Thursday, October 25, 2012

Early Education: Beyond the Headlines

I posted this Babble articlethe other day about early education in our country and it prompted me to really think about this issue and how the media portrays it. As with any attention-grabbing journalism, the author pulls you in with an opening line that is bound to get your attention:

The way we middle-class, degree-holding types typically think early childhood education should work is the following: read books early and often, talk often to our babies and make frequent eye-contact, enroll the little one in the best preschool we can afford around the 3rd birthday, start Kindergarten between the ages of 4 and 6, panic if son/daughter cannot read or write during that first school year.

Then, of course, the author goes on to question all of the above assumptions that we “middle-class, degree-holding types” believe. Clearly, the author knows the fears of every middle-class parent and knows how to get their attention. When you really consider the substance of the story, however, you find that there is really nothing new here in terms of academic research. As one of my ever-so-observant child development colleague, Lisa Sunbury, pointed out, much of this research is well-circulated among early educators, but perhaps not much among the average parent.

At the end of the day, the article is basically arguing that play and conversation with adults, not rigorous academic schooling, is what sets kids off on the right foot educationally. Like with many media stories, however, this is not the dichotomy that is presented. The phrasing of the article makes it sound as if you have the choice to either: (1) stay at home with your child and converse with them constantly or (2) put them in a preschool or other child care arrangement and have them suffer the ill-effects. Um, no, I don’t think that is the choice here.

As with most issues, the choices and possible outcomes faced by parents are neither that simple, nor that easily categorized. Yes, the research clearly shows that it is important for children to converse with adults and for adults to try to answer their questions (even the seemingly endless 3-year old ones). Most parents, however, do have other responsibilities. Many have outside jobs, most are shuffling older children to school; we all have chores and adult responsibilities of life. This means that some of sort of child care arrangement is necessary for most young children, even if it is just a few hours a week.

So the question usually is not whether you put your young child in some sort of early education program, but what kind and how often.

As with many things in parenting, it seems that balance is the approach most supported by the research in early education. While children can learn from exploring on their own, they do often need some adult guidance on how things in the world work. This is often the source of all their questions in the preschool age—the “what’s, why’s, and how’s” all help them understand the complex world around them. Because of this, it is important for parents and teachers to try to answer these questions, even if you don’t really know the answer.

The opposite extreme we have seen in recent years, however, is the pushing of an academic, adult-led curriculum into the preschool age group. Research continues to show that this is problematic, especially for long-term academic success of students. Sure, you might be able to push a 4-year-old to learn to read, but does that really matter if by middle school they hate reading? This is what some research is beginning to show, like this study which found that 4-year-olds who attended an academic-focused preschool were more likely to have lower grades by sixth grade than those who attended a more child-centered preschool.

So, as opposed to what the media portrays, I think the question of early childhood education is not, “preschool vs. no preschool” or even “completely child-led learning vs. teacher-led academics.” It’s a much more nuanced approach that includes a good dose of adult (and peer) interaction to help kids understand the world, but not too much adult pushing of academic “drill” or worksheets that can diminish kids’ innate desire to be learners. 


Suzita @ said...

Paul Tough's recent book, How Children Succeed, talks a lot about the issues you just mentioned, in addition to the importance of young children having one (or more) secure attachment relationships.

Young children with a parent (or nanny, teacher, etc.) who can help them through life's stressors are much more likely to learn well in every setting.

Thanks for this post!

Karen O'Hanlon said...

With my first child, I was a stay at home mom, and I had the option of being with my daughter all the time. But from a very early age, my husband and I decided it would help her to have an expanded environment where she could interact with toddlers her own age, and a teacher. So we enrolled her in a consciously organized free-play daycare two mornings a week. Parents can feel a lot of pressure when they are the only communicator their child has the opportunity to relate to. An expanded social community of adults and children served our daughter well. She began to display more autonomy, and this also gave me a break from the intensity of being with a young child all my waking hours. I was fortunate that I could make that choice because I didn't have to work full time at that point in my life.

Damon O'Hanlon said...

I really enjoyed your thoughtful post (accidental pun). I'm not a parent yet, but as a person hoping to a be a parent one day and as a current educator, I already find myself struggling with these and related questions.

Something about your closing sentiment on childrens' 'innate desire to be learners' reminded me of Leo Babauta over at Zen Habits, who (if I'm not mistaken) home schools his children in a way where he asks them to choose their own subjects and projects, then ask question, and then figure out how to get the answers for themselves. I questioned whether I would take that approach with my own (hypothetical) kids, but there surely is something appealing about it.

Karate is a very strict, top down kind of learning system, yet even in karate you want to recognize and encourage children's' innate curiosity and enthusiasm. There's a helpful playfulness there, which I'm beginning to think is important - as you said in early childhood - and also beyond! Why can't we make play a more integral part of education for primary and secondary schools?? I'm disturbed by the way classrooms are getting sanitized—removing anything playful because 'how could that possibly be preparing our kids for employment/the real world/competing with China/pick-your-poison.' Heck, I'm an adult, and play is still my favorite way to learn things. Why are 'enjoyable' and 'learning' treated as so mutually incompatible? :-\

With that in mind, I find myself asking if maybe the question isn't 'adult-led curriculum/academics' vs 'child-led learning', but more of a question of, 'how do I as an adult teacher learn to play and integrate with my kid students, encouraging a more spontaneous kind of learning?'

Thanks again for the awesome post.

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