Although evidence of standardized testing can be found as early as China’s Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), it didn’t become a part of the Western tradition until the 20th century and the advent of the I.Q. test which purports to measure innate intelligence.
Every day that we've played in our new outdoor classroom, with its two
level sand pit, a team of engineers has taken on the job of creating a
waterway that carries water from the uppermost part where the cast iron
water pump resides, down to the lower level.
The underlying theory behind these tests is that we are born with a certain amount of intelligence and that largely determines how successful we will be in life. In the late 1950’s an educator in Michigan named David Welkart had the radical idea of improving the academic performance of minority students by essentially inventing preschool as we know it today.
This is a job that is simply impossible for a single actor to carry off. It's a team project. No
one has taught these children how to work together, no one is urging them to work
together, but every day they do: debating, discussing, planning, inventing.
You can read the full story here, but the bottomline was that the Perry School Project experiment boosted I.Q. scores dramatically, leading directly to the federal preschool program called Head Start in 1965.
It's nice to have a few adults around when things get heated, when our
disagreements become greater than our emotional capacity to handle them,
but most of the time they're just playing with us, observing, discussing,
figuring out what needs to happen to allow us to achieve our common goal.
An interesting thing happened, however. These initial I.Q. gains in the Perry School study faded after only a couple years, a result that was later verified by Head Start. While critics of Head Start used this to attack the program as a failure, the Perry School research continued. Even though the intelligence of students who had attended preschool, as measured by the standardized I.Q. test, was no longer greater than that of their non-preschool peers, they continued to show greater academic achievement, were less likely to be assigned to special education classes, and showed fewer behavioral problems.
Someone always needs to be at the top, pumping, while those at the bottom,
via a process known only to them, determine where to place the plastic
rain gutters and where to dig. It's the job of a community.
This phenomenon was tracked through high school, with those who had attended preschool not being “smarter” than their peers, but continuing to do better in school by every measure. Now in their 40's the test subjects are more likely to be employed, make more money, have healthier relationships, be involved in their own kid’s lives, and are less likely to be involved in crime. All of this without any measurable I.Q. advantage; the only identifiable difference between these individuals and the control group being two years of preschool.
When repairs need to be made, and they inevitably do, there is more discussion, more talk,
more team action geared toward the common goal of getting water to flow to
the bottom of the hill.
In other words, whatever was being measured by these standardized tests, it didn’t seem to have any bearing on achievement.
The assumption at the heart of a lot of economic theory is that measured intelligence is the key to everything. But with the Perry Preschool children, something else made the difference. It was not IQ. (Nobel Prize laurete economist James) Heckman is now working with psychologists to try to understand how the preschool may have affected the development of what he calls "non-cognitive" skills, things like motivation, sociability and the ability to work with others.
These are critical skills that help people succeed at school, at work - and in life.
Motivation, sociability, and the ability to work with others: it's upon this foundation that "successful lives" are built. We can trot out our "letters of the week" and our exercises in one-to-one correspondence all we want.
No one tells the children how to do this. It's something they noodle through
by freely playing together. They learn the tricks of how to lay the
gutters to minimize the loss of water, and pass it on to their friends.
They figure out how to overcome the pull of gravity in one direction or
another, what it sounds like when the pump's cistern is empty or
when someone has jammed things up by putting sand into it.
Most of them even know how to prime a reluctant pump by pouring a
bit of water into the cylinder, something most of the adults in the
world do not know.
We can try to teach them about phonics and metamorphosis and rhythm and science, read them books by Seuss and Steig and Fox and even Tolstoy, or talk at them until we're blue in the face. But, it's when we give them space to play, together, that we are really doing our jobs, serving the children, serving our society, and serving the world.
Motivation, sociability, and the ability to work with others: these are the ABC's and 1, 2, 3's of a play-based preschool curriculum.
It is the combination of working shoulder-to-shoulder, and talking face-to-face that is the
story of how all great things get done.
(Portions of this post were previously published here.)