“I can’t believe what you got these kids to do,” one of my student’s parents said on Friday. “I mean, this is the kind of stuff I didn’t do until seventh- or eighth-grade.”
Utterances similar to this coupled with a buzz of excitement filled my classroom this Friday when my students shared their scientific method projects. They discussed their testable questions, all of which they created on their own; they proudly shared their self-created methodologies, the limitations to their experiments, and the conclusions they managed to draw about concepts related to force and energy–all based on the research they conducted, the observations they made, and what they know to be true about analyzing data.
But none of this miraculous learning could have happened if I didn’t start by assuming that kids could handle this type of thinking. It couldn’t have worked without assuming that good instruction with a little bit of faith was just enough to get my kids to do some extraordinary things.
And that’s the bottom line.
We don’t give kids enough credit. Plain and simple. Students, especially those who are making the transition into adolescence are capable of much more abstract, big-picture thinking than we give them credit for. It’s all in how you frame it. According to Piaget, students at this age, 10-11 years old, are in the concrete-operational stage, where they are able to think logically, use deductive reasoning, but still struggle with abstraction. However, he did also argue that children in this stage of development were fairly good at using inductive logic, which entails taking a specific experience and generalizing it to a universal truth. In the case of our science projects, it was clear that students were able to ground themselves within this specific experience, their specific testable questions and hypotheses, and then deduce some general truths about forces, energy, and the scientific method.
While all of this learning, displayed and organized wonderfully, was one of the highlights of the afternoon, the climax of the science fair event came at the end of the day, when one of my students and his mother came up to me.
Clearly, the mother had discussed the proposed same-sex marriage discussion with her son, and attempted to discuss it with me. I politely declined, as it seemed like the appropriate thing to do in this setting. But that didn’t really seem to halt the conversation.
“Mr. France, [Alex] just wanted to tell you something. He was afraid to say it to you, though.”
“Alex” came up to me, wide-eyed and a little bit flushed, clearly nervous to talk about whatever he was going to say.
“Mr. France, I think we should be able to have a formal education about that in school.”
I stopped dead in my tracks, and I’m sure that my jaw dropped slightly, hearing this come from a ten-year old’s mouth (What ten-year old says “formal education”?!). The “that” he was referring to was same-sex marriage–the discussion that was supposed to happen the Friday prior.
“[Alex], you are perfectly entitled to that opinion,” I replied, suffocating my desire to jump for joy and express my shared opinion, “and I’m glad you told me. You have every right to have that opinion, and you should never feel afraid to express it.”
In a situation where I wanted to feel happy and simply give the kid a hug, I felt stifled. I was stifled by the fact that I wasn’t “allowed” to discuss the topic in school, and I was more so taken aback by the fact that “Alex” felt so afraid to say that simple sentence to me. He was afraid to advocate for himself and say that he wanted to learn about something–something that really isn’t a big deal at all.
We are afraid to discuss same-sex relationships, and I get it to a certain point. It paves the way for questions that we might feel uncomfortable answering, and it opens the door to lots of other unpredictable variables. But this fear of discussing same-sex relationships or even uttering the word “gay” is only making the problem worse. We need to give them a bit more credit, have a little faith, and assume that they can and will discuss this responsibly. In fact, I believe that giving them the benefit of the doubt, would do nothing but make them feel that their opinions are valued and encourage them to take the topic seriously.
Once again, it’s all in how you frame it.
Kids are able to understand so much more than we would assume; it’s simply a matter of framing the content correctly. That’s what teachers do. They take the abstract and make it concrete, in an effort to make big-picture concepts accessible to children. That. Is. What. We. Do. This can be applied to the scientific method, mathematical concepts, difficult literature, and most importantly, it can be applied to “taboo” concepts like racism, tolerance, and same-sex marriage (gasp!).
Giving kids the benefit of the doubt shows children that we trust them, and that we want them to think for themselves. It implicitly reveals to them that we truly care about them as humans, it empowers them to be life-long learners, and it helps them see that there is a lot to be passionate about when it comes to learning. While they may not realize it now–or even come close to comprehending that idea–they’ll be grateful for it someday. They’ll realize what we did and just how much we cared.
“You did the right thing, Paul,” the mom said to me. “It may not have worked out how you guys wanted it to, but at least you got people talking about it.”
As the boy and his mother walked away, I couldn’t help but feel a quiet sense of pride bubble underneath my skin. That kid–the one who wants to learn about “that”–will remember some day that we, his teachers, advocated for his chance to learn. But more importantly, he will remember what it felt like when his chance to learn was stifled.
Perhaps this whole experience has worked out just the way it should have.