"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." - William Butler Yeats
"Mama? Can we get a butterfly and put it in this jar? Ooh-ooh, can we find a cocoon and put it in the jar and wait to see the caterpillar come out as a butterfly? Mama, do we have to wait until spring to find a cocoon? How would we cut the cocoon down, Mama?"
This run-on string of questions occurred during morning snack time today, and my heart leapt to hear the enthusiasm in my four-year-old daughter's voice. My mind raced ahead to all the learning possibilities that stemmed from such excitement: planting a butterfly garden, researching different types of butterflies, writing poems about butterflies, creating a lap book on the life cycle of a caterpillar.
Although I planned, I also stopped to reflect. How was it that this little girl could come up with such an experiment? How did she know about cocoons, caterpillars, and butterflies? How could she already be trying to solve the problem of getting the cocoon out of the tree?
I recalled countless readings of Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar, with its counting, days of the week, and beautiful butterfly on the last pages. I remembered, too, my daughter running, trying to catch a butterfly, and when it landed just out of reach, her father explaining what kind of butterfly it was. Memories of her uncle bug-hunting with her in the backyard and her grandfather pointing out different birds at the feeder also flooded my mind.
All of these incidents and many more, as well as a general attitude that celebrates learning, have accumulated to create my daughter's enthusiasm for finding out more about nature. As a former English teacher, I hate to disagree with Yeats (his poem, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" is one of my favorites), but I have to say that education is both the filling of a pail and the lighting of a fire.
No, we don't stockpile knowledge simply for the sake of knowledge or to win trivia contests. Each piece of information that we learn, though, can become kindling that produces sparks to light fires of learning. Susan Wise Bauer expresses this same idea through the analogy of a sponge:
"Young children are described as sponges because they soak up knowledge. But there's another side to the metaphor. Squeeze a dry sponge, and nothing comes out. First the sponge has to be filled."
As we educate our children, we provide them with the kindling that fills their pail, kindling that will later be used to produce a roaring bonfire of intellectual curiosity.
5 years ago