Last month I shared Rabbi Meir Muller’s belief that children need (metaphorical) mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors in order to meaningfully construct knowledge about their world from their experiences. This hews to the theory of constructivism, which posits that one does not – in fact often cannot – learn directly from another. Information can be shared but knowledge cannot be given. Knowledge must be constructed from one’s own experiences and by actively engaging with those experiences, turning them over in one’s mind, making connections, and finding new meaning. Constructivism is a theory of learning, not of teaching.
Rabbi Muller explained that there are four key factors in constructing knowledge, which relate back to his mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. (To recap: with mirrors, children see themselves in their experiences and therefore give import to those experiences; through windows, children see opportunities to apply their learning to new situations; by going through sliding glass doors, children engage with the bigger world and test their knowledge.)
In the first key factor to constructing knowledge, leaners must have hands on experiences and be able to internalize those experiences before they can truly learn. Hands on experiences are often sensory in nature and must involve the whole child. Children must engage authentically with their world and feel true emotions for real learning to take place. For example, we need to be careful that we don’t inadvertently give children the impression that the Torah is a lightweight, fuzzy, soft, blue and red toy that can be dropped on the floor. In order for children to really learn what the Torah is and what it represents they need to engage with a real Torah in an authentic way.
The second key factor is the hardest to provide, only because our rushed world is always pushing us to do more, faster. The factor is time. Children need time, lots and lots of uninterrupted time, to explore their world. They need time to notice how their world changes when just one tiny variable is added or taken away. They need time to build on what they’ve processed the day or week before. They need time to suss out why something is the way it is or works the way it does before a well-meaning adult jumps in to offer a little “help.”
This doesn’t mean adults have no role to play in the constructivist classroom. Social interactions are the third key factor. One way children construct knowledge is by learning from someone else something that they could in no way have gleaned for themselves. A good way to understand this is to think of a technology that is no longer in use in today’s world. Without the practical experience associated with that technology, we really can’t know or understand what it once did. Would a child growing up with iTunes be able to make sense of a gramophone?
Finally, passion and wonder are required in order for children to construct knowledge. Without that inspiration to know more, to ask “why,” sometimes over and over again, there will be no learning. That doesn’t mean it’s on us to make sure our children are always interested and entertained. Instead it means that we shouldn’t quash children’s innate curiosity by thinking it’s our job to directly teach them everything they need to know. If we trust our children, they will show us what they are ready to learn.