Williams College psychologist Susan Engel‘s “7 Things Every Kid Should Master” are based on her review of “more than 300 studies of K–12 academic tests” and remarkably sensible. All seven are excellent, but two, in particular, jumped out at me as they seem to come up less than others in the discourse these days about teaching and learning.
One of these is the importance of conversation.
Teachers are given scant training about how to encourage, expand, and deepen children’s conversations. Schools of education offer lots of courses on curriculum planning, reading strategies, assessment, and classroom management, but I have seen few places where teachers deliberately reflect on or practice ways to have real conversations with their students.
I’m involved in an intensive review this year at my school. Among the goals I set for myself was a focus on the consideration of introverted teaching and learning. And during the year that has made me very attentive to the art of conversation. I spend time with my class discussing how to do this in small grounds and model and guide them regularly in it as a whole class. I’m a huge fan of discussing books as a class — books we’ve read together and ones I’ve read to them — and have the impression (perhaps erroneous) that many teachers spend a lot more time doing one-on-one conversations with students about their reading than whole group conversations. My instinct has been that there is a lot of important learning going on in the later — that it isn’t just about teachers telling kids what to think about books — and am grateful with Engel’s affirmation of my thinking about this.
The second point of Engel’s that stood out to me was this one:
One of the most robust findings in developmental psychology is that kids learn how to treat one another by watching the way adults treat them and treat each other. Yet few teacher-training programs emphasize the informal ways in which teachers behave. Nor do principals and superintendents attend much to how teachers treat children throughout the day or to how they interact with other teachers.
That is, the importance of being aware of how we adults in school settings model kind behavior with and to each other We spend a great deal of time worrying about how mean children can be to each other. But how often do we consider that they are watching how mean we adults are to each other? Over the years I’ve observed too often some of the very same behaviors happening among adults that we rue when we see children doing it. More self-examination of our own behavior in schools and how children may be modeling it seems very necessary to me.