Change and Learning and Teaching Matters

May 3rd, 2019 | Category: Columns, Go…And Teach!, Teaching Young Children
By Shirley Morgenthaler

Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from an upcoming book tentatively titled The Concordia Christian Curriculum. This book will serve as a guide for the SCALE curriculum, the curriculum developed by the author over a period of decades as she founded and led the Concordia Early Childhood Education Center. This work is already used in the Concordia ECEC from the infant classroom through to the Kindergarten classroom.

Change is a process. It begins quite small. Usually with a little feeling that things could be different. That things could be better. Better for you. Better for your students. Better for the young ones you are beginning to think of as learners.

Young children are learners. They are born learners. In fact, human babies have more to learn than any other baby species that God has created. They began learning in the womb. How to move, how to listen, even how to suck their thumbs! From the first minute of life outside the womb, there are more and more new things to learn. Babies need to learn how to suck in order to eat. They develop an array of cries to tell Mom and Dad their needs or wants. They learn to coo, to focus their gaze on interesting things, to reach, and to grab.

Then these infants and young children are ready for the classroom. Ready to be in classrooms with age-mates. Learning together. The challenge is the reality of multiple children learning together. Managing their interests, their explorations, their discoveries. In the past, the solution to multiple interests, explorations, and discoveries was to reign them in, to structure the day so that each explorer and discoverer worked together on the same things at the same time. It wasn’t easy, but teachers made it work, whether in a center or in family child care. Trying to balance the needs of young children and to organize the potential chaos those needs present requires much work and organizing.

Maybe you are operating as a teacher who is spending hours coming up with topics to interest the students in your classroom.  You are finding and making new activities day after day to keep and to balance the interests and needs of the many children in your classroom.

In addition, you are eager to know more about child development. Do young children really learn from the outside in?  What kind of learning really matters? Are there things you can do and should do to support the brain development of these young children? What else is important? Should you be concerned about emotional development? What about spiritual development? Can children really develop spiritually when they are this young? Should teachers somehow be involved?

Maybe you have heard about new curricula that allow young children to develop their own interests, to explore in small groups. But you are not sure that you know how to make that happen.

That’s why you are here, reading this book. Ready to learn how to balance children’s individual needs with the needs of the group. To learn how to balance children’s need for cognitive stimulation with their needs for security and a sense of belonging. To learn how to balance one child’s needs and interests with every child’s needs and interests. Maybe to even learn how spiritual formation takes place within and around the Bible stories and worship songs you already do. Another balancing act!

Where Teaching Begins

Do you remember how old you were when you began to realize that you liked the idea of becoming a teacher? Did you play “school” as a child of five or six? Many teachers did! If you played school, do you remember how you played out the role of the teacher? Were you the “teller” of all knowledge? Did you give your students worksheets to complete? Or did you give your students activities to “mess with?” Did you do things with your students or did you simply stand by and watch them work?

Teaching actually begins at the intersection of exploring and learning. The task of the teacher is to assure that learning is happening there. To assure that, learning needs to be on the corner of exploring, with activities and things to do, questions to ask, ideas to generate. The corner of exploring and learning is a busy corner!

As we study teaching and learning, many of us are chagrined because we were strict and teacher centered when we played teacher so long ago. I think we all started out as “tellers of information” rather than real teachers who are leaders of learning. A part of that is because we just don’t remember how we learned as a young child. In fact, our memories of learning and doing in our own early-childhood years are quite fragmented.

Remembering Your Own Learning as a Young Child

Have you had the experience of being somewhere and knowing, somehow, that you had been there before? You didn’t know when or why, but you were pretty sure you had been a small child when you laid down this memory.

That’s how our brain works. It lays down memories deep in the brain for later retrieval and use. If we don’t need the memory, we don’t “have” the memory. Our brains are efficient. Their storage capacities are amazing. And we are just beginning to discover how memory works inside the brain.

One of the complicating factors of early memory is that our brains are not ready to work logically in early childhood. Thoughts and memories are stored as snippets. Because in early childhood we think in snippets. Events are important to our brains and our memories if there is some emotion attached. Emotion gives a snippet of memory a better chance of getting a permanent home in the brain. For instance, a young child is more likely to remember a conversation with Grandpa than a brief interchange with a stranger at the grocery store.

While emotion and familiarity help the brain store memories for later consideration, novelty also plays a role. I remember walking on the sidewalk at my aunt’s house when I was two or three years old. For much of my life, that memory was stored away and forgotten, However, when I started teaching teachers and looking for metaphors to help future teachers understand how young children think, that search motivated my brain to bring that stored experience into my working memory. Why? I think it was because I was teaching about memory. And it was also because it had been a novel experience. I grew up on a farm. No sidewalks. My aunt lived in town. Sidewalks everywhere. Little patches of grass cut by straight sidewalks. Sidewalks and houses very close to the road. And those roads were called streets where my aunt lived. So there was probably no reason other than novelty that I had stored that memory. That memory is not an event as I think of events. It is a vignette.

Small Vignettes of Memory. Young children store memories as vignettes. Sometimes those vignettes are little more than a visual picture in the brain of being somewhere in a ten-second video of activity. No introduction. No real beginning. No real message of the point of the memory.  All of that is left for the brain to unearth many years later. That’s when meaning can be added to the vignette.

Sometimes memories buried in our brains ae more like a photograph until we find them again. My sidewalk memory is an example of that. When I first discovered it in my memory, it was like a photograph of me, my father, our car parked along the curb, and the stretch of sidewalk. Just outside the picture were my aunt, my cousin, and the front door of their house. Until the photograph became the ten-second video, my aunt and cousin were nowhere to be seen. I needed the expansion of the photo into the vignette/video for the broader memory to dig its way out of the really, really deep part of my long-term memory.

Why We Do or Don’t Remember. Most of the memories we store in long-term memory stay buried because we no longer need them. If a day comes, however, when we do need them, we can find them. Finding them and turning them into vignettes or videos happens only when we have a newer experience that connects to the memory that is buried. Memories surface only when and if they are needed.


Thinking about thinking is heady business! Have you tried it recently? How do we decide what to think about? How do we decide that something is worth thinking about? How many minutes of every day are spent thinking? Really thinking? Or do we spend our time in automatic drive, just going along?

Think about the last time you found yourself somewhere and wondered how you got there. Without realizing it, you put your brain into automatic drive because you were doing something very familiar, something that could be put on automatic. If you are simply walking from one part of your house to another, putting your brain on automatic works well. But suppose you were on your way home from school and put your brain on automatic along the familiar drive. If you are the one behind the wheel, putting your brain on automatic isn’t such a good idea, is it?

Or is it? Think for a moment about the complexity of driving your car. It probably has an automatic transmission, so you don’t have to shift gears manually. You need to know what you are doing, but you also need to perform many tasks automatically. Putting your foot on the brakes when you come upon another car on the highway going slower than the speed limit. Using a hand-over-hand maneuver when you need to turn a corner. Checking the mirrors before you change lanes.

There are so many other tasks for which we put our brains on automatic. Getting out the door each morning with all the “little parts” we need…coffee, lunch, car keys, office keys, the book you promised a colleague….the list goes on. What about the last time you said to a friend Omigosh, I forgot all about that? This is an example of automatic thinking gone awry.

There are the repeated and repetitious details of life that go into a section of your brain where automaticity reigns. Without that automaticity you could not function. But with that automaticity an entire other section of your brain can think about any number of things. What to do about the student whom it is difficult to motivate. How to talk with the parent who has made an appointment with you regarding her daughter’s friend relationships in school. What color to paint your kitchen next weekend. Getting your brain to think about the right things at the right time. Such as thinking about that wall color for the kitchen long enough to make a color choice by the time you get to the hardware store to buy the paint. Such as finding a recent article about the friendships of girls to give to the worried parent. Such as doing a journal search for information about the reluctant learner.

Where Learning Happens

Sometimes I wish I could peer into the brain of one of my students to find out what questions are most interesting to that particular student. I wonder what I could do to pique the interest of each one of my many students. These days I teach only graduate students. These are students who have decided what they still want to learn. They are already teachers. They just want to hone their craft. Or know more about information systems. Or know more about the gifted learner. Or know more about tried-and-true classroom strategies that invite all students to learn. And I teach doctoral students who definitely know what they want to learn. When it comes to writing and researching a dissertation, most students have an idea or two about which they are curious. They are making a choice of the topic for themselves, for their own learning.

If doctoral students have the freedom to direct their own learning, why can’t we give that same freedom to young children? Why is it that we think we need to decide what young children (or elementary students, or high-school students) need to know and therefore need to know about?

When my son was living his early-childhood years, he was very clear what he wanted to learn about. He was a young child during the original launches into space in the 1960s. And he was a self-taught expert about each of those launches by the time he was seven. He knew the names of each launch, the names of the crew members, and the mission of each launch. Two years earlier than that, he was already keeping track of the dates and times of future launches, making sure that he could watch them on television. I have a vignette of a memory… A five-year-old boy. Standing beside my bed and nose-to-nose with my sleepy face. And then an urgent “Mom! You have to get up! Today’s launch is in 20 minutes! Don’t you want to watch it with me?” No, since it was only 5:30 am at that moment, I really didn’t want to get up and watch it with him. This was his thing. (I did get up). He already knew at ages five and seven what his life’s passion would be. Today he heads a team of engineers who design and build launch systems for space launches. He is a rocket scientist. A real one!

Many of his teachers figured out that there were subjects he loved and others that he endured. He knew what he wanted to learn. Why did he have to bother with those other things? I wish I had known then what I now know about learning. I would have agreed with him. I would have saved myself many hours of lectures about becoming a well-rounded student who can one day decide what he wants to do professionally. I was a teacher, and I still fell into the trap of trying to nudge (read… push) this “difficult” student into learning things he didn’t care about.

So when do we let children figure out what they want to learn? When they start college? When they enter high school? In middle school? Certainly not in elementary school? Preschool or Kindergarten? I don’t think so! But what about the two-year old? Or the two-month-old? Who decides what they are learning? The child or the adult? Hmmmm.

When I put it this way, it becomes a head-scratcher, doesn’t it?

Shirley K. Morgenthaler is a Distinguished Professor of Education in the College of Graduate Studies at Concordia University Chicago. Her 45 years as a professor at CUC have been focused primarily on Early Childhood Education. She is a graduate (B.S.Ed.) of what was then Concordia Teachers College on the same campus where she now teaches. Her M.S.Ed was earned at National College of Education, now National Lewis University, and her Ph.D. work was done jointly at Loyola University Chicago and Erikson Institute for Early Education.