Tag Archives: direct instruction

Yes, our early childhood classes ARE crushing kids


A disturbing but familiar article is published in this month’s Atlantic magazine. Erika Christakis‘ article shines a light on the negative effect the “race to the top” driven curriculum is having on children’s education. This, of course, is not new or surprising news for early childhood educators. The big question and challenge is, “What will we do to change this destructive trend in 2016?”



How the New Preschool Is Crushing Kids 

by Erika Christakis

Step into an American preschool classroom today and you are likely to be bombarded with what we educators call a print-rich environment, every surface festooned with alphabet charts, bar graphs, word walls, instructional posters, classroom rules, calendars, schedules, and motivational platitudes—few of which a 4-year-old can “decode,” the contemporary word for what used to be known as reading.
Because so few adults can remember the pertinent details of their own preschool or kindergarten years, it can be hard to appreciate just how much the early-education landscape has been transformed over the past two decades. The changes are not restricted to the confusing pastiche on classroom walls. Pedagogy and curricula have changed too, most recently in response to the Common Core State Standards Initiative’s kindergarten guidelines. Much greater portions of the day are now spent on what’s called “seat work” (a term that probably doesn’t need any exposition) and a form of tightly scripted teaching known as direct instruction, formerly used mainly in the older grades, in which a teacher carefully controls the content and pacing of what a child is supposed to learn.

One study, titled “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?,” compared kindergarten teachers’ attitudes nationwide in 1998 and 2010 and found that the percentage of teachers expecting children to know how to read by the end of the year had risen from 30 to 80 percent. The researchers also reported more time spent with workbooks and worksheets, and less time devoted to music and art. Kindergarten is indeed the new first grade, the authors concluded glumly. In turn, children who would once have used the kindergarten year as a gentle transition into school are in some cases being held back before they’ve had a chance to start. A study out of Mississippi found that in some counties, more than 10 percent of kindergartners weren’t allowed to advance to first grade.
Until recently, school-readiness skills weren’t high on anyone’s agenda, nor were the idea that the youngest learners might be disqualified from moving on to a subsequent stage. But now that kindergarten serves as a gatekeeper, not a welcome mat, to elementary school, concerns about school preparedness kick in earlier and earlier. A child who’s supposed to read by the end of kindergarten had better be getting ready in preschool. As a result, expectations that may arguably have been reasonable for 5- and 6-year-olds, such as being able to sit at a desk and complete a task using pencil and paper, are now directed at even younger children, who lack the motor skills and attention span to be successful.
Preschool classrooms have become increasingly fraught spaces, with teachers cajoling their charges to finish their “work” before they can go play. And yet, even as preschoolers are learning more pre-academic skills at earlier ages, I’ve heard many teachers say that they seem somehow—is it possible?—less inquisitive and less engaged than the kids of earlier generations. More children today seem to lack the language skills needed to retell a simple story or to use basic connecting words and prepositions. They can’t make a conceptual analogy between, say, the veins on a leaf and the veins in their own hands.
New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

That’s right. The same educational policies that are pushing academic goals down to ever earlier levels seem to be contributing to—while at the same time obscuring—the fact that young children are gaining fewer skills, not more.
Pendulum shifts in education are as old as our republic. Steven Mintz, a historian who has written about the evolution of American childhood, describes an oscillation in the national zeitgeist between the notion of a “protected” childhood and that of a “prepared” one. Starting in the early 2000s, though, a confluence of forces began pushing preferences ever further in the direction of preparation: the increasing numbers of dual-career families scrambling to arrange child care; a new scientific focus on the cognitive potential of the early years; and concerns about growing ability gaps between well-off and disadvantaged children, which in turn fueled the trend of standards-based testing in public schools.
Preschool is a relatively recent addition to the American educational system. With a few notable exceptions, the government had a limited role in early education until the 1960s, when the federal Head Start program was founded. Before mothers entered the full-time workforce in large numbers, private preschools were likewise uncommon, and mainly served as a safe social space for children to learn to get along with others.
By second grade, the children who had attended preschool performed worse than their peers.
In the past few decades, however, we have seen a major transfer of child- care and early learning from home to institution: Nearly three-quarters of American 4-year-olds are now in some kind of nonfamily care. That category spans a dizzying mix of privately and publicly funded preschool environments, including family-run day cares, private preschools in church basements, and Head Start programs in public elementary schools, to name a few. Across all of them, the distinction between early education and “official” school seems to be eroding.
When I survey parents of preschoolers, they tend to be on board with many of these changes, either because they fear that the old-fashioned pleasures of unhurried learning have no place in today’s hypercompetitive world or because they simply can’t find, or afford, a better option. The stress is palpable: Pick the “wrong” preschool or ease up on the phonics drills at home, and your child might not go to college. She might not be employable. She might not even be allowed to start first grade!
Media attention to the cognitive potential of early childhood has a way of exacerbating such worries, but the actual academic consensus on the components of high-quality early education tells another story. According to experts such as the Yale professor Edward Zigler, a leader in child-development and early-education policy for half a century, the best preschool programs share several features: They provide ample opportunities for young children to use and hear complex, interactive language; their curriculum supports a wide range of school-readiness goals that include social and emotional skills and active learning; they encourage meaningful family involvement; and they have knowledgeable and well-qualified teachers.
As an early-childhood educator, I’ve clocked many hours in many preschool classrooms, and I have found that I can pretty quickly take the temperature from the looks on kids’ faces, the ratio of table space to open areas, and the amount of conversation going on in either. In a high-quality program, adults are building relationships with the children and paying close attention to their thought processes and, by extension, their communication. They’re finding ways to make the children think out loud.

The real focus in the preschool years should be not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening. We forget how vital spontaneous, unstructured conversation is to young children’s understanding. By talking with adults, and one another, they pick up information. They learn how things work. They solve puzzles that trouble them. Sometimes, to be fair, what children take away from a conversation is wrong. They might conclude, as my young son did, that pigs produce ham, just as chickens produce eggs and cows produce milk. But these understandings are worked over, refined, and adapted—as when a brutal older sibling explains a ham sandwich’s grisly origins.
Teachers play a crucial role in supporting this type of learning. A 2011 study in the journal Child Development found that preschool teachers’ use of sophisticated vocabulary in informal classroom settings predicted their students’ reading comprehension and word knowledge in fourth grade. Unfortunately, much of the conversation in today’s preschool classrooms is one-directional and simplistic, as teachers steer students through a highly structured schedule, herding them from one activity to another and signaling approval with a quick “good job!”
Consider the difference between a teacher’s use of a closed statement versus an open-ended question. Imagine that a teacher approaches a child drawing a picture and exclaims, “Oh, what a pretty house!” If the child is not actually drawing a house, she might feel exposed, and even if she is drawing a house, the teacher’s remark shuts down further discussion: She has labeled the thing and said she likes it. What more is there to add? A much more helpful approach would be to say, “Tell me about your drawing,” inviting the child to be reflective. It’s never possible to anticipate everything a small person needs to learn, so open-ended inquiry can reveal what is known and unknown. Such a small pedagogic difference can be an important catalyst for a basic, but unbounded, cognitive habit—the act of thinking out loud.
Conversation is gold. It’s the most efficient early-learning system we have. And it’s far more valuable than most of the reading-skills curricula we have been implementing: One meta-analysis of 13 early-childhood literacy programs “failed to find any evidence of effects on language or print-based outcomes.” Take a moment to digest that devastating conclusion.
I was recently asked to review a popular preschool curriculum that comes with a big box of thematic units, including lists of words and “key concepts” that children are supposed to master. One objective of the curriculum’s ocean unit, for example, is to help preschoolers understand “the importance of the ocean to the environment.” Children are given a list of specific terms to learn, including exoskeleton, scallop shell, blubber, and tube feet. At first glance, this stuff seems fun and educational, but doesn’t this extremely narrow articulation of “key concepts” feel a little off? What’s so special about blubber, anyway? Might a young child not want to ponder bigger questions: What is water? Where do the blue and green come from? Could anything be more beautiful and more terrifying than an ocean?
The shift from an active and exploratory early-childhood pedagogy to a more scripted and instruction-based model does not involve a simple trade-off between play and work, or between joy and achievement. On the contrary, the preoccupation with accountability has led to a set of measures that favor shallow mimicry and recall behaviors, such as learning vocabulary lists and recognizing shapes and colors (something that a dog can do, by the way, but that is in fact an extraordinarily low bar for most curious 4-year-olds), while devaluing complex, integrative, and syncretic learning.

Last year, I observed some preschoolers conversing about whether snakes have bones. They argued at length among themselves, comparing the flexible serpentine body with dinosaur fossils and fish, both of which they had previously explored. There was no clear consensus on how these various creatures could contain the same hard skeletons, but I watched, transfixed, as each child added to the groundwork another had laid. The teacher gently guided the group as a captain might steer a large ship, with the tiniest nudge of the wheel. Finally, a little boy who had seen a snake skeleton in a museum became animated as he pantomimed the structure of a snake’s spine in a series of karate chops: “One bone, one bone, one bone,” he informed his friends. “I think we’re all going to have to do a lot more research,” the teacher replied, impressed. This loosely Socratic method is a perfect fit for young minds; the problem is that it doesn’t conform easily to a school-readiness checklist.
The focus should be not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening.
The academic takeover of American early learning can be understood as a shift from what I would call an “ideas-based curriculum” to a “naming-and-labeling-based curriculum.” Not coincidentally, the latter can be delivered without substantially improving our teaching force. Inexperienced or poorly supported teachers are directed to rely heavily on scripted lesson plans for a reason: We can point to a defined objective, and tell ourselves that at least kids are getting something this way.
But that something—while relatively cheap to provide—is awfully thin gruel. One major study of 700 preschool classrooms in 11 states found that only 15 percent showed evidence of effective interactions between teacher and child. Fifteen percent.
We neglect vital teacher-child interactions at our peril. Although the infusion of academics into preschool has been justified as a way to close the achievement gap between poor and well-off children, Robert Pianta, one of the country’s leading child-policy experts, cautions that there is “no evidence whatsoever” that our early-learning system is suited to that task. He estimates that the average preschool program “narrows the achievement gap by perhaps only 5 percent,” compared with the 30 to 50 percent that studies suggest would be possible with higher-quality programs. Contrasting the dismal results of Tennessee’s preschool system with the more promising results in places such as Boston, which promotes active, child-centered learning (and, spends more than twice the national average on preschool), lends further credence to the idea that preschool quality really does matter.
It’s become almost a cliché to look to Finland’s educational system for inspiration. As has been widely reported, the country began to radically professionalize its workforce in the 1970s and abandoned most of the performance standards endemic to American schooling. Today, Finland’s schools are consistently ranked among the world’s very best. This “Finnish miracle” sounds almost too good to be true. Surely the country must have a few dud teachers and slacker kids!
And yet, when I’ve visited Finland, I’ve found it impossible to remain unmoved by the example of preschools where the learning environment is assessed, rather than the children in it. Having rejected many of the pseudo-academic benchmarks that can, and do, fit on a scorecard, preschool teachers in Finland are free to focus on what’s really essential: their relationship with the growing child.
Here’s what the Finns, who don’t begin formal reading instruction until around age 7, have to say about preparing preschoolers to read: “The basis for the beginnings of literacy is that children have heard and listened … They have spoken and been spoken to, people have discussed [things] with them … They have asked questions and received answers.”
For our littlest learners, what could be more important than that?


So I ask, once again, what will we do to change this trend in 2016?

Are We Killing Kindergarten?

I just read this article by Amanda Moreno, the Associate Director of the Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy. She speaks so well to many of my concerns, so I thought that I would share it with you. That isn’t to say that I am inagreement with every point. I do think that children learn through play although I do agree that play is not a strategy for stuffing knowledge into a child.

Read the article and share thoughts.

Killing Kindergarten
by Amanda Moreno, Ph.D

I want you to know it took a lot of self-discipline not to title this post “Killing Kindergarteners.” In addition to being an early education researcher, I am also a mother of a 5-year-old currently in kindergarten, so I can tell you that is pretty much the way it feels. All around this country, families are trying to figure out why their small children already dread going to a place that was supposed to serve as a gentle transition to formal learning. They are struggling with ambivalent allegiances, not wanting to be the over-protective parent who babies their child, but at the same time not being fully convinced that their child has a behavior problem just because they don’t enjoy sitting at a desk, independently going through worksheets for a solid hour.

It has become axiomatic in my field to say that early learning expectations are a full year ahead of what they were 20 years ago. Alfie Kohn points out an even more critical piece of this puzzle when he says that “The typical American kindergarten now resembles a really bad first-grade classroom” (italics mine). Somehow I don’t think Robert Fulghum’s list of essential lessons learned in kindergarten would have the same ring to it if among “share everything” and “play fair” appeared “100 sight words,” “command of capitalization and punctuation,” and “compose and decompose numbers 11-19.” Cynicism aside, a year’s worth of additional expectations isn’t in itself the biggest problem if you have a highly skilled teacher who can individualize to suit just about any learning style, and can make just about any learning task age-appropriate and engaging. That is a huge if, I would guess, according to most kindergarteners today.

Is teaching 5-year-olds really that complex an enterprise? It is true that little kids are like sponges in that they absorb discrete pieces of knowledge daily, naturally, and without effort, such as new vocabulary, locations of things in their house, how specific toys work, and what their family dinner and bedtime routines are. But in formal learning settings — at least as they are on average in the U.S. — the game completely changes. For better or worse, the “great divider” in formal learning settings may be whether the learner can decide to tackle new tasks or problems, not because she wants to but simply because she is being asked to. Is it OK for my 5-year-old to learn about Native American history and culture? Sure it is. The parts of the eye and inner ear — why not? But there is no intrinsic motivation when the lesson emphasizes the proper spelling “Tlingit” or “cochlea” and there never will be. No, the kindergarteners who do well with this kind of task are the ones who have already developed the ability to override their intrinsic motivation. This takes more than compliance — it takes executive function, which is in part attention and memory, and in part the ability to inhibit a pre-potent response. You know, like my daughter’s pre-potent response to color with the crayon that most attracts her eye, rather than limiting her choices to the browns, yellows, and oranges that were actually found in traditional Native American garb, as the curriculum required.

This sounds awful — like the only successful kindergartener is one with a broken spirit. It wouldn’t have to be this way if the educational system were structured to accommodate the natural, normal, and highly variable rates of development that occur in early childhood. All typically developing children acquire the basics of executive function eventually. So universal a finding across cultures is this, that it came to be known as the “5-to-7 year shift” — and it is the reason why formal schooling starts around this age worldwide. In this country, the word around makes all the difference. Given the range of ages at which children enter kindergarten (there is about a 25-month spread between the youngest and oldest students), and the three-year age range within which executive function skills begin to become more adult-like, children can be anywhere between preschool and third grade when the complex set of abilities required to decide to learn comes online sufficiently well. Even after controlling for age, kindergarteners still show greater variability in executive function than either fifth graders or preschoolers, indicating there is something unique about the cognitive reorganizations that take place during this period of life.

Our educational system is not equipped to support the application of this kind of knowledge. John Medina has said, “If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you would probably design something like a classroom.”

In early childhood, when children are just beginning (and did I mention, at highly individualized rates?) to acquire the ability to focus under non-optimal circumstances and learn anyway, this is not only unproductive (as it is for learners of all ages), it is dangerous. For young children for whom intentional learning isn’t even on the radar screen yet, every day they spend sitting at a desk and filling out worksheets is like being in a foreign language immersion program with a teacher who believes they’re fluent.

This is not a debate about exploratory vs. direct instruction in the early grades, or play vs. structure, or creative learning vs. traditional academics, or any other label for this false dichotomy. Research supports both, depending on the group of children studied and methods used. While I staunchly believe that play is a human right, you don’t fix the misguided question of how to stuff knowledge into a 5-year-old’s brain simply by doing it “through play.” Similarly, when people tell you direct instruction “works,” ask them what it worked for. If the answer was standardized tests, then you merely have an unsurprising match between method and outcome. Either way, bad teaching will be the result if a kindergarten teacher practices (or is forced to practice) any style in the extreme, and without an arsenal of creative tools for individualizing to children. For those brilliant kindergarten teachers who do possess such a toolbox, the standards and testing craze has tamped their best instincts into hiding.

I agree with Holly Robinson who says that, from a parent’s perspective, the immediate answer lies in finding the right fit for your child — a process we are right in the middle of with our own daughter. Unfortunately, good options are not nearly plentiful enough, and those that exist are not accessible enough to families and children that likely need them the most. In the meantime, my colleagues and I are trying to do our part by speaking out for differentiating education reform efforts for young children, incorporating modern child and brain development principles into teacher and principal prep programs, and consulting to early education initiatives about how to answer to the pressures of accountability without “killing kindergarteners” in the process.