How do kids learn?

Educator Jan Pelletier says it begins with their natural curiosity by Paul Fraumeni

Jan Pelletier can explain how kids learn by telling a story about cockroaches.

Pelletier is a Canadian leader in the education and early development of children.

A former elementary school teacher and school psychologist, she is director of the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study (ICS) and a professor at U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).

The ICS has a three-fold mandate — research, teacher-researcher training and operation of a renowned laboratory school for 200 children from nursery school to Grade 6. And it
is in this school where ICS researchers, teachers and student teachers aim to improve on
traditional models of how children learn.

That’s where the cockroaches come in.

“In our Grade 4 class, the teacher once had Hissing Madagascar Cockroaches in an aquarium. She didn’t say to the students, ‘This is what their exoskeleton is like and this is how they eat.’ Instead, she got them to form ‘inquiry groups’, and let them learn by asking questions. One child wondered if they could teach the cockroaches to negotiate a maze, for example. Later, they posted their theories on a hybrid learning discussion site called Knowledge Forum and they built on each other’s theories. They sent e-mails with their observations to U of T entomologists and analyzed the responses together. This is what we call ‘knowledge-building.’ It’s a huge piece of the learning process. Children are naturally curious, so the best way to help them learn is to let that curiosity rise.”

Pelletier points to a core set of other factors:

Security: “It’s important for young children to feel safe, in their home life, in their social lives and at school,” says Pelletier. “Without a solid feeling of safety and security, they may be less motivated or unable to capitalize on their curiosity. This comes from a long line of research around the need for ‘secure attachment’ between children and parents. It starts when they are babies and they give out signals, anticipating their parents’ response. As the parent or caregiver continues to respond in a sensitive way, an attachment is formed. This process, called ‘serve and return’ is the basis of the sense of security young children need for later learning.”

It’s OK to be wrong — especially when you have a great teacher: “We had one class discussing how leaves change colour on trees. One child said, ‘The clouds get too heavy and dump a lot of rain on the tree and then the leaves have to protect themselves.’ That idea may be wrong — but that’s OK. Some people worry that we’re letting children purposely do the wrong thing. But gradually with a skilled educator, we bring the children to a more logical understanding. Just think how much deeper your learning is when you have discovered it for yourself with the guidance of a great teacher. Because you started it yourself, you remember it better.”

Home and school: “There has to be a connection between the parent and the school. Take literacy, for example. Teachers can share their knowledge of helping a child to learn vocabulary. And parents can take those tips home. My graduate students and I developed a program on family literacy. Parents and children come for pizza once a week for nine weeks. It gives mum and dad a night off cooking and we stage parent and child learning and related activities around key concepts in literacy. This sharing of learning is often life-changing for children.”

“I know how tough it is for parents to engage in their children’s learning. Parents are busier than ever before and society is more frenetic. But, there is more understanding among researchers and the general public that early child development is absolutely critical to our future.”