Monday, December 07, 2020

Learning Rules Vs. Intellectual Development and Understanding

I've had the opportunity, through this blog and in person, to talk to hundreds of thousands of educators and parents about how our version of progressive, play-based preschool education works. I've shared about creating interesting, safe-enough environments in which children are free to follow their own curiosity, to ask and answer their own questions, while engaging with the people they find there. Among the most frequent follow-up question from friend and skeptic alike is something along the lines of: "That all sounds well and good, but how do the children do once they find themselves in public school?"

My answer has changed over the years because public schools have changed. Two decades ago, my honest answer was, "They do just fine," because kindergarten was still at least somewhat play-based and the kids naturally adapted even as their freedom over what and how they would learn would be gradually throttled during the course of the next 13 years. I wouldn't necessarily tell parents the second part because I knew that most of them didn't have the wherewithal to opt out of public schools, but I would rest easy in the knowledge that we had done everything we could to fortify their children for the famine ahead. For the first ten years of teaching preschool, alumni students would return to boast that kindergarten was "better" than preschool, which is exactly as it should be.

More recently, however, as kindergartens across the country have adopted a developmentally inappropriate drill-and-kill type false rigor, including standardized testing, homework, worksheets, almost-not-there recess, and carrot-and-stick style "incentives," the children's responses have become far more mixed. Almost all of them now express a wish to return to preschool, even if they're proud to be in big kid school. I've had to adapt my response to those who ask to, "Most of them do just fine."

And some of them don't do well at all. I've had to watch too many bright, self-motivated kids be crushed (and there is no other word for it) by their experience in kindergarten. Believe it or not, I've found that it's usually not the "academics" that gets to them. It's the loss of freedom. It's being suddenly compelled to sit when commanded. They resent having to ask permission to fulfill their basic needs, like getting a drink of water or use the toilet. They bridle at the constant shushing, the lining up, the marching from place to place, and the arbitrary rules imposed in the name of "classroom management." Even the kids who comply, who seem to be doing "just fine," quietly mourn their loss of freedom. Oh, they learn the rules, they comply with the rules, but none of it has anything to do with curiosity.

There is no evidence linking the learning of rules to the development of intelligence and understanding, be they behavioral rules or the kinds of rules necessitated by academic style "education," where memorizing such things as grammar, phonics, spelling, and algorithms dominate, all reinforced by drilling and repetition. Indeed, much of what passes for education in traditional schools falls into the category of learning rules, with children expected to prove that they know the rules well enough to pass a test, but very often without the understanding that is the hallmark of intellectual development. We've taken the empty vessel approach to children, assuming that it's our job to fill them up according to our schedule, ignoring actual thinking in favor of remembering rules. No wonder the kids want to return to preschool where they were viewed as fully formed human beings, competent and capable, where their curiosity motivated them and their learning was all about developing their ability to think and understand.

Several years ago a mother of a former student wrote to me, in despair, about her boy who was simply refusing to do his kindergarten worksheets. The teacher had just sent a stack of undone work home for the weekend. I told her that I had no idea how to get him to fill out those worksheets without threats or manipulation. She replied, "But, how will he ever learn to do the things he doesn't want to do?" And in that question, it became clear to me that his kindergarten year wasn't about intellectual development or thinking or understanding at all: it was about learning to obey rules and he wasn't going to give them the satisfaction.

Rules are all we are left with when curiosity is removed and that is not "just fine" for anyone.


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