is teaching child’s play?

Q: When is a train carriage not a train carriage?

A: When it is a classroom.

This is the substance of a conversation I heard on the train recently.

Initially I only vaguely listened while trying to concentrate on my book, but the conversation began to grip my attention and I transcribed it.

Names, while overheard, have been omitted in the interests of privacy.

This conversation was one of probably hundreds of similar conversations between parents and children going on throughout the UK at the time.

Scene: a train carriage in the UK

Protagonists: a mother and male child, late nursery or early primary school age.
Child is reading aloud, mother is encouraging the child to continue and is engaging the child in conversation about the book he is just finishing.

Mother: Excellent reading, darling, excellent reading. So now, um, shall we, shall we make a sentence?

Child is silent.

Mother: What was your favorite bit?

Child: All of the story.

Mother: No darling, ‘favorite’ means ‘the best bit’.

Child: I TOLD you, mummy, I liked all of the story!

Five minutes later…

Mother: We’re gonna think more about the story. What was your favorite bit?

Child ignores.

Child: Mummy, you know what? Everybody’s animals, except trains and bikes. We’re animals. We’re all animals.

Mother: That’s right. Take your feet off the seat or you lose two points.
(Note: the mother apparently uses a points system to reward/penalise the child for certain behaviour)

Mother: (staring our of train window) Look at those cars. They’re going faster than us! That can’t be right!

Five minutes later…

Mother: What was your favorite part of the story?

Child: All of it!

Mother: Look, you could say ‘I really liked the story because…’ er, ‘because lots of exciting things happened.’

Child: My favorite part of the story was ALL OF IT!

Five seconds later…

Child: This is our stop.

Mother: we’re getting off at Luton.

Child: This is Luton: M-I-L-L-H-I-L-L-B-R-O-A-D-W-A-Y. See, Luton – we’ve missed our stop! (giggles, then looks out window). Look at those cars! They’re going faster than us! That can’t be right!

Mother: Don’t do that: it’s annoying.

Five minutes later…

Mother: Look, what I really want to do is think about this sentence.

Child: Oh look, we’ve missed our stop.

Mother: OK, right, that are you going to write? Where’s your pen?

Child: A pen! A pen! A pencil!

Mother: That isn’t a pencil. You know it isn’t. What are you gonna write?

Child: My favorite bit of the story is all of it because it’s really fun!

Mother: That’s not very specific, now is it?

Child: (quietly) I didn’t like the story.

Mother: You didn’t like the story?

Ten seconds later…

Mother: how about ‘Wilma told Grimlock she would stop the noise if he gave her the bell…’

Child: I can’t remember all of that!

Mother: Look – do you want a treat at the station?

I have the following questions about this conversation and I would be very interested to hear your responses:

    1. What thoughts did you have and how did you feel while reading this exchange?
    2. Who did you sympathise with: the mother or the child, or both, and in what ways?
    3. What would you say the mother’s underlying beliefs about teaching and learning are, based on her responses and behaviour?
    4. If you had the chance to speak to the mother at any point in the conversation, what would you say to her?
    5. If you had the chance to speak to the child at any point in the conversation, what would you say to him?




  • I thought the mother was trying to force the child to respond to stimuli that he was not at all interested in. I also thought about several missed teaching opportunities based on what the child was actually interested in. It all made me feel a bit uneasy.
    I sympathized with the mother in the sense that she seemed to want to do what was best for her child but appeared to be very misguided in her attempts. I also sympathized with the child because he expressed much interest in learning but his “more knowledgeable other” ignored his interests.

    The mother’s underlying beliefs about teaching and learning seem to be based in both behaviorism (Learning is conditioning.) and Freire’s notorious banking model of education (Student is passive recipient of a knowledge product to be poured in to head by the teacher.) The behaviorist aspect is evidenced in her point system and threat to remove the reward of the treat. It’s as if her son is a little Pavlovian dog. The banking model is illustrated by her attempt to get the child to regurgitate a written sentence from the book while ignoring all of the child’s own interests based on the world around him and the teaching opportunities that emerge from those interests in the exchange. Indeed, the attempts to force the child to go against his own interests results in a negative reaction against the story he has read. Of course, it’s possible his subsequent comments about the world around him have been spurred by what he has read, but his mother does not explore that possibility with him. It’s clear she believes in a mechanistic type of learning and teaching that is motivated by extrinsic reward/punishment.

    As I’m running out of time, I won’t comment on what I might say to each at certain points in the conversation, but in general I would try to engage with the child based on his curiosity and interests and suggest to the mother that she try to get the child to participate in learning activities based on his intrinsic motivation and the teachable moments that emerged in the conversation.

  • This comment was added to my facebook stream by Cindy Hauert and is re-posted here with permission – thanks Cindy!

    The child might have felt Mum was being too intrusive, or maybe he or she just needed more time for the story to sink in…maybe asking a more specific question (NOT a right/wrong one) about a character or episode might have provoked a response. Or Mum could have tried saying what SHE liked or didn’t like before probing. Instead of making it seem like a “test”, just making it a conversation? I can imagine the child felt under pressure to provide something “correct” and responded by avoiding the questions! Anyway, “What is your favourite…” is a question that is both vague and a moving target. It depends on so many things that a child that age isn’t able to articulate yet.

  • My thoughts: Are you sure this was the kid’s mum? If you hadn’t mentioned it, I’d have concluded she was his teacher, in fact if I’d been there I would have starting making my own conjectures about her job to finally come up with: “She must be a teacher, but not a primary teacher. She might be an upper school teacher or a psychologist?”
    I definitely sympathise with the child. I find him quite patient and well behaved, even considering his feet on the seat. I would be sorry to have a mother like that after a long school day.
    I agree with Will, above, about the mother’s beliefs about teaching: behaviourism. I couldn’t give a better explanation than his. I find her approach rather conventional and far from creative, imaginative. She seems unable to produce alternative questions or other kind of input either to take her son to a different path or eventually get the expected response. Instead, she gives up and suggests “her” best bit which, obviously, would never have been the child’s choice.
    Only if I were a close friend would I cut into the conversation and tell her: “You won’t get where you want if you keep testing him! Why don’t you try something different? Maybe “Really? I didn’t like when….. did you really like that part?”
    I would ask the boy about the story. In fact I’m getting so curious that I’ll use the link and read it, RIGHT NOW!
    To finish with, this would never have happened in Spain, where I’m writing from. (actually, this was my first thought as I read the story)

    • Thank you for commenting, Isabel. As you can see in the transcript, the child referred to the adult as mummy, so I presume she was the mother and this was not a term of endearment. Interesting that your sense that she was a more distant care-giver was so strong.

      I’ll be back with more comments after a day or two, in case anyone else wants to give their uninfluenced (at least by me!) take on this.

      Thanks again.


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