Thursday, March 5, 2009

Sustaining the chain reactions of learning

When I go visiting school classes I usually try to avoid sitting in the back to observe the whole classroom activity. I also avoid to start a discussion with the teachers in front of their pupils. I usually go straight to one desk or group of desks and I ask the students if they don't mind me sitting next to them to observe what they are doing.

There are some reasons for me not sitting in the back of the classroom. First, I think that from a few looks around you get quite quickly a good impression of the soul that inhabits a learning community. There is no need to sit in the back for that long. I also think that if you want to observe everything you risk not seeing anything. To me, this is a typical teacher's problem. Standing up in front, in the back or in the center of the classroom to be in control leaves little room for profound observation or dialogue. Another reason why I try to avoid to observe the whole class, is that most of the time, it makes teachers feel uncomfortable because they see themselves in the focus of the observation.

The main reason to go straight to a desk to observe, talk and take notes, is that it's always a unique chance to gain an insight in at least one child's thinking, working and being.

For example, there is this boy sitting next to me doing math. Sometimes he uses his fingers. The result is always correct, but I can't see how his finger algorithm is related to the result. So I ask him how his strategy works. No answer. - I ask if at the next example he could try to speak while using his fingers to calculate. He calculates, uses his fingers, but again he doesn't say anything. I wait. Finally he says: "I can't in the had, and with fingers and talk." - Isn't this an impressive example how complex simple things can be? How profound a child is capable of self-reflecting and analyzing? How misleading any interpretation of what he's doing, how he may be thinking and why he doesn't respond to my demand could be? And what if his calculation results had been wrong? Would I have persisted as much on trying to understand his way of thinking?

Another example: There's this nine or ten year old girl who tells me how she makes soup for herself and her sister and sometimes cooks for her father when he comes home late after work. She has done a creative work with a tin can and I asked her where she got this can from. She told me that she has brought it from home and that it had contained beans which she doesn't like. So when I ask her what she likes to eat she says that she likes soup and she tells me a lot about her life at home and how much responsibility she already has to take for herself, her sister and her farther. It's the first time we talk to each other. I haven't met her before. I don't have to ask a lot of questions. Finally she tells me that she doesn't like to go to school because of homework which she has difficulties to do alone. I ask myself if teachers know about and take into account the conditions that children live in and if they are aware of the opportunity provided by a tin can to get to know a child.

And then, there's this boy who apparently is not interested in writing but only in playing and drawing. His drawing tells a whole adventure - he explains one object which he can't name and which I can't identify at first. When I finally understand that it's a periscope, I ask him if I should write it down for him. He tells me where I should write it and that I should use blockletters - not this adult handwriting which he can't read. Finally we write names of other things he has drawn. I ask If I may get a copy of it. He rushes to the Xerox and is happy to make a copy for me. Who said that this boy has no interest in writing?

And then there is this boy who wants to be a volunteer fire fighter like all men in his family. He shows me his favorite book about fire fighting and tells me that he has to prepare for a fire fighter exam, which his teacher allows him to do in class. He seems to know everything about fire brigades and fire fighting. Together we compare information about which elements are needed for a fire to start. These elements are grouped in the fire tetrahedron. I never heard about that before. A fire can be extinguished by removing at least one of the elements grouped in the fire tetrahedron, heat, oxygen, ... In our discussions my questions are real questions and his answers are real answers. There's no need for extrinsic motivation strategies to keep his interest alive. He has found something which fascinates and challenges him. My interest is authentic. So is his teacher's. She has set the conditions to make this all possible. She is there, close enough to listen to our conversation but she doesn't interfere. Nothing more is required. The boy doesn't need praise. Anyway he's the expert. Experts don't need praise to keep them going. Once the process of self-determination is ignited the curriculum emerges. The learning process is kept alive as long as all the elements are present. Anything can be connected to the core subject of fire fighting: math, chemistry, history, languages, ...

Some say "You are lucky, you don't have to teach things like grammar and math." They are right, I'm lucky. And I don't have to teach these things, indeed. But do they have as much and as often as they think they should?

Pedagogy starts where instruction ends. The more I observe the more I am convinced that teaching is about sustaining the chain reaction of a child's learning and reflecting which has started long before entering school.

Thank you teachers for leaving your classroom door open and for letting me in.

Image from


  1. I read Pino's blog and was touched again by the richness of conversation he was able to have with the children he met a few minutes before.
    I observed this years ago, when he visited my classroom. I often wondered how he was able to "get out" such interesting and important information out of "my students"!

    Of course, as Pino mentioned himself in his blog, it may have to do with the fact, that he is not their teacher, who evaluates and disciplines them from time to time. Not the teacher, who has to show some professional interest for his students. Not the teacher who has 18 – 20 students to care about. Not the teacher, who has the curriculum in mind, that has to be done during this day, this week or the year. And moreover, he is not the teacher, who must be able to justify himself in front of his colleagues, the parents and the authorities.

    But after all these years of teaching, I realised that all these reasons for not achieving such « thick » conversations with my students are most of the time only pretexts. Even if I managed more and more to abandon « the drill and practice »- and the « chalk and talk » didactics, I understand now that I kept on instructing, and didn’t manage to really change my attitude towards the students. Instead of setting up the conditions to enable learning, I kept on teaching, kept the responsibilities on my shoulders and through this kept on defending my position, my right of existence in the classroom.

    «Pedagogy starts where instruction ends.»

    Pino, you are always welcome to my classroom. Thank you for rattling at the door of my teaching – routine.

  2. Pedagogy starts where instruction ends.

    Let me put it this way: where instruction ends, the beauty and art of teaching emerges. For me, those are the moments that make me feel as a teacher though I have to admit, that these moments, the conversations described by Pino, are rare, precious moments.

    Most of the time I do think that I have to teach things like grammar and math as much and as often as I and other actors cocerned think I should. I totally agree with Pino, that teaching is about sustaining the chain reaction of a child's learning and reflecting.

    And exacly here lies the art of teaching. It is like conducting a symphony. As a good conductor, you are far beyond being the one giving the start, the movement, the tempo and the end of a piece, no, you are the one raise the music out of the members of the orchestra, showing them what they are capable for, being the dynamo and catalysator of the energy, strengh and beauty emerging from the orchestra, being precise and yet flexible in your work.

    I know, this sounds pretty idealistic, and like I mentionned it before, I still hide behind the routine, the curriculum and the expectations of parents and authorities.

    But without ideals, we will persue our journey on the motor-way not seing the surroundings we are passing by and ignoring where to stop by, or like Carl Schurz put it: Ideals are like the stars: we never reach them, but like the mariners of the sea, we chart our course by them.

    And therefore let me quote Joel Loran: Pino, you are always welcome to my classroom. Thank you for rattling at the door of my teaching – routine.


Some Reading Milestones

  • Towards reflexive method in archaeology : the example at Çatalhöyük (edited by Ian Hodder) 2000

  • The Book of Learning and Forgetting (Frank Smith) 1998

  • Points of Viewing Children's Thinking: A Digital Ethnographer's Journey (Ricki Goldman-Segall) 1997

  • Verstehen lehren (Martin Wagenschein) 1997

  • Computer im Schreibatelier (Gérard Gretsch) 1992

  • The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom (Vivian Gussin Paley) 1991

  • La cause des adolescents (Françoise Dolto) 1988

  • Scuola di Barbiana. Die Schülerschule. Brief an eine Lehrerin. (Edition of 1980) / read in German 1982
    Letter to Teacher by the Schoolboys of Barbiana (1970)
    Lettre à une maîtresse de'école, par les enfants de Barbiana (1968)
    Lettera à una professoressa (Original Edition) 1967

  • Vers une pédagogie institutionnelle (Aïda Vasquez, Fernand Oury) 1967

Documentary Films on Education

  • Eine Schule, die gelingt (by Reinhard Kahl) 2008

  • Les temps des enfants (Jacques Duez) 2007

  • Klassenleben (by Bernd Friedmann und Hubertus Siegert) 2006

  • Lernen - Die Entdeckung des Selbstverständlichen
    (Ein Vortrag von Manfred Spitzer) 2006

  • Die Entdeckung der frühen Jahre
    Die Initiative "McKinsey bildet" zur frühkindlichen Bildung (by Reinhard Kahl) 2006

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft - Wie in Deutschland Schulen gelingen (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft / Incubators of the future / Les serres de l'avenir; International Edition (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Journal de classe, 1ères audaces (1), Les échappés (2), Sexe, amour et vidéo (3), L'enfant nomade (4), Remue-méninges (5) (by Wilbur Leguebe, Jacques Duez, Agnès Lejeune) 2004

  • Spitze - Schulen am Wendekreis der Pädagogik (by Reinhard Kahl) 2003

  • Journal de classe, (by Wilbur Leguebe and Agnès Lejeune; Jacques Duez) 2002

  • Etre et Avoir (by Nicolas Philibert) 2002

  • The Stolen Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2002

  • The Angry Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2001

  • A l'école de la providence (by Gérard Preszow) 2000

  • Blue-Eyed (by Jane Elliott) 1996

  • A Class Divided (by Jane Elliott) 1984

  • Eye of The Storm (with Jane Elliott) 1970

Past quotes of the day

For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong. Henry Louis Mencken

Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.
Antonio Machado

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Immanuel Kant

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. Albert Einstein

To paraphrase a famous quotation, all that is necessary for the triumph of damaging educational policies is that good educators keep silent. Alfie Kohn

We used to have lots of questions to which there were no answers. Now, with the computer, there are lots of answers to which we haven't thought up the questions. Peter Ustinov

I had a terrible education. I attended a school for emotionally disturbed teachers. Woody Allen

A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep. W. H. Auden

When I was an inspector of schools I visited one classroom and looked at a boys book. He'd written, 'Yesterday, Yesterday, Yesterday, Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Love, Love, Love.' I said, 'That's a lovely poem.' He said, 'Those are my spelling corrections.' Gervase Phinn

Real thinking never starts until the learner fails. Roger Schank

If what is wanted is a reexamination of schooling in terms of purpose, structure and process, then testing programmes are the wrong vehicle (...) Caroline V. Gipps

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Albert Einstein

Act always so as to increase the number of choices. Heinz von Foerster

Another way of avoiding teaching is by relying exclusively on a textbook, workbooks, and other commercially packaged learning materials. Teaching is reduced to administering a set curriculum without giving any thought to the substance of what the students area learning or to their particular needs. H. Kohl

The right to ignore anything that doesn't make sense is a crucial element of any child's learning - and the first right children are likely to lose when they get to the controlled learning environment of school. F. Smith

Learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful activity. - Ivan Illich

Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve. - Roger Lewin

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. - Mark Twain