Is clay hard or soft?

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Posted 01 Sep 2010 in image of the child, role of teacher

Teacher: (passing around a piece of clay) Can you describe the clay? How does it feel?

Child: (squeezing it between both hands) It’s hard.

Teacher: Hard? Touch the table (child raps on the table). How does the table feel?

Child: Hard.

Teacher: So the clay is…?

Child: Soft.

What happened here? A well-intentioned teacher corrected a child’s perception of how clay felt. Was the child wrong? Was the teacher right? Is what the teacher said more true than what the child said? Or more accurate? Is clay soft or hard?

One perspective of the role of the teacher is teacher-as-expert, one who imparts information to children.  Another is that of teacher as co-constructor of knowledge, a researcher together with children. The latter case requires a complete paradigm shift for many educators (and parents), a shift that assumes children come into the world competent and resourceful, and are protagonists of their own learning. Among other things, it places emphasis on listening, and it also requires a lot of time.

If the teacher had probed deeper “it feels hard-can you tell me more about that?” and listened, also with her eyes, she might have understood differently the child’s response. Could he have been describing the physical effort of squeezing? Or maybe he was comparing something he knows as soft, like a cotton ball, with the clay–so relative to his experience of soft the clay was hard.

This vignette reminds me how important it is to have complexity in our speech, our actions, our environments. It reminds me that nuance is too often shunned in favor of black and white. And that subjectivity and divergence has a place in education.

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