What Are the Elements of a Great Educational Moment?

 What does Allan and Elise’s experience tell us about the essential elements of an educational moment?

Shucking Corn with Elise

By Allan Stern

Who knew that one of summer’s most common cooking preparation tasks would work so well as a metaphor for child development?  

Having just returned from the farm stand in rural New Hampshire, I had ten ears of corn to shuck before dinner.  Elise at 3 ½ years was just the right age to help.

“Elise, can you help me, please?” I ask.  “I can’t do this corn shucking all by myself.”

Of course I COULD do all the shucking by myself, and probably more efficiently, but efficiency and time management are not usually the desired nor realistic outcomes with a toddler around.  Nor would it have been as much fun.

 Elise and I go out on the porch with the corn.  I sit down with one ear of corn in front of me, and Elise standing and facing me.   I very carefully peel back one husk from the ear, but instead of peeling it all the way off myself, I hold it up to Elise, and say, “Pull!”  She pulls, and the husk ends up in the wastebasket below.  Several repetitions later and the ear is clean.

 When she was two years old, one thin husk was about all she could manage.  Now that she’s a “big girl,” I grab a stack of three or four but only pull them up halfway.   Now she has to really struggle to pull them off.    She pulls hard and nothing happens.  She tries again.  “Pull hard, you can do it,” I encourage her.   She’s really into it now.

With a great effort, Elise pulls so hard that the three husks come off the ear suddenly, and she flies backwards, knocking against the porch rail.  She laughs.  Guess we need to work on the release next time.  

As we put each finished ear on the table, of course we have to keep count.  “How many ears so far, Elise?”  No need to lay on the structured math lesson — just keep it simple, fun, and in the context of the activity.

When she’s able to finish the task successfully, there’s no need for me to pile on the praise, either.   The fact that the husks are sitting in the wastebasket and no longer on the ear of corn are proof that she’s done a good job.   Out of courtesy and respect, I will say, “Thanks for helping, Elise.  You’re a great corn shucker.” The fact that we had fun doing a necessary job where she had to put forth extra effort should be sufficient to make her feel good about herself.


As we well know from our own lives and from watching young children, a teacher is most of the time not necessary. Children learn plenty on their own. But if parents, and teachers, (and grandparents) want to make a difference, watch a great teacher at work, and learn.

One can see most of the elements of a great educational moment in this story. What would you say they are?

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