In 2013, a University of Cambridge research team published a study that followed the reading history of two groups of children. One group began formal instruction in reading at the age of five. The second group had a more play-based curriculum and began their formal reading study at the age of seven. The results of the study were quite interesting. They concluded that by the age of 11 there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups, but the children who started at 5 tended to develop less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension than those children who had started later.The report advised that “formal schooling” should be delayed until children are at least seven and that pushing it earlier is damaging children’s “academic achievement, especially when it comes to reading.”
This report is particularly interesting to consider during this pandemic when children’s schooling has been so suddenly disrupted. No Child Left Behind, Race to The Top, Common Core Learning Standards, High Stakes Standardized Testing….all of these have traumatized educators, parents, and children, turning what should be the joy of learning into a competitive race. Now we add to this pressurized school environment the terror of a destructive pandemic.
There have been many magazine and newspaper articles where parents of young children expressed the fear that their children were falling behind. Parents and teachers worried that children would have difficulty when they were able to return to regular school. In a New York Times article, a mother of a kindergarten child voiced anxiety about her child and the other children in her child’s class. She worried about what would lie ahead for them when they entered first grade. ” If they are transitioning into first grade, will there be time to catch up and get them up to par?”
On Tuesday, January 5, 2020, I met with four extraordinary educators, Kathy Collins, Aeriale Johnson, Vicki Vinton and Matt Glover, to discuss their thoughts on how we can best support young learners during this time. What does reading and writing mean for a 4, 5, 6 and 7 year old? Should we have particular expectations? Can a child of that age be falling behind?
Their conversation will, I believe, provide much comfort and food for thought for parents, teachers and school administrators.
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.