Redefining Productivity in the Classroom

Dad: “Hi, son. How was school today?” Son: “Good.” Dad: “What did you learn?” Son: “Nothing.”

As a son and a dad, I’ve played both roles in this exchange. I remember my dad asking me what I learned at school that day. In retrospect, I think the reason that I often answered “nothing” came down to one of two reasons:

  1. I didn’t learn anything because it was all review, OR (more likely)
  2. I never took time to reflect on my learning.

Our classrooms were so busy that we weren’t always offered time to reflect on learning, and I definitely didn’t make the time to reflect. I was fortunate, however, because my parents followed up on my learning at home. Conversations like the one above usually didn’t end with me getting off the hook by saying “nothing.” Without any formal understanding of how children construct knowledge, my parents asked questions designed to prompt reflection, and questions like that weren’t only for school days. Questions beginning with words like “how” and “why” were (and still are) common in my family. I was asked to reflect not only on events and learning, but also to reflect on problem-solving and analysis.

As a mathematics researcher at the AIMS Center for Math and Science Education, I have discovered that, for children to construct number sense, they must reflect on their counting and “subitizing” acts (Steffe et al, 1983; von Glasersfeld, 1982). Reflections upon a wide variety of these experiences help build a concept of a number word so the child understands that the number word means:

  1. They could count each unit of a collection up to that number word, AND
  2. The number word refers to the quantity of the collection as a whole.

In general, conceptual learning happens upon reflection, and even deeper learning upon reflecting on that reflection. My concern is that many children (and adults) don’t consciously reflect, which seems to be an indicator of our culture as a whole.

I have observed that when we (I’m including myself here) have “down time,” we tend to do things like check Facebook, text, surf the net, read email, play video games, listen to the radio, watch TV, talk on the phone, go shopping, read fiction, etc. The cycle is unending,moving from one activity to another. We have instant food, instant news, instant access to movies and pre-recorded television shows, shopping everywhere, hand-held portable entertainment devices. There’s constant noise, constant action, constant stimulus. What’s missing? The down time — the reflection time. The same is happening in our schools  because it’s our culture.

“Productivity” is a buzzword, and it seems to be a function of output, or quantity of work produced. In reality, as stated in “Emotions, Learning, and the Brain” (Immordino-Yang, 2016), “rest is not idleness.” A lot of work can happen in the mind when, to an observer, there is no evidence of constant “productivity.” The question remains: how can educators redefine “productivity” and best promote reflective thinking in the classroom, at home, and in our society?


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