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  • Steven Delpome

When you look at this picture, what do you see?


When you look at this picture what do you see?

It’s likely you might be looking at this and thinking “oh how cute, the kids drew planets,” and you should. If you can’t look at this and see precocious smiles and energy, well...I’m sorry.

But we usually stop there. We see rough unscientific drawings and never think any more of them than “cute” when there is so very much more going on here. Come with me into this picture and see.

Let’s start right off with the mistake, which, if you know Saturn and it’s moons well you saw right away.

This is where almost every criticism of the SOLE begins: “the kids learned something that wasn’t true.” Yes they did. As we all do every day. I promise you every person reading this right now knows something for certain that is not true. This is okay. When I was young and fascinated with Saturn, NASA knew that Saturn had 12 moons (they’ve since counted around 50 more). The truth is the kids confused the moon Atlas with the Cassini Satellite that crashed into Saturn (and also got us most of the information we found).

What you don’t see: a mental concept of a wild and violent storm of energetic collisions that scientists believe helped form the rings and that may continue to happen within them and around them. A future moment of “ohhhhhhhhhhhhh” when the kids later encounter the fact that Atlas still exists and has not crashed into Saturn. Those moments that teachers in classrooms continue to strive to create.

Come further.

Speaking of the wild violence inside the rings...

Look at all the rocks and ice and streaks flying around and, no they didn’t learn it in that order. This was a group of 6, 7, and 8 year olds. Their first instinct was to draw the pictures they found online. First it was rocks and orange, after all, if you’re going to draw Saturn, you’ll want to know what color it is.

Which lead to another search for a color picture of Saturn.

Which lead to discoveries about Earth and its size relative to the rings and, of course Atlas, both pictured at the bottom (more on that later) and eventually to the fact that there is also ice in Saturn’s rings:

Which, inevitably led to another question: “How cold does it get on Saturn?” (-228 degrees F, btw)

How about those satellites?

Here is some of that before and after thinking in action. The center and right pics were the result of an early conversation:

“How did it send the pictures from Saturn??”

“Well, you can send pictures through a phone right?”

“Oh okay!”

The left picture is based off an actual picture of the Cassini we found later on:

Not bad, I say!

Now back to Atlas and Earth:

So now again, your first instinct might be to think, yeah cute, but Atlas is a moon and much smaller than Earth and the kids found out that Earth was much smaller than Saturn (764 times as small, we found out) you said, but the pictures of the two are just as big as Saturn. So they drew a picture of each. Big deal. This is not learning.

You’re not seeing the box.

Was this done specifically to create an inset to signal to the viewer that these drawings weren’t to scale? Probably not. But what it does show is that the kids wanted to create a clear distinction between the drawings, which I think it pretty a pretty amazing instinct on its own.

Then there’s the matter of my writing up in the top right:

Many people, when they hear of any child-driven or self-directed learning philosophy immediately scoff, “like they can just learn everything all by themselves.” I’m sorry you are missing the point. This isn’t about abandonment, it’s about getting closer to something that is natural for us. It’s natural for adults to be around children and help when asked or needed. It’s not natural for adults to impose themselves upon children for the majority of each day.

The story: Bella and Jade, twin 6-year olds, worked together for most of this SOLE and Bella wanted to know why the rings moved. Jade had assumed control of operating the computer and doing the searching long before, very naturally, no one minded, as the others were happy with their roles, all determined by the children with a little discussion.

Jade owned this role, as I found out several times as she physically removed my hand from nearby the mouse when I offered to help navigating the web. And judging by the results she did a fine job. But here she was, all of six, not knowing the spelling of all the words.

“Can you write it down?” “Of course. Can I write it here? (on the poster)”

“Yes.”

And here Jade went with only a few minutes to go. Plodding away at the keyboard.

“It’s almost time, can I help?”

::shakes head::

In the meanwhile, Bella, Carissa and Matteo, knowing there were a few minutes left wanted to start labeling the poster so they'd remember the words when we talked together, and if I took a picture of the finished product you’d see more of my handwriting on it: “Earth,” “Atlas,” “satellite.” All asked for and all written with permission of the children. Because self-directed learning is not abandonment. When children need help they will ask for it. They do it when they want to learn to drive, put on makeup, throw a ball, wear stylish clothes--and they do it when they need to know how to spell, and add, and read, and a great many other things.

If we just let it happen.