concepts rather than on who did
what best. It’s a fine line, because if a child’s feelings get hurt her neural
connections won’t be reinforced. Learning will cease.
“We’ve been talking about the kites’ shapes and paper, how big they are,
and how strong or fragile, all those big ideas,” says Stephenson. “But I
want you to think about all the kites and some might be better at flying than
others and we need to know WHY.”

The hands go up. Nathan’s is big, so it might fly well, one child says.
Trevor’s plastic kite will be strong, a big plus, says another.
Abby is worried about Mr. Eggy because “he’s so small the wind is going to
go around it. It will go but not that much.”

And Blaede’s dragon is made of foil wrapping paper and it might be too
fragile, another child says, thinking hard.

“I want to thank you,” Stephenson tells the kids. “You were talking about
the kites, about the big ideas. I don’t think anyone’s feelings would be hurt.”
Finally, Kite Day arrives, rolled into a picnic at Riverdale Farm. It’s the final
field trip of the year and the second time the kids have test-flown their kites
in Toronto’s warm skies. The sun is shining. The scent of fresh-mown grass
is in the air.

The children have either modified or remade their original kites over the
weeks since the first test flight, getting a second chance to experiment.
At their request, Stephenson invited a kite expert to talk about what makes
a kite fly. They’ve been reading and comparing their handmade kites with
bought ones. All this strengthens the neural networks they have already
laid down for this project.

Their vocabulary is stronger, too.
One child yells to her mother: “Mom, help me untangle my bridle!”
They’re watching for the V-shape in the kite’s body that will slice into the
wind and sweep it into the air. Mira has made a clever double-box kite and
Trevor’s has six strings so it won’t spin.

At the age of 5, they’ve figured out not only how to make kites, but also why
they fly. They have also been creating patterns of hard-wired neural
networks in their brains for months relating to building skills, deep research,
experimentation and even the lesson that learning is fun. Their brains are
slightly different now physically than they were before this project. They are
building intelligence – knowledge that can be retrieved and used – the holy
grail of education.

The kids flying their kites in Riverdale Park don’t care about any of this.
Instead, they are watching their crazy kites soar against the sun, unaware
that their brains are soaring, too.

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