Relating and reinforcing learning through themes

Be it math, meats and vegetables, or how food looks like before and after, you may notice that I’ve been describing lessons around a central theme – food!

Teaching with a theme allows children the opportunity to build up their understanding of the world around them, whether “vertically” (think of the process chain of growing plants and rearing animals to supermarkets to cooking) or “horizontally” (the concept of money and paying for your food). To top it off, we recap the vocabulary we teach in earlier lessons, thereby increasing recall.

Making mistakes is part of learning

Here’s an enlightening video from a blog post by Bill Gates, where Lyon Terry – teacher of the Year – and Bill Gates talked about making mistakes.

The fact that I can admit to my students that I make mistakes is probably one of the things that makes me the Teacher of the Year. – Lyon Terry

One of the guiding principles we follow in the program that I volunteered in is not to focus on whether the child got the answer correct or not. Rather the focus is on encouraging them to make an attempt and learn from their experience.

How long does it take to see results of volunteering?

Context: I was involved in a discussion with some folks on volunteering and educating children (in general) and up came the question of how long do you need to take to see results?

My take: It is definitely not effective if you only teach for a single time or two. You will only see improvements when you accumulate these lessons over a certain period of time. Depending on your learning objectives, it may take a year, 2 years or many more – 十年树木,百年树人 – you are in for the long haul.

Lessons at the Supermarket – Food

Other than math, are there other lessons that can be taught at the Supermarket? It turns out that you can teach them about food!

You may ask “Doesn’t children see food everyday? What’s there to teach?” Like what I’ve mentioned earlier, there are certain missing links that we take for granted as common knowledge but is entirely novel to children. Teaching them about food at the supermarket not only increases their vocabulary, it also exposes young children to the different food sources as well as the chance to see meats and vegetables before they are cooked.

Teaching the missing links to young children

Adult asks child: Where does money come from?
Child’s response: The wall!

The amusing dialogue above shows how young children can take things literally, where the child is referring to an ATM. When we teach young children about the world, we often start with things that are already the “finished product”. Sometimes, we adults forget to educate them on the sources of these finished products, thereby creating a missing link.

To illustrate the missing link, here are two examples: The first example is the chicken rice. If we teach children about chicken rice, they may not be able to make the link back to chickens. While in the second example, children may be drinking (red) watermelon juice without realizing that fruits with green outer skin and dark green stripes are watermelons.

I feel that this is not a deliberate action by adults because we do not usually repeat facts that were considered “common knowledge to all”. One workaround that might help will be to err on the side of prudence and assume that it is the first time that a child has seen a particular object while educating children.

Missing link 1: Chickens and chicken rice
chicken and chicken rice

Missing Link 2: Watermelon and watermelon juice
watermelon and juice

Lessons at the Supermarket – Math

The supermarket can be an excellent place for young children to learn basic math and the concept of money. For example, you can give a child some money, say 5 dollars, to purchase items that they want to buy. This can be a form of reward for the child and at the same time, offering them opportunities to practice their counting and familiarize themselves with notes, coins, cash cards and payments.

Animal Walks – More than just a warm-up game

Animal Walks is a warm-up game that we play with the children before lesson starts proper, which is suggested by one of the program’s volunteers. Not only are they are great way to engage the children, the game serves as an exercise to build muscular endurance.

More importantly, the game serves as an opportunity to improve the children’s finesse in motor skills and body coordination, which are essential skills to grasp while growing up.

We will divide the children into two groups and ask them to perform the animal walks towards each team, one child at a time. The child who has reached the other team gives a hi-five to the child waiting and the process is repeated. A set is complete when all children have finished. Depending on the stamina and age group of the children, we can progress to add more walks or introduce more difficult ones like Crab crawls. Some walks that you can introduce are:

  • rabbit hops
  • penguin walks
  • duck waddles (while squatting)
  • bear crawls (on all four limbs)
  • crab horizontal crawls (on all four limbs, lifting body from sitting position i.e. reverse of bear crawls)

Experiential Learning – Plant Life Cycle

When teaching children abstract concepts like life cycles of plants, we try to incorporate experiential learning, which simply means “learning by doing”.

In the case of plants, the volunteers teaching the lesson gave the children some green beans a week prior to the lesson, requesting them to grow the plants. Meanwhile, the volunteers grew a series of plant samples for each day of the week like the photo below.

7 days of plant growth

7 days of plant growth

During the lesson, the volunteers would show the kids these plant samples and relate them to the plants that they have grown over the past week, allowing them to appreciate the concept of life cycles and that certain changes take time. This can form part of a series of life cycles – animals and insects – to reinforce the concept. Finally, they can also be made more aware of themselves and the idea of growing up and becoming adults.

Teaching using Bitsboard app

At the place where I volunteer, volunteers take turns to conduct lessons for the children. One of the aims for each lesson would be to increase their vocabulary capacity. Where applicable, we try to use different tools such as flash cards or the use of actual items.

One of the tools that I’ve used is the Bitsboard app available on the iPad. As long as you’ve some pictures and sound recordings, you will be able to enter the images or record the sounds into the app. After tagging them with words, you can proceed to teach the children through pictures, words or sound!

Typically for the class, I would use the flashcard mode and do one round of introduction and one round of review. After that I would choose one of the many game modes offered (such as photo touch and match up) and get each child to come forward and try.

Other features that I find impressive are:

  • Catalog Management: The pictures, words and accompanied sound recording are saved as “cards” inside a catalog and they appear like a photo album. You will be able to organize all your cards and select which cards to show. This function allows me to group my cards per topic and customize the number of cards and/or the level of difficulty depending on the class and amount of time left.
  • Large numbers of game modes available: As of today I counted 23 game modes, which I’m sure will add dimensions to class delivery in various situations.
  • Wide range of customizations available: For each game, you are able to customize settings like sequential or random showing of cards, manual or auto progression and number of cards to show each turn. I encourage you to play around with it.
  • Sharing of cards with the community: This is definitely a feature to check out! Essentially, you might not need to reinvent the wheel as there may already be someone who has made a deck on a topic that you wanted and all you need to do is do a search and customize.

You can see some screenshots of the app below, check out the guides online or just download the app from the App Store and play!

Teachable Moments

Overtime, I’ve come to realize that children learn very well through “Teachable Moments” – to put simply, teaching an idea or method right then and there when it’s the most effective. Some examples will be like saying thanks (“Ronald, I think you forgot to say ‘thank you’ after borrowing that bottle of glue from Candice”) or teaching a particular child how to properly handle a pair of scissors and using it to perform paper cuttings.

You may not have the opportunity to teach at one particular moment, however being aware of such teachable moments allows you to identify them and teach the child something whenever you can. Soon you will realize that over time the child learn from these moments and cultivates them into desirable habits.