Transforming the Teacher-Student Relationship

by Adam Yukelson

An Anji Play child jumps from a structure he and his peers built during play time
“In the past we thought our role of teachers was to transmit knowledge. Now we see it’s to understand children.”

— Ms. Cheng, founder of Anji Play

In the Presencing Institute’s framing on the transformation of education, the role of the teacher shifts from transmitter of knowledge to co-creator of knowledge. Paulo Freire has referred to the transmitter approach as the “banking model of education”, in which teachers “deposit” knowledge into students. In the next evolutionary phase of this relationship, the teacher becomes more like a coach. But in the search for co-creative relationship, examples are hard to come by. It’s a stage in which the barrier between teacher and student dissolves, and both become learner and teacher.

When I visited Anji County, China in May 2018, observed the Anji Play model in action and listened to the teachers present their work, it seemed that this approach to teaching was not only present: it was nuanced and deeply embodied in practice. In this experimental and interactive article, I’m excited to share with you a brief introduction to Anji Play and to then present an example that was shared with me during my visit. In doing so, I hope to take you on a journey into the constantly unfolding process that happens when a teacher sees her role as someone engaged in the continual process of becoming an expert observer of children.

“When we force our categories and definitions on kids, when we struggle to get them to think like adults, we are robbing them of a crucial moment for building their minds.”

Over the past two decades in Anji County, China, a primarily rural area known for the production of bamboo and office chairs, a passionate and charismatic educator named Ms. Cheng has developed a radical approach to education based on a single, simple principle: trust children to take control of their own learning.

The Anji Play model has spread from a single kindergarten to 130 schools across the district, and is being held up as a model for early childhood education across China, as well as in a growing number of countries around the world. In a 2016 article on Medium, Jesse Coffino, Ms. Cheng’s primary translator and the person who co-leads (with his colleague Dr. Chelsea Bailey) the expansion of the Anji Play model outside of China, describes a typical day at an Anji school.

On any given day in Anji County, the children build bridges with ladders and planks. They run across oil drums and construct environments out of bricks and lumber and rope. Their teachers observe this risky, self-initiated play and use their smart phones to film the action. After lunch the kids gather to watch videos of their play and talk about what they were doing [in the Anji Play method, this is called “play sharing”]. Later in the afternoon they draw what they did that day, often as complex storyboards, schematics and invented symbolic writing systems because that’s how they have chosen to describe their experience [these are called “play stories”].

Anji Play kindergartens have no set lesson plans. The Anji Play curriculum arises on a daily basis from the problems, needs and questions that emerge from children’s play. Teachers are trained not to intervene in children’s play, but instead, to observe children. “My instructions to new teachers, and to visitors,” Ms. Cheng says with a smile, “are simple. Hands down. Mouth closed. Ears and eyes open.”

Asking children about their experience of play elevates it into an activity with profound possibility for shared learning — for both the children and the teacher. For this to happen, however, the teacher first has to trust in children’s knowledge and capacity to take the reins of their own learning. This involves a commitment to suspend habitual assumptions, redirect their attention to what they observe and to inquire deeply into children’s experiences of the world (a process that maps well onto the co-sensing phase of the U process).

What is so significant about this process, you may ask. In his Medium article, Jesse provides the context:

For the last century Western theories of education have maintained that children develop in a linear fashion, advancing from one milestone to the next. They insist that the unsophisticated thinking of the child can be guided by experienced teachers towards the ideals of adult rationality and academic learning. Priorities become learning faster, learning more, directing kids to outcomes, managing behavior and avoiding the challenges of true risk.

However there is a growing body of research showing that babies and young children engage in highly sophisticated thinking. “Babies have many, many more neural connections being formed, many more synapses being formed, than we adults do,” UC Berkeley professor of psychology Alison Gopnik told Mother Jones. “So it’s as if early on, we have this brain that is really designed for learning, a brain that’s very flexible and plastic and responds a lot to experiences. And then later on, as we get older, we have a brain that’s more sort of a lean, mean machine, really designed to do things well, but not nearly as flexible, not nearly as good at learning something new.”

The research of Gopnik and other experts in the field of childhood development show that babies and young children engage in genius-like thinking: seeing the multitude possibilities of everything they encounter, and then making novel, creative use of them. As babies explore and understand their environments they create complex causal maps: if I hit the drum with a stick this is the sound it makes; if I pull the doggy’s hair this is how doggy responds; if I stack a sandbag on a plank on a barrel I can walk across it without it wobbling.

As adults we see the world defined and categorized: a chair is a chair, a pencil is a pencil, 1+1=2. But for little kids, these objects and concepts do not have fixed meaning; they can be anything. The joy of play is figuring out their qualities and uses and the possible relationships between them. So when we force our categories and definitions on kids, when we struggle to get them to think like adults, we are robbing them of a crucial moment for building their minds. [emphasis mine]

When I visited Anji Play in May 2018, a teacher named Zhou Li (pronounced ‘Jolie’) shared a video that she took of her five year old students playing outside on a rainy day. Her intention in presenting the video was to show an example of the surprising ways children think differently than adults, and why, therefore, it is important for her as a teacher to cultivate a practice of observation, suspending assumptions and inquiring deeply into children’s experiences.

Below, I’ve presented this example in the way she presented it to me and a small group of foreign visitors. “This was one of hundreds examples I could have chosen,” she said. “And this is the status quo for Anji teachers — in our cell phones, hard drives, or in our hearts, there are numerous instances we want to share of children engaged in play.”

As a way of experiencing what it means to step into the role of teacher-as-expert observer, I invite you to follow the steps below. The scene you’re about to watch took place in an outdoor play area at an Anji school, just a few days before Zhou Li presented the video.

“The first time you watch,” Zhou Li suggested to our group, “pay attention to your first impressions. I had my first reaction as I was taking the video, which I will share after. For now, just write down your first impression, your immediate reaction to what you see.”

Before you press play, take a pen and paper. As you watch the video, make note of your own first impressions.

“My first reaction as I filmed this”, Zhou Li said, “was that it looks like they’re having fun. It looks like they’re excited about this play with water and tubes.”

But next, she begins to think what else might be taking place. “I’m asking myself, what is the learning that’s taking place.”

One method that Anji Play teachers learn for suspending and seeing beyond their initial impressions is to simply observe and describe to themselves the physical motions they’re seeing. Go ahead now and watch the video a second time. Take notes on the physical motions you see. Just describe what you can directly observe.

“In my second viewing,” Zhou Li said, “I noticed they were going up and down, round and around, with their motions.” She asked us what we saw in the video. Some of us commented that we noticed the direction the children were facing, their proximity to each other and that their movements were periodic.

Zhou Li then invited us to watch the video a third time. “In the final viewing,” she said, “we’re going to look at what we can see in terms of the children’s problem solving, and what we see as teachers in terms of any kind of hypothesis generation or falsification that’s taking place.

Go ahead now and watch the video a final time. Take notes on any kind of hypothesis generation you think the children might be engaged in. For example, Zhou Li thought their hypothesis could be: “if I shake it up and down, water will move up and down. If I shake it back and forth it will move back and forth. If I move it in a circle, the water will move in a circle.” Try to put yourself into the experience of the child. Use your direct observation. Use what you see in the video to form your hypotheses.

Zhou Li then shared what happened after the children came back inside from play. Instead of going straight to play sharing (when they talk about what happened during play) as sometimes happens, which she thought might interrupt their processing of their play, she asked them to go directly into making their play stories.

“You guys may be somewhat surprised when you see what they drew,” she said.

First, she showed the story made by the boy in the video. What he described was initially similar to what Zhou Li had guessed, and similar to what all of us in the room had guessed. “Today we played a game of throwing around the water,” he said about his story. “I discovered something. I found that if you move the water back and forth and whoever is following the water, when it’s moved in a direct line, the water follows in a direct line; if it’s done in a circle, the water moves in a circle. Then he added: “So the water is ‘loose’”. Zhou Li asked him what ‘loose’ means. He was not able to express it, but Zhou Li gathered that loose seemed to mean it separates.

Zhou Li then showed us the story made by the girl. “What we’re going to see is something none of us thought of in our hypotheses,” Zhou Li said.

The young girl said ‘when I was playing it was a lot of fun but I have a question: how come when I threw the water it turned into water ‘pearls’’? The boy playing with the teakettle in the background, throwing it around had a similar reflection. He asked in his description, “why, when I throw the water does it turn into an arc?”

At this point in her presentation, Zhou Li turned off the projector and turned to face our group. Then she delivered her punch line:

I really wanted to share this example with everyone today; these play stories and this video, because for me there was a moment of epiphany here. It doesn’t matter if it was the girl and boy playing with the pipe, or the boy playing with the water kettle, or another child in the ditch playing with water. When I inquired into their experience, what they were focused on was not the direction of the water but this phenomenon of the droplets.

After seeing the children’s documentation, I went back and reviewed the video another time. What you can see is the children are — if you’re looking carefully, if you’re looking at the details — that they are focused on this phenomenon of the water in the air, the droplets. If you look at the physical manifestation of their play — if you look closely — what you’re seeing for instance from the direction of their eyes is that they’re not focused on the end of that tube. They’re focused on what’s going on in the air.

So what I’m sharing with you today is, well, an act of reflection. Through this reflection, I was able to see where my observation has limits. If I were to have gone that day directly from the play to the play sharing [talking about play] without this intermediary step of the play story I might have misled the children during play sharing toward my subjective opinion of what their focus was in their play [emphasis mine].

This is the key point. Zhou Li is saying, in effect, that her role as a teacher is to create the conditions in which children can take control of their own learning. She sees the ways in which her assumptions might, unintentionally, direct children toward her interests rather than their own. By acknowledging her limits and using a method that helped her navigate around them, she took herself out of the center of the learning process and allowed the children’s interest to shape the curriculum.

As it turned out, this phenomenon of the droplets captivated the children’s attention and became a subject of inquiry for days. When a topic arises in play and catches children’s interest for an extended time, Anji teachers post the topic and play stories on the wall of their classroom along with the evolving stories and hypotheses the children are working through. In this way, the walls of the classroom become a visual record of children’s investigations. This investigation can last for days or even months, depending on the children’s interest.

When Zhou Li shared this story with us, it had been three days since the video was filmed. “I wasn’t in the classroom earlier today, she said, but I learned from the other teacher that the children were still today engaged in a conversation, exploration and an investigation of this question of the water droplets in the air. The hypothesis they have developed is that because there is wind in the air, water becomes droplets. But because there is less wind on the ground, it does not become droplets.”

Zhou Li then showed drawings the children had made and spoken about in subsequent days to further their hypotheses.

  • One child suggested: “the water got broken up. When it breaks up it is droplets. When it’s not broken up it is water.”
  • Another child said that it’s because of the wind that water becomes droplets. When it’s blown by the wind it breaks apart, breaks into pieces, but when it hits the ground, when it falls it kind of explodes into sheets of water.
  • Another child said that because the mouth of the tube is round, when the water comes out of the tube it becomes droplets which are also round, but when it hits the ground the ground is hard and flat, and because it’s hard it becomes these flower shapes or sheets of water.

“So it seems,” Zhou Li reflected, “like the [third] child was thinking about the relationship between the shape of water and the shape of the medium it was in contact with. That it takes the shape of the medium it comes in contact with.”

On the wall in her classroom, Zhou Li set up a title that says “Why does the water become droplets when it goes into the air?” She put the children’s play stories under that heading so that over the course of the year, if other students encountered the same question or were exploring the same subject matter, they could have their thinking included under the subheading on the wall.

What’s significant here is that this entire inquiry hinged on the teacher’s belief that knowledge emerges from her children (not from her expertise), her capacity to recognize when her assumptions might stand in the way of children’s real interests and her skill to create the conditions for children to pursue their true interests.

“In conclusion,” Zhou Li said, “I have a lot to think about. In addition to sharing with everybody today about the children’s observations, I’m also seeing these aspects around observation, documentation and sharing that I have to continue to improve on in my own practice.

As our group applauded and Zhou Li humbly walked offstage, I thought about the distinction we make between teacher and learner. I wondered where to draw the line in this example? Or had Zhou Li, perhaps, created the conditions for her students and within herself such that there was no line at all?


Originally published on The Presencing Institute