"What Does Dead Mean?"

One of my students asked me that last week. He's three. We were collecting firewood, (something we've been doing a lot of these days) and in doing that, I've been talking quite a bit about dead wood versus wood that is alive. I think that's where this question came from.

"I think it means not alive," I said. "What do you think alive means?"

I’ve been wondering recently about how best to prompt students to generate and offer their own theories in response to their own questions. I used to think the best way was to say, "I don't know. What do you think?" But responding that way was starting to be a kind of unthinking habit on my part, a cop out that I could see was frustrating for students both because they felt me copping out, and because they usually genuinely want an answer when they ask deep, "why"-type questions.

How do you give (enough of?) an answer to satisfy the asker, to show you're engaged and care about the question, and at the same time provoke deep, active thinking on his/her part? On this particular morning last week I offered my own theory and a twist on the original question, and hoped that that might spur some more discussion.

"Means it needs water," the student replied. "It has water in it. When it doesn't have water in it, it falls down, and you can collect it for firewood." 

This was actually part of an experiment that happened later on. We were testing whether water could make trees fall down. It didn't in this case, but O. believes that sometimes the rain does make trees fall over.

This was actually part of an experiment that happened later on. We were testing whether water could make trees fall down. It didn't in this case, but O. believes that sometimes the rain does make trees fall over.

"YEESSSSSSS!" I roared (internally). It worked! He offered a theory, and one so enormous and poetic, at that! I was so excited. I wanted to know more about his thinking. I wanted to go around collecting and sorting things into piles: “dead”, and “alive”. I wanted to see if we would encounter things that wouldn’t fit those categories, and if he would come up with others in response. I wanted to design an experiment with him to test his theory that living things need water and have water in them, and that dead things don’t. I wanted to propose all of those things all at once and then do them immediately. I also already had an “end goal” in mind: bringing about some kind of change in my student’s understanding of the relationship between water and life.

But here’s that same delicate balancing act again: How do you respond to a student’s interest, how do you feed it just enough, without totally taking over the direction of the learning? In general I tend to try to wait, to hold off giving a whole lot of input until it seems like the child is so stumped that they’re about to abandon a really worthy question or pursuit. Then when I do intervene - offer a suggestion or pose a question or bring out a book or a tool – it feels a bit like fishing: the intervention is bait, and I’m always waiting, watching, to see if it was the right lure, if interest has been renewed, refocused, redirected.

The balance between letting kids lead their learning and intervening to lend momentum or focus to it, or to draw it out further is different for different kids, and at different times. It evolves as they do. It’s a balance I’m still working to find with my new kids and my new role. In an attempt to truly let the child lead our morning together, I didn’t pitch any of those ideas, and I maybe should have, because we lost steam and got distracted from his excellent question. And I’ve since spent a lot of time spinning my wheels about it, and the window has closed.

Oh well, a lesson to remember as I feel out the balance at Forest School. Next time I hear another really meaty question, I’ll be ready…