Who Should Lead the Learning? Book Study Expert Commentary for Chapters 17 and 18 (Week 9)

Published on: October 26, 2015

Filled Under: Beyond The Pages, Books, Guest Speakers

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This week we are discussing Chapter 17: In Defense of Authentic Learning and Chapter 18 Who Should Lead the Learning? Michael Gramling will provide insight and lead our discussion this week. Just joining us? Get all the book study details HERE.



Rae Pica is really on to something when she points out how completely overvalued rote learning has become in this misguided era of testing and accountability. What I find most discouraging, however, is the degree to which this approach to education has gained a strangle hold in early childhood education.

Rote learning, while bad enough for school age children, is a complete disaster for children enrolled in pre-k and infant-toddler programs. Rote learning wastes the very precious and short-lived window of opportunity available to educators and parents to provide the kinds of sensory, social, intellectual, and above all, language experiences necessary for the developing brain to reach its full potential. During the one time in a human life when the brain is connecting neurons and making pathways in a manner that will not be possible later in childhood or adulthood, during that very unique time in human development for which there are no do-overs, during the one developmental stage when the brain is a sponge and is absorbing information at lightning speed and needs to be completely immersed in an ocean of words, we administer information with an eye dropper.

Worse yet, the information prescribed for children is limited deliberately to the tiny body of knowledge required on the Kindergarten readiness assessment – eight colors, 26 letters, 20 numerals, seven days of the week, five senses, four seasons, 12 months, body parts, emotions, a list of personal information that can be summarized in three lines on a driver’s license, an undetermined number of arbitrary sight words, and the conventions of print.  (It goes from left to right last time I looked.)

In the Age of Accountability, this paltry collection of Kindergarten facts is all that matters. It is taught relentlessly and tediously day in and day out from the moment a child enters the infant program until the moment she graduates from preschool. “What color?” we ask our children over and over and over for five long years.  What letter? Shape? Number?

Folks, there are only eight crayons in the box.

To paraphrase the words of the great poet and lyricist Paul Simon, “When I look back on all the _____ I learned in pre-school, it’s a wonder that I can think at all.”

A wonder indeed.

It is for those reasons I was delighted to find an appearance by Lillian Katz in Rae Pica’s chapter Who Should Lead the Learning? I believe the distinction Dr. Katz makes between academic and intellectual goals strikes at heart of the inability of publicly funded ECE to make a dent in the achievement gap.  Consider for example a teaching strategy found frequently in many early literacy curricula. In which the teacher is required to “teach” the definition of a list of supposedly unfamiliar vocabulary words found in a particular reading selection required by that particular curriculum.

But to define a word is an academic process – one that is used widely in elementary and secondary schools to prepare children for specific competitive events, like spelling bees, academic teams and college entrance exams.  The intellectual process that Dr. Katz believes young children quite capable of, however, is the ability to understand new words in context, and after hearing a word enough times used in different contexts, to know how to use the word in order to communicate ideas, experiences, opinions and feelings. It is the intellectual ability to communicate, not the academic ability to define, that forms the foundation on which literacy is built and success in school made possible.

Consider for example, the word on, which in the adult-led, curriculum-driven early childhood classroom is actually an object of study. Why is this particular word one that we believe is worthy of our study? Because it’s on the assessment, of course.

And the Kindergarten checklist.

“Is the cup on the table or under the table?” we ask earnestly, seeking to assess the child’s knowledge of this esoteric concept, quite prepared with a lesson plan designed to teach this particular word if the child does not demonstrate comprehension.

But because we know that the developing brain in early childhood is absorbing language at an incredible rate simply by hearing adults communicate, whether a particular child responds correctly or not is in reality of little relevance to the educational process. It is a very safe bet that unless the child has been locked in a closet for three years or has suffered traumatic brain injury, he knows perfectly well not only that the cup is on the table, but that he needs to be at school on time, with his shoes and socks on, and that if he wants to know what’s on TV he has to turn it on. Furthermore, things can be on fire, and adults can sometimes be on a roll.

I could go on.

So let’s abandon those micromanaged curricula. Let’s quit trying to control the learning process and make room instead for the child’s incredible capacity for intellectual growth.

Thought Questions:

  • If children in fact need to be taught language through a series of programmed, incremental lessons, then how do we account for the child’s use of words that we are quite sure we never taught her?
  • How is it that the child knows how to use these words in the appropriate context, and what does this suggest about the child’s ability to acquire language without being taught?
  • How might this inform our strategies in home and classroom?

Michael Gramling
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TheGreatDisconnect


Please share/retweet this post! Let us know that you’re participating in this study. We’d love to hear from you about your thoughts regarding Chapters 17 and 18 and about the commentary Michael has provided. Your voice matters – participate in the dialogue and share your ideas! (Comment below) If you’ve chosen to blog about what you’ve read on your own site, link back and share your post with us here. Perhaps you have a burning question about something that you read in one of these chapters… we have a feature for that – Ask The Author! That’s right, Rae Pica will be available throughout this live study to answer your questions. #AskAuthor

What to read next: Chapter 19 The Trouble with Testing and Chapter 24 The Homework Debate (11/2/15).

*If you’re a MN participant seeking training hours, please visit this link to access to requirements.

63 Responses to Who Should Lead the Learning? Book Study Expert Commentary for Chapters 17 and 18 (Week 9)

  1. Sherie Melchert says:

    Children learn better when working independently and we should not tell them answers but ask questions. We need to encourage creativity and free thinkers.

  2. Jill N. Walker says:

    We all need more problem solvers in this world. Teachers need to focus exploration and discovery with children so they will gain skills that will serve a child for a lifetime of problem solving.

  3. Karen says:

    I have to agree that children can learn more on their own. I like what Alan November says in his book “Who Owns The Learning?” Students don’t need teachers to be the source of information, students need teachers to facilitate the process of getting that information.

  4. Judy nelson says:

    I found chapters 17 and 18 quite refreshing. I have long thought encouraging students to ask their own questions has much value in learning. It seems logical that helping children get answers to the questions they have would like ask would hold far more value and benefit the child much more then feeding them questions to get only specific answers.

  5. T. Enter says:

    Chapter 17 &18
    Children learn best by doing. This is what I was told growing up by my grandparents and this is what I believe is true today. We aren’t here to tell you how you learn, when you learn, or what you learn. Everyone learns differently, and at their own rate. We are teachers need to assess in learning.

  6. Theresa says:

    Children should lead the learning. Ask them what they want to learn about. When you do, they tend to retain the interest and go beyond. As an observer for a college class, I heard that the 2nd grade students were supposed to find a person of interest in history and do a research paper on them as to what it is about the person that interest them the most. Sadly, a boy was told he could not do the subject he was so craving answers to his questions. He wanted to know why Hitler became the way he was. The school felt it may offend other students. I would have allowed him to do it as extra credit, have it shared with only the teacher if that was the main issue. I remember wondering the same thing about Caligula in high school. Why did Caligula act as he did? Did I turn out so bad from learning about him? No. I didn’t get to present it in class, but I feel that my fellow students would not have been offended, they would probably want to know why too. Then we would learn not to become people like Hitler and Caligula.

  7. Shannon Alexander says:

    I really liked the point about real learning happens when information has relevance in the child’s life. I love that I can work on this in my childcare program. I think I can do this by using lots of different resources such as books to show words, writing words, seeing their name posted, singing songs with words they know and have actions to go with the words, and many more ways to make letters and words meaningful to them. I think by doing this it will help their future learning in school with reading and writing. I try to incorporate numbers and colors within the child’s learning. An example would be when they are playing with blocks to have them name the colors they see or count how many blocks they can stalk. I also LOVE the flexibility I have for “curriculum” in my childcare business. I love working off of what the kids are interested in. The other day the kids found a large branch that fell out of a tree in the backyard. They noticed large and small holes in it. I did give them the answer that it was from a woodpecker but looking back I could have asked them what they thought it was from. I want to build off this interest and do more activities and learning about woodpeckers. I’m so thankful that I can build off the kids interests and expertise to build their learning and self confidence.

  8. G Anderson says:

    Again we hear children learn by doing!! We cannot say this enough to everyone and anyone who listens.
    We have many opportunities in our classroom to explore our environment-questions that come up (daily) to yes–letters/numbers/shapes, but with the children’s interests taking the lead. Every year is different, I don’t have a set curriculum that we repeat the exact same activities the same week/time every year…I like our flexibility…taking advantage of exploring butterflies/metamorphosis from caterpillars because we were able to find eggs on milkweed one week not because ‘we always’ do this topic in August 🙂 …. When the focus of the learning is child centered-relevant-meaningful…giving the children time and permission to explore-imagine what learning for a lifetime can occur!

  9. Morgan Hinzmann says:

    When I first started in the toddler room, I tried to do everything for the toddlers. They weren’t doing things fast enough or in the more efficient way so I stepped in and did things for them. This didn’t help them learn at all. Instead of problem solving and learning new skills they watched their teacher do things for them.
    I wasn’t allowing the toddlers to learn on their own and to learn from each other. I am proud to say this is no longer the case. I allow children to take their time, try new things, make messes. That’s what learning is and everyone should have the opportunity to truly learn.

  10. Faye says:

    Chapters 11&12
    I agree that children learn by problem solving and figuring it out on their own. They will learn more if they are playing and actively learning than just being told how to do it.

  11. Faye says:

    In order for kids to figure out problems later in life they need to learn on their own. That way they are able to figure out the skills and problems with a hands on approach. Then they will be able to independently find the answers for themselves.

  12. Cheryl Thomas says:

    I do agree that a lot of schooling is memorization. Some children get it some don’t. I feel children learn better by doing then by being told how to do it.

  13. Lynda Smith says:

    Children need to take the basics that they learn in a classroom and use that knowledge to become independent thinkers and problem solvers.

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