By Lynn Evans

If we are really committed to improving educational outcomes for all children in Mississippi, we must change the way education is delivered in the classroom. With the benefit of new programs around the state and the nation, as well as scientific research about how children learn, we can and must make classrooms work better.

There is a growing body of evidence that young children learn best not by rote and didactic teaching, but by self-discovery and guided interactions with their peers. Children in a classroom informed by this research spend a lot of time talking to each other, working in small groups, and moving easily around the classroom to get the help and materials they need. As they work, their teacher moves from small group to small group, checking in on what students are doing, offering help and correction, and asking questions.

Very young children learn to “see” number groups and understand the concepts that underlie mathematics such as patterns, more than, less than, and in addition to. They love to count, and like to build and experiment with numbers and grouping. Too often, children lose their natural attraction to math when what they get at school is lots of rote memorization, work sheets, and too little building on what they see and experience in the world around them.

Children learn language by listening and talking amongst themselves and to their teachers and parents. When they learn to read, they are making the connecting leap between language and the written word. When children learn letter sounds and memorize words without connecting them to their meaning, they miss the most important step in learning to read: the understanding essential for reading comprehension.

By third grade, children have mastered reading sufficiently enough to begin to learn by reading. Even so, third graders still need time to be read to, time to read to themselves and to one another, and most importantly, time to talk about the meaning of what they have read. They also need time to write compositions that have real meaning to them personally -- often called “writing from the heart.” Just like adults, children’s writing skills grow when they use writing to think and to communicate what they know.

Third graders should also be devising their own experiments and inventions; recording their observations about the world around them; using art and drama to help them learn; communicating what they are learning; and using their own questions, as well as their teacher’s questions, to help them learn more.

These kinds of classrooms help children with different learning styles and strengths find what works best for them. Children are taught to take responsibility for their own learning, and to know what is expected of them. Children learn to collaborate and work cooperatively, to show respect for one another, to listen and learn from others, to correct their assumptions, and to think conceptually. All of these skills will increase their chances of success not only in school, but in life as well.

Beware of those who say we should just go back to the cheaper old way of doing things. Large classrooms with insufficient supplies and overworked teachers will never make Mississippi children competitive with those around the nation, much less able to take on the world.
Evans is an education activist, former Jackson Public Schools board member and freelance writer.
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