Teacher as Engineer

Teacher as Engineer

We give children the resources, tools, and infrastructure they need to solve problems we haven’t even thought of yet.”

Alison Gopnik The Gardener and The Carpenter

It’s time to admit something: I have no psychic capabilities whatsoever. I like to think I do! I like to think I know trends before they come, trouble before it starts, and outcomes before beginnings. I am always 100% inevitably. incontrovertibly wrong.

I might be going out in a limb here, but I am guessing that you may not be psychic either.

But we teach like we are!

We talk about preparing kids for the future, about twenty-first century skills, we say things like, “kids will need to know how to do (insert anything) to live in the world.” But will they? I have been puzzling over this thought, and Alison Gopnik’s phenomenal book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, has set me straight.

She has a lot of wisdom to share about child development, but the quote I keep coming back to is the one in the header:

We give children the resources, tools, and infrastructure they need to solve problems we haven’t even thought of yet.”

Alison Gopnik The Gardener and The Carpenter

That is a mighty sentence, so lets unpack it for a minute. Somewhere in my history, I go the impression that smart meant you knew everything. It has taken a while for me to come to the understanding that smart really means you know the limitations of what you do know. What will the world be like for today’s ten year olds? Six years olds? Three year olds? We can’t begin to imagine, really, what the future will hold. It’s time we acknowledge that firmly. We only know that they are going into a world that will have problems.

The role of school, it would seem, is to do the work of the first part of the sentence: give children the resources, tools, and infrastructure to solve problems.

How can kids learn to do that if we don’t give them problems to solve?

In other words, what problems have we solved for kids without even thinking about it?

Assigned seats remove the problem of understanding space.

Desks and pencil boxes remove the problem of negotiation and compromise.

Direct instruction removes the problem of figuring it out.

And so on.

I worry we are sending a community of children into the future who don’t even have a chance to figure out the problems of now, let alone the ones that will come.

I get it, I do. I was a public school teacher up until very recently. I entered my data into a computer and for a good 15 minutes after doing so I would think, “That’s it, everyone is getting worksheets and assigned seats so I can dedicate 5-6 hours to guided reading every day.” Because giving kids space to learn to solve complex and messy problems like where to sit, and how to share, and collaborating over high interest questions means I have to let go of control. I have to let go of my agenda, and I have to admit I don’t exactly know what the world will look like in the future, but its probably going to need people who know how to share resources. Now I’m not saying it won’t also need kids who know how to read- but it’s more about balance. Lilian Katz in her article Lively Minds: Distinctions Between Academic versus Intellectual Goals for Young Children frames it this way:

“Academic goals are those concerned with the mastery of small discrete elements of disembodied information, usually related to pre-literacy skills in the early years, and practiced in drills, worksheets, and other kinds of exercises designed to prepare children for the next levels of literacy and numeracy learning. The items learned and practiced have correct answers, rely heavily on memorization, the application of formulae versus understanding, and consist largely of giving the teacher the correct answers that the children know she awaits.”

“Intellectual goals and their related activities, on the other hand, are those that address the life of the mind in its fullest sense (e.g. reasoning, predicting, analyzing, questioning, etc.), including a range of aesthetic and moral sensibilities.”

It might be fair to say that intellectual goals as defined by Lilian Katz are very much in the same arena as the tools and infrastructure that Alison Gopnik refers to in her own writing,

Infrastructure, Tools, and Resources (Oh my!)

Again, I am not arguing that we throw out our books, and burn our standards, what I am suggesting is that we add to our planning and reflection repertoire a series of questions that center us on the bigger work we have in front of us:

  • Will I/Did I teach this in a way where children were asked to problem solve? Make decisions? Think critically? Reflect?
  • Were children asked primarily to recall and apply? Or we they asked to discover, analyze, invent or create?
  • What social learning is embedded in this work? Did I model and facilitate resilience, flexibility, and collaboration?
  • Am I looking for a correct answer? Or a specific process? How can I facilitate and curate experiences that encourage finding a personal process or multiple answers?

It’s not enough to teach children to read, and write, and think mathematically if we do so in a way that undermines their curiosity, engagement, social competency and joy. There are lots of thinkers and teachers doing lots of work around this. Smokey Daniels and the gorgeous teachers in Curious Classroom,  Lilian Katz in literally everything she has ever written, Shawna Coppola in her books about writing to name a few. A book that is rocking my world around this (and a lot of other things as well) is Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain  by Zaretta Hammond. All I can say is read it. Twice probably. Maybe 50 times.

I am going to be out on the road talking specifically about this topic in the next few weeks. How do we teach in a way that puts kids first? That centers their developing infrastructures? In a way that kids meet the academic benchmarks BECAUSE they are problem solving, collaborating, sharing, and questioning. Come out and see me! And if not there, stop by with your thoughts at this blog!

Upcoming Workshops: (click on the place/date to link to more information

Heinemann Workshop: Dallas/Forth Worth, Oct. 8, 2019

California Reading Association: Sacramento, Oct 18-19, 2019

Heinemann Workshop: San Diego, Nov 19, 2019



1 Comment
  • Susan McElhone
    Posted at 15:05h, 05 October Reply

    You continue to make me think and reflect. Thank you for sharing these resources with all of us as well. As educators we must be flexible in our thinking, not just in our delivery. See you in November in OS!

Post A Comment