Consciously skilled

Julie Neal and I teach Positive Discipline (from Adler, Dreikurs and Jane Nelson).  In the parent educator training, we are given a fat book of experiential exercises to help participants feel the way children feel when we act certain ways.  There are also exercises to help adults examine why and how we do what we do, and feel what we feel.  All fascinating!

At the end, we often do an activity called : The Continuum of Change (Positive Discipline Association).  In this, we are invited to remember a hard learning that involved brain and body.  The point of the exercise is to help us forgive ourselves for not knowing everything, and for feeling uncomfortable during the learning.  It has been so long since we learned something completely new, of COURSE it feels awful, like stalling out in the middle of heavy traffic, or making a turn onto gravel and flying over the handlebars!  One can think of riding a bike, driving a car, using manual transmission, or learning to knit.  Remember that mind-blowing struggle at the beginning?

The continuum goes something like this: first, you are unconsciously unskilled.  You don’t even know what you don’t know (maybe how your preschooler sees you driving; just turning the wheel- la dah!)  Then, you are consciously unskilled: “oh, I will NEVER get this!  What do I do now???? Oh, %$^&.”

Next, you get to be consciously skilled: “I can do this, if I concentrate and stick out my tongue, and don’t breathe, and now my brain is fried.  I need a break!!”

After a long time, some say 10,000 hours, you get to be unconsciously skilled.  That is when you can drive the car, eat a sandwich, talk to your kids in the back, and decide what to have for dinner, all without missing a beat.

And, how do we get to Carnagie Hall?  Practice, practice, practice.  For adults, this process is terribly uncomfortable, perhaps because we have perfected so many skills, that it feels AWFUL to go back to incompetence.  So hats off to those who take up a new instrument, or a new language, as adults!

On to children.  As you can imagine, they live a lot of the time between unconsciously unskilled and consciously unskilled.  They are not good at much, especially the first time.  And, if they live with mostly adults, then it is discouraging that everyone else is good at EVERYTHING!  Why bother?

Fortunately, children seem to be hard wired to learn hard stuff.  Like walking and speaking a language, with grammar and all.  So, that’s what they are good at.   Montessori saw, however, that, if we gave children a lot of opportunities to become consciously, then unconsciously skilled, from a very young age, they felt good, and learned skills and confidence that allowed them to consider learning more and more things.  The movement from consciously unskilled to consciously skilled did not feel so impossible.  In fact, it might even be fun, and definitely worth the risks.

So, she created a lot of self-corrected learning materials, that intrigued hands and minds.  She also placed importance on something she called: Practical Life (or Grace and Courtesy).  This is the process of actively teaching self-care and life skills, in a fun, accepting way, from blowing your nose and wiping your own bottom, to how to ask for help or tell someone to leave you alone.  It also can include dressing yourself, folding clothes, hanging up your coat so that you can find it again, cooking, cleaning…anything that is “practical” to “life” in your culture, would be useful.  And, of course, at home, things that your family and your child value: washing the car, gardening, taking care of pets, making art, playing music….

So, we take the time to break down many tasks into small parts, and give many, many stress free opportunities to practice, with as much help as needed, so that children will have many, many abilities at a young age, and feel competent in many things, before they interact with much that is “academic.”

Think of the intense satisfaction you feel as you have mastered something.  Don’t all people, including  children deserve the opportunity to feel that they are masters in many things?  They can do so, if they are given opportunity, time, instruction (if needed) and support.

 

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More on confidence

Building-the-Pink-Tower

Okay, how do I recognize confidence, or lack of it?

Confident children:

explore

try things

play independently

risk

ask for help

Children who lack confidence:

get stuck in activities/requests and repeat them without pleasure

don’t play

whine

try to keep adults involved with them

in a mixed group, prefer to talk to adults

talk about adult issues/concerns

get frustrated easily

tease others

do things for negative attention

(In very young children, some of these latter things can indicate boredom. Of course, don’t “entertain them” but help them switch gears :”I see you are bored with these blocks.  It is time to put them away and find something fun /go outside/feed the cat/ put your socks in your drawer.” Notes: I am not asking them, or listening when they protest.  If they are not engaged, they are bored.  if they are bored, it is my job to teach them how to get over being bored without having to pick a fight with me, the cat, the dog, or the blocks!)

To build confidence: if you have engaged adequately (they are not pining for a little adult one-on-one) change/create the environment (go outside and get so busy that they cannot get you engaged with them negatively, and have to find something to do), express confidence, don’t rescue or entertain, endure the learning curve (they don’t liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiike it; it is uncomfortable), don’t get sucked into power struggles or the appearance of neediness, express more confidence, take care of yourself.

I believe, all children are hard wired for success, and all people must struggle a bit.  A healthy child will seek out appropriate struggles, and take them on when they are ready.

Teaching about “practical life”

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Another amazing thing Montessori figured out is that children need/love to be taught self-care/real world skills.  She called this “Practical Life” and it is actually an area of the curriculum, like Language and Math.

And why not?  At each stage of life, don’t we like people to gently tell/show us how to do something new, instead of fussing at us when we screw it up?  This week at camp, we had to remember to teach the junior counselors how to make juice from frozen concentrate for popsicles and how to wash dishes.  Is it shocking that they don’t know, or is it normal that families now buy juice fresh and have dishwashers?  As I’m sure you can tell, it shocked me at first, growing up, as I did, in the Black and White Era, I forget these things.  And then Montessori invites me to remember what it is like not to know.

And, when it is presented as “look at this”, practical life is fun to practice. “Pouring works” are always popular (see picture above:)), and so are cooking skills, cleaning skills, folding and putting away things skills…if they are taught and not fussed about.  Later, there are more skills: how to check the oil in your car, how to save money in a painless way, how to buy life insurance, how to buy a house.  It would be nice if someone taught us these things.

A different way of learning

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I love this picture for lots of reasons: because of who took it, the children in it and the fact that they are fascinated, not by me, but by what I am doing. (“What is she doing?, you ask.  This is our little preschool “graduation”, and I came up with a metaphorical activity to try to show that we will never forget them.  They add colored sand to a bowl of sand that we use every year.  They have added their “color” to our memories of Mary’s School.  What they love?  Putting their hands in the sand. :))

I have had parents ask, in the grocery store: “Is this lady someone you would like as your teacher?”  Oh, dear, what am I to say, or do, to deserve that?  Children love attractive young people, and I am past that! Otherwise, I look like any other lady.  What is there to love?

BUT, as when we go to Montessori training, they tell us that we are only 1/3 of the equation; it is: children, environment, teacher.  Our main job is to set up the environment. If the environment works, the children are happy.  It certainly has nothing to do with how I look!

So, the teacher sets up the environment (actually, Montessori called us “guides”, which is a cool term, but hasn’t caught on.), for safety, for interest, to stretch children, to entice them, to comfort them, to allow them to be together AND apart, to allow them to move, to have structure to give them support, to teach them how to interact, to allow them to take care of their own needs…lots of things to consider.  So, if it doesn’t work, we move things around, take things away, have more lessons on how things work.

So, all the children came to sit with me to see what I was doing. That is how it works in a Montessori classroom: they want to be part of what is happening.  They want it.  We invite them, and they come.  (And if they don’t want it, yet, they don’t have to do it. But that’s another story.)

And that is a different way of learning.

A child at work

dsc_0220_41(I often learn what I think when answering a question :). This is an answer to a prospective parent who asked: “Why do you call it “work?” (what the children do.) Such a great question!)
While I am wide awake, I will answer about “work”: Montessori was a medical doctor, not a “teacher” and worked at first, as a doctor, with children who were not expected to learn; this was around the turn of the century and we don’t know much about what diagnoses they had, but they were lumped together as “idiot children.” She noticed that, not only could they learn, they seemed to want very much to learn. “Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment. We call this process the work of the child.” She noted that concentrated “work” (purposeful activity, self-chosen) seemed to allow deep contentment. As these children had a variety of disabilities, she found (from doctors in France who were working with the deaf) and made what we call “materials” which were self teaching and sensorial in nature. Much of what is in the classroom was designed by Montessori over the years as didactic materials for children to explore (the movable alphabet, the sandpaper letters and the math materials are some of the most wonderful of these, I think).

She found, after observing children with a variety of these “materials” (many of which she would try and discard) was that they seemed willing and eager to practice many skills with a suitable materials (tracing, buttoning, counting), and, again, seemed to get great satisfaction from perfecting skills, especially when the activities were self-chosen.

It is not a free for all, though, and we limit those who are what I call “messing about” because they are obviously bored. Our goal is for the children to find something engaging.

I also often note that adults think that children are not doing “anything important”, and so tend to interrupt them. I think this is another use of the word “work”, to imply that, if a child is sitting and watching a cricket, or drawing a line, or pouring water, to watch and see if it is “work”; i.e., something deserving respect and not interruption.

Of course, “play”, as in “play an instrument, or sport” is something that takes a lot of “work”, but, in our culture, “play” with children usually connotes “not much”: “just playing”!

If the room was “quiet” which I can’t imagine, it was because, at this time of year, everyone has generally learned how to come in, find something intriguing, and get to it, at least for a little bit at a time. I do think that there is a hum, a bit like a beehive! I think you asked about ages; we started with a brand new 2 up to a brand new 5, and our goal is about 6 2s, 6 3s, and rising Kinders. The classroom is multi-aged so that there are all abilities together (everyone is good at something, and learning something) and, mostly, so that the oldest children can be mentors to the youngest children. Over the three year cycle, everyone gets to go from being mostly a learner to being often a teacher. Oh, so, yes, the point is to commit, if you can, to three years, so that each child can end up as a triumphant teacher!

Anyway, I am off to bed, and I am quite sure that this is more than you ever wanted to know about anything, ever; I do love thinking about this stuff so!

Warmly,
Mary