Smooshing Peas: A Gateway to Learning

12 Feb

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been mulling ideas from Perri Klass’ recent reporting on a study focusing on how babies learn about “nonsolid objects” – peas, cream of wheat.  Turns out that the kids who

squidged around in the cream of wheat, tasted it, smeared it, did various tings with it – they were the children who understood what cream of wheat was.  They could identify it even if it came in a different shape and was doctored with green food coloring.

I suspect this resonated with me because I was a kid who played with food.  I learned pretty quickly that the peas in a cream sauce with potatoes did not move on the plate in the same way as did the peas and mashed potatoes sitting side-by-side on a plate, and the tastes certainly we’re the same. And when meat came into the plate and palate mix, mooshing either potato-pea combination with the roast pork created a different texture where all the food elements were in my mouth.

My parents each enjoyed cooking, and were quite good at making up dinner combinations and food variations – even experiments – from the basics they’d learned in family kitchens.  Since they liked messing about as cooks, they took my mossing about to heart and asked questions:  Could I describe the different taste?  What happened if I ate the peas first – was that different from eating the pork first?  Why did water taste better with creamed peas and potatoes than did a glass of water?  Maybe it the research and reporting resonate with me because I know that the interplay of solids (milk, potatoes, peas, pork) with non-solids (the three different meals my parents often cooked from these if we add stew to the mix) prompted me to start cooking full meals in 4th grade, and keeps me inventing new recipes decades later.

Maybe it also resonates because the five-year-old in my life quickly acclimates to “solid” information – how the number 5 and 7 are different, or what number “comes out” when she adds the two together. But the number 57 – my age, as it happens – will only make sense when we play around with it.  “Age” is a non-solid concept that she’s going to need to play around with in order to understand it as something more that gets measured as she moves from birthday to birthday.  History.  Generations. Web3.0 as distinct from Web 4.0.  These things won’t make sense to the five-year-old in my life until she plays around with non-solid aspects of numbers – age being a first, or threshold concept for her to master.  We’ll be working on that over spring break when she’s with me for several days.

Most of all this resonates with me because I see what happens when I invite my students to decode our worlds of learning by smooshing peas: What changes how students approach a core concept – say a non-solid like learning in a class on teaching and learning, or in a gateway course focused on learning in a particular subject area – by playing with the idea?  Perhaps via a jigsaw discussion with the starting out articles each focusing on a different learning theory.  Perhaps accompanied by each student writing out a short scenario that captures a time they were certain they failed as a learner – or maybe one where they see how someone in a teaching role assisted or failed them as a learner.  Perhaps with both the jigsaw and the collection of student scenarios we collectively sketch out what learning looks like from the perpectives of the learners in the class and the learning theorists I’ve brought into the class discussion.  Perhaps from that making our own matrix to use in moving forward to decode this “learning thing” and all its ingredients, components, complexities, variations, and cultural nuances.

Perhaps learners in our classrooms need to play with ideas as they once played with food – to smoosh up an article to find out what’s there or the author’s thinking work, to sample others’ questions and observations in order to sample other perspectives as solid building blocks, and to create from these solid pieces of learning their own first explanations of a non-solid concept for a specified audience.

Perhaps we teachers will play more with ideas as we consider this passage (from the StarTribune version) where one researchers addresses both play and passing along of didactic information:

Toddlers play with their food because toddlers play with their worlds. And by playing and exploring, they accumulate all kinds of data, which helps them put together a picture and a vocabulary for the world around them.

“They literally taste the world by putting things in their mouths, by making them make their sounds, shaking them,” said Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, a professor of education at the University of Delaware and co-author of “A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool.”

“Didactic information just falls flat,” she said. “They have to figure out for themselves, and the only way they can do this is by messing around.”

Perri Klass. “To Smoosh Peas Is to Learn” – NYTimes, 23 December 2013

Perri Klass. “Smooshing Peas May Help Kids Understand the World – Mpls StarTribune, 13 January 2014

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