Every Tuesday evening I facilitate a zoom meeting of early childhood educators where we discuss a different chapter of my book, Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, and we share our stories from our classrooms. It’s a wonderful group of educators consisting of teachers and administrators from across the United States, Newfoundland, Taipei, Taiwan and Bolivia, South America.
Last week Lauren Monaco, a wonderful kindergarten teacher, who works at P.S. 89, a NYC public school,shared a study that she did with her kindergarten class in an East Harlem charter school a few years ago. The children’s interest in trees fostered curiosity about squirrels and inspired them to advocate for their East Harlem community. This wonderful study began in September but, taking a variety of loops and turns, continued until the end of the school year.
At the beginning of the year, as a means of supporting children in developing a sense of classroom community, Lauren began a study of trees by creating tree inquiry groups. Each group “adopted” and named a tree that grew in the school community garden.
The children began drawing leaves from their trees, comparing how their leaves differed from the leaves of other inquiry group leaves. They looked at their leaves on a light box and examined the veins by looking at them through the hole of a “detail finder”, a piece of paper with a small circular window cut into it. They went outside and studied the bark of their tree.
Lauren introduced many books on the topic of trees and leaves to the class. A favorite book was Lois Ehlert’s Leaf Man. The illustrations inspired many leaf men being created as children engaged with natural materials at the art table during Choice Time.
Some of the children had an interest in creating a forest during Choice Time. To do this they had to experiment with paper so that they could figure out how to make trees that would stand up straight.
While the class was busy exploring trees and leaves, one child, Naima, began her own inquiry study. Naima became obsessed with figuring out how to lure squirrels to the classroom window. The children had noticed some squirrels in trees outside the third story classroom window. They wondered how they could get them closer so that the class could study them. Naima began to attach acorns to string and hang them outside the window, but couldn’t manage to lure the squirrels up to the third floor. Children are inventive and during Choice Time Naima began to create an elevator out of cardboard and tried to fit it through the narrow opening of the window. Naima’s interest in squirrels spread throughout the class.
Children developed a strong interest in squirrels, fascinated by how they moved and how they played. They read books and watched videos. They even found Youtube videos of mazes that were created for squirrels!
The interest in squirrels led to an interest in all the creatures that lived in or near the trees.
From a science catalog, Lauren purchased a “rotting log”. Children now were able to study the creatures that help decompose wood: snails, centipedes, pill bugs and beetles. This was a very new experience for these children who lived in the inner city!
The class took an exciting trip to the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx. At writing workshop they shared their research with each other.
Lauren documented the direction of the study by posting the children’s work in the hallway. Rather than creating a “cute” display, an authentic story of the study, in the children’s own words, was created and the class shared their explorations with the school community.
The children’s focus turned to the question of how they could create houses for the squirrels and where they could build them. They looked at photos of houses for squirrels and they began drawing their own plans.
Home Depot donated wood pieces to the class and at Choice Time children began experimenting with constructing squirrel homes. First they sanded the wood and then they used duct tape and tape to hold pieces together.After they were satisfied with how their houses looked, they glued the pieces of wood together.
The children wondered where they could put their squirrel houses and decided that the school community garden, the site of their trees, would be the perfect spot.
At this same time the kindergarten classes in the school were doing an inquiry study of playgrounds. Because the school did not have a playground of its own, they visited other playgrounds in the neighborhood and also took a bus to Central Park to explore the playgrounds in the park. Of course an important part of their playground research included playing in the playgrounds!
“Let’s make a playground for our toy insects and our real snails!”
They began to create models for both squirrel homes and also play equipment.
An exciting day was spent painting the squirrel homes.
It was time to add more documentation.
Zoltan Sarda, the science coach, brought the children out to the garden and helped them get their constructions completed. It was particularly exciting for the children to use real, adult tools and to work on constructions in groups under Zoltan’s guidance
What began as Naima’s dream of creating an elevator for the squirrels became a reality! Look at the ecstatic expression on her face.
Now the focus shifted to the playground that the children wanted for themselves. Other schools had playgrounds and they wanted one too! They began to plan for the equipment that their playground would need.
They wrote a heartfelt letter to the Mayor and to other local politicians, explaining why they needed a playground. The letter received some interest at first. Then, unfortunately, the administration of the school changed and it went from being a child-centered program to one that focused on standardized test-taking and collecting data. Alas, as usual, it was the children who suffered. It was so clear (just look at their faces and the work that they were doing), that when children are engaged, interacting, playing and exploring in an environment that values joyful learning, they will flourish.
There was an exodus of progressive educators after the administration changed. Teachers were no longer free to teach to the child, but were expected to teach to the test and to a standardized curriculum.
This all makes it so obvious that we, the professionals and the community , must stand fast and push for the education that children deserve. Deborah Meier, the founder of Central Park East and Mission Hill School, recently told me that it is clear to her that we know how to provide a successful school experience for children. We only have to look towards the expensive, progressive private schools where there are small classes, art, music, dance, and play in a nurturing environment. That’s what all of our children need!
Can ‘Learning as Play’ Make a Kindergarten Comeback?
By Lydie Raschka
One day last school year, a girl in Fanny Roman’s kindergarten class at PS 244 in Flushing, Queens arrived bubbling with excitement about her new shoes. With Roman’s encouragement, she began tracing classmates’ feet on paper and constructing “shoes,” using pipe cleaners for laces. Her enthusiasm proved contagious; in response, Roman read poetry and picture books about shoes and students set up a play shoe store of their own, with different-sized shoes in boxes, labeled “Jellies” or “Sneakers”, as they categorized by size and even priced their wares. In their writing, they started using words such as “Velcro,” buckles” and “shoelaces.”
Welcome to “choice time.” In a number of New York City elementary school kindergarten classes, it revives, in modified fashion, the once-common play-as-learning “free time” that’s been driven almost to extinction in favor of whole-class instruction, textbooks, worksheets, and other elements of more rigorous education in the Common Core era.
Nationally, the amount of kindergarten time spent on reading and math instruction has substantially increased, according to a recent study published by AERA Open, titled, “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” Authors Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham, and Anna Rorem found that some 80% of a national sample of teachers now believe students should learn to read in kindergarten, compared to only 31% who thought that in 1998; only 40% reported at least an hour of student-driven activities per day in their classrooms.
While there’s no question that early education is critical, there’s also a growing number of researchers, educators, and parents questioning whether the formal academic approach now rooted in many kindergarten classrooms has gone too far.
Academic expectations and play don’t have to be mutually exclusive goals, some early childhood experts say. Lilian G. Katz, author of Lively Minds: Distinctions Between Academic versus Intellectual Goals for Young Children, argues that while “bits of information,” such as learning the sound of the letter “s,” do matter, they may not warrant as much time as schools increasingly give them. She and other prominent educators, including Deborah Meier and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, are part of a nonprofit group called “Defending the Early Years,” intended to help early childhood educators combat an increased focus on academics over the discovery, inquiry, and play that stimulates the mind in a fuller way and is often called “choice time.”
Another highly respected, now retired, elementary school teacher in New York City, Renée Dinnerstein, believes that a way to stimulate a rich choice time is to “make the classroom into a sort of laboratory for children – to create a science center where they really feel like scientists; an art center where they really feel like artists.”
“The challenge,” she says, “is to plan inquiry-based, explorative choice time, acknowledging important elements of free play within the high standards expected” in the Common Core-era classroom – even in kindergarten.
“The teacher’s prepared environment is essentially what differentiates free play and choice time,” Dinnerstein says. That can mean, for example, creating a classroom “construction area” replete with kid-sized safety goggles, vests, blocks, hard hats, sign-making materials and mini-people or animals. Teachers introduce items of interest based on what kids say and do.
PS 244 principal Bob Groff says that for his students (drawn from a heavily Chinese immigrant neighborhood where some 70% start school with little or no English) “choice time is a great opportunity to develop language socially and academically at the same time.” It also encompasses reading, writing, and math learning goals. “This blends all of that together,” he said. “It’s natural, not forced. It’s going to have more long-lasting success.”
Kindergarten teacher Fanny Roman is a believer in choice time, too, and has put it at the start of the school day. “I liked it first thing,” she said. “It made me so excited every day to come in.” Nevertheless, choice time also takes time—time that isn’t easy to find. “Every minute counts,” said Roman. “It’s all about the testing grades and what we have to do to get them ready in kindergarten.”
Dinnerstein thinks those minutes could be used better—to create an intellectually stimulating kindergarten that promotes reasoning, analyzing, predicting, and questioning. “When kids are pushed to read early, they’re not pushed to do a lot of thinking,” she said. “It’s not like I’m against children learning to read. [But] I don’t think the goal is that every child leaving kindergarten has to learn to read. If you have two children in one family, they’re not learning everything at the same speed—crawling, pushing up, standing—but they all end up walking.”
Lydie Raschka is on the staff of the InsideSchools project of the Center for New York City Affairs. She’s a Montessori teacher-trainer during the summer months.
Photo Credit: Fanny Roman
Urban matters home
It’s almost here! On October 22, Heinemann will publish The Teacher You Want to Be, the book that grew out of a 2012 study tour to Reggio Emilia that Matt Glover and I organized. The tour gathered together a group of educators to visit Reggio’s world-famous pre-schools and their new elementary school. We used our observations to jump-start some meaningful conversations that would broaden our thinking about the teaching of literacy.
Our group discussions while we were in Italy, both with the teachers and parents from the Reggio schools and by ourselves in the evening, were thought provoking and exhilarating. We returned to the US determined to keep the conversation going among ourselves and with the public. All of the participants were invited to write personal reflections on their trip experiences. These reflections formed the basis of our Statement of Beliefs, thirteen beliefs describing how children should be learning and how schools and educators can best approach teaching. Each belief is quite descriptive, dealing with what we see as the major issues challenging American education.
I’m so pleased to share the Statement of Beliefs with you and hope that you are as excited as I am to read the essays that these beliefs inspired. I hope that teachers and administrators, book discussion groups, college education classes and anyone interested in improving the state of education, will read this book and keep this vital discussion alive.
Beliefs, Explanations and Issues
Belief 1 (Teachers as researchers)
We believe that teachers are researchers and that instructional decisions are best when based on what teachers have learned and documented by observing and listening carefully to students throughout the day.
Explanation Issues and Concerns
The decision of what should happen in a classroom each day can best be made by teachers who know their students well. Teachers are researchers, engaged in a pedagogy of authentic listening and observation, using what they learn from students today to influence what happens tomorrow. These decisions should be made with intention and with a strong belief in the rights of children to use natural learning strategies such as storytelling and wondering. Teachers, not programs, should make instructional decisions for children. Increasingly we see schools where the expectation is that all students be taught the same thing, same day, at the same time. How can we realistically expect students across classrooms (or even within a classroom) to have the same needs, and therefore, be taught the same lesson at the same time? Even within one classroom, there is a range of abilities and interests. We should expect classroom instruction to recognize and reflect this range of abilities and interests. Education that is “standardized” is not responsive to unique human beings who have particular strengths, gifts, interests and challenges.
Belief 2 (Teachers as learners)
We believe that the way teachers approach their own learning should parallel the way children approach their learning, and school is the place where both teachers’ and students’ learning is characterized by engagement, purpose, and self-direction.
We believe children should be actively engaged in their learning, exploring areas of interest and curiosity. They should be self-directed, be able to work interdependently, and have opportunities for authentic choices that engage them in deep thinking. Teachers, as learners, should engage with their professional growth in the same way. We can’t expect students to learn with purpose, choice, and engagement if educators don’t hold themselves to the same expectations. There should be congruence between how teachers and students approach learning. Educators often hear the call for helping students become collaborative, self directed, inquisitive problem solvers. Unfortunately, in many instances students are in educational environments that don’t foster these habits of mind. It is difficult to create environments that nurture these habits of mind in students if teachers find themselves in a pedagogical climate that doesn’t support their own intellectual growth and development. “Practice what we preach” is more effective than “do what we say, not what we do.”
Belief 3 (Appreciative view of children)
We believe educators should have a positive and expectant view of children, with an understanding that children enter school with personal histories and particular strengths that teachers should recognize and use as the foundation for working with them.
Educators should have an appreciative view of children. Children should be viewed through a lens of strengths rather than deficits and next steps should be based on where they are at that particular moment. Naturally, there will be a range and the pathways to learning will need to be differentiated. Teaching decisions and instructional decisions should be based on a child’s current development, not on the pacing calendar of a program.
Successful learning environments are predicated on the teacher’s knowledge that the vast majority of children don’t benefit from being labeled and grouped. This labeling promotes a “bell curve” mentality in adults. Children are all too aware of where they fall on the curve. Intellect isn’t something we’re born with. It’s something we develop alongside intellectual mentors, both teachers and other children. We increasingly see educational decisions and curricula that assume all students have the same needs and are in the same place in their learning at one particular time. This thinking, combined with high stakes tests and rigid pacing calendars, leads to a deficit view of children and teachers. School communities should engage in a process of value articulation and have regular opportunities to check practice against those values. Time should be taken to consider these goals as a community and to support one another in continually revisiting their image of children.
Belief 4 (Struggle is where learning happens)
We believe children, families and teachers should see challenge, struggling, and mistakes as positive, creative opportunities for learning and growth.
Students and teachers should understand that much learning is involved in the approximations any learner makes toward an ideal practice. When children engage in learning that is meaningful, challenging, and in their zone of proximal development it will lead to children encountering challenges and difficulty, and also works towards understanding. Struggling is a synonym for productive learning as long as the struggle is not overwhelming. The key is to create educational experiences that aspire towards high levels of challenges in environments where children feel comfortable enough to make mistakes.
Neuroscience is clear that optimal environments for learning support a state of relaxed alertness in which the brain is most open to making new connections. This research supports the need to focus on social and emotional intelligences to develop other kinds of intelligences. True inquiry and deep thinking assumes that answers and understanding will not always come easily, and that approximations should be welcomed and honored. Too often, teachers try to make learning easy for children, presenting materials and lessons that don’t challenge students to problem-solve or think out of the box. This can lead to learning environments where the goal is primarily getting a right answer rather than one that supports critical and creative thinking that allows and encourages children to take risks while working out challenges. If our goal is to support deep understanding, then students need to have opportunities to think deeply over sustained periods of time.
Belief 5 (Engagement)
We believe students desire and have a right to autonomy, self-direction, and choice in their development of lifelong learning and engaged citizenship, and that teachers should design learning environments that foster rich opportunities for engagement.
Human beings are prewired to explore. Curiosity is a natural state of mind that drives the need to be in relationship with and make meaning of the world around us. School should be a place that supports the sustaining of such habits of mind. Environments should be designed to foster opportunities that support and encourage this disposition. When teachers provide space and time for children to independently problem-solve and orchestrate their strategies for self-chosen purposes, children learn how to transfer what they’ve learned in school to outside of school situations. They become flexible learners who can apply understandings and strategies both in and out of school. The mere acquisition of skills can occur with low levels of engagement, but the skills will not be as firmly embedded if students aren’t engaged in their learning. Increasingly, we see educational systems that promote the attainment of skills solely for the sake of attainment. Students see little meaning of relevance towards long-term intellectual growth. Disengaged children often view schoolwork as something that doesn’t easily cross the border between the school day and their every day lives.
Belief 6 (Ownership of Learning)
We believe both teachers and students should share ownership of the learning experience, whereby they collaboratively make meaningful decisions that impact the course of learning day by day.
This belief isn’t meant to naively suggest that we’re calling for hands off teaching. Quite the contrary. When teachers believe that children are capable of deep thinking and problem solving, they are more willing to share ownership and control of learning with students. Children then develop a sense of agency and a belief that they have important thinking to contribute. There should be a balance of ownership in the classroom that can occur only when actively engaged teachers are willing to trust in the innate abilities of children and share the learning process with their children. The learning process in schools is often controlled by the teacher, the program, and/or the curriculum, leaving little opportunity for children to have any ownership or control over their learning. Instructional pathways that are predetermined for large groups of children allow for few real choices and decisions on the part of the children, and therefore encourage passive, rather than active, learning, and send the message that “learning” is something that one cannot have control over. In life we need individuals and groups to be excited about pursuing different interests and passion. If schools promote conformity and sameness, why would we expect adults to behave any differently?
Belief 7 (Intellectual Stimulation)
We believe children have a desire to interact with challenging questions and inquiries of real importance to themselves, to their community, and to the world.
Children of all ages, even very young children, have the capacity to chew on big questions and are continuously making theories, whether we ask them to or not. By creating environments that support habits of research and collaboration, children will develop attitudes that allow them to sustain a sense of wonder, value multiple perspectives, and develop an increasingly sophisticated capacity for critical thinking and innovation. When students are in environments where they are encouraged to ask and pursue meaningful questions, their learning is deeper and more likely to transfer between home and school and across content areas. Elevating the scale of children’s work from isolated tasks to authentic, significant projects that matter in their lives and communities increases the probability for meaningful learning. Children quickly realize the difference between meaningful, authentic learning situations and contrived situations that only serve the purpose of acquiring a predetermined skill. When schools frequently focus on controlling bodies rather than fostering intellectual growth, school experiences are pushed toward that of discipline, punishment, and compliance rather than questioning, engagement and intellectual growth. The goal of curricular programs and resources should be to stimulate independent thinking, deep and complex questioning and problem solving.
Belief 8 (Joy)
We believe that learning is based in relationships, and that interactions between teachers, families and students should be joyful, compassionate, and authentic.
School should be a place of wonder, joy, intellectual risk-taking and well rounded fun. The sounds of a classroom should include a balance between teacher and student voices, laughter, and conversations, both formal and informal. We’re not suggesting classrooms without structure or planning. Instead, we believe the learning environment should be joyful and fun because those are conditions that encourage academic risk-taking, vibrant interactions with others, and higher levels of engagement. True learning and deep understanding are often the byproduct of a joyful learning environment.
We increasingly see schools where the experience for teachers and students is primarily one of assessing, evaluating and sorting. In these situations students may reach external benchmarks, but at the unfortunate cost of growth and development, connection and community.
Belief 9 (Teacher Professional Growth and Collaboration)
We believe that teachers develop professionally through meaningful inquiry and collaborative opportunities with colleagues, characterized by sharing observations of students, exploring instructional possibilities, and reflecting on their growth as learning teachers and teacher-leaders.
Schools should be vibrant, stimulating and creative places that support creative thinking for teachers as well as for students, and to this end teachers must have regular and frequent opportunities built into their schedules to meet with colleagues and other professionals so that they can collaborate, reflect and explore the implications of what they’re observing in their classrooms. Professional development is then self-directed and collaborative making use of critical friends as they take an analytical stance towards both learning and teaching. Because learning is socially embedded for all humans, we should build up opportunities for educators to work together as a way to support professional development. Too often teachers’ planning time is spent on the minutia and paperwork that supports a system built on data and accountability, rather than on the needs of children. Additionally professional development time is often devoted to training teachers to implement a program rather than on building their own capacity as thinkers and learning designers. Many researchers have identified capacity building as a critical factor in creating meaningful learning for students.
Belief 10 (Interdependent Learning/Student Collaboration)
We believe children grow theories about the world around them through their collaborations and interactions with one another.
Children need constant opportunities for collaboration and social interaction. A socio-constructivist approach should be embedded throughout the school day. Spaces and routines should be organized to facilitate discussion and social interactions where children are engaged in a collective journey together. To often students look to the teacher for all of the answers, and frequently they are looking for a single right answer. Children should be encouraged to build on their collective knowledge and experiences as they become independent thinkers and learners. A central goal should be to facilitate learning and create an environment where, through collaboration, engaged children become dynamic thinkers and problem solvers who question, interpret, form theories, and find significance in the world around them.
Belief 11 (Family)
We believe positive and integrated relationships between families and educators are crucial and plentiful opportunities for collaboration among students, teachers and families are essential.
Teachers should develop empathy for the struggle inherent in learning and work in solidarity with children and families. Children benefit when schools and families are harmoniously engaged in the learning experience. Learning occurs within relationships when connections are made between children, families, and educators.
The tenor of the language schools and teachers choose to use is important and has the power to invite or exclude children and families from becoming enthusiastic participants in the world of school.
Belief 12 (Head and Heart)
We believe teachers have the opportunity to learn more about children’s ideas, experiences, and interpretations when we offer them multiple means of expression.
We believe that all effective and engaging learning occurs through both the mind and the body. Cognitive thought is embedded in social and physical explorations occurring in inspiring environments. All learning occurs through the body. Constructive experiences engage the whole child, body and mind, hands and heart. Today we see learning, particularly deep, meaningful learning, as embodied, encompassing both thought and feelings. A carefully designed, aesthetically intentional environment plays an essential role in the social and physical engagement of the mind, body, and feelings. With a focus on narrow skill attainment, schools often lose sight of how learning occurs and neglect to foster student aesthetic, artistic, and social development. Children should be seen and nurtured globally due to the interdependence of all aspects a child’s development.
Belief 13 (Time)
We believe children need time, both within a school day and across a school year, to deeply explore topics of importance and interest.
Learners of any age need prolonged periods of time to interact with ideas in order to become fully engaged with them. The time needed also varies from child to children. In order for children to become self-directed learners, children need to have ample time to work on long term projects, as well as have some control over how they spend their time. When children’s days are too fragmented it is difficult for them to stay with an idea if they don’t have the time needed for deep engagement.
When the school year is too rushed, it is difficult for children to stay with an idea or project for sustained periods of time. How the school day flows should reflect what we know about child development and learning, not the artificial structures of pre-packaged curriculum and schedules.
My daughter was born in 1972, the heyday of the Women’s Movement. It somehow passed me by. When friends and family visited me to see the new baby, inevitably the question, “when are you going back to work” entered into the conversation. I was totally ecstatic about staying home to be with my baby as long as my artist husband Simon, my baby Simone and I could hold out. By some miracle, and with the help of a rent-controlled apartment, I was able to stretch out my home time for two and a half years. We were rather poor but I was happy as a lark. I didn’t care if, as many friends told me, I was being rather retro in my domesticity. Each day my baby surprised me with something new – a smile, a word, a gurgling along with a song.
My problem was that I knew almost nothing about how to care for an infant or a toddler. I was full of questions. Why was my friend’s baby crawling when my little sunshine was content to sit with her toys and play? Baby Jennifer was starting to walk at 11 months. My Simone took one flop at eleven months and decided to put off walking for another two months. Luckily for me, a wise friend gave me the gift of Berry Brazelton’s book Infants and Mothers: Differences in Development This book was a classic presentation of child development and a “must read” guide for new parents in the 1970’s. .In this book, Dr. Brazelton followed the development of three different babies. All three of the children fell under the umbrella of being “normal” but their development and personalities were greatly diverse. Reading this helped me to stop making comparisons. I just concentrated on and celebrated my daughter’s achievements. Now let’s jump ahead to the present and to the Common Core Learning Standards for children in Pre-k through grade 2. Can you imagine how devastated I would have been if there was a checklist of what standards Simone should have mastered at the end of each year? What if the “standard” for year one would say that by the end of the first year, the 12 month old child will be starting to walk? Perhaps I might have considered my beautiful, and bright baby to be a failure! Thank goodness that T. Berry Brazelton’s examples so clearly illustrated, that children don’t develop skills in a lockstep manner.
You might be asking yourself what my examples have do with the Common Core Learning Standards for Pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten, Grade One and Grade Two?
As an early childhood teacher, I always had high standards for my children. That said, I also understood, that I needed to allow young children a wide berth for growth and success socially and academically. For some children, learning to read and write was as easy as ABC. Others needed more time to put the puzzle pieces of written language together.
The common core learning standards are in desperate need of revision! Whoever is creating and publishing these standards needs to remove the standards for Pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade. Begin the standards with second grade and early childhood teachers will have the big picture of what their students eventually must be able to do in all of the academic areas. Wouldn’t it make so much more sense for the early childhood standard to say that “by the end of second grade, children will ask and answer questions about key details in a text and answer such questions as who, where, when why and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text” and leave it at that? It isn’t unrealistic to expect that” by the end of second grade children will compare and contrast the most important points presented by two texts on the same topic.” Some children will be meeting this standard by the end of first grade, just as baby Jennifer could walk at 11 months. Others, however, may need a little more time to reach this particular standard, just as Simone needed a little more time to gain the confidence to start walking. I can tell you for a fact that the adult Jennifer and the adult Simone are doing just fine with their walking, talking, reading and writing.
Perhaps if there were early childhood educators and parents of young children on the committee that drew up these common core learning standards, there would have been more understanding of how young children develop. Perhaps each skill should not be broken down by grade but rather by what we would expect a child to know before going into third grade. This might take some of the stress out of the early childhood classes and allow for a return to classes where children have time and opportunities to explore, investigate, take risks without fear of failure and, (might I add this controversial word?) play! George Bernard Shaw wrote, “What we want is to see the child in pursuit of knowledge, and not knowledge in pursuit of the child,” Let’s not be lead by an unrealistic checklist of skills for young children. Instead, let’s heed the words of George Bernard Shaw and give young children many opportunities for pursuing knowledge in classrooms that respect the diversity of each child. We should be creating educational environments that acknowledge the wisdom and research of Dr. Brazelton and so many other educators such as Deborah Meier, Alfie Kohn and Carlina Rinaldi, who tirelessly advocate for developmentally respectful education practices. Let’s not let a checklist of inappropriately constructed early childhood standards take away the child’s joy of learning and the teachers’ joy of teaching!
Educators, parents, and anyone with concerns about the education of young children, what are your thoughts about this document?
DEY Early Childhood Platform
Posted on August 13, 2012 by geralyndeyproject
Note: DEY’s Senior Adviser Nancy Carlsson-Paige and our National Advisory Board member Deborah Meier recently presented our early childhood platform at the Save Our Schools People’s Education Convention, where folks were hugely supportive and helped to brainstorm ways to use the platform as we move forward.
Platform for Early Childhood Education
There has been an increasing pushdown of the academic skills to 3, 4 and 5 year olds that used to be associated with 1st – 3rd graders. This results in fewer of the direct play and hands-on experiences that lay the foundations for later academic success. At the same time, there is an increasing over-focus on rote academic skills in the early elementary grades. This includes more and more teacher talk rather than child talk in early childhood classrooms and often involves teacher-led instruction focused largely on memorizing facts and information. Young children need to see facts within meaningful contexts, to invent their own ideas and problems to explore and solve, to share their own solutions. These practices reflect a loss of trust in the intellectual capacities of young children – and an institutionalized crushing of their insatiable love of learning.
We’re forgetting that human beings are, from the moment they are born, experts at learning. Before they enter school, they have already discovered vast worlds of language and knowledge. Human beings are uniquely designed to be makers and creators – artists and craftsmen. And intellectuals.
The majority of early childhood classrooms today are driven by myriad of developmentally inappropriate standards-based tests and check lists that ignore children’s needs, capacities and cultures, and do not honor their uniqueness as learners. This brings great harm to our nation’s children by portraying them as deficient. The heaviest burden falls on those who live in poverty and with the fewest resources. As these trends take hold there has been a dumbing down of teaching and teacher knowledge, which is being increasingly replaced by commercial scripts that can be followed mindlessly. Less prepared teachers who are more willing to follow commercial scripts and manage data are entering the field of early childhood at the same time that increasingly frustrated experienced teachers are leaving. Older mentors who once wisely guided young teachers are fast disappearing.
If one purpose of public education, especially in a democracy, is to develop our capacity to exercise wise judgment when confronted with real world dilemmas, then we need to encourage young children to develop good judgment. They need adult models who demonstrate what exercising judgment is all about and who encourage children to ask questions, apply what they already know to new situations, use their imaginations, and think independently. In classrooms in which skills and knowledge are broken into small skill subsets and factlets and taught directly to kids, such judgment becomes suffocated from the start.
While many of the misguided practices we see in schools today took place in earlier times, especially in the education of poor children, they were not enforced by punitive state and federal policy or driven by frequent, costly, and inappropriate assessment tools, as is the case today—nor begun at such a young age.
What is the answer?
1. Eliminate labeling and ranking of children based on standardized tests. It’s long been known to experts that tests for young children have very low reliability, are dependent on too many random factors, and are impacted by class, race and home culture.
2. Use assessments that are ongoing and evolving and connected closely to observations of children, their development and learning, and to a child-centered curriculum.
3. Provide classrooms where teachers engage in well-thought out and intentional extensions/expansions of children’s play and learning in ways that demonstrate knowledge and respect for each child’s uniqueness.
4. Provide children with literacy experiences that include storytelling, quality children’s literature, and dramatic reenactments that grow out of their experiences rather than activities that isolate and drill discrete skills.
5. See and appreciate what children can do and understand without focusing on learning everything earlier. Offer classrooms where children are not praised, rewarded or criticized because they are slower or faster than others. Research tells us, earlier does not prove to be better.
6. Provide a school environment that respects the language and culture of children and their families, encourages families to take ownership, and insures that their history and experiences are included and valued.
7. Offer school schedules that provide ample time for families and school personnel to meet and work together. Including family members in meaningful ways in the school’s governance structure so that they and children feel their voices are being heard.
8. Realize the critical role of early childhood teachers, whose work is as important as that of those who teach PhD candidates, and compensate them as such. We must reverse the assumption that the younger the children we teach, the less knowledgeable and competent teachers need to be.
9. Implement a school pedagogy that understands that children are intrinsically active learners from the time they are born and that learning happens in and out of a school building in unique ways. Adults don’t need to get children “ready to learn”; they don’t have to reinforce skills and facts stressed in school at home.
10. Provide children and families with access to high quality, affordable child care and after-school care.
What Can We Do?
Take this platform to your neighbor, children’s teachers, parent groups, school board and legislative bodies. As them to support efforts to bring best practice back to the education of young children.
Stay informed and involved with the organizations that advocate for young children – such as Defending the Early Years (deyproject.org), Alliance for Childhood (allianceforchildhood.org), Save Our Schools (saveourschoolsmarch.org) and Parents Across America (parentsacrossamerica.org). (Also check out local organizations such as Citizens for Public Schools in Massachusetts citizensforpublicschools.org.)
Resist reinforcing the school’s agenda – drilling for skills – and replace it with what centuries of wisdom and research has taught us: children learn when they are deeply engaged in self-selected, self-directed and playful activities. Provide young children with space and time to play at home and in the neighborhood. You don’t need expensive toys or technology to support their development. They need the natural world, simple props, good friends and appreciative adults.
Notice and enjoy all the things the children you know CAN do.