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MSPnet Blog: “What matters in education? Rushing the littles”

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posted April 9, 2018 – by Brian Drayton

Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed several stories related to early childhood education, providing evidence that “Kindergarten is the new first grade,” or something like that.  A paper by Bassok et al. from 2016, provides some evidence that things have indeed changed over the period 1998-2010.  By “things” they mean teachers’ beliefs that more academics in kindergarten increases the likelihood of success in later schooling.  In 1998, 31% of kindergarten teachers thought kids should learn to read in kindergarten;  in 2010, it was 80%. The majority of teachers now believe that parents should have taught their kids the alphabet before K, and indeed that kids should have already had some formal preparation in reading and math. Meanwhile, music, foreign language, dance, art — all are becoming more rare:

In 1998, just over a third of kindergarten teachers reported daily music instruction. This figure dropped by 18 percentage points in 2010, and a similar pattern is evident for art instruction, where the percentage of teachers reporting daily instruction dropped from 27% to 11%. We also document a substantial increase in the likelihood that dance, theater, and foreign language are not taught at all during the kindergarten year. For example, whereas 18% of teachers reported never doing theater activities with their kindergarteners in 1998, in 2010 that figure rose to 50%.

Lilian Katz, in a report to Defending the Early Years, draws on literature about early childhood learning to draw a distinction between academic goals for children, and intellectual goals.  If you define your goals for early learning as academic, you are going to advocate instruction which is clearly designed to begin the child’s engagement with curricular content and “skills” as typically defined these days.  Intellectual goals, on the other hand, relate to things like conversation and discussion, questions and exploration, and (as she says) “a range of asthetic and moral sensibilities” — the sorts of things that children encounter in cooperative tasks, play, narrative, and the arts.   She suggests that the literature bears out this academic vs. intellectual distinction, especially in terms of lasting benefit:

the common sense notion that “earlier is better” is not supported by longitudinal studies of the effects of different kinds of preschool curriculum models. On the contrary, a number of longitudinal follow-up studies indicate that while formal instruction produces good test results in the short term, preschool curriculum and teaching methods emphasizing children’s interactive roles and initiative, while not so impressive in the short term, yield better school achievement in the long term.

A recent report from Massachusetts —  whose educational attainment  is generally held up for admiration — looks at another dimension of this question, and for me illustrates the narrowness of much educational thinking these days.  You can read an article about the study, with links to it, here at Valerie Strauss’s blog, “The Answer Sheet. ”  In the study, Clark Fowler of Salem State Univ. (Salem, MA) examines trends in the amount of “child directed activity” now typical in MA kindergartens.  The study is a nice example of someone motivated by ‘anecdata’ to colect actual data — the original anecdotes brought to Fowler’s attention  possible contrasts between high-SES schools and low-SES schools, and his study keeps that comparison in mind.

But the study also examined an additional phenomenon — the decline in K teachers’ autonomy in the classroom (or, the rise in “administrator mandated” , often scripted, instruction).  Thus, children’s loss of agency is in many cases paralleled by the teachers’ loss of agency — this despite the fact that the large majority of principals have no expertise in early childhood education.  (Spoiler alert:  Student and teacher autonomy tend to be more restricted in  low-SES communities than high-SES ones, though the trend applies to all.)

Strauss comments:

The findings … underscore a push around the country in recent years toward more “academic” kindergartens. This is the newest evidence that the pattern is continuing — even in a progressive state, despite a new emphasis in education on “social-emotional learning.”

Now, I think there are a lot of reasons to push back against this trend, and for a science educator the core reason is that the most precious resource for children as science learners is curiosity, and related to that is the experience of wonder and delight.  Related in turn to all of these are boredom and day-dreaming,which are also important reservoirs of creativity and invention.   These are not scriptable.  Thoreau put it nicely when he wrote (in Walden) that he loved a broad margin to his life. So do we all, and we need it to stay human.

But I was discouraged a bit by Dr. Fowler’s arguments for why the trend to curtain unprogrammed time (including lunch and snack time) is likely to be harmful.

In order to benefit fully from instruction, children need frequent breaks from teacher directed tasks… requiring children to pay attention to teacher assigned tasks for extended periods of time decreases children’s motivation to participate in the instructional activities and decreases their capacity to retain and  consolidate learning…. Wakeful rest is associated with default mode processing, a form of mental activity that facilitates the development of social cognition, moral emotions, and creativity. Napping is associated with increased recall and emotional stability….

Fowler also cites Montessori and Csikszentmihaly as “first noticing”   that self-selected and self-directed activities are personally meaningful.  He then goes on to make the point that high degrees of autonomy is also good for teachers (who, in his survey, report decreasing time to reflect and learn — alarming, since that time has always been too little in the typical American school, in constrast to the practice in other cultures).

There is no sense that schooling is not, in a way, an artificial environment, in which we learn to restrain or postpone some individual business or urges, while encountering experiences, people, and phenomena that we would not even know to choose for ourselves.  Yet I can’t help but agree with those who believe that we too much ignore  the narrowing and controlling of attention, subject matter, time, and values that we have been seeing and colluding with over the past 35 years or so.

I am reminded of Ellen Lagemann’s famous statement (in An elusive science, pg 185):

One cannot understand the history of education in the United States during the twentieth century unless one realizes that Edward L. Thorndike won and John Dewey lost.


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