Space to think

Big ideas need time to surface

As a teacher it is hard not to step in to support children when they are grappling with a concept, but Kriti Mathur managed to hold herself back!

At the end of a school day

Visible thinking, inquiry driven, student led, critical thinking, conceptual understanding – while these are terms commonly used in many meetings, workshops and seminars, I am always intrigued by one question – how do they help us understand what is heppening in a child’s mind?

I am a researcher in my classroom where 5–6-year-olds are heard, observed and challenged. As I wrap up my day with a 15-minute reflection pondering over what worked and what didn’t for the day, I pick up my bags, do a final check of the room and head to the bus bay. I see some students touching a caterpillar on a leaf, I see some of the students chasing each other, I see some of them lost in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid, I see some of them quiet and staring into nothing. I think to myself – how do children make sense of the world around them? In what ways, can we as teachers get them to express or demonstrate this understanding?


On my way back, I tune into a podcast to delve deeper into this question, “Episode 21: Make It Stick Author Peter Brown” (THE CULT OF PEDAGOGY PODCAST, EPISODE 21 TRANSCRIPT by Jennifer Gonzalez), where the host interviews one of the authors of ‘Make it Stick – The Science of Successful Learning’ – Peter Brown. (Click on the image to follow the link to Amazon) The basic idea of the book is ‘what we believe about learning and what most people do to study and learn material is basically wrong. It is not backed by science.’

The podcast then discusses the possibilities of trial and error to build a foundation for learning – learning that would stick. Something connected with me and I was reminded  of a 2011 Ted Talk that had made an impression on me by U.S. General Stanley McChrystal who suggests that “Leaders can let you fail and not let you be a failure.”

The transport challenge

The space to thinkI took it up as a challenge for my current unit on transportation systems with my class of 5 – 6 year olds. We had spent the last 7 weeks building a timeline showing how different means of transportation had evolved. They now had to choose any form of transport (by air, water, land or space) to solve a current problem based on their exploration so far.

They had to demonstrate their answer with an exhibit of their choice – it could be a model, a picture, or a Show and Tell. They also had to do it in groups. They also had the freedom to build their own groups according to their interests or the problem they wished to solve. I gave them all the possible resources they asked for – time, supplies and space. As we set the ball rolling, they grappled with the task! They had to resolve conflicts within the team, agree to disagree with each other, choose the best way to present, the order in which to present – all the while making sure they were solving a current transportation problem. Yes, I had set them up to fail.

The outcomes

I only observed from the corner – for one full week. Initially, they did reach out to me, requesting (almost demanding) to help them figure how to go about this open-ended task of finding a solution to a current transportation problem. And while I was tempted, I resisted.

“I don’t know” became my standard response. “Maybe you need to discuss and find solutions together,” came next. After a week of chaos, madness, book hunting, seeking help from each other and fighting it out, the final exhibits in the 8th week were:

  1. A floating city – for those humans who wish to live underwater forever
  2. A helpful submarine – that supports marine life by feeding it nutricious food through the day.
  3. A remodelling of the first plane by the Wright Brothers.
  4. A book on each type of transportation – journaling the process of ideation as a team using guiding questions.
What I learned

The cognitive dissonance that my students went through in that week taught me something important that no training could have prepared me for. It was that big ideas are always operating in our subconscious mind. Through a series of well thought-out learning experiences, using personal research and reflecting on these experiences – the big ideas surface to our consciousness – leading to new/developed understanding.

The big ideas that the students came up within the following week contributed significantly to my learning and teaching practices as an early Years facilitator thereafter.

I don’t have to chase articulation of big ideas or concept clarity – they surface on their own. And that’s when learning becomes authentic and visible.


Kriti Mathur is currently working as an early years facilitator at the Global Indian International School in Singapore.




FEATURE IMAGE:by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Support images: by Abigail Tan from Pixabay and with kind permission from Global Indian International School


The PYP Curriculum Framework, Available at:

Listen, learn … then lead, Stanley McChrystal, TED 2011, Available at:

Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom Paperback – 13 April 2017 by H. Lynn Erickson (Author), Lois A. Lanning (Author), Rachel French (Author), Available at: