Piaget: What makes the wind?

Julia: The trees.

P: How do you know?

J: I saw them waving their arms.

P: How does that make the wind?

J (waving her hand in front of his face): Like this. Only they are bigger. And there are lots of trees.

P: What makes the wind on the ocean?

J: It blows there from the land. No. It’s the waves…

In one of his most famous experiments, Piaget asked children, “What makes the wind?” A typical Piaget dialogue is what is represented above. Piaget began to watch children play, record their acts and monologues/dialogues to understand why things are like they are. In the above case, the five-year-old Julia may be dismissed as someone possessing an incorrect idea of the world and how it works, but still carries something beautiful for every educator to know. Julia can be incorrect in the land of an adult where an answer is usually correct or incorrect (welcome to the world of binaries), but has a fairly coherent and sensible flow of ideas.

The good part with children is that they may be incorrect but they are usually logical and have a coherent stream of thought. This is one of the most potent gateways of exploration for an adult to know how children are thinking. Listening to children explain their thoughts around a concept or draw structured hypotheses around the same is like a wormhole to the world of how the children are thinking.

As part of this piece, I will share few ways in which an educator may explore this skill and turn it into an activity as part of their teaching-learning process.

Broadly, I see two ways of solving this puzzle which overlap at many places.

  1. Conducting student interviews
  2. Reflecting on student responses

Whichever way of exploration an educator would like to traverse, a good question is an essential part of the journey.

Let us look at few case examples and take this journey together.

  1. Conducting Student Interview

Conducting student interviews is one of the most powerful tools to understand how children think, provided the interviews are conducted effectively. Few points which need to be considered for an effective student interview are:

  • A selection of scientifically framed questions.
  • Giving enough response time to children.
  • Giving sufficient amount and space for children to speak. The above point has a strong correlation with this one.
  • Going with an objective to know how children think and not judge or find or limiting the purpose to what went wrong.

With the case in point, here is a recorded student interview.

Recommended activity: Before you begin watching the video, take a piece of paper and write down what you know about how children think of perimeter.

Now, make a guess of how children will respond to this question.

Fig.1: Perimeter: the missing piece

After completing the video, write down what all do you know about how children think of perimeter. Now, think of all the possible changes you will bring to your lesson plan after having understood how children perceive a certain concept. Remember, it is not only the answer but also the process of answering it that is crucial for effective learning.

“What do children think about perimeter?”

2.     Reflecting on student responses

Another way of approaching how students think is through exploring their responses through a well-framed question or, at times, a reflective piece written by students. We will look at these with an example of a question from Social Science and will also explore few writing pieces.

The important part of this activity is to be able to draw different hypotheses through some well-defined framework followed by making changes in the lesson plan and again capturing how children think now.

In contrast to the previous method of engaging students, this way of exploration involves reflection by the educators. What differentiates this reflection and hypothesis drawing from mere guesswork is the involvement of subject matter experts, understanding of curriculum and textbooks, exposure to research in the domain, and very importantly, the knowledge of the context of the class which is being taken into consideration.

Reflecting on student responses can be a pretty subjective experience, but considering the above points, it can be done as an important activity in a structured way.

Let us look at a few questions and try to draw at least one hypothesis on why children struggled to respond correctly to the question.

Fig.2:  Subject: Social Science, Source: ASSET

Fig 3. Subject: Social Science, Source: ASSET

Fig.4: Performance Report

Among the many ideas and hypotheses, these 3 points gained prominence in a discussion about how children were thinking when approaching this question.

  • Children may have struggled with the location of Diu and the climate of the region. If this is the challenge then this needs a different amendment in the lesson plan.
  • The good part was that children could connect the architecture with the idea of the utility of the structure. This is an important learning outcome and teachers were successful in delivering this aspect.
  • Is it a mere coincidence that the children were connecting slanting or sloping structures with snowfall and not rainfall?? Where did this come from, if the teacher did not present this fact categorically in the Social Science class?

On further discussion and exploration of how children were thinking, an interesting thought came from a Science teacher. This not only reinstated our confidence about children being able to connect to prior knowledge but also the fact that children may be answering something incorrectly, but they usually have a definite thinking pattern.

In discussion, we realised that children of the same grade were taught a similar idea in Science class and perhaps this is why they ended up choosing option B as an answer.

Fig.5: Science Textbook Excerpt

The activity evoked the importance of interdisciplinary teaching. It helped the educators to understand how responses of students are not only about right or wrong but also how they think and what can be the stimulus to strengthen the way they think.

Previously we explored how children think through student interviews and a multiple-choice questions. This activity is not limited to MCQ-type questions (definitely easy). It can also be done with student essays.

We often limit the checking of student essays to grammar, structure or spelling mistakes. When educators see essay (long answers) responses through the lens of reflections, they come out as a magical source of how and what children think. Their biases, their preconceived notions, their fears, their dreams, etc. may form an important part of learning.

As part of one of the teacher reflection activities, the teachers reflected on more than 30 writing pieces by Grade 4 students on the topic ‘The day I got my wishes fulfilled. Other than finding spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, the teachers sat together to know their class better through these writings.

Three of these students’ writings are shared below, followed by a rubric used by the teachers to know their class better.

Writing piece 1: Grade 4

One day I was helping my mother in cleaning the carpet. Then I saw a lamp. I picked that lamp and rubbed it. Then a geany came out and was asking me for my three wishes. I told him, you later ask me about my three wishes. Then he told me to ask my mother can we go outside to walk. Then I asked my mother, she told me that come back before 2’o clock. Me and geany went for a walk. I saw a coffee stall and asked geany do you want to go there? He told me to ask for my first wish. I told him to give me a big broom so that I can help my mother in cleaning the carpet. My second wish a pen and a notebook. My third wish was geany do you want to stay with me he told yes. After that, we stayed happily forever.

Writing piece 2: Grade 4

Once  a saw that a truck that was taking thrash. A lamp had fallen from it. I didn’t know what to do. But I took it home. While I was cleaning the lamp a genie came out! It was a shock! She asked what is your three wishes? I thought for some time. Then I said my first wish is that give money to the poor and bear!: My second wish is that I want you to make the pollution less. I didn’t know what I want my third to be granted? Then I said I want a puppy.

Writing piece 3: Grade 4

Once upon a time, I was passing from a jungle and I heard music.I got curious about the music and started to follow it. Then I saw a magical lamp, it looks fascinating so I picked it up and clean it with my handkerchief and suddenly a Genie came out. Then he told me that he will grant the three wishes that I asked for. my first wish is to take me back home so that I can reach home quickly. Then I asked my second wish to bring a pet dog because I always wanted to have a pet and finally my third wish is to disappear coronavirus so that the world would be normal again.

How do children think?

Submission Wish Source Wish Recipient Wish
1 Magic/Genie
  • Mother
  • Self
  • Self
  • Tools for household help
  • Pen & Notebook
  • Companionship/Friendship
2 Magic
  • Others
  • Others
  • Self
  • Freedom from Poverty
  • Pollution-free world
  • Friendship – puppy
3 Magic Others

Freedom from Poverty

4 Magic
  • Self
  • Self
  • Others
  • Reaching home quickly
  • Friendship (Pet)
  • Corona- free World
5 God
  • Self
  • Self
  • Self
  • Queen of Paris
  • A lot of Friends
  • Appearing Fair
6 No source
  • Self
  • Self
  • Self
  • Smart Watch
  • Money- For buying avatars etc. in games
  • Covid-free World

Table 1: Analysis of children’s thought processes

At the end of the activity, not only did the teachers understand language-based errors but were also enriched by a better understanding of their class.

Learning happens effectively when we know our students better and we are able to help them better by being more aware of their misconceptions, conceptual bottlenecks or thought process about a certain concept. And the secret to this is a scientifically made probing question and a supportive ecosystem which encourages children to let us dive deep into the world of their thinking.

Prakhar Ghildyal

Prakhar Ghildyal

Prakhar is a management professional who has been working with Educational Initiatives and finds himself privileged to have this opportunity to have interacted with various stakeholders in the ecosystem. Writing is a hobby while reading is a habit which makes his day when he is not working. As a learner, the science of learning has always made him curious to understand the way learning happens from various angles and is always seeking ways in which it can be ameliorated. Keen to join discussions which are on science of learning, books or at least humorous.
Prakhar Ghildyal