Sunday, December 26, 2010

For Toddlers, Pedagogy without Curriculum

In educational jargon, curriculum is what to teach and pedagogy is how to teach it.  Every educator does both, consciously or not.  Parents are no exception.

Even parents ascribing to a version of unschooling philosophy provide a home with a certain set of learning topics.  Children being raised in a suburban apartment will grow up with very different experiences and exploration than those raised on a farm.  Children with siblings have different daily experiences than only children.  Even among unschooling families it is normally the parents who decide whether to own a television, which days are good for field trips, and at what age it is safe to teach a child to use the fireplace or a rifle.  For a child (and especially for a toddler who is home more hours than a social older child) the home naturally provides a certain curriculum.

Parents of toddlers usually pay very little attention to the curriculum their home provides, which is not a problem.  Our culture provides expectations that toddlers are exposed to toys, opportunities to run and roughhouse, conversations and books, common art supplies, and play times with other kids.  These provide small and large motor development, language development, artistic and creative development, and social development.  Every parent I've met thinks about curriculum enough to cover these basics, even if they would not call shopping for crayons "curriculum".

Of course, even parents like myself whose training and experience cause them to often think about curriculum do not make daily or weekly curriculum plans for the home.  I certainly do not wake up in the morning thinking, "This will be a good day to teach Smiley about dinosaurs", "today we'll focus on the letter B", or anything else so silly.  Toddlers at home normally follow their own interests.  For now my home is an unschooling home.

Yet every hour with Smiley I do have pedagogy.  From that same Wikipedia article (italics mine):
The child-directed nature of unschooling does not mean that unschooling parents will not provide their children with guidance and advice, or that they will refrain from sharing things that they find fascinating or illuminating with them.

(Tangentially, the phrase about "sharing things" describes what is shared, and is thus curriculum.  As long as the child is free to respond with "I'm not interested in that" or "Get back to me with that later" there is no inherent conflict between an unschooling philosophy and a parent saying "Look at that rainbow!" or "I wonder how jackhammers work?")

The phrase I italicized about "guidance and advice" describes how the parent speaks, and is thus pedagogy.  Unless I am really tired or distracted, I think about pedagogy almost all the time I am with Smiley.

For me, raising a toddler involves many hours of pedagogy without curriculum.

That I often think about pedagogy does not mean I am enjoying my time with Smiley less, that I am over-thinking things, or that I am acting unnaturally.  No one would accuse an artist who could appreciate especially well the colors and the texture of light as sunshine filtered down through autumn leaves of "enjoying the scene less", "over-thinking", or seeing the scene "unnaturally".  Everyone has certain areas where training and experience help them perceive the world especially deeply.  I happen to get toddler pedagogy but not an artist's eye.

And just like I enjoy autumn scenery a lot even without a trained artist's eye, all parents have a lot of pedagogy even without calling it that or being aware of it.  They might instead say they are "in tune with" their child or "mindful of what he is doing".  If they are making choices about how learning happens--and nearly everything a toddler does includes learning--that is pedagogy.

Here is an example using one of our videos.  We are playing with his train set, and he decides to reenact his favorite train story: the Wolly Bear story from his Thomas the Train treasury.

In this situation the what of the learning is 99% of Smiley's own choice: he uses toy trains to partially reenact a story.  It involves some large-motor skill, a lot of language use, and some independence and decision-making.  That's quite common to most of Smiley's playing at home.  Except for when I insert the vocabulary words "excited" and "waiting" I do not adjust the curriculum at all.

In contrast, my pedagogy is plentiful.  I try to help keep a sick and somewhat tired toddler "on track" with his desired play activity (whether to do something in small bursts or as one longer endeavor is about how learning happens).  I encourage a few different kinds of language use; some of my prompts he ignores and others he uses (awareness of ways to describe what is happening is part of how learning happens).  I try to actively play with him while minimizing how much I play for him: for example, I would prefer we each speak for one of the train characters but am willing to abandon my own preference and speak for both (the ratio of "child does it" to "child watches parent do it" is part of how learning happens).  I often ask how this play time is similar or different to his past reenactments of that story (connecting similar experiences together is part of how learning happens).

Here are some details, for those who care:
  • At 0:05 I do not show him the hackey sack he normally uses for the treacle ("syrup") container.  I could have, but I wanted him to be challenged at least for a little.  This time he quickly gives up searching and decides a different toy will be the treacle container, which is unusual.  In other words, I did not create the problem-solving situation but did ask Smiley to try to deal with it himself.
  • At 0:57 he is pushing a train up the spiral.  This is a big reach, and he often leans against it.  Since it is fragile, this dislodges some track.  Sometimes Smiley asks me to push the train so he need not reach and lean so much.  But I don't offer that help unless asked, unless he is tired and easily frustrated.  Smiley is becoming more aware of where his body is week by week.  He no longer kicks the train track apart behind him as he crawls while pushing a train.  He has almost developed the body awareness to routinely use the spiral without wrecking it, but not quite.  Again, I did not create this large-motor challenge, but am careful about when I let it be a challenge and when I help to keep him from becoming frustrated.  This time he is independently successful.
  • At 1:07 I dump out some paper "hay" for his game.  A few days earlier he had asked me to bring him something to use for hay.  Usually his pretending avoids minor props.  (For the story in which Percy falls in the ocean, Smiley prefers that the carpet be the ocean instead of the blue tissue paper I twice offered.  When we pretend to be animals eating, he almost always uses completely imaginary food instead of his play kitchen plastic food.)  Notice I let him direct where the paper hay goes.  It is his story, not mine.  He is the one that wants the paper hay, even if he often ignores it--notice it is ignored for the rest of the video.
  • At 1:19 I scoot some small train set toys (train cars and signs) a few inches.  This is because in that particular track arrangement, Smiley sometimes wrecks the track by trying to squeeze into the small space between the helipad, raised curve, and mountain.  Since I want him to reenact his story without interruption, I fill that spot with small toys to prevent him from trying to sit there.  So in this case my pedagogy is to avoid a situation, unlike before when I was encouraging him to face situations.
  • At 1:35 he encounters a new problem.  The treacle-dropping hopper is too close to a downward ramp.  When the train tries to roll forward to finish going downhill it pushes the engine past the hopper.  I decide this is a problem-solving situation too complex for him, and fix the problem myself so he can keep focusing on his reenactment.
  • At 1:46 I say, "Oooh!  The syrup fell on Percy."  I participate by appreciating what he is doing.  I could decide to go do housework now that he is set up for his desired play activity.  Even my choice about whether to keep playing with him or go do something else is pedagogy.
  • At 1:48 I ask, "Now what happened?"  This question prompts him to speak as himself, rather than as Percy.  In other words, I am encouraging a story in third-person instead of first-person.  Sometimes I instead ask "What does Percy say?" to encourage first-person storytelling.  Smiley sometimes ignores these prompts, picking for himself which style of story he is telling.  I am fine with that.  I just want to encourage broader language-skill development if he is willing to try.
  • At 2:09 I say, "Hello, Thomas.  How are you today?"  Smiley ignored my prompt to use third-person.  So I switch to a first-person story in case that is what Smiley wants.
  • At 2:19 Smiley asks me to make Percy say something.  So he does want a first-person story.  But he is not feeling creative at the moment, and asks me to speak for both characters.
  • At 2:22 I repeat his request.  I often repeat what Smiley says, which supposedly helps with toddler enunciation and language development.
  • At 2:27 I use little Duplo kids to pretend to clean Percy.  This is another subtle prompt.  Does he want four characters in his story instead of only the two trains?  He ignores them, and we stick with a two character story.
  • At 2:56 I again repeat what he says.  Then I do what he asks me, even though he did not say "please".  Sometimes I am the boss, as the parent.  In normal conversations we say "please" and other polite and formal words routinely.  But when we are playing together he gets to be in charge a lot, at his desired level of formality.  This is another way I show that I appreciate what he is doing.  The same with my third-person narration at 3:17.
  • At 3:23 I ask if he wants tape.  Smiley has one version of this reenactment where we put a loop of Scotch tape, sticky side out, around Percy so he can put the paper hay on the toy train.  Smiley normally does not do this.  Normally I would not have asked, but that day he is sick (and sniffly) and not talking as much.  I'm just asking a question to get a reply.  The same with my subsequent questions.
  • At 4:46 he invents a new part of this game.  He decides there is a treacle container up by the ceiling.  I play along, slightly confused about how to participate.
  • At 4:53 I invite him to sit on my knees.  This is again because he is sick, so more cuddly than usual.  He does not want to, which is fine.  He stands next to me briefly, than climbs onto the love-seat out of the camera's view.  I'm not sure why he goes there--perhaps the excitement is so high he needs a place to retreat to.
  • At 5:34 he answers my question by saying "I will tell you when it falls down."  I continue to play along as best I can figure out how.
  • At 6:21 I say, "That was exciting."  A few times each day I'll use emotion vocabulary, usually as part of a question.  By asking "You are excited?" or "You are frustrated?" he slowly learns those words, so he can eventually use them himself.  (Here I am inserting a learning topic into his story.  This point is curriculum, not pedagogy.)
  • At 7:05 I nod.  He just said something lengthy I could not understand.  So I nod, to be participating noncommittally.

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