Academic journal article Childhood Education

The Learning Spiral: Taking the Lead from How Young Children Learn

Academic journal article Childhood Education

The Learning Spiral: Taking the Lead from How Young Children Learn

Article excerpt

The questions at right, asked by 2nd-graders, launch a scientific inquiry about owls. As the 7-year-olds investigate stuffed owl specimens, they express their need to know. Some children continue to stroke the owls' feathers, touch a sharp claw, and ask questions about the mouth, while others immediately turn to printed materials to clarify their questions. This new experience with owls ignites the children's sense of wonder, and the intrinsically motivated scientific inquiry begins.

Another group of 7-year-olds are also studying owls in a science unit. These students, however, sit at their desks attending to a textbook assignment. The room is fairly quiet, except for occasional trips to the pencil sharpener or the bathroom. The motivation for these learners is externally supplied by the teacher. Consequently, this learning experience is a solitary one.

The scenarios above exemplify the classic tension between student-centered and teacher-centered learning environments. This tension is not new. In the 17th and 18th centuries, education pioneers like Comenius and Rousseau (Ornstein & Levine, 1993) suggested that young children learn best through active exploration of their world. In the early 20th century, Dewey (1938) promoted a view of the environment as a source of real and educative experiences.

In the 1980s, Goodlad (1984) called for "teaching designed to involve students more meaningfully and actively in the learning process" (p. 271). Other researchers (Miller & Bizzell, 1984; Schweinhart & Weikart, 1988; Tunnell & Jacobs, 1989) reported that a child-centered learning environment promotes achievement more than didactic, teacher-directed programs.

The call for developmentally appropriate practice also supports child-centered environments. Developmental appropriateness is two-fold. First, age appropriateness acknowledges the predictable sequences of growth and change, which provide a framework for teachers to prepare learning experiences. Second, individual appropriateness acknowledges that each child is a unique person with an individual pattern and timing of growth (Bredekamp, 1987). Hence, a developmentally appropriate curriculum must:

* provide for all areas of a child's development through the integrated curriculum

* be based on teachers' observations and recordings of each child's special interests and developmental progress

* emphasize learning as an interactive process

* offer learning experiences and materials that are concrete and relevant to the lives of children

* provide for a wider range of developmental interests and abilities than the chronological age range of a group would suggest

* provide a variety of activities and materials that increase in difficulty and complexity as the children develop understanding skills. (Bredekamp, 1987, pp. 3-4)

Despite the mounting theory and research that support a child-centered learning environment, it appears that this instructional approach seldom takes a firm foothold in America's classrooms. During 25 years as an administrator and researcher, Cuban (1984) discovered a uniformity in classroom practice: "I found evidence of a seemingly stubborn continuity in the character of instruction despite intense reform efforts to move classroom practices toward instruction that was more student-centered" (p. 2). Unfortunately, when Cuban (1993) revisited his previous study nearly a decade later, he noted that "the tradition of teacher-centered instruction continues to dominate both elementary and secondary classrooms" (p. 272).

Two questions, then, face educators of young children: 1) What does developmentally appropriate, child-centered practice look like? and 2) How do teachers create a developmentally appropriate, child-centered learning environment? This article will offer possible answers to these two questions by using science instruction as the vehicle and focusing on 2nd-grade learners. …

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