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.
- 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?
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).
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