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Guest Post: Liz deGraw Renna of Educare
May 16 11:25 AM

I am such a lucky person!

I had the opportunity recently to facilitate a training series for parents at the Children's Museum.  Together we went on a journey into the science of early learning, with a focus on some of the research about infants, toddlers, preschoolers and school-age children.  The training series was developed by Families and Work Institute and based on the book Mind in the Making - The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs by Ellen Galinsky.  The series of workshops was free to members of the Children's Museum and I had the pleasure of getting to know four parents as we met every Monday afternoon over the course of eight weeks.

This was a "facilitated learning" experience, different from what you would expect from a regular workshop or lecture series.  An important assumption was that I was not the only person with knowledge or information to share.  One of my primary responsibilities was to support the participants to make connections between the ideas and information that I shared and their own experiences; to apply new ideas to their own lives, with their own children; to build relationships with each other within the learning context of the workshop; and to be encouraged to take charge of their own learning.  I asked a lot of questions to get the parents thinking and talking.  They engaged in wonderful conversations and discussions.

Mind in the Making and the training series came about as a result of Ellen Galinsky's research work which involved interviewing hundreds of children.  As she tells it:

    "I began the quest that led to a book to reconcile two contrasting images.  One is an image of very young children who are unstoppable learners - eager to see, touch, understand, and master everything.  Anyone who has ever watched a baby or child engaged in pursuing a goal can see that children are born to learn....The other image is of children from across the country, in the sixth through twelfth grades, whom I interviewed about learning.  I asked about their experiences in learning - at home, in their neighborhoods, in     school, in church, anywhere.  Despite coming from very different backgrounds and communities, they were similar in one way.  Far too many of these children - from all kinds of families, schools, communities and parts of the country - seemed 'deadened' by the notion of learning.  There was little, if any, fire in their eyes when they talked about learning.  I asked myself, what happens to extinguish that passion?  What happens to dull their eyes?

"So I have spent more than a decade delving deeply into the science of children's learning, asking:
  • How do children learn best?
  • What makes them stay motivated and engaged in learning, to see themselves as learners, and to be ongoing life-long learners?
  • What can be done to rekindle that motivation if it has been dulled?
  • What are the essential learning skills that will help them along this path?

"The result is Mind in the Making - which began as one individual's journey and is now involving all of you!"
    (Adapted from Mind in the Making)

So what are those seven essential life skills, you might be wondering.  Here they are, with brief definitions:

  • Focus and Self Control - paying attention, thinking flexibly, holding information in mind while updating it and resisting the inclination to go on automatic, all so you can achieve your current goal.

  • Perspective Taking - seeing things as others see them - their likes, dislikes, thoughts and feelings.

  • Communicating - this skill involves determining what we want to communicate and also understanding how our communications will be understood by others.

  • Making Connections - This skill involves figuring out what's the same and what's different and sorting those things into categories.  It also underlies the important skill of symbolic representation, knowing for example that words or pictures can stand for real objects.

  • Critical Thinking - Involves the ongoing search for valid and reliable knowledge.

  • Taking on Challenges - This skill has to do with managing the stress that can occur during difficult situations and learning effective strategies for managing those situations.

  • Self-Directed, Engaged Learning - We want to promote children to be engaged in all their learning experiences and to begin to direct their own learning in age appropriate ways.  Ms. Galinsky describes seven principles for supporting this valuable skill.

These seven skills follow a developmental path, meaning they emerge over time in children as they grow and develop.  But it's important to realize that these skills must be promoted by adults.  And as we discovered, parents and teachers need to be aware of their own use of these skills because we are constantly being observed by children which makes us role models even when we are not aware of it!

Some of the provocative topics that emerged during our discussions included the following:

  • The idea that "flashcards should not be used to promote language development" prompted some questions and a bit of skepticism... at first.  We discovered some creative ways to use flashcards that could help children make connections and identify flexible categories of objects.  There's more to life than "drill and kill"!

  • "Crystallized intelligence" versus "Fluid intelligence"
    • Crystallized intelligence involves the recall of information that has already been learned and can be represented by an IQ score.  Fluid intelligence, on the other hand, is the ability to use what you already know and to be creative with that knowledge.  We want to promote children's fluid intelligence

  • "Fixed mindset" versus "Growth mindset"
    • With a fixed mindset, a person believes that traits such as intelligence and personality are fixed and permanent and cannot be changed.  However when we approach all of life with a growth mindset, we believe that these traits CAN be changed through effort.  No matter who you are, you can always become smarter.  You can work on your abilities.
    • With a fixed mindset, a person believes that traits such as intelligence and personality are fixed and permanent and cannot be changed.  However when we approach all of life with a growth mindset, we believe that these traits CAN be changed through effort.  No matter who you are, you can always become smarter.  You can work on your abilities.

One of my favorite moments was when I told the group, "OK, I want to tell you what your homework is for this coming week" and everyone reached eagerly for pen and paper.  This was the only time I gave actual "homework" but the plan intrigued everyone: watch for times when your child/children are being scientists, researching some topic of study that they came up with on their own and consider the role of curiosity in learning.

I want to thank the four parents who participated for the entire 8 week series of facilitated learning workshops as well as the two parents who checked in once to see what they thought and decided that it wasn't right for them at this time.  I learned as much and gained as much from the experience as the parents did.  We became a community of learners together and it was terrific!

For more information about Mind in the Making and the Seven Skills, visit www.mindinthemaking.org

Evi Berg
May 23 9:12 AM
A very interesting blog! As a parent with two children on the autism spectrum, it was a great reminder of the importance of being a role model for our children and looking for continued opportunities to nurture the seven essential life skills mentioned in the blog. Learning can be a life-long pursuit and joy when children are encouraged and supported as individuals with different learning styles and abilities and parents are actively involved in the process. Thank you!
Mike Dopheide
May 23 3:06 PM
Liz, your blog makes some great points! I especially agree with the seven essential life skills. I believe the last skill is the most important--self-directed learning. I'm eager to look up the 7 principles Ms. Galinsky describes for supporting this skill. I'm forwarding this blog to the teacher of our Living on Your Own class. Thank You! md
Deanna Peterson
May 25 6:58 AM
Very well written and said!! These seven essential life skills are very important and all teachers and parents should know them. Thanks for the wonderful information!
Linda Reddish
July 8 1:33 PM
Liz, Excellent blog posting. I especially liked how you tied the seven essential skills into areas for of growth and developmental. I can't wait to read what else you will share!
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