Tuesday, March 31, 2020

You Can't Hurry Mother Nature

Jean Piaget was perhaps not the first, but certainly the most famous of early childhood researchers who demonstrated that children's capacity to understand certain concepts is developmental. In his famous conservation of liquid experiment, for instance, he found that most four and five year olds were not able to understand that water poured into a taller, skinnier glass contains the same amount of water as a shorter, wider glass, whereas most six and seven year olds were able to grasp the concept. This isn't to say that he did not find some younger children who got it and some older kids who didn't, but those were the classic exceptions that proved the rule.

The cognitive development of humans is a progression from one thing to the next, some of us go through them relatively quickly, while others take more time, but the order is predictable, a pattern established by Mother Nature. Most children start to walk between nine and 12 months, but some are on their feet earlier and others later. It is why most two-year-olds can't read, while most eight-year-olds can. The four developmental stages identified by Piaget have been refined and modified over the years, but the basic concept is as bedrock as it gets in science.

This "fact" of science has given rise to the notion that it is always either too early or too late to teach a child something. Until the right developmental moment, it is impossible for the child to understand. After that moment, it is a piece of cake. Those of us in the evidence-based world of play-based early childhood education, embrace this by asserting that it is not our job to teach as much as it is to create an environment in which learning can take place and children, through their natural curiosity, will perform the experiments they need to perform at the moment they need to perform them. In other words, it is our job to provide the glasses of various sizes and the liquid, but it's the children's job to discover the nature of water and containers for themselves.

When it comes to cognitive development, every adult intervention to "teach" something is an attempt to somehow one-up Mother Nature. It's where the dilettante reformers come in with their ideas for "accelerating" learning in the name of reform. Most of these interventions seek not to teach children to understand as much as to memorize certain "rules" that, when applied correctly, bring the children praise in the form of grades, scores, and "Good jobs!" This behaviorist approach is underpinned by the notion that if we can break things down into little parts, then re-construct them within the child, we can override the child's programming, yet time and again we find that learning the "rules" about something, such as knowing that this letter sounds like this and that one like that, doesn't equate to understanding. Understanding will only come when the learner is ready. What we mostly achieve through this "accelerator" approach is children who can perform as if they understand without real understanding. But mostly we just frustrate children, teaching them that learning is hard and they aren't very good at it.

Cognitive development is notoriously spiky in young children. Some seem to spend long stretches of time in idle, only to suddenly spurt forward in this area or that. Others bounce from one thing to the next. And, yes, there are those who tend to be slow and steady learners. But there are always moments of acceleration and deceleration. There are even times when the child seems to be in reverse, but the overall progression continues as long as they have the opportunity to engage their curiosity through the asking and answering of their own questions.

So how do children come to understand? How do they go from not being able to comprehend to comprehension? Piaget found that in every case where acceleration takes place, it results from a conflict arising in the child's own mind. It is the children's own effort to resolve a conflict that takes them to another level.

This is why Piaget cautioned: "Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself. On the other hand, that which we allow him to discover by himself will remain with him visibly for the rest of his life."


And now, another in my series of short videos for parents who find themselves suddenly homeschooling their preschoolers. I'm making these videos for parents. If you're a teacher, please feel free to share it with the parents of the children you teach. If you want to watch all of my tips videos, look at the bottom of previous posts here on the blog, or visit the Teacher Tom TV YouTube channel:

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