Saturday, October 29, 2011

Don't Be Afraid. Let Your Children Play.

My friend who writes under the name Floor Pie on her brilliant namesake blog took exception to one of the premises in a recent post about the dangers of lectures, flash-cards, testing, and other hardcore "academic" practices in preschool, for which I laid blame on corporate-style education reformers. She is more inclined to see the fault in parents:

(T)eaching them tricks to impress their parents . . ." Yep. I don't know that ed reform is to blame at the preschool level for this. The consumers practically demand it. Ever worked at our co-op table at a Seattle preschool fair? Parents are asking for flash cards and academics and getting baby ready for crushing all the other babies academically. And the rat race attitude is infectious.

I'm lucky in that by the time parents get to me, they've already at least partially bought into the whole progressive, play-based thing. It doesn't, however, surprise me to learn that there are still parents out there who haven't heard the good word, although we're doing our best here. Every single bit of genuine research supports the primacy of free play in how young children learn best, including every media report that digs deeper than a press release, including the Scientific American article I referenced in that post, which reveals that the lectures/flash-card/testing regime can actually cause brain damage. That's right -- brain damage. Anyone who makes a conscientious effort to explore what is best for their young child will easily discover this, yet some sizable portion of parents apparently still go to preschool fairs looking for the kind of education that corporate reformers are selling. Why is that? I think it's manufactured fear.

In fairness, the Scientific American article focused on parents as well, framing their story with a father wearing a seersucker suit who was hugely impressed that his 4-year-old daughter knew about the species of whales she saw on TV, the implication being that these aren't working class parents we're talking about, if only because of the tuitions they're paying for the privilege. These are people with college degrees, upper middle class even, people who should know better. And the only thing I know that can make grown-up people act against their best interests like this, short of coercion, is good marketing.

My college degree is in journalism with an emphasis in advertising. I was planning to start my career as an advertising copywriter, with a goal of working my way up to creative director, and worked for several years in public relations, both with an agency and later for the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. I don't claim to be a marketing expert (gladly, I managed to escape the profession relatively young) but I have made enough of a study of it to know that among the strongest "persuasive" messages are those that evoke fear. 

And this is where the corporate-reformers come in, if nothing else, these folks who are well versed in the tactics of business, including, of course marketing. This is how it works. They aren't so ham-fisted as to run flashy television ads. Instead they are funding "research" through a network of organizations with earnest-sounding names like Center for American Progress, Brookings Institute, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Foundation for Excellence in Education, Progressive Policy Institute, National Council on Teacher Quality, and the notorious Americans for Prosperity. These think-tanks go through the motions of pretending to do actual research, often by cherry-picking data from legitimate studies, then issuing reports to much fanfare that include conclusions pre-determined by the policies favored by those who fund them (like Bill Gates or the Koch brothers). 

Public relations professionals then go to work "selling" stories to the media, using hooks designed to invoke fear about the "dire state" of education or the fact that we're falling behind the Chinese or that lazy unionized teachers are standing in the way of progress. Pretty much anything to cause parents (or as Floor Pie calls them "consumers") to feel a sense of panic about their own children. The press runs with these sensationalistic story lines which come complete with nice tidy "solutions" like more high-stakes standardized testing, more flash cards, more lectures, more homework, larger classes, charter schools and de-professionalized teachers: not coincidentally the exact menu of policies favored by their paymasters.

Their lobbyists, then, reports in hand and reams of press clippings to "support" them, head into the offices of our elected officials and "sell" them on their pre-determined policies, the very ones that can cause brain damage. They, in turn, come up with schemes like No Child Left Behind (Bush administration) and Race To The Top (Obama administration) designed around these think-tank propaganda pieces, feeding another round of the-sky-is-falling publicity.

And it goes beyond this. As a person who blogs about early childhood education, I'm a regular recipient of serious sounding missives, offering me the "opportunity" to inform my readers about this or that latest think-tank report. When I write back asking for documentation or if it is peer reviewed, I don't get a response. Frequently, I'm even rejecting comments from unknown readers who start by praising my work, then drop in such unsupported, yet authoritative claims like, "of course, the latest neuroscientific research indicates that children are born ready to read," and other such nonsense. Again, when I challenge them to support their claims, they can't because there is no evidence whatsoever to support what the corporate reformers are after. (It's my blog and I'm not interested in spreading disinformation, so I delete them.)

Movie makers (Waiting For Superman) and book publishers (Class Warfare: The Fight To Fix America's Schools) and others then jump on the bandwagon based on this pseudo-research, further feeding the cycle of fear. Alarmed parent-consumers, in turn, start hammering their local school boards. These parents then, naturally wanting their own child to get the "best education possible," based on the "research," show up a preschool fairs demanding lectures, flash-cards, and tests that will get their "baby ready to crush the other babies academically."

Lest you think I'm conjuring a conspiracy theory here, I want to be clear that I don't believe there is a cabal of billionaires meeting in secret to plot all of this. No, I think this is just how corporate types have learned to get their way when it comes to public policy. Tragically, it's how most legislation gets made in our country and it's the primary reason I support the Occupy Wall Street movement

This is how businesses have learned to create consumer demand for products we don't otherwise need or want. It's supply-side economics at work. This is how they sell things, even if those things cause brain damage.

Those of us on the side of actual research and experience, those who are wary of causing brain damage, those of us in the classrooms teaching the children, don't have think tanks, publicists, and other marketing machinery at our disposal. And I'm glad we don't. Instead we're doing it one parent at a time, delivering our simple, true message: Don't be afraid. Let your children play. 

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Allison said...

Thank you for this follow-up. As a new parent I had a strong reaction to some of the comments on the other post, though as a scientist I can relate to the visceral frustration that comes from seeing people fall for these types of deliberate misinformation campaign.

Parents aren't dumb and we sincerely want what's best, but we are bombarded from all sides with conflicting information from day one (even before!) Please, early childhood experts, keep helping us to learn and try to be patient with us.

Also, another, related reason to support the Occupy movement: the more the middle class shrinks, the more fear, and the more parents will focus on raising college applicants rather than raising people.

Laura said...

Love this post! BUT for me who doesn't buy into the flash cards, etc. I sit and live in fear because all the schools both preschool and public schools in my area are going to cause my child to have brain damage! :( Can't win, can you?

ako said...

Excellent post Tom.

Laura, I believe we can we, but we need to unite as a profession and advocate for play.

Schoolification of ECE is a result of divide and conquer with the discourses parents are tuning into - namely fear as tom points out - but one of many strategies of those you seek to homogenise education for economic reasons.

Educate your community!!

Sylvia@MaMammalia said...

Hi, Teacher Tom! I found my way here via Janet Lansbury. This is the first post of yours I've read and in short I LOVE IT. I'm so happy to have found someone who is a true proponent for early childhood development and education. Like you, I pay attention to validated research, not hype or fear. Maybe it's because I'm a full-time mother of a toddler or because I'm a former biological researcher myself: I can smell bad research and it's spurious conclusions right away. Good to know there's someone out there spreading real information.
And we do use play, not flashcards!

Aunt Annie said...

(sighs heavily)

It's all about the money, isn't it? It's not about the children at all, and that's what the advertising hides so well.

Keep the flag flying, Tom. Children need people like you advocating for their right to play.

Eliza P. said...

If that's what's driving the testing culture, why don't the companies making PLAYthings do the same thing, and at least win some of us back?

Anonymous said...

Can't help but notice you used the fear of brain damage over and over again in this post. Hmmm...whom to trust, whom to trust.

Unknown said...

One of the wonderful things to remember is that we as humans have the ability to play and benefit from play long into our elder years, so it's never to late to bring play into the lives of children and gain the developmental benefits from it. Children who didn't/don't have the opportunity to attend a play based preschool can benefit from play at home as long as parents are committed to not over scheduling after school time with extracurriculars.

The Legers said...

this is so great. great blog and great post. thanks.

Sarah said...

The problem is, Tom, is that policies like RTTT aren't intended for your primarily educated, upper-middle class parents. They're intended for families like the ones at the public Pre-K where I teach, where the families don't frequently speak to their children, much less teach them the prior knowledge essential to school. I love the power of play and am as big an advocate as anyone for child-centered discovery, and for letting children's joy and interests guide interactions. I love Reggio Emilia so much I have a Loris Malaguzzi quote tattooed on my wrist. But you can't deny the significant academic gap that these children are coming to kindergarten with. Programs like RTTT aren't entirely off in their aim to give high-intensity interventions to students and schools that need the most support. They don't have the resources that most families do. I agree research is misinterpreted by many helicopter parents looking to give their baby an advantage. But the original purpose and intent of that research isn't that far off- to investigate and uncover the gaps in education that low income children are experiencing, and find out what to do about it. We can sing the praises of experiential education til the cows come home, but that still won't teach my babies their ABC's.

Teacher Tom said...

@Anonymous . . . I'm glad you noticed this literary device. Frustrating, isn't it? =)

Krys - Baby Massage said...

As long as my baby crushes the other babies while playing, they can play as much as they like. LOL! Great imagery and fantastic post, thanks.