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Learning at its Best

Learning is (supposed to be) fun, no?

My older daughter is a grade 1 student in a French Immersion school and this year the school emphasizes reading and writing basic sight words as one of the goals for the kids. While the first four months she brought no homework, starting this month, her class will do a regular dictation exercise at the end of the week in the classroom, with additional practice as a homework for the weekend.

Me and my wife were really excited when she brought back a leaflet titled Dictation Practice Tips, with specific instructions to help parents work with their child based on their learning style! The list included tips for children with visual and aural memory, analytic children, kinetic children, tactile children, musical children and artistic children.

Recognizing different learning styles

What a great way to empower the parents to join their kids’ learning! We’ve been given a tool to help our daughter to learn her words more efficiently and more importantly, to figure out her preference for learning so we could potentially help her in learning other stuff and not just reading and writing words!

Excited and with high expectations, tonight I decided to take the first stab at trying out few of the approaches as I was negotiating with my daughter to finish playing Animal Jam (educational and fun online game from National Geographic) on the computer and do her practice before going to bed. What happened next came as a great surprise to me!

While the tips we got led me to believe that the kids have been using different practice methods already in the classroom, the reality is that the teacher is using a very specific way of doing the practice. Despite what the tips leaflet suggests, no play-dough, singing or running is involved in the practice! Instead, each kid has a laminated sheet with defined areas for writing and correcting and they’re using dry erase markers for each practice. (At this point I should add that I am not able to say if the teacher is at all enabled to try some of the stuff suggested in the tips for the parents or if she’s simply following whatever instructions she has for the program!)

My daughter is very keen on following her teacher’s instructions — literally! I was aware of this already, but today it slammed me in my face as she started crying that she can’t do the practice at home because she forgot her laminated sheet at her after school care! She felt devastated and no attempt on my side to convince her that she can still practice on a plain sheet of paper worked. 😦 I tried to bring logical arguments and explain to her that learning and practicing are not limited by the tools we use, but that didn’t seem to make any difference in her emotional state. Finally, after 5 minutes, when the crying finally subdued, she did agree to take the paper and try.

When she started preparing her paper so it resembles the sheet from school as closely as possible — matching everything, from the title and date, to drawing lines where the words are supposed to be written, to putting boxes for circling if she wrote the words written correctly (oui) or made a mistake (non) — I realized I haven’t accomplished anything to help her learn in the process! She was unhappy for not having the original sheet and by making her own replica on the paper she tried to salvage the situation and still felt terrible for forgetting the sheet. No learning was going to happen that way and it was definitely not fun for either of us!

Failing to apply any of the styles listed in the tips

At that point I realized logic can never deal with emotions and I had to do something drastically different from what she’s been doing at school — something that would seem outrageous as a way to practice writing words to her, but at the same time is really fun to do!

This is what we ended up doing:

Inventing our own way to practice -- with mustard!

I can’t explain how much joy it was to see her transition from feeling devastated to being excited! She was free to not only play with the mustard while trying to write the words from the dictation practice, but went beyond those words and added additional words, played with styling, and most importantly, had loads of fun! So much fun, in fact, that we ended up with this at the end 😉

Learning can be messy too -- literally!

No real learning happens if we are not enjoying the process. Learning can and should sometimes be messy! Schools are sending mixed messages to parents if they preach one way to parents but practice another way within the school walls. If kids are conditioned to believe there is only one way to practice — the one the teacher uses in the classroom! — the parents are disempowered and need to deal with formidable challenges to make their kids try other approaches. When this happens, there is a risk that the learning within the claasroom and within the home happen in two parallel Universes in the children’s minds, as they’re afraid to bring the learning methods across.

For us, beside discussing with the teacher, my daughter and her mom have already laid plans for baking several sets of the alphabet next Saturday, in preparation of the next dictation practice! 😉

About kima

Organizer: Father. Agent of change. I learn for a living. Curiosity is my passion. Writing is my dream. I believe in the value of social media as a way to meet new people and love double espresso as a way to feel warm with old friends ;-)


10 thoughts on “Learning is (supposed to be) fun, no?

  1. Hi Kima,

    This sounds like a bit of a pedagogical bait and switch! The graphics that you provided were so helpful in seeing the chasm that exists between the two approaches. I’m not an expert in French Language instruction (although the examples that you provided reminded me of the heavy reliance on grammar that my grade eight students come to associate with “learning French”), but I am curious to know why the mixed messages about approach are being communicated.

    It will be interesting to hear what comes out of your discussion with the teacher. I know that many of us walk a kind of tight rope across that gap. On the one side of the gap–the teacher that I want to be and, on the other, the teacher I’m expected to be.

    I hope that there was some relish to go along with this lesson!


    Posted by Stephen Hurley | January 16, 2011, 7:34 am
    • Thx Stephen,

      I was thinking about your bait and switch comment. I didn’t see it that way myself and thought it is a disconnect between the teacher or the school and the people putting the program together.

      It could also be that both of us are wrong and the idea is that the practice at home should complement and help the teacher as she can’t try different approaches with each kid separately, while the parents could do so with their kid. Unfortunately, if that is indeed the case, it was not communicated properly to the parents. 😦

      I would actually like to think that the last interpretation is in fact correct and my daughter’s school or teacher made a mistake in the communication with the parents. The trouble is, if only one approach is used at school and no attempt is made to show them other approaches are fine too, parents may have hard time — like I did — in convincing their kids they don’t have to redo the same exercise they did already at school! And redoing the same exercise is a waste of time in my opinion as they already did it at school, so it adds no real value to their learning.

      I hear you about the tight rope and your comment reminds me of the latest TED in the Field talk by Barry Schwartz about Using our Practical Wisdom, where he identifies people successfully walking the tight rope as canny outlaws:

      “These are people who, being forced to operate in a system that demands rule-following and creates incentives, find away around the rules, find a way to subvert the rules. So there are teachers who have these scripts to follow, and they know that if they follow these scripts, the kids will learn nothing. And so what they do is they follow the scripts, but they follow the scripts at double-time and squirrel away little bits of extra time during which they teach in the way that they actually know is effective. So these are little ordinary, everyday heroes, and they’re incredibly admirable, but there’s no way that they can sustain this kind of activity in the face of a system that either roots them out or grinds them down.”

      Unfortunately, as Barry says, canny outlaws can’t sustain that for too long. He suggests a different kind of people, as he calls them “systems-changers” are needed:

      “These are people who are looking not to dodge the system’s rules and regulations, but to transform the system”

      I like to think this group is full of systems-changers! 😉


      P.S. No relish unfortunately, but will plan ahead next time 😉

      Posted by kima | January 17, 2011, 2:51 am
  2. I love sculpting words in all sorts of media and colors – I’ll have to try some of the other techniques, too –

    How we resource our classrooms and set up their spaces greatly impacts the media we use. I’m all for a frequent breaks from the monoculture of print in our schools. Painting, sculpting, and feeling words and ideas are not the same as writngf them or writing about them.

    Now I want to run a faculty meeting without print about designing a unit without print and the classroom space necessary for it. That would be amazing.

    How does our constant use of print for curriculum, instruction, and assessment constrain us from imagining other ways of teaching and learning? How much print is desirable in a lesson, unit, or year? Is comprehending print the point of print?

    Thanks, Kima –

    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 16, 2011, 2:21 pm
    • Thx Chad,

      I have to say that I am, at some level, glad this episode happened — in particular so early in my daughter’s education — as it helped me grow up as a parent and find inner imagination I didn’t think I had when it comes to supporting my daughter’s learning.

      I was much like her when I was a kid — always diligent in my homework, following the path shown by my teachers, very rarely wishing to try something different. Don’t get me wrong, I had insatiable curiosity to learn, but I was able to satisfy that mostly outside school and mainly saw school as a means to an end — to put it in simple terms, to go to University and get a good job.

      This is why it is particularly hard for me to deal with my daughter’s schooling as I am trying hard not to project onto her my own dissatisfaction from my own schooling — or to translate this in life goals, I don’t want to be like those parents putting pressure on their kids to become what they never could!

      To get back to your comment about print monoculture — I don’t see print as inherently bad, but I surely see monoculture (of any kind) as damaging to the kids’ learning prospects. I hope to write something soon on the topic — again reflected through recent experience with my older daughter, but this time dealing with her mother tongue, Macedonian — but it suffices to say that monocultures limit us in our use of resources and no matter how hard we try to learn something there are certain limits to the knowledge we can acquire that may not exist if we’re open to diversity and are able to switch context and bring learning into one context for the benefit of another!

      Posted by kima | January 17, 2011, 3:12 am
  3. Hi again,

    First, in looking back on the “bait and switch” idea, I appreciate your positive spin on this. I’ve spent the past couple of months participating in a very right wing blog that has a definite hate on for the current status of public education. I think that the negativity of that experience has filtered into my thinking! I apologize if some of that came through!!!

    I would like to comment on Chad’s thinking about print. I have come to believe (like others) that traditional print is just one form of “text”. But, when we talk about literacy, we’re almost always talking about print text. At the same time, the variety of text forms encountered by our children everyday leads me to believe that, in order to negotiate the complexity of today’s media-drenched world, we had better start taking non-print forms of both reading and writing the world a little more seriously!

    Thanks for this conversation.


    Posted by Stephen Hurley | January 17, 2011, 6:14 am
    • School is weirdly a place where students encounter the least diversity of text and – in many cases – the least amount of text they see all day. I hope that by being deliberate in our use of diverse texts we increase both schthe amount of time students spend reading in school and school’s relevance in their lives –

      Best wishes,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | January 17, 2011, 10:52 am
  4. I really appreciate the length you went to, Kima, to incorporate what your child’s teacher had sent home. Sadly, miscommunication between home and school is common. Have you approached/contacted your daughter’s teacher about the sheet s/he sent home and the sheet your child tried to re-create? Perhaps the teacher has an explanation or would be excited to hear about your home activity.

    Posted by marybethhertz | January 17, 2011, 5:49 pm
    • Sorry it took me a while to respond back, but I didn’t get a chance to talk to the teacher until few days ago

      The good news is that the teacher was excited, as you said, that I tried to incorporate different practice styles at home. As she told me, she didn’t plan to use the worksheet for too long anyway. She wasn’t aware using it as a practice tool before the official dictation … which unfortunately is again written, but in a less rigid way in the kids’ agenda … would cause my daughter not to accept other ways of practice but the worksheet

      I suspect you can already see the bad news from the last sentence … it did turn out to be miscommunication, but not in the direction we suspected … the way I see it, it is lack of transparency in clearly communicating the purpose of the tool and the practice to the kids!

      I wonder how many times, as a teacher, you and the others on this group have taken the time to explain to your students why do you use a particular tool, what other tools there may be out there, and, most importantly, what is the purpose of the activity you ask them to participate in?

      We (and by we I want to include parents as I am often guilty of this myself) usually assume we know what is the best tool or the best way to teach our kids something and we don’t take the time to explain our choices to them. I think transparency between the teachers/parents and the kids is far more important than any other communication between school and home


      Posted by kima | January 28, 2011, 4:56 am


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