Monday, May 06, 2013

Jumping Through Hoops

Whenever I write posts like the one from last Thursday, in which I rang an alarm bell about the trend of preschools to turn away from traditional play-based education and towards the flash card-worksheet-direct instruction model favored by the Tiger Mom set, I receive comments and emails pushing back, some blaming teachers, some asserting that a nice dose of stress is a good thing, and a small group of hand-wringers who worry that if we don't start early, those darn kids will never learn the importance of nose-to-the grindstone perseverance.

From where I sit, I find the assertion that teachers are somehow pushing for increasingly "academic" preschools both odd and a bit confounding. I suppose that there are some Teach For America types out there, those who were taught churn-and-burn ideology instead of age-appropriate pedagogy, who have found their way into preschools, but I have never met a professional early childhood educator who is doing anything other than fight tooth-and-nail to protect her students from the toxic stress and psychological damage done by this type of preschool curriculum. We're not all play-based, but anyone with any experience in working with young children knows that "focused, goal-directed behavior" is not developmentally appropriate for preschoolers. This anecdotal knowledge, gleaned from my own experience and the experience with every preschool teacher with whom I've ever spoken on the topic, is supported by the overwhelming majority of the research.

So where does this push come from? In Thursday's post, I blamed the corporate education reform movement lead by charlatans like US Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee. And they are, at bottom, to blame, but the ones who are directly pushing for this type of toxic preschool curriculum are freaked-out parents.

Our play-based school is affiliated, along with some 40 other play-based schools, with North Seattle Community College here in Seattle. Each year we take part in "open registration" a sort of festival of cooperative preschools at which parents can talk to representatives (parent volunteers) from each of the schools to ask questions and, if they so choose, enroll in our classes. Generally speaking, Woodland Park's rosters are usually already full for the coming year (although we set aside some open registration spots in our Pre-3's class and our 5's classes), so we're there largely to compile a waiting list, but we still interact with a large number of parents each year. And even here, even in this progressive city, at this heartbeat of cooperative preschools, parents come to the table to ask about our early reading program, or math curriculum, or our homework load.

Many teachers (like the one's referred to by the Scientific American article upon which I was riffing last Thursday) against their better judgement, are being forced by marketplace demand to adopt curricula that requires young children to "handle material (for which) their brains are not yet equipped." Why are these parents pushing for this? Because they're scared. They've been scared intentionally by the likes of Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee, with their over-hyped fear mongering that "our schools are failing!" It's true that some of our schools are failing, almost all of them as a direct result of the poverty. US schools that serve a population in which less than 10 percent come from families living below the poverty line are on par with the best public school systems in the world by any measure. It's simply not true that our schools are failing. (And even by writing that I have no doubt that there will be those who write to accuse me of classism or racism for implying that poor children are not capable of academic success. To them I simply say that poverty is already the hardest job in the world. Poverty in America is a cruel task master who relies heavily on a child labor force, many of whom are already working far too hard to give a rat's ass about school.)

Not every preschool teacher is in a position to fight back, and they have to give in or perish, hopefully continuing the good work subversively. But some of us are in a position to do something, although I don't know what to do about convincing parents other than to speak out about it, as a teacher, parent, and citizen, and hope I can convince the right people. I don't know if we'll be louder than the corporate education reform PR machine, but if we can get parents to listen, the best interests of children are on our side.

One thing I know we can't do is let them drive any more of a wedge than they already have between parents and teachers: we're the ones most closely allied in wanting what's best for our children. We might disagree with exactly what is best, but there is no doubt that flash cards and worksheets are a grimness.

Ah, but come now, people challenge, isn't some stress a good thing? Yes. This is how that works. From an article entitled The Powerful Impact of Stress from the Johns Hopkins University School of Education site:

Stress is neutral -- it is a person's perception of the event that determines their response . . . Stress is positive when the person feels stimulated and able to manage the situation. This positive response prepares the body to action and activates the higher thinking centers of the brain. A positive response to stress can provide the energy to handle emergencies, meet challenges, and excel . . . Stress is negative when a person feels threatened and not in control of the situation. These feelings instigate a powerful reaction -- affecting both the brain and body in ways that can be destructive to physical and mental health.

I can think of nothing that would make a person, a young child, feel more threatened and out of control than to be expected to "handle material for which their brains are not yet equipped." To be drilled on it with flash cards and worksheets, tested, to be found wanting, all delivered in a manner, and on material, that you are not capable of handling, according to an overwhelming majority of the research. We're talking about "toxic stress," to quote the Scientific American article again.

There are some have who written me, doubting that preschoolers are really suffering from that much stress that we need to worry about it. I hope that most of them are not, but the ones in these kinds of school are, and there seems to be a push to make more of them. So on that ground, I feel it's urgent. I don't believe there's any research out there specifically on preschool stress, but there is some on educational stress in general, especially among high schoolers, and at least some of that is attributable to the policies advocated by corporate reformers and the resulting parent pressure to "succeed." I can tell you that I've never met a preschool teacher who would claim that a stressful environment is appropriate for her students and I never expect to.

But how do young children begin to learn the important lessons about perseverance and hard work? That's where play and positive stress come in. Anyone who has worked with young children at all can tell you that despite the romantic notions, play is not all fun and games. At any given moment in our classroom, there is, of course, a lot of that, but you'll also see brows furrowed in concentration, cheeks wet with the tears of frustration, and faces red with the heat of anger. A proper definition of play doesn't even include the word "fun": it does, however, include the concept of being "freely chosen."

When a child, or any person for that matter, sets his own tasks, ones chosen by himself, for himself, ones that address his own questions and curiosities about the things and people in his world, and is then free to pursue those questions through his own methods: that's when deep learning takes place. And that is how the human animal is born to learn. Time and time again, researchers find that only a tiny fraction of information delivered through direct instruction, even among adults, is actually "learned" (in that it's remembered beyond the test) while nearly all of what is learned through the direct experience of play is retained.

No, learning to shut up and do the work imposed on us by others is not education that teaches the work ethic. That is how one teaches obedience. Flash cards, worksheets and other kinds of drilling cause negative stress not because they require hard work and perseverance, but because they embody mind-numbing rote, the opposite of a child's natural way to learn, which is through play. Hard work and perseverance are built into play, and study after study has found that when children are allowed to freely explore in an open-ended manner without fear of being labeled a "failure," they work longer and more diligently on their tasks than those simply following instructions.

When a child plays, it opens her mind fully, she is a scientist, an explorer, an inventor. This is where creativity and critical thinking come from. There are challenges, risk, and mistakes, all of which cause stress, but without the entirely unnecessary added toxic stress of compulsion, adult expectations, and judgement.

You see, whether we like it or not we all spend our lives jumping through hoops. That's the nature of life. That's the nature of education. Toxic stress comes from being compelled to jump through hoops held by a task master, or else: hoops in which we have no personal interest, or for which we are simply not yet ready, or through which we've already been too many times. Positive stress, the kind that makes our heartbeat with excitement and anticipation is a result of choosing our own hoops at our own time and through which we attempt to jump in our own manner. 

It's the difference between jumping through other people's hoops or our own. 

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Anonymous said...

This is fantastic and I couldn't agree more. I worked in a "natural learning" pre-school while I was in college where kids could explore, create and use tools/toys how they wanted (within the boundaries of person safety, obviously) and those kids were smart as heck. And very happy, healthy and loving, to boot! Thanks for posting, this is so so great.

NZ Teacher said...

As always, your posts are brilliant, insightful and motivating. Thank you (from a New Zealand teacher, working in a preschool at an American school, in Oman).

Anonymous said...

It's been a few years since the boys went to your preschool, Tom. I am so thankful we lived and experienced the play-based Coop with you and the amazing community of people in our neighborhood. Aside from building a community, our kids tasted the freedom and joy of learning through play without prematurely imposing academic paperwork, assessments, and so on. I am seeing the results of their strong preschool foundation through their optimism and positive attitude towards learning and engaging the often inconsistent and unpredictable academics. How education is delivered is changing and evolving as our world is changing, I think exponentially. Thank you, Tom, for helping solidify the ground they stand on!

early childhood education said...

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for your continued support and inspiration regarding early childhood education. As a middle school teacher and parent of a toddler, I continually worry about the drive for flash card curriculum that stifles creativity, imagination, and problem-solving. We forget the whole child and brain research with these methods. Again, thank you for advocating. On a side note, I would love for my kiddo to be in your class. Thanks for the posts and ideas that we utilize at home.

Gretchen e said...


I have the great fortune to live across the street from Bev Bos's Roseville Community Preschool and send my daughter there - it's one of the most magical places on earth.

And then I tell my family and friends about it, like my cousin whose son would learn infinitely more from having free reign of the hose and a huge sand mountain than being talked at in a circle. It's crazy that I'm having to sell it so hard, trying to get them to take advantage of the wonderful opportunity in their own back yard.

And they mostly want to know the same things you mentioned - what's the reading/math curriculum?

And I want to slam my head against the wall.