Monday, June 13, 2016

"Sea World" Research

Most of the research supporting the teaching of "academics" in preschool can be compared to a marine biologist who goes to Sea World to study orca whales. Yes, you might figure out how to get them to jump through a higher, smaller hoop, but it doesn't tell you anything meaningful about orca whales. This is a metaphor Carol Black first used, but it's so apt I've adopted it as my own.

On the heels of yet more evidence that the Common Core federal public school curriculum is failing to prepare kids for the mercenary objectives of college and career, and as a follow-up to my post from last week, Five-Year-Olds "Falling Behind, I wanted to share with you what appears to be a perfect example of research that studies how children learn in captivity rather than in their natural habitat, then purports to draw legitimate conclusions from it.

In fairness, I've not read the full study because I didn't want to pay for it, but I reckon that this article entitled Preschool Academic Skills Improve Only When Instruction is Good to Excellent from the website of the purveyors of this particular piece of caged-rat research hits what the researchers consider the high points.

"Preschoolers in center-based care showed larger gains in reading and language when their teachers spent more time supporting their learning -- but only if the quality of instruction was in the moderate to high range."

"Children showed larger gains in academic skills when they attended more than on year of Head Start, had fewer absences, and spent more time in reading and math instruction."

"The lowest quality programs are going to have to change a lot in order for us to likely see the kind of improvement in language and academic skills that provide the foundation for succeeding in school . . . Children in our study showed the largest gains when teachers interacted with children frequently in engaging activities that were designed to teach those language and academic skills deliberately."

"Having a sensitive caregiver is really important for young children -- but it probably isn't sufficient alone for promoting academic skills. There has to be content and an intentional approach to instruction."

The jailers' cruelty embedded in these quotes has me shaking with rage. These are 2-5 year olds they are talking about. Every professional preschool teachers knows that children this age should be spending their days playing under the supervision of sensitive adults rather than being subjected to "more time in reading and math instruction," then being tested by "moderate to high" quality task masters. University of Cambridge researchers recently completed an exhaustive survey of all the research available on how young children learn -- not how they best learn in the captivity of schools, mind you, but how young children learn when allowed to lead their own education:

Studies have compared groups of children in New Zealand who started formal literacy lessons at ages 5 and 7. Their results show that the early introduction of formal learning (e.g., "academics") approaches to literacy does not improve children's reading development, and may be damaging. By the age of 11 there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups, but the children who started at 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension than those children who had started later.

That's right, high pressure academic instruction of the sort advocated for in this "Sea World study," especially when it comes to literacy, tends to cause children to not only dislike reading, but to become poorer readers overall.

Anthropological studies of children's play in extant hunter-gatherer societies (e.g., child's more natural habitat) . . . have identified play as an adaptation which evolved in early human social groups. It enabled humans to become powerful learners and problem-solvers . . . Neuroscintific studies have shown that playful activity leads to synaptic growth, particularly in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for all the uniquely human higher mental functions.

Indeed, playing princess, climbing trees, building with blocks, and socializing with peers are superior to the sort of direct instruction required to get orcas to jump through those damned hoops:

. . . (S)tudies have also consistently demonstrated the superior learning and motivation arising from playful, as opposed to instructional approaches to learning in children. Presence play supports children's early development of symbolic representational skills, including of literacy, more powerfully than direct instruction. Physical, constructional and social play supports children in developing their skills of intellectual and emotional "self-regulation," skills which have been shown to be crucial in early learning and development. Perhaps most worrying, a number of studies have documented the loss of play opportunities for children over the second half of the 20th century and demonstrated a clear link with increased indicators of stress and mental health problems.

And that is the greatest danger of this sort of Sea World research: it will be used to argue for subjecting our children to the cruelty of even more desk time, more direct instruction, more testing, and less play, than they already have. If you came to me to suggest that you were planning to subject young children to extra stress, the increased possibility of mental health problems, and lower academic achievement, I would call you abusive. This sort of Sea World research does exactly that.

Within education research, a number of longitudinal studies have demonstrated superior academic, motivational, and well-being outcomes for children who had attended child-initiated, play-based pre-school programmes . . . an extended period of high quality, play-based pre-school education (is) of particular advantage to children from disadvantaged households.

Often, the proponents of academic preschools, will argue that we need to do it to help the disadvantaged "catch up," but the facts betray them. What they are arguing for, in reality, is making the lives of the orcas at Sea World even more miserable than they already are. All children have a right to their childhood: not only will they learn better, but they will be happier and that is a much higher goal that college or career, especially for preschoolers.

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Unknown said...

Thank you Tom. I run a play based early childhood center and even though I know what I am doing is best for the children it often feels like am uphill battle. I even have to battle the state over having a schedule for diapers and bathroom use.
I taught for 20 yrs in academic centers and everyday was frustrated by what was being done to the children.
So thank you for having my back.

Shwetablog said...