Life Lessons

by James Morris

There are many unexpected connections between kindergarten  and college teaching. This post, which originally appeared in Brandeis Magazine, explores some of them.

Sea mural in a kindergarten classroom at Shady Hill School. Photograph by Sandi Tang.

Sea mural in a kindergarten classroom at Shady Hill School. Photograph by Sandi Tang.

There’s a bestselling book by Robert Fulghum titled “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” a thoughtful reflection on everyday life. It points out that many valuable life skills — small things, like sneezing into your sleeve; big things, like sharing, treating others with kindness, and looking at the world with wonder — are learned when you are very young, and stay relevant throughout your life.

I am a biology professor, and my wife is a kindergarten teacher. Over and over, I am struck by how much her work can inform what I do at Brandeis.

For instance, her students do a lot of projects. Project-based learning is becoming commonplace at universities like Brandeis, too. Last year, students built a savannah to learn about ecosystems. This year, they mixed paint to match their skin color as a way of thinking about the limitations of the labels “white” and “black.”

Guess where these activities took place? In my wife’s kindergarten, not my college classroom.

Her kindergartners make observations and do experiments. On a recent visit to Shady Hill School, in Cambridge, MA, where she teaches, I watched as her students made predictions and then discovered, surprisingly, that grapefruits float and grapes sink (consider that one for a moment).

Once a year, Shady Hill observes Flex Week. Students and teachers step away from their usual activities and do something different. Typically, they focus deeply on a topic. Last year, they studied the ocean: They made a sea mural covering an entire wall; they wrote a song about sea creatures; they visited the Boston Aquarium.

Flex Week can be just as compelling in a college setting. Brandeis has semester- or summer-long versions of this kind of immersion, known as Justice Brandeis Semesters. Students in small groups, under the guidance of a professor or two, pursue a topic in depth. Recent explorations have included social media for social movements, and biology-inspired design.

To kick off last year’s Flex Week at Shady Hill, the kindergartners, as a group, listed things they knew about the ocean (“Fish tails go sideways; whale tails go up and down.”), followed by things they wanted to learn (“What’s at the bottom of the ocean?”).

Imagine a college class that, instead of starting with a set syllabus, began by compiling a list of things the students know (or think they know) and things they would like to learn. This approach could be used in a range of disciplines, as a way for students to take ownership of their learning.

The core education values embraced by Shady Hill’s kindergarten and lower school are described in a mission statement that is summarized by the acronym SPLERT.

S is “struggle.” Learning demands some frustration, even failure at times. Children have to know how to overcome obstacles, tackle problems, and pick themselves up when they fall. A childhood free from struggle doesn’t allow them to truly grow.

P is “play.” Free, imaginative play teaches children to work together, take turns, discover new things, and make connections. Free play is vanishing in our overscheduled, adult-centered world, yet it is essential.

L and E stand for “limits” and “expectations.” Learning works only if students feel safe. While freedom and exploration are encouraged, there have to be rules (not everything is ok) and boundaries (certain behaviors are not appropriate).

Everyone also has to show R, “respect,” by listening, being sensitive, and caring for one another. This applies to how children treat one another, and how teachers and students interact.

Finally, there’s T. Learning takes “time.” In today’s fast-paced world, that’s often overlooked. For deep learning, we need to delve into a topic, explore it, make mistakes, leave and come back to our inquiry.

All these values apply to college as well. Take struggle. What cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork calls a “desirable difficulty” is akin to the Goldilocks challenge. If learning comes too easily, students get bored. If studies are too hard, students get discouraged or overwhelmed. The trick is finding the level that is just right.

Play is often overlooked at the college level, but it is just as important as it is in kindergarten. When there are too many constraints, we miss opportunities to learn. In my project laboratory class, students have the opportunity to do genuine research — experiments relevant to the field, which they don’t know the end points of — giving them ample room for play, exploration, and discovery.

Limits, expectations, and respect are critical, too. In a large classroom, respect begins when a professor learns everyone’s name, listens to and considers everyone’s responses, and treats every student as a serious learner.

Time is as overlooked in college as it is elsewhere. We communicate to students that doing more is better — more classes, more majors, more extracurricular activities, more leadership positions. Yet what students gain in breadth they lose in depth. Working in a lab over many semesters, composing a piece of music, tackling a difficult math problem — these are all spaces that require time, focus, and concentrated attention.

Not long ago, I asked my wife’s students what science is. Here are three of their responses:

“I think science is finding out mysteries. … Science can be interesting, and it usually includes being patient. And sometimes you can do little tiny science experiments.”

“It’s experiments. Like, you are learning about something, and you want to learn more about it sometimes.”

“Science is when you ask a question and figure it out, or something.”

These answers really go to the heart of what science is. With schools’ current emphasis on testing and memorization, my hope is that these students remember their answers, and indeed all of kindergarten’s lessons, by the time they reach college.

© James Morris and Science Whys, 2015.

6 thoughts on “Life Lessons

  1. Maria Miara

    What great inspiration for the first day of JBS. Hopefully I can help my students channel their inner kindergartner. You may even see “SPLERT” on the classroom whiteboard by the end of the day. Thank you!

  2. Naman Patel

    Upon transferring to Brandeis one of the things that blew me away was the amount of respect that Professors had for students and their thoughts. When the Professor “listens to and considers everyone’s responses, and treats every student as a serious learner” it empowers us because it gives us the confidence to believe in our mind. And often times it ‘gives’ us this confidence because there have been points throughout our academic lives that certain violence inherent in the system has taken away this sense of ,”yes my mind is important, it can do remarkable things, and my original thoughts are indeed of value” away from us.
    I’d like to thank you for the way you conducted class in general but especially Case Friday’s during Anatomy because you often sought out answers as opposed to the right answers. When we responded with our answers, you would take time to understand how/why we thought of that answer, even point out how it potentially makes sense to come up with that answer and then promote the more accurate response by sharing with us question that would guide us along. I think this is important because you showed us how fundamental creativity is to science thought. In fact the two exams were a playground for creativity!
    There certainly are many unexpected connections between kindergarten and college teaching, and I hope the amount of connections continue to grow as future generations are encouraged to preserve the curious, confident, and creative child within them.

    Below I’ve compiled segments from Emerson’s Self Reliance that your piece inspired me to revisit.

    “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius…. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his…. Infancy conforms to nobody: all conform to it, so that one babe commonly makes four or five out of the adults who prattle and play to it. So God has armed youth and puberty and manhood no less with its own piquancy and charm, and made it enviable and gracious and its claims not
    to be put by, if it will stand by itself”
    – Emerson, Self-Reliance

  3. Your Gardening Buddy

    SPLERT is going up in my middle school classroom, too…once I get one, that is. Thanks for reminding me of all the good that SHS does and how I can extend it into my own space.

  4. Maura Clarke

    What a wonderful essay! And what wonderful teachers you and Sarina are — bringing curiosity, delight, rigor and discovery into your students’ lives. And giving them the kind of structure and atmosphere in which they really can dive in and explore. I love all the connections you make between educating the two different age groups — so true. I also love what Sarina’s students said about science, especially the who mentioned the patience required — “I think science is finding out mysteries. … Science can be interesting, and it usually includes being patient. And sometimes you can do little tiny science experiments.” Again, so true. Thanks for such a thoughtful and fun essay emphasizing what should be the most important fundamentals of teaching and learning.

  5. A Lucky Bio Student

    This post is so well written and draws so many interesting parallels that I think are easy to forget as a university student. I hope to take this perfectly phrased piece of advice with me as I finish my college career, “Yet what students gain in breadth they lose in depth”. I think part of what makes you an exceptional professor is your respect, thoughtfulness, and true compassion for not only the material but for the young minds in which you mold. I am so grateful to be at Brandeis where there are professors like you who definitely do make the students feel validated as people, even when they may have to come back up from a “failure” which just truly makes the learning more meaningful. I also loved the responses of what science is from a kindergartner’s perspective- probably could not have given a better answer myself!

  6. Nicole

    Awesome! Teachers by calling. This is what i call a teacher, lecturer ,professor or his assistant who are always ready to listen and hear, who don’t reject, have patients and treats everyone equally. Thanks for all those people, who spread the knowledge.You change the world! Thanks!!!


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