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Children say the funniest things: Or Sustained Shared Thinking Part 1. With help from Stevie Wonder, Talking Heads and a tin of evaporated milk!

Date posted: Monday 14th March 2016

Nestle Ideal evaporated milk

An expert mother?

When I was young I was very good at spelling. It wasn’t something I needed to work at, because I had always been interested in words. I guess it was an ability that came to me naturally, so I enjoyed honing my skills by reading anything I could get my hands on: books, comics, newspapers, magazines, the cereal packet at the breakfast table, even ingredients listed on toothpaste tubes. (Maths, on the other hand, was, and remains, a complete mystery to me. (Punctuation (along with the use of brackets) was a bit of a fascination: though; as you can see: I have never really understood how to use it.)

I was also fascinated by things I wasn’t supposed to touch, including all the little coloured bottles in the bathroom cabinet. One day I decided to investigate the contents of the cabinet. (Don’t blame my parents for leaving medicine within my reach – I was standing on a stool balanced on a chair.) Later that morning, as a kindly doctor examined my rapidly-swelling elbow, he asked my mum what on earth I had been doing. She was at a loss to explain my strange behaviour so I piped up: “Looking for something to read.” Being only seven, I was still learning about what I now understand is ‘the use of facial expression to convey non-verbal communication’, so I couldn’t understand why his eyebrows shot up towards the top of his impressively bald head.

“Tell me more,” was his reply. (Looking back on it, I suspect he may have been a psychiatrist.) I blithely recounted the whole story: how I loved reading new words and how I had found this new bottle that said on the label ‘For EXPERT mothers’ and how I supposed that whatever was inside must have made my mum into an expert… (my mum beamed with pride and blushed with embarrassment)… because she must have bought it to make her more of an expert, because she didn’t used to be very good at it, because last week she shouted at me just because me and my friend went in her handbag and tried on her lipstick…

I may have been a good reader, but didn’t quite get the difference between ‘expert’ which my mum was learning to be, and ‘expectant’ which at the time she was.

When I was nine I asked my teacher, “Am I an idealist?” I was a bit surprised by her lengthy reply, that included words like dreamer, social change, intellectual and philosophical endeavour and names such as Rousseau, Plato and Simone de Beauvoir. Why was I asking in the first place? Well, I knew that a person who liked flowers was a botanist and a person who liked collecting stamps was also an ist of some sort that I couldn’t quite get my tongue round. What I was trying to explore was why someone who likes something a lot couldn’t just be called something simple, like a flowerist or a stampist. I loved a particularly delicious type of evaporated milk made by Nestlé, called Ideal. So surely that made me an idealist? I was just about to ask my lovely teacher why someone who likes to set fire to other people’s property is called an arsonist, but she breathed a sigh of relief as the bell rang for playtime.

Stevie Wonder: Superstition from his 1972 album ‘Talking Book’

What children say can tell us a lot about what they are thinking. What we think of as hilarious seems perfectly logical to them. My colleagues and I have been asked some great things over the years; ‘Do cats poo?’ ‘Is Elvis real?’ and ‘Is Santa really Jesus’s dad?’ being three of the most memorable. We know that getting involved in deep conversation, now commonly referred to as Sustained Shared Thinking, is important for children’s language development and learning. What is most important for the children, and most challenging for the adults, is to find time to answer their questions and explore their ideas fully. It’s particularly challenging to share ideas with children who are very difficult to understand, either because they are very young, or have a speech and language difficulty.

So how do we do it? Have you got 15 minutes? If so, have a look at this article that I wrote to explore this subject. If you have a lot longer, you can explore the topic in depth in my book Talking and Learning With Young Children.

Talking Heads: Love During Wartime from the film ‘Stop Making Sense’

Take care out there


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2 responses to “Children say the funniest things: Or Sustained Shared Thinking Part 1. With help from Stevie Wonder, Talking Heads and a tin of evaporated milk!”

  1. simon marley says:

    Thanks Michael.

    On one occasion I took a child too seriously when he came up to me looking quite distressed in class.
    I said, ‘What’s the problem?’
    He said, ‘It’s my cartilage.’
    Showing a lot of concern, I said, ‘Sit down, you must rest it.’
    He looked puzzled but not as much as I looked when he lifted up his ink stained hands.
    ‘It broke,’ he said ‘and went all over my hands.’

    Great Talking Heads video – probably the best band I ever saw in concert.

    Take care.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Brilliant! For me it was probably Crosby stills Nash and Young at Wembley in ’74, or The Police and Dr Feelgood at the Bullring in Barcelona in 1980, or Bowie as Alladin Sane in Glasgow in 72.

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