Friday, September 9, 2016

Leave Those Kids Alone

Pre-K is the growth sector of the privatized school industry. There's no existing institutional structure to sweep aside, and there's near-universal agreement that a good Pre-K foundation is important for all future success, coupled with research indicating that many of our children are already behind on the first day of kindergarten.

Unfortunately, "good Pre-K foundation" is a phrase that has been interpreted in some not-very-helpful ways by not-very-clever people with a not-very-deep understanding of what is developmentally appropriate for a four-year-old. Google "kindergarten is the new first grade" and you get over 5,000 results. Because some folks are just certain that what three- and four-year-olds need is academic preparation, direct instruction, and, of course, tests that let us measure the outcomes.

The research on the effectiveness is a huge muddy mess (made more muddy by the continued absence of a reliable and meaningful measure of school effectiveness in general). Some of the research has been rather alarmingly headline-generating, like the Stanford study that suggests that delayed kindergarten enrollment reduces the possibility of developing ADHD.

Now the folks at Defending the Early Years have published a short piece by Lilian Katz that provides a useful framework for explaining and understanding why some approaches to early childhood education are not useful.

Lilian Katz is professor emerita of early childhood education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as well as principal investigator for the Illinois Early Learning Project. Her study of and advocacy for early childhood education is extensive and spirited.

"Lively Minds: Distinctions between academic versus intellectual goals for young children" is a four page report with one page of cover and another one of endnotes-- so we can cut to the chase pretty quickly and easy. I've read it, but you should probably go ahead and read it, too.

First, Katz establishes what the goal for early childhood ed must be beyond a mix of free play and formal instruction:

In the early years, another major component of education (indeed for all age groups) must be to provide a wide range of experiences, opportunities, resources and contexts that will provoke, stimulate, and support children's innate intellectual disposition.

And then, as the title suggests. Katz distinguishes between academic and intellectual goals.

Academic goals are centered on "mastery of small discrete elements" usually connected to reading; these skills are subject to worksheets, drill, and other exercises aimed at literacy goals. "The items learned and practiced have correct answers, rely heavily on memorization, the application of formulae versus understanding, and consist largely of giving the teacher the correct answers that the children know she wants." So all the sit in your desk, do the tasks assigned, perform behaviors that please the teacher.

Intellectual goals "are those that address the life of the mind in its fullest sense (e.g. reasoning, predicting, analyzing, questioning, etc.) including a range of aesthetic and moral sensibilities."  This is about children making sense out of the world and pursuing their own curiosity.  Asking questions. Figuring it out. Analyzing and understanding ideas. This is about learning how to be fully human, how to be in the world.

Katz is not arguing that academics have no place in the early ed classroom. But she quickly and succinctly puts them in their proper place.

An appropriate curriculum in the early years is one that includes the encouragement and motivation of the children to seek mastery of basic academic skills, e.g. beginning writing skills, in the service of their intellectual pursuits.

I've talked about this for years-- one of the major problems of the modern reformy era is that it turns schools upside down. Students are made to serve the school instead of the other way around. Students must master skills and properly perform on tests because the school needs them to produce the "outcomes" that will allow the school to survive. Katz reminds us that it's supposed to be the other way around-- that the school serves the student by providing them with skills that the student can use to become her best, truest self and to carve out a place in the world. The purpose of teaching students this stuff is not so the student can perform for the school's benefit, but so that the skill and knowledge can benefit the student by helping the student create a life.

Katz follows up with a couple of other important points.

First, while it may be true thatstudents from poor backgrounds may lack early exposure to certain academic skills, it does not follow that "they lack the basic intellectual dispositions such as to make sense of experience, to analyze, hypothesize, predict." Even if they haven't been read to at home, Katz says, it is still reasonable and helpful to assume "that they too usually have lively minds."

Second-- well, second is a really a two-fer. Intellectual disposition can be damaged by "excessive and premature formal instruction," but it's not going to be strengthened by mindless or banal activities (she cites a year-long sharing time built around teddy bears). Do meaningful stuff. Or as we like to say in my family, children may be young, but they aren't dopes. They're just tiny human with fewer skills and less live experience.

Katz next looks at short- and long-term effects of early academic instruction. She notes that while there is research to support the notion that early brain stimulation is good for early brain development, there is no real reason to believe that academic instruction qualifies as brain stimulation. The differences that show up in research about the long-term effects of early education seem to Katz to be linked to what kind of instruction we're talking about.

Short term "benefits" can be shown from formal instruction aka basic test prep; more test prep = better test results-- oops, I mean, of course, "increased student achievement." So short term this sort of crap-- oops, I mean, this instructional model-- looks like it's working, but in the long term, not so much. In other words, the damage isn't evident till later.

Also-- and this was a surprise-- it appears that early formal instruction is in the long run more damaging to boys than to girls. This could be neurological (girls brains grow faster) or social (girls are more often taught to be compliant and passive). We don't really know yet.

Katz' recommendation is brief and clear:

Early childhood curriculum and teaching methods are likely to be best when they address children's lively minds so that they are quite frequently fully intellectually engaged.

Katz makes a lot of sense, and while she's a specialist in her particular field, I can't help noticing that much of what she says here about four-year-olds also applies to the sixteen-year-olds that enter my classroom every day. 


  1. Great resources cited! Thank you!

  2. Excellent piece. But a quick correction: It's "leave them kids alone." All in all, another brick in the wall.