Friday, March 9, 2012

Keeping Our Inborn Love of Learning Alive

A first grade student came up to me speaking pig Latin today and luckily she had a friend next to her serving as a translator. When I asked her how she learned to speak Pig Latin so fluently she explained that she practices at night when she is lying in bed. Her parents taught her the basics and now she is indeed, quite competent, rattling off paragraphs I can’t understand. The point is: she is creating her own challenge and pushing her own learning. Kids can and do, do this same type of thinking and learning in math exploring number and geometry concepts. Once a Kindergarten student explained to me with colored tiles how he could build squares starting with 1 tile, by adding consecutive odd numbers. (Three more tiles made a 2 by 2 square, 5 more tiles made a 3 by 3 square and so on).  
While we know children are born learners who are naturally curious and inquisitive, are we sure school perpetuates and fosters that learning, questioning, and curiosity?  I think we could all agree school fails many children and for that very reason, software developers and App creators have been scrambling to market new ways for children to learn and to be engaged.  The problem is some of these “new” approaches can actually squelch creative thinking and put kids in an even tighter box than traditional school.  They might engage children but what dendrite pathways are being reinforced and how many new connections are being made? Websites with math programs abound but most have advertisements relentlessly popping up as well as visually unaesthetic plastic graphics, noisy bells and annoying whistles, and/or cliché words of praise reinforced with prizes and rewards.  What messages are we reinforcing in the name of learning when we use these programs?  And so many times, aren’t we merely practicing skills in rather uninspired ways? The novelty of the iPad will surely run thin if we use it to simply do things we have always done. 
I guess it is clear that I have not been overly  impressed with the math Apps I’ve seen so far but that was until I  got hooked on Kickbox and Big Seed created by the Mind Research Institute. In fact, I think I had forgotten on some levels what it like to learn something completely new, which is a scary confession for a teacher to make.  I found myself totally absorbed by Big Seed and Kickbox because both offered me activities that made me think beyond the box! 

The Mind Research Institute has developed a visual approach to teaching math concepts through its software. The program is language-independent, which eliminates a huge barrier many children face in developing their math thinking. While it is a game, playing Big Seed immediately took me to the space in my mind where I know I do my creative, thinking work. Indeed, that is the space that seems to create time because I find myself totally engaged in the “work” or “play.”  How wonderful to just explore and discover and to figure out how something is working. Isn’t that the very definition of learning?  As I explored deeper into these Apps, I soon realized that I needed to plan many steps ahead. My working memory was working! It took me repeated tries to succeed with the tasks and yet I wanted to keep trying, I wanted to get it. I stayed up past my bedtime working on these tasks like the first grader had teaching herself Pig Latin. I had to persevere: something we all hope our children and students will do. 
I know there are more math Apps out there and more on the way that will develop children’s thinking by growing dendrites and nurturing their creativity. I am meanwhile completely taken with these two and thrilled that it will take me a while to work through all their levels!  Big Seed and Kickbox might look simple but they are thoroughly engaging and challenging.

1 comment:

  1. The Mind Research Institute is publishing their iPad and Android-ready math materials this summer!