Sunday, September 13, 2009

Book Review: Children's Mind, Talking Rabbits and Clockwork Oranges

I'd like to add "& Strange Coincidences" to the title of Kieran Egan's book. I started to draft up this book review on Friday afternoon and took a break to prepare dinner. I turned on the radio in the kitchen, CBC radio one, in time for the end of the six o'clock news. My ears perked up when the host mentioned "kids across the country getting back to school" and I turned up the volume to hear the story of an elementary school in Langley BC where students in grade one are assigned a single topic that they will explore for the following twelve years of their education. The idea, the host informs, comes from the research of Kieran Egan, an educational theorist at Simon Fraser University. Check out the radio clip here (the feature is near the end of the clip, move the cursor 1/4 from the end).

And after you've heard the news clip, go out and find a copy of this book. Egan's essays will enlighten your thinking about the education system and force you to ask yourself how you can better teach children and youth by addressing their emotional and cognitive states. On the title of his book, Egan explains that "Children's Minds" refers to how the thinking of children and adolescents is both similar to and different from the thinking of adults. "Talking Rabbits" is a symbol of the imaginative worlds that children have the capacity to so easily create, and which prove to be "the most engaging features of their thinking, and the ones least easily dealt with by the dominant conceptions of children's minds and their development that have influenced curricula" (xiv). "Clockwork Oranges", as Egan so eloquently phrases, "refers to the confusion that inevitably follows when we treat organic things as though they are mechanical" (xiv). What follows after an introduction from Elliot Eisner - who reinforces the importance of Egan's claim that knowledge is not an object, it is a process - is a series of essays that move from theoretical understandings of children's minds; to issues in curriculum design and an advocacy for the arts and social sciences as a primary learning platform; and finally to an analysis of educational research and the systems that neglect the thinking of children. The book, while heavy in theory and analysis, also includes clear examples of lesson plans that illustrate the ideas discussed: for example, a lesson on punctuation that engages the romantic mind of the adolescent learner by having students research the history of each punctuation symbol and what new punctuation developed as culture shifted and language transformed. Egan's writing challenges, inspires, and excites. You will look at the thinking of students in a new way and will have a new perspective on your role as a teacher.

Shortly after reading this book I taught a summer school class, ENG3U make-up, and put some of the theories into practice. I was looking to equip the students with critical thinking, research, and organization skills that would help them succeed in their 4U classes and would develop into effective habits that they would carry through their adult learning. Lofty goals, I know. One day I gave a lesson on note-taking. I was inspired by Egan's idea of engaging the romantic minds of adolescent students in something that traditionally seems mundane and trivial. I had the students clear their desks of everything but a clean piece of paper and their pen. I then romanticized their paper for them: I had the students pick up the piece of paper and instructed them to study it. They turned it over, most haphazard and listlessly, and sent waves rippling through it. I told them that what they were holding was someone's legacy, the product of a life's work of research and development, and I asked them to imagine the person who designed and created what we know today as lined paper. We discussed why paper is important, how paper is different from culture to culture, and why the lined paper that we know is designed the way it is (the blue lines specifically spaced, and the red margin in the location that it is). I then instructed them on how the design on the paper can help us with our note-taking: title at the top, our ideas and comments in the margins, a new line for a new piece of information. Before they practiced their new skills, I further romanticized their paper, telling them that once they have written on the page it will never be the same and will forever be a record of their thinking. They watched a CBC interview with Russell Peters to practice their note-taking. We then discussed what everyone had written, what they had included and why. Their assignment at the end of the class was to listen to another interview with Etan Thomas, an NBA player, poet, and activist, and to use their notes to construct a personal response to the issues Thomas addressed. Their responses were passionate and well-supported with quotes and information from the interview.

Egan's ideas, that learning is an organic and lifelong process, is important for today's youth. Media has become increasingly chopped-up; commercials last only a second, music is consumed by the song rather than the album, and internet video streaming of clips lasting only a few minutes is the go-to form of entertainment. Against this the idea of researching a topic for twelve years seems unimaginable, but perhaps the success in Langley shows us that children are hungry for an approach to learning where their knowledge is not as disposable as a computer file.

Egan's homepage here

Buy Children's Minds... here

Egan Youtube discussions here

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