Foundations of Intellectual Development

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The following is excerpted from a talk given by Beth Sutton, Director of Enki Education and consultant to the Shambhala Elementary School in Halifax, Nova Scotia. To begin the discussion Beth asked the audience what they saw as the outcome of intellectual development at age eighteen, the end of the child’s mandatory schooling. They created a list, summarized below:

  • Creative/flexible thinking
  • Problem solving ability
  • Strong communication skills in several media
  • Ability to listen
  • Confidence/courage to tackle the unknown
  • Enthusiasm for learning

The group unanimously agreed that academic skills were the necessary building blocks to these outcomes – but that the outcomes were the goal and the skills the means.

Beth Sutton (BS): Given your description I think it would be best to start with looking at our own processes of problem solving and creative thinking. I’ll give you a math word problem. Just try to figure it out mentally – no notes. Notice what skills you use. Don’t worry too much about whether or not you can do it. You will learn more about teaching from honestly watching your own struggles than from looking at what you do easily!

Michael and James were playing frisbee. They started out standing 17 yards apart on our 50 foot playfield. Michael threw the frisbee 5 feet and James threw the frisbee 7 feet. How far apart were they when they landed?

Audience 1: It can’t be done because they are 51 feet apart on a 50 foot field.
Audience 2: They are still 17 yards apart, only the frisbees traveled.
Audience 3: The frisbees are 13 yards apart however big the field is, as they traveled 12 feet total
Audience 4: Frisbee is played with only one frisbee, so they must be 2 feet apart as James would have to run to the frisbee to throw it and he is only throwing from 7 feet away.

BS: All of those are great answers, and in a classroom, listening to all of them would be very important to fostering interest in problem solving. However, what is important for us tonight is to look at what we used to solve the problem and where there were sticking points. So what did you do?

Audience 1: First of all I had to picture the situation and right away I realized the field wasn’t big enough and I gave up.
Audience 2: I did the same thing and felt mad!
Audience 3: I pictured it and assumed it was a trick because you only use one frisbee when you play!
Audience 4: I knew it was a trick since you asked how far apart ‘they’ were and they hadn’t moved!
Audience 5: I pictured them 17 yards apart and figured the size of the field was irrelevant. I figured they played with two frisbees and just did the math.
Audience 6: I don’t know how to play frisbee so I didn’t picture anything and I just gave up.

BS: That is pretty much the standard range of reactions you would find in a classroom. Before we look at how you got there, I’d like to look at the attitudes. Several of you gave up or got mad. Why? What made you give up rather than look for several ways to solve it? I think that you probably believed that there was only one right answer. You believed that the right answer was more important than the process. That is an attitude we work to counter in the Enki approach. First and foremost we are fostering interest, and the sense of ‘I can.’ Step one in the teaching process must be interest in the learning process. The teacher supports the children’s confidence in their own perceptions, and thus their ability to tackle the unknown, because their perceptions count. In the Enki approach no incorrect answer ever gets a simple X. We always examine with the child just where the confusion is, beginning with supporting whatever parts of the thinking were on target.

Now let’s go back to the issue of problem solving. It sounded to me as though to begin with, everyone pictured the situation in some way. Is that right? (audience agrees). Was there anyone who just played with the numbers?

Audience 3: Well, I tried to but I right away found the 50 foot field too small for the 51 foot spread, so I had to go back and picture it.

BS: Einstein has a famous quote to the effect that creative thinking and problem solving is founded on the ability to picture, to form an image. For example, Copernicus, the first Westerner to realize the earth goes around the sun, had discovered flaws in the observations and projections of earlier scientists. He knew there was a problem. To this problem he applied his unbelievably strong imaginative powers to picture a universe in which the planets orbited the sun each at a different but steady rate! Then he set out to do the calculations to polish and prove his theory.

So we believe that the ability to create and manipulate internal imagery is absolutely critical to creative and flexible thinking. It is critical to all reasoning, and to the ability to communicate effectively, whether speaking or writing. This begins in the young child’s play and needs a great deal of time and space to really take root, especially in the fast paced, media centered, answer-oriented society in which we live. As a teacher of over 30 years, I have been shocked to see the level of atrophy of this capacity in students, especially in the last ten or so years.

In Enki programs, we work to strengthen this capacity, through emphasis on creative play in the earliest years, right up through the high school seniors’ work with an integrated approach to all their studies. Throughout our curriculum, we approach all content material through rich spoken language and experiences in the arts. This gives the children both the opportunity to and the support for making their own images before we introduce our own.

So that is one of the foundations of intellectual development. What next? What did you do once you had a picture in mind?

Audience 3: Well, I looked to see how the pieces of the picture fit together. It’s hard to describe, but I looked to see the relationships. Audience 2: I looked first to see what information I needed to use and then how to put it together.

BS: That actually covers the two other foundations of intellectual development I would like to talk about tonight. They are: rhythm, or sequence and order; and relationships, or perception of patterns. In some ways these are two aspects of the same thing, but each aspect plays a critical role in intellectual development. Tonight we only have time to look at them as a unit; within the curriculum we work with them as separate foundations, each of great importance. First of all, underlying any logical thinking, is a sense of progression or order. Without it one cannot perceive patterns. Basically, all reasoning depends on making logical progressions from one point to the next and seeing the patterns of that process. If you think about convincing someone of something you believe in, you will automatically activate this capacity.

Unfortunately, because of the fast and fractured pace of life today and the current push to “brainstorm” as early as possible, this is another natural capacity that is atrophying. Children are being trained to jump from one thing to the next, to move as quickly as possible across the surface, and to wander in free association. And we wonder why they have trouble settling down and paying attention! The ability to brainstorm is a wonderful thing. However, it requires a base of focused sequential thinking, or it quickly becomes frantic, sloppy, or self-indulgent.

In the Enki approach we begin by putting a great deal of emphasis on establishing an enriching order, a sense of rhythmic ritual to all we do. In the early years children move through a set sequence of activities, within which there is a great deal of variety. They know what each transition song or cue means, and can move safely within them as they develop and internalize the sense of order. As well, the rhythm of the seasons is worked with as core curriculum material and is celebrated as a community, so the children experience themselves as part of a naturally rhythmic life. With this as our base, we explore order in an age appropriate manner, from the simple task of sorting the shells into different types as the kindergartners clean up from play, to working with cuisenaire rods and pattern blocks in the early grades, to seventh graders ‘discovering’ the laws of ratio and proportion by exploring the patterns in nature through the magic of the Fibonacci number series and the Golden Mean.

So we have covered three foundations: picture building, the sense of rhythmic sequence, and the perception of pattern. We believe these are the foundation stones. But these stones stand on a ground, a ground that underlies all else no matter how we approach teaching.

Beth went on to describe these as curiosity for learning and a healthy neurological system. These, she said, are worked with extensively throughout the Enki program and will be the topic of future workshops and articles