"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." -- Indiana Constitution Article 1, Section 6.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be...nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe." – Thomas Jefferson

Monday, December 10, 2007

Kindergarten and Developmentally Appropriate Education

"She came home the other day in an incredibly grumpy mood. 'How was school today?' I asked. 'Terrible,' she answered. 'Why? What happened?' 'I want to play with my friends,' she said. 'Don’t you get a chance to play with your friends?' 'No,' she replied.

"Next year, if my daughter attends the same school, she will be in school all day. As a Kindergartner, she will also be very busy. She will have exactly 20 minutes of recess, and then she’ll get back to work." - Peter Campbell*

When I taught kindergarten in 2005-2006 for the first time in 30 years, I was struck by how things had changed for 5 and 6 year olds. It is important that children, many of whom experience school for the first time in kindergarten, be allowed to grow and learn at their own pace.

The best way to explain it is by an analogy which I have used for years. If you are 5 feet tall, and I ask you to touch a 10 foot ceiling you would not be able to reach up and touch it. It is impossible for a normally developed human to reach to a point twice their height. That is why ladders were invented.

In the same way, it is impossible for people to reach specific academic achievement levels before their brains and bodies are developed sufficiently. We wouldn't ask the average 3 month old to walk up the stairs and put herself to bed, but we seem to have no hesitation in asking the average 5 year old to learn concepts which her brain is not sufficiently developed to understand.

Kindergartners, I (re)discovered, have not changed that much in the last 30 years. They still have to run to expend their excess energy...they still jump up and down when they get excited...they still have occasional toilet accidents...and they still cry when they get hurt - emotionally or physically. They still love to be read to, they still like to play with toys that mimic adulthood (building toys, dolls, etc), they still have short attention spans for non-fun activities and they still need an adult to tuck them in at night.

What has changed is the way kindergarten is taught and the curriculum that is presented. Some of it has improved. Literacy research in the last 20 years has shown us some new and better ways to help children grow in their intellectual and academic lives, but we still can't teach someone to read until they're ready.

Kindergarten has now become a place where children have to learn to read. We are expecting 5 and 6 year olds to give up fun - in some places kindergarteners only get 20 minutes of recess a day - and take on the stress of academic competition.

Play is children's work. They learn how to live in the world, how to get along, to solve problems, and to share by playing. They can't learn these things, though, unless they are allowed to get up from their chairs and interact with each other.

Skills based, academically oriented kindergartens are now the rule rather than the exception. Developmentally appropriate practice does not exist in some places any more. Does this help children? No long term studies have been done at this point, but my hunch is that by taking the opportunity to grow at their own rate away from children we are asking many of them to do what they can't do...we're asking them to touch the ceiling without a ladder.

There needs to be a balance between formal schooling and real life learning. When children begin the schooling process the balance should be tipped in the direction of real life learning and move toward academics slowly. There needs to be a wide range of activities provided in which children can learn how the world works. In my opinion, the understanding of science and the world around, social interactions and self expression are just as important in the early years than are reading and math.

"So what do I want? I want what my daughter wants: to be able to spend time with her friends, playing and being a little kid. She doesn’t have any kids to play with on her block, so school is the only place she has any chance to socialize and interact with her peers. I want her to have the chance to make friends. I want her to be given the opportunity to play. I want her to learn how to share and solve problems with her peers. I want this more than I want her to be phonemically aware. There will be time for such academic pursuits when she's a bit older. But there's only so much time she's allowed to be a little girl." - Peter Campbell*

The country which produces the best readers in the world is Finland. Is their language easier to read than ours? Is their method of teaching better than ours? No, I don't think so, but I think that a quick look at how they are different from us is worthwhile to determine why their children learn to read better than ours.

First, they value intellectual development. They have a monocultural society which emphasizes learning for learning's sake and is reinforced in their families. Parents are home with their children more. There is less poverty, better health care, and better nutrition.

Second, their children's first teachers are their parents. Children do not learn to read (formally) until they are seven years old...when they are developmentally prepared for learning. Before that they learn about the world around them...about language...and about their culture. The Finns believe that "play is the most effective learning tool in the early years and sets the stage for a lifelong love of learning."

*Peter Campbell is an activist, educator, and parent. He volunteered as the Missouri State Coordinator for the Assessment Reform Network, part of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (better known as FairTest). Peter holds a BA from Princeton University and an MA from New York University. He has been involved in education for 20 years and has taught a number of different subjects in different academic settings, ranging from English as a Second Language at a Japanese high school in Tokyo to compositional writing at the University of Missouri-Columbia to public speaking at Manhattan Community College in New York City. In the area of assessment, Peter worked for the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in the Assessment and Evaluation division. Currently, Peter is the Lead Instructional Designer for the Office of Information Technology at Montclair State University, the second largest public institution of higher education in New Jersey. In this role at MSU, Peter leads workshops on assessment and helps instructors use technology to enhance teaching and learning.

1 comment:

Meg said...

This is so frustrating! Years of research make clear what best practice is for young children...and our leaders and our schools continue to ignore the data. It worries me that the "good old" kindergarten teachers are retiring and the new batch of kindergarten teachers are too inexperienced and/or too intimidated to follow developmentally appropriate practice.
I just hope the pendulum swings again...and very soon!