Standing up on two hind legs, the little meerkat scans the African desert for food. Spotting a scorpion a short distance away, the prairie-dog-like mammal jumps on its prey and skillfully rips off the stinger. It drags the stunned scorpion through the sand and then starts to chow down on lunch.
Animals are always intriguing us with the amazing things they can do. Many learn by observation, such as the killer whale calf who constantly follows his mother and mimics everything she does. Others learn by play, like the tiger pup that pounces on everything that moves in order to learn the intricacies of hunting. Meerkats, however, learn how to hunt by a more advanced technique: they are taught by older meerkats.
The fact that these mammals teach their young, gives us insight into the very nature of learning. Without the ability to use higher-level thinking skills and overthink the philosophy of educating their pups, they end up doing what works.
Meerkats, being the social creatures that they are, live in clans of 20 - 50 other meerkats who groom, protect and even babysit for one another. This close community provides many opportunities for young pups to learn the art of hunting. It is not just the parent who teaches their young, but any older meerkats in the clan who want to help.
The helpers teach in a series of stages. At first, young meerkats who can’t hunt at all are given dead scorpions to eat. Later, a helper meerkat might give the young learner a live scorpion that he has disabled by removing its stinger. As the young meerkat becomes more skillful, the helper will increase the challenge, perhaps disabling the scorpion and leaving on the stinger, or removing the stinger, but not disabling it so the pup will have to chase it down before eating it. Eventually, just before the young meerkat is ready to hunt on its own, the helper might toss him a live scorpion, hoping that the learning pup will know what to do.
But that’s not all! Through all of these stages, the helper meerkat will observe the young to see how well they handle the prey. If a young pup is having trouble with a scorpion, the helper might disable it further. If the scorpion gets away, the helper will go fetch it for the pup, so he can try again. If the young pup is reluctant to handle the prey, the older one will encourage him, by giving a gentle nudge. By adjusting his help according to his observations, the older meerkats can offer appropriate aide to the younger ones and eventually eliminate the need for aide altogether.
A 19th century Soviet educational psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, named this type of teaching in humans “scaffolded instruction.” In scaffolded instruction, the teacher gives support to the learner, according to the learner’s needs, abilities and interests. As the learner grows, the type of support changes and lessens, until eventually the learner can complete the task on his own. It is a very natural way to learn, depending heavily on the relationship between teacher and learner.
Although we humans are certainly more capable of higher level thinking than the meerkat, it might do us some good to learn from what they do so well. By paying attention to individual needs, meerkats successfully teach their young a vital life skill. Scaffolded instruction is just one technique we can use in classrooms to move from the standardized education that is so prevalent in schools today, to a more individualized approach. With personalized education, no one ever falls “behind.” No one is ever “ahead.” Instead each child is right where they are. Teachers support them from that very point, and guide them forward at just the right pace.
New schools are popping up all over the country with this idea in mind. In our own community, MindSpark Learning Community uses personalized instruction to help each child follow their own individual learning path. Passionate teachers there help their students reach learning goals by understanding each child’s needs and using techniques like scaffolded instruction.
Like the meerkats who learn to skillfully hunt and eat a scorpion, children who learn with this kind of purposeful guidance from trusted adults have the advantages of self-pacing, exploration and interest-based learning. They gain the self-confidence and motivation to become passionate lifelong learners, because learning is engaging, meaningful and it sticks.
A friend recently confessed that her 7-year-old hates to write. My friend tried her best to make writing fun. She gave imaginative story ideas, gave exciting prompts for writing, and they wrote in a daily journal, where they could write anything they wanted--poems, letters, stories, anything. But still, her daughter insisted that she hated writing.
Knowing I am a teacher, she came to me for advice. But my answer surprised her. I told her to stop making her daughter write--at least for now. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, taking a break from writing is exactly what her daugher needed. Here’s why:
First, by continuing the struggle, she is unintentionally teaching her daughter that writing is a chore. She is getting the message that you write because someone else tells you to write, instead of because you have something to say.
Secondly, when children show resistance to writing, they are usually trying to tell us that what we are asking of them is too difficult. The precursor to writing is speaking (just like the precursor to speaking is babbling). So when children struggle with writing, we can take a step back and develop their verbal skills, which will naturally transfer to their writing skills later.
When I teach writing to my students, there are three things I want them to know:
These big ideas--and the skill set that is associated with each--can easily be taught without even touching a pencil to paper! I gave my friend a few ideas for her daughter, and realized that there were probably quite a few other parents out there with reluctant writers. So here are 10 ideas to encourage writing--without writing!
1. Tell a story together. You add parts, and let them add parts. Be aware that they are listening to how you add to the story, so get creative!
Writing Skills Learned: forming ideas, organization, clarification, character development, setting, details
2. Ask what they did today. Recounting events requires attention to details and thinking about who you are communicating with. Your questions will encourage them to organize their thoughts or add details to clarify. (What did your friend say after that?)
Writing Skills Learned: organization, clarification, intended audience, descriptions,
choosing important details
3. Let them tell you a story. Giving them the freedom to create their own story inspires imagination and organization. Really listen, and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification when it is required to understand the story. (Why was the dragon crying?)
Writing Skills Learned: creating ideas, organizing, clarification, storyline, character development, attention to details, descriptions, use of words.
4. Encourage them to make up a song or poem. Just because they’re not writing, doesn’t mean they can’t create. Make sure you point out when their words genuinely strike you. Look for interesting words, good descriptions and creative uses of words.
Writing Skills Learned: creating ideas, rhyming words, descriptions, word usage, word selection, poetry
5. Catch good phrases. Children say interesting things all the time. They notice things we might not. They see things in a different light. Pay attention to the unique things your child says and point them out. Or even better--write them down to show how important they are!
Writing Skills Learned: word selection, word usage, writing voice, style, that their ideas are important and worth sharing
6. Let them express themselves in other ways. Drawing, painting, dancing, singing...all of these are ways we can express ourselves. When they’re done, let them put words to their art if they want. Help them find the right words if they can’t.
Writing Skills Learned: expression, personal voice, style, clarification, word selection, word usage
7. Let them see you write. Whether it’s a shopping list or a newspaper article, what better way is there to show how writing can be used? When you can, verbalize how you go through the writing process. (Well, that won’t make sense if I say it like that. Let me try another way.)
Writing Skills Learned: purpose, audience, how the writing process works, that writing can be altered, forming ideas
8. Read! Read! Read! Books are written by professional writers. Use them to talk about writing! Discuss stories you like and don’t like. Find really cool sentences. Find words that make you laugh. Find descriptions that make you shiver. Talk about what you’re thinking as you read. (Oooh! What a cool first sentence! I think I’m going to like this book!).
Writing Skills Learned: word selection, word usage, descriptions, style, reader impact, organization, clarification, what excellent writing sounds like, forming ideas, details, genre
9. The Describing Game. There are many ways to play this game. The point is for children to have to think about the words they choose, in order to transfer an idea to you. One way to play is to gather a handful of items that are all similar, but have some unique characteristics: rocks, beans, apples, toy cars, etc. The more similar the items, the more challenging the game. Put all the items where everyone can see them. Have everyone choose one item, without indicating which item they have chosen. (Just keep it in your mind.) Then take turns describing your rock (or other item) to the other players, until someone guesses which one was yours.
You could also play this by mentally selecting an item in the room, giving one clue at a time, until someone guesses the object. (My object is big. My object has holes in it. Etc.)
Another variation is to have everyone sit down with a piece of paper and pencil. Draw a simple picture. Without letting others see your picture, describe what you draw, step-by-step. (Draw a wavy line at the top of the page. Under the wave, draw a small circle…) Everyone else tries to draw the picture as you are, based on your descriptions. When you are finished, have everyone share the pictures they made, and talk about what descriptions would have helped make drawing easier.
Writing Skills Learned: word selection, word usage, descriptions, details, clarification, order of details
10. Get creative! There are countless ways to incorporate writing skills into your child's interests and everyday activities. Does your child love to bake? Have them invent a cookie recipe and teach it to you. Is your child a natural poet? Write their poems down and make a book. Are they into sports? Have them give you a play-by-play of the last game they won. When you begin to focus on content of writing--the messages children want to share with us--even the most reluctant writer will eagerly participate, without even realizing they are learning to write!