Learning Like a Four-Year Old

I spent this morning with a group of four Junior Kindergarten (4-year old) students and their parents, along with an incredibly skilled teacher who helped facilitate a 90 minute design studio session. Watching and participating in this process left me with a simple takeaway: it should be incumbent upon every teacher of older students to examine how to make their classes more like an early childhood experience. It is in Early Childhood where innovation is truly happening, and the more we take this approach in the teaching and learning of all students, the closer we will be to the type of educational system to which we aspire today.

The process went as follows:

Part One: Students were asked to look at a painting on the wall and visualize the process by which the artist designed the painting. The keys to this piece involved asking students to place themselves in the position of the artist, developing a narrative in their minds, creating something akin to the process of episodic encoding. The students visualize themselves in this place and thus begin the learning process.

Part Two: From there, students are asked to design art for the walls, highlighting what they believe to be beautiful. Time is given for students to both approach the question of beauty while simultaneously drawing what this looks like. Connecting the thinking process to the creative process is key here.

Part Three: Students are given clay to make their ideas come to life. They are asked to design prototypes for a machine that could take them anywhere in the world, keying on their imaginative strengths. They then build with their hands to make it come to life, all the while speaking with their parents, who take notes on their ideas and how they verbalize them throughout the process. Students then draw sketches of these ideas to further their thought processes.

Part Four: Using a Rig-A-Ma-Jig, students and parents design vehicles to take them places. Once again, working with their hands, they build larger prototypes that allow them to conceptualize, design, prototype, revise and build real working pieces.

These four-year old students, in the course of 90 minutes, examined how to develop empathy, worked through ideation processes, built prototypes, revised, and tested. Everything that many only hope to teach graduate-level students in design schools like Stanford is right there in a junior kindergarten classroom.

As a proponent of design thinking methodology, I’m a fan of the iterative process to learning that involves some form of the Empathy-Understanding-Prototyping-Testing methodology that is common to Design Thinking. However, it’s important to understand that this process is in many ways just a roadmap for the types of authentic learning advocated by John Dewey over one hundred years ago. We’ve adjusted some pieces for changing times, but the core elements remain the same, and the major argument made by the progressives: that learning by doing, the power of exploration, creativity, and play, and immersion in authentic tasks are the basis on which powerful learning occurs.

Furthermore, the job of the educator breaks down to two essential pieces: (1.) designing the environment in which learning will take place, (2.) diagnosing the students’ thought processes within these environments and responding with appropriate, differentiated teaching that helps students navigate that environment and activate their own capacity for learning. Most of the time, step two involves stepping away and allowing students to come to the learning on their own terms. This happens constantly in Early Childhood Education, yet as students age we somehow convince ourselves that teaching involves the act of depositing information into student brains rather than activating those brains in the pursuit of discovery and learning.

Sitting with these students, it was clear to me that these processes which we dub “design thinking” are and have been wildly apparent in Early Childhood Education, and its only later in students’ education, when the scourge of “curriculum” and “serious learning” warp our priorities, that we allow ourselves to move away from that which should be essential to teaching and learning. In an age when creativity, problem-solving, and “21st century skills” are the benchmark by which success is often gauged, we need only look at the way we educate our youngest students to see the blueprint for how to truly create innovative, forward-thinking educational environments.


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