Monday, September 12, 2016

The Enemy Of Learning

I went to kindergarten back in the 1960's. We played outdoors, built with blocks, pretended, and made some art. I don't think there was any particular curriculum or ideology behind the program offered by Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Ruiz. We mostly played, much like the kids do at Woodland Park, although I remember one classroom project in which we sat around tables, each responsible for coloring in a part of a train -- box cars, coal cars, passenger cars. I got the engine. Mrs. Jennings gave very specific instructions about how to color our pictures. We were to strive to color side-to-side, using only horizontal motions, and to stay within the lines.

It was the kind of project I always enjoyed. To this day I love the challenge of creating artwork that requires fine motor deftness and precision. I chose to make my engine mostly red and was quite impressed with how wonderful the finished product looked. I'd already learned to take aesthetic pleasure in staying within the lines, but the whole horizontal coloring concept was an epiphany to me, a concept I employed in coloring projects throughout the rest of my youth.

The following day we arrived at school to find that Mrs. Jennings had taped our individual pictures to the wall to create a train, my red engine at the front. I was proud of that engine, but man was I appalled at my classmates' work. Most of them had failed to stay within the lines, and from what I could tell only I had adhered to the horizontal coloring method. Yet there was Mrs. Jennings, not scolding anyone, not correcting anyone, not making anyone do it over, but rather enthusing about the beautiful train we had made together.

Of course, today I can see that the problem was not with the other kids, but rather with my own expectations. You see, I was apparently a coloring within the lines prodigy, much in the way some four-year-olds prodigiously teach themselves to read in preschool, while most of their classmates are still years away from being developmentally ready for it. Mrs. Jennings instructions had hit the five-year-old me right where I lived, while it went right over the heads of most of my classmates: she knew this, which is why she didn't scold or correct. It's why she saw beauty.

The development of human beings, especially in the early years, is notoriously spiky. My own daughter began to speak at three months, but didn't crawl until her first birthday, and wasn't walking until she was closer to two. Some kids are capable of reading at an early age, some are genius climbers, others have advanced social or artistic or musical skills. Every parent knows their own child is a genius: every preschool teacher knows that every child is a genius. And we all know that every child is also "behind" in some areas. This is all normal and it's not something that needs to be "fixed."

Indeed, the range of "normal" is enormous. This is one of the most powerful aspects of a cooperative preschool. As parents work with me in the classroom as my assistant teachers, they come to appreciate this, and even, as Mrs. Jennings did, find it beautiful. And this is why a play-based curriculum is ideal for young children, it allows each child to focus like a laser her own personalized educational objectives in a way that meshes perfectly with her developmental stage.

Sadly, kindergarten, at least he public school variety, no longer accommodates this wide range of "normal." Over the past decade or so, kindergarten has transformed dramatically, and not for the better:

A new University of Virginia study found that kindergarten changed in disturbing ways from 1999-2006. There was a marked decline in exposure to social studies, science, music, art and physical education and an increased emphasis on reading instruction. Teachers reported spending as much time on reading as all other subjects combined . . . The time spent in child-selected activity dropped by more than one-third. Direct instruction and testing increased. Moreover, more teachers reported holding all children to the same standard.

The whole idea of standardization runs counter to what we know about how young children learn and develop, yet that has been the focus of the corporate education "reform" movement, which spawned this era of the federally mandated Common Core State Standards and high stakes standardized testing. The cabal that created this pedagogically indefensible mess, lead by Bill Gates through his foundation, have ignored what professionals know about how children actually learn:

To make matters worse, the drafters of the Common Core ignored the research on child development. In 2010, 500 child development experts warned the drafters that the standards called for exactly the kind of damaging practices that inhibit learning: direct instruction, inappropriate content and testing . . . These warnings went unheeded . . . Consequently, the Common Core exacerbates the developmentally inappropriate practices on the rise since NCLB (No Child Left Behind).

No, the goal of these "reformers" was never to meet the children where they were developmentally, nor to shape a curriculum around the way children learn, but rather, as Bill Gates famously said in an interview with the Washington Post: "(T)o unleash powerful market forces on education." You see, standardization makes it easier for businesspeople to develop products to sell to schools. The dehumanizing metaphor Gates used was to compare it to standardizing electrical outlets.

Mrs. Jennings understood, as all professional early childhood educators do, that children cannot be standardized like computers or washing machines or electrical outlets. Some of us can stay within the lines, but most of us can't, and that's what makes us beautiful.

Standardization is always the enemy of learning.

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Cindy G said...

Hi Tom. I am wondering how these teachers would have evolved in their practice since the 60s? I wonder if the children would be invited to decide what is created to reflect that we all belong? What could it look like? What materials would be needed? From where would we resource them? Who would participate?

Daun Kauffman said...

Standardization is also the enemy of equity.

"Standardized learning" and synchronized timing are in direct conflict with academic equity.

Developmental trauma is one example of the inequity. It affects 2 out of 3 students.

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