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Voice of Experience: Little Square Pegs

Where I saw a task to be mastered, my daughter found a bucketful of learning

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The other day, I got a bucket of water and a cloth, and called my youngest daughter. Admittedly, it was a rather pathetic attempt to appease some “mommy-guilt.” Struggling to find the tenuous balance between my need to get stuff done, while still spending quality time with the kids, sometimes leads me to combine those binaries and try to sell it as fun.

I also had a “goal” in mind for Gisella; I wanted my tiny whirlwind to learn while helping Mommy – something simple, like how to clean the table. But then she dis-covered that as she dunked her little hand into the bucket, soapy water spilled over the edge. It fascinated her, and she tried it again and again, experimenting with this concept. Her Eureka-moment trumped the intended chore. Instead of learning to clean, she learned about displacement – pretty great for a three-year-old and certainly as valuable as table-wiping.

Then it struck me: if this had taken place in school, Gisella would have failed miserably! She didn’t “learn the lesson.” In fact, instead of cleaning up, she made a mess! Summatively, it would have been reported as a “not yet” on a report card. Formatively, she would have been redirected to focus on the “I can statement” of the lesson. She learned something, but not what the target set out.

And so I find that my own children have awakened a burgeoning curiosity that leads me to question teaching practices I have been enthusiastically endorsing – such as outcomes-based curricula and their corresponding assessment models.

The crusade for solid unit planning and assessment reform is a moving tide at the core of professional learning that aligns teacher practice to our current curricula. I have bought into these principles! I lived and breathed them; I encouraged others to do the same. I have urged teachers to ask themselves essential questions about the purpose of their instructional and assessment choices, and to align their planning and assessment to curricular outcomes that begin with the end in mind.

Now – I reconsider.

I try to imagine what school will teach my other daughter, six-year-old Olivia. Olivia’s mind dances. Parenting such wonderful trouble can be frustrating, but I also see the gift her insatiable inquisitiveness holds. There are times when I am not sure how to rein her in – the energy of a hurricane is hard to steer. But I do know that when she is interested, she is captivated. She is already a smart little girl, and a square little peg.

Unfortunately, I have begun to see schools as round holes that all children must squeeze through. I worry that schools do not allow learning to occur naturally, or borne of student need or interest. Nor do they allow for assessment of that learning to generate from the experience, or what students may actually have learned from their opportunities. Schools attempt to organize teaching and learning in ways we can explain, defend, describe, and evaluate. But what about the other things children may take away from a learning experience?


I don’t know how this plays out in the classroom. I can see value in enabling our students to dunk their soapy hands in their learning. The imaginative possibilities encompassed by a flexible curricula appeal to me; I believe these very things will teach students to think critically and adequately prepare them for a changing world.

But there is practicality to consider. Nobody wants a free-for-all! Outcomes-based curricula and assessment provide helpful structure, equity between students, and general organization. But are specific outcomes the best way to encourage authentic learning? Certainly they create destinations we are driving toward; but they also, by definition, limit the journey. In the process, do we limit our children?

Do we create and implement curriculum outcomes because we truly believe they are best for our students – or because we haven’t imagined how to do it differently? Are we ready to transform?

I have few workable answers to the practical challenges this educational transformation would present. However, I do think we are tumbling in a world that is a shifting kaleidoscope, unable to predict what picture will appear tomorrow. I am not confident the structure of schools and our current practices encourage the flexibility, creativity, and healthy curiosity our children will need as they navigate the ever-changing landscape of the future.

There is one thing I am sure of: that the weighty responsibility of preparing children for a world of possibilities, and the challenges that come with change, face educators and parents alike.

First published in Education Canada, January 2013