Education, learning

For Your Consideration: 5 Educational “What Ifs”

It’s no secret that Erika Christakis‘ book The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups is currently blowing my mind. I’ve texted the cover of the book to approximately three dozen friends and family members, I’ve posted about its “must-read”-ness on both Facebook and Twitter, and I’ve attempted to record all of my favorite lines and “a-ha” moments by taking some visual notes (that I’ve since abandoned, as the number of favorite lines I’ve accumulated has far exceeded the hours in the day I would need to record them all).


Despite its title, this book is essential reading for all parents and educators alike, regardless of the age of the children with whom you spend a majority of your waking hours. While I cannot, and do not, agree with everything Erika writes (e.g., that there exists an educational shift in or around third grade from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”), she is, for the most part, someone who I would want to recruit for my fantasy teaching team.

One of the things I most love about this book is that it is pushing me to think further–and more deeply–than I have in recent months. (The tail end of the academic school year will do that to a person.) Specifically, it is inspiring me to think more experimentally about the kinds of opportunities, environments, and provocations that we offer the students with whom we work for nine-and-a-half months out of the year. And in doing so, I have come up with a set of five what-ifs–five scenarios and situations that, if I were in charge of the educational world, I would strongly encourage educators to pursue in order to see whether or not these had any positive impact on students’ learning, attitudes, and social and emotional health. If my gut–along with the compelling litany of arguments that Erika makes in her book–is any indication, there would be nothing to lose. In fact, there would be a heck of a lot to gain.

  1. WHAT IF every teacher began the year with blank walls?  In her book, Erika highlights the work of the teachers at the Friends Center for Children, a cooperative (and private) early childcare center in New Haven, CT whose staff believe that classroom walls “are the physical container for the children’s work” and should reflect this by being devoid of anything that students haven’t had a hand in creating. This year, two of my colleagues who co-teach a multiage 5/6 class began their students’ school year with blank walls, and there is a palpable difference between the relationship that their students have with their classroom environment and that of most classrooms I work or have taught in, including my own.
  2. WHAT IF we focused more on processes, and less on products? Christakis writes of our “compulsive focus on production” in schools, which in many cases sends “the unfortunate message that [children] are just drones on an assembly line, working in a factory lacking any kind of quality control.” While PBL-focused and expeditionary learning schools like those touted by legendary educator Ron Berger recognize the importance of quality products (and work mindfully toward that end), there is still exists a collective imbalance of valuing products over processes. Instead, why not take a year to closely kidwatch our students and assess their ability to make meaning rather than make things? Imagine the deep, professional conversations that will happen if we collectively shift the lens through which we assess our students!
  3. WHAT IF we spent more time designing “experiences” rather than more traditional “units of study”? I’ve written before about my sordid educational past, during which I spent my summers compulsively planning an entire years’ worth of units. What I wish I had done instead was spend that precious time brainstorming a number of authentic experiences that would have given me much more insight into my students and their particular needs, attitudes, and interests–experiences like those that fifth grade teacher Jess Lifshitz regularly offers her students in order to drive their inquiry work. This year, my colleagues Kitri and Lindsay and I planned a series of experiences that helped us determine where the “spark” of inquiry might be in relation to our social studies competencies, and the conversations that bloomed out of these experiences among our fifth and sixth grade students was mind-blowing–so much more so, I suspect, than those that would have come as a result of pre-planned “lessons” relating to citizenship, economics, or geography.
  4. WHAT IF we took a collective sabbatical from labeling students? One of my favorite comics that has been making the rounds lately makes light of this obsession with slapping particular identities on students in an effort to “remediate” them and/or provide them with the support they need to succeed: IMG_3753

Here’s a radical idea: why don’t we just provide them with the support they need to be successful? To be sure, there can be advantages to diagnosing a child with ADHD or sensory processing disorder, including making her eligible to receive special education services–I am not denying that (although I do believe the special education system needs an entire overhaul). However, I do believe that labels, particularly those that are not tied to special education, can just as easily prevent educators from seeing the “whole child.” As Christakis says, “It’s a trade-off between seeing either the forest or the trees….at every level of observation, we are missing something–the big picture or the small parts–and there is always a cost to observing only one.” Does one really need to label a child a “reluctant reader” in order to identify a selection of texts that might engage her? Do we really need “gifted and talented” programs to provide students with deeper, more complex learning experiences? If you answered “yes,” then I would argue that a more valuable use of one’s time would be to build capacity around engaging and instructing a wider, more diverse population of students–easier said than done, I know…but it can be done.

5. WHAT IF we spent a year devoted to re-discovering our “play mojo”? We’ve heard a lot about the benefits of play over the past year, particularly about how it supports the development of speaking and listening skills, collaboration, and written expression, among other things. We also know that most children, no matter what their age, are over-scheduled and wracked with more anxiety than ever before. And even though we see play as a “natural” behavior, Christakis argues that, like breastfeeding (another supposedly natural behavior among humans), play “is actually quite hard to accomplish without intention and assistance”–a notion supported by the title of a new book from Heinemann called Purposeful Play: A Teacher’s Guide to Igniting Deep and Joyful Learning Throughout the Day. Knowing how play can lead to better health, greater joy, and deeper, more engaged learning, why on Earth wouldn’t we devote more time and effort to making it a purposeful, regular part of students’ educational experience? (Perhaps we can start by reflecting on how it can effect our own professional lives by doing as my own principal does and including some aspect of play in every workshop day?)

These “what ifs” may seem like pie-in-the-sky wishes, and not ones that are particularly easy to accomplish or implement. While this last part may certainly be true, I would not pose them here if I didn’t believe that any one of us can select any one of these ideas, devote some significant time and effort to making them happen, and watch our students’ educational lives benefit as a result. At the very least, I hope I’ve inspired some of you, whether you teach preschoolers, high schoolers, or anyone in between, to grab a copy of Christakis’ book and see what kind of what ifs? it provokes in your own hearts and minds. (Please come back and share them here!)


3 thoughts on “For Your Consideration: 5 Educational “What Ifs””

  1. Hi, Shawna –
    I loved the Christakis book, too: the ideas are solid; the way it communicates these core ideas to educators and general public alike was impressive; and that it does so with humor and classroom documentation is really good icing on a really good cake.
    The “what ifs” you listed above are all ones that we’re thinking a lot about at Opal School. I hope you can make it out to one of our upcoming workshops. Two that jump to mind based on your list are next month’s Summer Symposium investigates what it means to be guided by a pedagogy of play and next year’s Visitation Days will feature Christakis as an honored guest.
    Hope you can add us to your calendar!
    All best,


  2. OK, I’m on board. Will download and read: Erika Christakis‘ book “The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups”. This is my first ILA so I’m reading the blogs of those tweeting…


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