One, two, three, four, six. Making mistakes in the classroom.

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By Devon Thagard of Super Simple Learning.

I’ve had the opportunity to observe some great teachers of young learners over the years, and one little device that all of them used to some degree is feigning ignorance. It might be holding a potato and saying, “Mmm…I love apples.” Or in a delightfully silly way, forgetting the names of all the students. Or in the middle of a storybook saying, “The End” and closing the book and asking, “Wasn’t that a great story?”

Besides just appealing to the children’s growing appreciation of the humor of the unexpected and incongruous, it encourages children to speak up and share their knowledge in a way that is much more fun, interesting, and meaningful than asking them, “Who can tell me the characteristics of an apple?” or “Today we have a new student joining the class, please introduce yourselves,” or “What do you think happens next in the story?”

Of course there is a balance here…feign ignorance all of the time and you run the danger of coming across as a clown. But used occasionally as one of the many tools in your toolbox, and with a knowing smile, it’s a great way to encourage kids to share their knowledge with you in a passionate way. If you are a teacher of young kids and you feel like you are not reaching them, not making a connection, try dropping the occasional absurdity on them. It’s fun, it keeps them on their toes, it allows you to see which students are having trouble focusing or comprehending the topic at hand, it encourages creative thinking, and they’ll be dying to share their knowledge with you.

For me, as a teacher of non-native English speakers, it’s a fantastic way to check comprehension and encourage the children to produce English that is meaningful to them rather than parroting the teacher or waiting for someone to tell them what to say.

Children’s music performer Eric Herman provides a wonderful example of feigning ignorance. In “The Elephant Song,” Eric sings beautifully and earnestly, “Elephants, I like elephants. I like how they swing through trees,” only to be interrupted by a child saying, “NO! Elephants don’t swing through trees…monkeys do.” Eric continues…”Monkeys, I like monkeys. I like how they swim in the ocean…” whereupon he is corrected again, and again, and again. It’s a great device that encourages critical listening skills, and the sharing of knowledge about animals, but above all, it’s just a lot of fun for kids (and a great tune that you’ll be humming all day).

Find out more about Eric Herman and his Invisible Band at his website.

This blog post was originally published by Devon Thagard of Super Simple Learning in March, 2006.

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