Teacher Feature: Four Year Olds Explore Thinking about Thoughts

It’s Teacher Feature Thursday!

This week we are featuring Will Kuehnle and Jessie Miller of the four-year-old Honey Bear classroom.  At SEEC we believe in fostering a sense of curiosity and thoughtfulness that will stay with children long after they leave our school.  In this vein, Will and Jessie wanted to spend some time at the beginning of the school year explicitly exploring curiosity with their children to set the stage for an inquisitive year. I joined them for a visit to the National Portrait Gallery where they discussed their own thinking and how our thoughts can be linked to our curiosities. Below you will find a reflection from Will and Jessie and images from the lesson.


Lesson Reflection from Jessie and Will:

The Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center’s Honey Bear class is made up of a diverse group of four-year-olds. During our study of curiosity, the students focused on questions, thoughts, and things we were curious about. We started out by asking ourselves “What is a question?” and “How can we find the answers to our questions?” The goal of this process was to get the children excited about learning, and interested in finding out the unknown. By using language such as “I wonder…” and “I’m curious…”, the wheels in their brain began to spin a little faster and we opened up a world of exciting, new things for them. To enhance this process, we traveled to the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery to see a piece of art called Caja De La Memoria Viva II by Adrian Roman.

The objective of the lesson was to get the children thinking about their own thoughts. Thoughts are constantly rushing through our heads but it is hard for children to conceptualize those abstract thoughts. This lesson allowed the students to see a visual representation of thought, which sparked their curiosity about the artwork as well as the things they were thinking about in their own heads.

One thing that made the lesson so effective, was the freedom the children had with their minds as well as their bodies. We were surprised to see how each child interacted differently with the piece. When they were given the journal pages and told they could go anywhere in the room to work on them, some children gathered under the woman’s head to get another look inside, while others stayed back to get a larger view of the piece. Some children laid on their stomachs, some sat on their knees, while others laid on their backs looking up into the inside of the cube. They were all completing the same activity but we were fascinated by the variety of ways each child approached it.  Logistically, the space in the museum was also crucial to the effectiveness of the lesson.  It was quiet and empty, which freed us from the distractions many museum visits can have.  If we could go back and change something about this lesson, we would have allowed more time to discuss the journal pages with each child one on one. When you wait and have the children explain their pictures later, you can sometimes lose exciting details. Providing the students and teachers with a quiet space with extra time to finish this part of the lesson is ideal.

It is amazing to see the looks on the children’s faces as their minds race with ideas and thoughts. During our walk back from the museum, we could hear many children saying things like, “I’m curious what they are building in that construction site” or “I wonder what country that flag is from”. Modeling this language for young children and showing them your own excitement about the world helps children feel confident in their own thoughts and questions. It is important to support each child as they bring up questions and past experiences they would like to share so that they grow to have confidence and a love for learning. Setting up experiences like these, lights a fire of curiosity in the children that is only built upon as the year progresses, and helps us as teachers follow their interests and enhance their education. This lesson allowed the children to balance a structured activity with the freedom to express themselves and that is when they are most susceptible to learning and fully experiencing the world around them.

Here are a few images from their lesson on Thinking about Thoughts:

13.jpgBefore traveling to the museum, Will began their lesson by introducing the concept of thoughts in our head. To do this he shared a portrait that one of the children created in a previous lesson.  The children noticed that they could tell what the child looked like based on the portrait, but they could not tell what the child was thinking about. Will explained that they would be visiting the National Portrait Gallery to see a portrait that has objects inside its head to provide clues about the person’s memories and what they are thinking about.

1Will showed the class objects that are similar to the ones they would see at the museum. After laying out all the objects Will set a sand timer for the children to look at the objects and think about what this person might be thinking about based on the objects.  After looking silently the children shared their thoughts including that the person might like to wear jewelry, that the person might like disguises, and that the person might be thinking about a baby sister because of the doll.  Now that the class had a context for the piece they headed to the museum.

2While in the elevator on the way to the exhibit Will asked the children to look for the portrait with the objects inside.  He reminded the children that the portraits they see are usually flat, but the portrait they would find today would have an inside that that they could look in.  This reminder from Will helped the children refocus their attention after the walk to the museum, and they ventured into the gallery with a purpose.  It didn’t take long for the children to find the portrait!

3Once the class spotted Caja De Memoria Viva II: Constancia Clemente-Colon by Adrian “Viajero” Roman, Will led them around the entire piece to see it from all sides.  They stopped in front of the face section and Will asked what they noticed.  One child said, “I see one eye is closed”, while another child noted that the person had a nose.  They noticed that they didn’t have any ideas what the woman was thinking about.

54To take a look inside the piece, the children laid in a circle on the floor, facing up.  From this vantage point, all the children were able to see the various objects inside the artwork.

8As the children shared their observations, Will used a laser pointer to point out what objects the children were noticing.  They discussed what they thought the person was thinking about using the objects as a guide.

6After looking inside, the class came back together in a circle.  Will asked if they felt they knew more about what the woman was thinking now that they had observed her portrait on the outside and the inside.  The children agreed they felt they had a better idea of who she was, but had some questions including, “did she live a long time ago?”  Will said, “That’s a good question, and I don’t know the answer.  What could we do to find out more information?”  The children suggested they read the label on the wall, so Jessie did, and they found out that the piece used a recording of the woman’s voice, so she most likely didn’t live a very long time ago.  By respecting and responding to children’s questions, Will and Jessie were creating a community of thinking where curiosities, and information-seeking are valued.  (To read more about how to create a culture of thinking, check out the article “Making Thinking Visible” by David Perkins.)

7Will asked the children if the thoughts that the woman was thinking were important, and they all agreed that her thoughts are very important.  Will emphasized that all of our thoughts are important and asked the children to think about what they think about in their head.  Will explained that they would draw whatever those important thoughts were if they could be represented in objects.  Will handed out clipboards with paper and a pencil to each child and said that they could go anywhere in the room to draw.

9Many children started in one location, but got up and moved after some time to look more closely at the piece or to get another view.  They looked at the piece for inspiration, but drew objects that were familiar and important to them.

Some of the items they drew included their family members, hair, fireworks, remote control cars, bones, sharks, and boats.  These drawings helped the children to practice meta cognition – to think about their thinking, and gave them a way to communicate it.  These drawings also helped Will and Jessie see the important things the children were thinking about, so they have a better idea of what topic to explore next.

Through their mini-unit on curiosity, the four-year-olds practiced careful looking, asking questions and thinking about their own thinking, which will set them up for a thoughtful, inquisitive, and meaningful school year.  Check back next week for the Round Up to see how this lesson and their exploration of curiosity fit into their larger unit of Me, Myself, and I.  See you in two weeks with our next Teacher Feature!