Several months ago I was invited to observe in a religious education program. I had expressed interest based on the similarity of the program, called Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and the Montessori method. Despite different end goals, both programs feature “sensorially rich” experiences (learning through the senses and through movement) and an environment prepared for children to freely access different learning materials.
The timelines, materials, and spiraling curriculum were each meaningful, and I enjoyed seeing the programs at several different age levels. What made the biggest impression, however, was the memorable behavior of one little girl. About four to five years old, she was extremely drawn in to a lesson on the rite of Baptism and especially wanted to touch the water in the tiny Baptismal font prepared for her and her classmates. The teacher was more than happy to allow her to “practice” the gesture of dipping her hand in the water and making a large sign of the cross over the group, and even to pour water over her hand using a shell, as done by the priest or deacon in Baptism. First though, this little one would have to sit still in her chair, listen to a question, raise her hand, wait to be acknowledged, and correctly answer the question. Desperate to perform, she was certain to raise her hand higher than any other child, climbing out of her seat just to be acknowledged. When this didn’t work, she resorted to calling out the likely responses to the questions being posed by the teacher: “Jesus!!!” “Baptism!” “Candle!!!” “God!” “water!” I think she must have said all of these and more in a span of twenty seconds. The teacher tried to focus on children who were, in fact, listening to the questions, raising their hands, and providing correct responses. These children got to “practice” the gestures and symbols at the font and then, satisfied, return to their seats. Meanwhile, the original little girl did not give up her fight. Eventually, she was allowed to touch the water (I don’t know if this was because she eventually gave a correct answer, or because everyone else had gone…her desperate behavior didn’t change much throughout the short time).
So my reflection is this: in having this very eager, engaged student wait did she attend to proper classroom behavior and practice impulse control? Did she learn about Baptism by waiting and attempting to answer questions the teacher deemed important? Would it have been unfair to other children to allow her to go first despite her uncontrolled behavior, or was it more unfair that she wildly call out answers during the lesson? Should she have been excused from the lesson entirely, to not have had this learning experience? I don’t think these answers are black and white, especially since her wild shout-outs revealed she had attended to the lesson and its explanation of religious symbolism.
I wonder further: an older child more conditioned in the practice of “schooling” might be able to suppress his or her impulses more effectively than this little girl. He or she might be extremely invested in asking or pursuing the answer to a question or partaking in an activity but quietly raise his or her hand to ask permission. Should we be pleased at the civility of this child, or should we be sad that they must wait for another person to validate their inner drive? Does following a classroom procedure build character and awareness of others, or does it in someway suppress a child’s inner drive toward learning? Is asking permission and waiting one’s turn simply deemed the “best” or most feasible way to operate in a classroom of twenty or more sets of interests and needs? Do we even think about these questions on an ongoing basis? I think we should.
And, finally, to extrapolate further, when we ask a child to complete a less desirable activity prior to engaging in something more intrinsically interesting, or receiving a sought-after reward, what do we and the child gain? Is the child truly attending to the first activity, or simply driven to finish to access the pursuant activity or reward? The child I watched almost certainly didn’t learn anything about Baptism during her wait to complete the activity. Were the classroom procedures she possibly noted worth the wait she endured?
I think when we look carefully at our education practices, both on the system level and the classroom level (mine included!) we see many reasons to reflect. This little girl was a good reminder for me to define our goals and reflect on how we can facilitate a culture of community and respect while also fueling intrinsic motivation and thirst for meaningful work.
One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.