Look, listen and learn...

23rd November 1995 at 00:00
Linda Blackburne meets an academic who takes seriously what children say. Vivian Gussin Paley smiles graciously as 100 early years teachers applaud raptuously. If it was a rock concert, there'd be three encores. But as it's an open lecture at London's Roehampton Institute, her admirers have to be content with an hour-long talk and a lengthy question and answer session.

To outsiders, the fame of the American nursery teacher turned academic is at first difficult to understand. Her reputation rests firmly on a known theme - the power of the story.

But listen to Paley as closely as she must have listened to her nursery children for 40 years and it begins to dawn that what she is describing is not just the importance of story-telling among young children, but what makes the human race tick.

Paley, who was giving her first UK lecture, is the author of eight books. Her writing tackles racism, gender and outsiders, based on the tape-recorded conversations of three to six-year-olds.

She discovered that all kinds of learning, including the discussion of difficult social issues such as loneliness and racism, could be tackled through the simple art of story-telling. "It has been a poor bargain to substitute measured achievement and measured skills for play and story, art and music, " she says.

She was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award in 1989; the only elementary teacher and one of only two classroom teachers so honoured in the United States.

On June 25 this year the Chicago Tribune's magazine wrote: "Vivian Paley has spent her life teaching children. What she's learned could change the world. She has learned the essential lesson, and from her little schoolroom in Hyde Park, she's taught it to a generation of teachers and parents and caretakers' children around the globe. It is this: Take very seriously the things that children say, and take equally seriously the things you say to children. "

Paley's brother, David, had a big influence on her life. Children laughed at him because he had a stutter. It made her angry about the insensitive behaviour of children and adults.

But the deeper importance of story-telling was slow to dawn on her. It was not until she was in her forties that she started to analyse teaching seriously in a way that changed her life, and ultimately the lives of many early years teachers who started to put her ideas into practice.

The turning point was the 1968 Pygmalion study by Rosenthal and Jacobson, which showed how damaging teachers' expectations can be. Researchers deliberately deceived the teachers by telling them that high IQ children had low IQs and vice-versa. They found that teachers repeatedly rephrased questions to the children they thought had high IQs if these pupils did not understand a question, because they believed it was their own badly-worded question which was at fault. But with the pupils they thought had low IQs, the teachers did not pursue the question because they did not want to embarrass the children.

"This came as one of the biggest shocks of my life," Paley told the Roehampton audience. "Because I knew if I was one of those teachers, I well might have reacted in the same way."

She started to write things down and decided to put a tape-recorder in her classroom to find out about herself. But she found that the children were more interesting to listen to than her own talking.

"I had paid more attention to the thorns than the roses," she said. "II realised that all I had to say was 'Once upon a time' and all attention was with me. Once I had the daily tape-recorder going, I realised I had a goldmine.

"I could do anything I wanted with children; consider any kind of idea and conversation if I could figure out a way of making it sound like a story. "

But it was many years later before she realised exactly why stories are so important. She tells of two white, English-speaking Canadian women teaching nursery children who spoke 12 different languages. They coped by creating their own community through story-telling and story-acting, activities which have no cultural divide.

She told her Roehampton audience: "The great thing about story-telling is that nowhere does it work better than with our young children who have not yet learned to be still and hide their stories. They still think this is what you are meant to do. They have not learned: 'Don't let people see this vulnerable part of me'."

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