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Exploration and Discovery! Creating an Enthusiastic, Exciting Classroom
By Sue Miles, Ed.D.

Most teachers remember the excitement they felt as they approached their first early childhood teaching assignment. The summer before I began to teach I dreamed of what the children would be like and the interesting subjects, concepts, and ideas we would explore together. It was with great care that I mentally designed the classroom environment—not only the children’s name tags and welcoming items for the room, but the entire environment in which the children would play and learn.

At the first opportunity, I brought in flowers, plants, and a goldfish to add life to the classroom. I used slipcovers, rugs, and beanbags to create cozy areas where children could retreat to look at picture books. I cleaned an old fish tank until it shone; surrounded it with rocks, dirt, and other supplies; and looked forward to the children creating their own terrarium. As I carefully placed the empty tank in the window, I wondered what the terrarium would house and how it would look after the children added their own personal touches. I was full of energy and creativity. Little did I know that within weeks after the children began school, I would begin to wilt and lose my enthusiasm.

Apathy Sets In
At the first teachers’ meeting I was surprised to be provided with a worksheet-based, prepackaged curriculum. I was instructed to follow the lessons closely. My education had taught me that “young children should learn through play” (Evans, 1968). I put my excitement on hold, thinking that after I taught the children using worksheets, I would get back to my original plan to allow the children to determine much of what they would learn. I rationalized that after the worksheet lessons there would still be time for the children to pursue their personal interests. The terrarium and other projects I had planned to discuss with the children were unconsciously pushed to the background. My initial enthusiasm continued to decrease, as did the children’s.

My lack of enthusiasm was not the fault of the children. With their new haircuts, scrubbed faces, and bright eyes,they found even the worksheets exciting at first. After all, some had older siblings who had used worksheets, and these were new, smooth to touch, clean, and unmarked. Some even had interesting drawings, although many were quite small for the children to see. A few weeks after the semester began, I gazed sadly at the empty terrarium on the window ledge and asked myself what was causing a decline in my personal energy. As I pondered the question, I could see it was the fact that I was directing every activity. The worksheets were full of symbols which had little or no meaning to the children. The children had difficulty sitting and were disappointed when they could not immediately recognize and name the correct letters.

Lois Malaguzzi (Rinaldi, 1996) explains, “We must give enormous credit to the potential and power children possess....We must understand how, without even realizing it, we make so little use of the energy potential within us.” Rinaldi (1996) continues expressing Malaguzzi’s thoughts on the strong power of children by pointing out that the problem with the teacher-directed classroom is “related to a lack of awareness and the under-use of all of the intelligences, abilities, and skills, and knowledge that we possess...the problem is common to all of us; to children but also to adults, to teachers.”

How Worksheets Decrease Enthusiasm
Many educators have reported that teachers' contentedness or lack of contentedness is based on the control or lack of control they have of instructional design and the curricula they use. Discontentment often leads to low morale and loss of interest in providing an excellent learning environment for children. When teachers are unhappy, their classrooms lose vitality. Essa (1996) contrasts the two types of early childhood centers in one community by reporting differences in teachers’ job satisfaction according to the amount of “freedom they have to support children’s natural characteristics to learn. The center whose teachers have high job satisfaction allows staff members to have input into creative curriculum design whereas the other teachers must follow a prescribed monthly curriculum that involves letter and number recognition activities as well as dittoed exercises....”

Essa elaborates when she describes the preschool program whose teachers must use prescribed curriculum: “The teachers complain about feeling isolated, having no say over what they do with the children and being forced to carry out activities neither they nor the children enjoy....This environment is also underlined by frequent teacher turnover....”

Some administrators state that worksheet-based curricula provide a great resource for teachers who have little enthusiasm, energy, creativity, or curriculum knowledge. What these administrators fail to recognize is that worksheets, because they are teacher-directed, do not take into account the unique interests and skills of specific teachers and children.

Sue Grossman (1996) points out that “workbooks” (so often the most important part of prepackaged curriculum), are made up of worksheets that typically have a “right answer.” Grossman (1996) describes four-year-old Jamaica who is “expected to circle the rhyming words or match the pictures of things that start with the letter ‘G,’ who may learn quickly that putting down a wrong answer is emotionally costly. Worksheet activities may make her feel ignorant and incompetent, so that she learns to stop taking risks by guessing.”

In addition, worksheet-based curricula dampen enthusiasm because they keep children from forming relationships, an important part of classroom life. Rinaldi (1996) explains, “The child dies if he or she does not sense that the adult is close enough to see how much strength, how much intelligence, invention, capacity, and creativity, he or she possesses. The child wants to be seen, observed, and applauded. And when the child dies, the teacher dies as well because the teacher’s goal is the same as that of the children...to find meaning in work and in existence, to see value and significance in what she does.”

If worksheets have a place in the classroom they would be better found in classrooms of older children who have a background for working with symbols and abstractions (Bredekamp, S., 1987; Rosegrant, T., 1992).

The Constructivist Perspective
In an enthusiastic classroom environment there are knowledgeable teachers who design a classroom setting for a specific group of children (Evans, 1968). An enthusiastic classroom environment is authentic because it is based on activities planned with the children’s interests in mind. Hendricks (1997) describes how both Piaget (1973) and more recently Vygotsky (1978) stated that the involvement of children and teachers is necessary for quality early childhood programs. Hendricks (1997) discusses the virtues espoused by these two theorists as offering the opportunity for inquiry and interaction. The teachers find effective ways to foster collaborative learning that is now referred to as the constructivist perspective to learning.

In quality programs children are regularly consulted about what they want to know and do” (DeVries and Zan, 1995). DeVries and Zan (1995) quote Dewey (1913; 1975), who “pointed out almost a century ago (and as probably most people can attest to in their everyday lives), people always invest more time, energy, and attention in what interests them.” DeVries and Zan (1995) go on to define constructivist teachers as “teachers who respect children by upholding children’s rights to their feelings, ideas, and opinions. These teachers use their authority selectively and refrain from using power unnecessarily. In this way they give the children the opportunity to develop personalities characterized by self-confidence, respect for self and others, and active, inquiring, creative minds.” It is clear that when children are allowed to inquire, be creative, and collaborate, classrooms become alive with human interaction.

In the constructivist classroom, teachers relax the schedule and take time to get to know the children individually as well as in a group. The teachers ask themselves many questions, such as “What are the children’s greatest interests?," "Through which projects can these interests be encouraged and skills developed?," and “How will we be able to guide children to seek the knowledge that is appropriate for them at this time?”

Discovery Learning
In constructivist preschool classrooms children are viewed as powerful and capable of seeking information that builds knowledge (Katz, 1993). Learning, even when it involves mistakes, is considered an important process of growing and living. Children learn as they explore the world around them and the exploration provides an avenue for problem solving. As children explore, they develop new questions, and theorize answers. From these new answers children formulate new and more advanced theories and must be free to express those as well, so that the knowledge they have acquired will create still more questions. The acquisition of knowledge continues throughout life, in and out of the classroom, as long as individuals stay motivated to learn. The constructivist classroom buzzes with activity and experiences but also offers quiet time to reflect on these experiences.

Many people, including some parents, worry that allowing children to engage in discovery learning will prevent them from learning to sit still and from learning traditional skills such as memorizing the alphabet. These individuals also believe that the skills needed for what some adults perceive as “real school” will be overlooked. Adults often remember how they learned the alphabet and numerals, which were usually taught through direct instruction by the teacher. While many teachers and parents intuitively know how children learn best, they don’t always understand why and how play is important to learning traditional academic topics. Real experiences such as the study of bones or pansies (see sidebars) not only help children learn beginning letters (i.e., when children see that the letter “B” could be a symbol for bones and that “P” might be a symbol for pansy), but also provide opportunities to learn about social studies, science, reading, writing, and math, through meaningful, integrated activities.

Case Study: Blair and the Pansies
The center was having a flower sale and one of the classrooms was filled with colorful pansies. Five-year-old Blair spotted the pansies from the hallway as she returned from the playground. On her own initiative, Blair decided that she would paint a picture of a pansy. She expressed her interest to her teacher, chose a pansy, determined its odor, sketched, and carefully painted a picture of the pansy.

Blair was delighted by her accomplishment and intensely involved with using problem-solving skills to accomplish her project. Blair was constructing knowledge as she made decisions about how to move through her project. She used her artistic talent and observational skills to recreate the pansy on paper. Blair used language skills when she named her creation, “Pansy Perfect.” Not only was Blair’s enthusiasm for her work high, but her teacher was rewarded for having provided the understanding and means for Blair to accomplish her goal.

After her first painting, Blair decided to review photographs of pansies. Blair’s teacher provided her with a book of different varieties of pansies. Blair noticed differences in the colors, sizes, and shapes of the different varieties. Soon Blair went to the easel and completed another painting of two pansies. Blair entitled this masterpiece, “Two Pansies Purple.”

In this case, Blair’s teacher was able to encourage the individual interest of a single child. While other children may not have been interested in the pansy painting project, Blair was extremely excited and motivated to learn. Had the teacher instead directed the activity of the entire class by using worksheet activities, the end result would not have been the same. Blair’s enthusiasm was largely due to her discovery of the pansies in one of the classrooms; the ability for her to touch, smell, and explore a pansy; encouragement of her teacher; and her final product.

Case Study: The Teacher’s Broken Ankle
Four-year-old Brett and three-year-old Alex had just started preschool. One of the teachers had broken her ankle and the children in the preschool were obviously concerned when she returned in a wheelchair for a classroom visit. Brett and Alex quickly ran to the teacher. Brett asked, “What happened?” Unbeknownst to the teacher, Brett had previously had an experience with a wheelchair. His grandmother had been in a wheelchair while she was recovering from several broken bones. Alex and the growing number of children who were gathering around the teacher’s wheelchair, however, had little or no experience with the subject.

To answer Brett’s question and help all of the children learn, the teacher explained, “The doctor said I have broken my ankle.” The teacher then paused, giving the children a chance to think about what that meant. To extend the children’s thinking, she asked, “What can you tell me about bones?” Before anyone else could answer, Alex replied, “A dog has a bone, but a dog biscuit doesn’t.”

The teacher and the children accepted Alex’s statement even though it was off the subject of the teacher’s broken ankle. Alex’s interpretation gave an indication of what Alex knew about bones at that point in time. From the comments of Alex and others who discussed bones, the children’s curiosity was piqued and an excited group of preschoolers began a study of bones. The children located their bones, made hypotheses about the purpose of bones, examined models of bones, and looked at x-rays of bones. Finally, the children, including Alex, drew individual pictures of healthy bones as well as bones they envisioned to be broken. Alex simply penciled long, slightly curved lines while older children drew more sophisticated versions.

To involve other senses, the teacher had the children imagine the sound bones might make as they break. Some of the children vocalized their interpretations of the sounds. Later the children theorized about what would induce bones to heal and drew pictures of ankles in casts. The children broadened their knowledge through dramatic play as they assumed the roles of orthopedic surgeons, nurses, and physical therapists.

It should be noted that dramatic play involves not only a process, but also a product—the play itself. This product can be documented by video or audio taping so that the dramatic play is as “concrete” as a physical painting or sculpture made by the child.

Through the beginning interest in the teacher’s broken ankle, many new topics were explored and activities begun. The same outcome would have been unlikely if instead the teacher had initially presented a set of worksheets on the topic of bones. The personal nature of the children’s experience with the teacher (whom they knew and could talk to) and the wheelchair and cast (which they could see and touch) increased the enthusiasm and interest of the children and the teacher.

Using Prepackaged Curricula
Most early childhood professionals agree that curricula should be child-driven. Most also realize that it takes a great deal of time and creativity to allow the children to discover and explore. While finding the materials and resources to support each child’s interests is worth the effort for both the teacher and the child, early childhood educators often use prepackaged curricula to supplement more open-ended discovery activities. If you use prepackaged curricula at times, it doesn’t mean that you have to create a teacher-directed classroom. Here are some tips which will allow you to remain child-directed while using prepackaged curricula.

·        Avoid curricula that are primarily worksheet-based. Worksheets are not developmentally appropriate for young children (See “The Worksheet Dilemma: Benefits of Play-Based Curricula” in the July/August 1996 issue of Earlychildhood NEWS.)

 

·        Look for curricula with open-ended activities that focus on the process as well as the end product. It is best if the end product is determined by the child—not dictated by the curriculum.

 

·        Allow children’s interests to determine the prepackaged curriculum topic. Just because you are buying an off-the-shelf product doesn’t mean that you have to dictate the topic. Purchase curriculum products in which the children are already interested.

 

·        Don’t feel obligated to follow the prepackaged curricula detail for detail. If the children get side-tracked and become interested in another topic, feel free to move in that direction. Likewise, don’t feel obligated to end a curriculum topic simply because the prepackaged lessons have been completed. Extend the topic with other activities of your own making if the children appear to want to learn more on a topic. Children often come and go from a project topic as they see ways to accommodate topic information from one study to another.

 

·        Invite all the teachers who will be using the curriculum to give their input. Teachers are more likely to use and be enthusiastic about a curriculum if they have been involved in the evaluation and decision-making process.

 

·        Use prepackaged curricula that support a real experience with quality experiments which have been pre-tested by early childhood professionals. Using such well-written, well-defined activities will save you time on planning while ensuring a high-quality curriculum.

 

·        Evaluate curriculum books carefully. Make sure they contain interesting, age-appropriate activities and are not simply old ideas rehashed.

Conclusion
When young children are involved in exploration and discovery, they are enthusiastic and motivated. A constructivist classroom allows children to gather information through their senses and make hypotheses, test predictions, and discuss results. This is how children gain knowledge. New knowledge leads to further action and action produces greater energy. This cycle continues to repeat. It is the collaborative unearthing of knowledge that keeps children, teachers, and classroom settings creatively alive and exciting.
Using worksheet-based preschool curricula leaves teachers and children mentally and physically drained. When something is required to be taught, it should be related to real life experiences. This keeps all of us joyfully interacting to find solutions and looking forward to what the next pursuit of knowledge will bring.

Sue Miles, Ed.D., is professor of early childhood education and pre-education at Waubonsee Community College. She is also supervisor of the Children’s Magnet Place, a demonstration preschool.

References
Bredekamp, S. (ed.). (1987). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs: Serving children from birth through age eight. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

DeVries, R. and Zan, B. (November 1995). Constructing a constructivist classroom atmosphere. Young Children. 51, (1), 4-14.

Dewey, J. (1913; 1975). Interest and effort in education. Edwardwille, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Essa, E. (1996). Introduction to early childhood education, (2nd edition). Albany, NY: Delmar Publishers.

Evans, E. (1968). Training nursery school teachers and kindergarten teachers for early childhood certification. Seminar Lecture Notes. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University.

Grossman, S. (1996). The worksheet dilemma: Benefits of play-based curricula. Earlychildhood NEWS, 8 (4), 10-15.

Hendricks, J. (1997). First steps toward Reggio teaching. Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Katz, L. (1993). What can we learn from Reggio-Emilia? In C. Edwards, L. Gandini, and G. Forman (Eds.), The hundred languages of children: The Reggio-Emilia approach to early childhood education. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Malaguzzi, L. (1994). Your image of the child: Where teaching begins. Child Care Information Exchange, 61.

Piaget, J. (1973). To understand is to invent: The future of education. New York: Grossman.

Rinaldi, C. (1996). Malaguzzi and the teachers. Innovations in early education: The international Reggio exchange, edited by P. Weissman, 3 (4), 1-7).

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.