Troubles with School
A worrisome trend we have observed over the last several years has been the steady increase of pressure on our children to perform in school. That pressure has been increasingly unrelated to their own ability or interest in learning.
From Yale comes a very important commentary on the situation our children are facing from Erika Christakis. Her essay appears in the January 2016 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/01/the-new-preschool-is-crushing-kids/419139/
Ms. Christakis documents a grim reality facing American 3 and 4 year olds who are being enrolled in pre-school. To an alarming degree, the natural approach in which teachers connect to their young charges is being replaced by a rigid set of teaching protocols. The author cites a study of many hundreds of pre-school classrooms across the country:
"One major study of 700 preschool classrooms in 11 states found that only 15 percent showed evidence of effective interactions between teacher and child. Fifteen percent."
What is driving the abandonment of one of the deep fundamentals of teaching, in particular with these very young, pre-school students? According to Ms. Christakis, the key driver of these changes is found in the same changes taking place in schools for older children- the increasing dependence on very rigid protocols, with pre-written lesson plans, all designed to meet set criteria, often with an eye towards a higher score on a standardized test. This is a very familiar trend to all parents of children in schools.
These trends have led to Kindergarten being transformed from what once was a relaxed, open exploration of new ideas and learning how to be in a classroom with other children, to a very regimented set of expectations of academic performance, including that all children become proficient at reading by the end of the year.
The expectation of reading is such an established criteria for completing Kindergarten, that pre-schools now feel pressure across the United States to prepare their 3 and 4 year olds to be able to read well by the time they complete Kindergarten. The implication is that these very young children should be ready to learn to read in the first weeks of Kindergarten.
It is this set of expectations that is transforming pre-school from what it is meant to be, a place to play, into a place of work where now very young children are exposed to the fear of failure.
The essay also makes clear that the move towards rigid, pre-set curricular goals allows teachers to be trained to simply know the goals, and not to teach or help children learn. This makes training teachers much simpler, and allows those with little interest or ability in actually connecting to young children able to be hired and maintain positions in pre-schools. The result is the current situation, described in the study of 700 pre-schools across 11 states: the vast majority of teachers in American pre-schools today no longer connect to their very young children in their pre-schools.
Perhaps the most upsetting observation, and at the same time the most hopeful, comes from Finland. Students who graduate from high schools in Finland are considered some of the best educated students across the world. They know more and are able to solve more problems than students from any other country. And here is the extraordinary observation: students in Finland are not exposed to any lessons in reading until they reach the age of 7!
That's right, the best schools in the world do not begin teaching reading until 2nd grade.
This is the most upsetting observation, because over the last 5-15 years, we have observed a crescendo of pressure in our country to push children to learn to read at earlier and earlier ages, not reaching to the age of 3-4. And the upshot is that teachers and young students are now essentially separated from each other's realities. About 85% of their interactions involve no actual connection.
It is a hopeful observation, because it reminds us that despite all our anxieties, our worries that our children will not succeed or compete effectively on the world stage, the kids who actually are winning that competition do very well learning at a natural pace, without pressure. It is not pressure, but the invitation to enhance curiosity to learn to solve problems that advance learning. Pressure at best simply creates a mechanical mind that can respond to the rigid set of protocols applied. At worst, pressure creates a sense of distress or failure for the 1 in 6 students who falter under such pressure.
The essay also outlines the evidence that the current high pressure approaches to teaching have yielded pitiful results. The approach of set protocols monitored by proficiency tests have been found to fail to deliver any improved academic performances.
This essay is an excellent review of our current trends in education, across all ages, but highlighted in today's pre-schools. It is deeply disturbing, but at the same time points to a better way.
1. American schools have moved in the direction of defining education by applying a set of tightly defined expectations tied to a frequent application of standardized tests.
2. This approach has fundamentally altered what it means to be a teacher and a student, moving both away from a collaborative approach to learning within an exciting relationship, towards a more sterile delivery of uniform demands in which both student and teacher have fewer and fewer opportunities to explore.
3. These trends are now clearly established across America's preschools. To a degree that now 85% of teacher-student interactions are now devoid of effective interactions. This is a stunning development!
4. We support the central role of play in the life of children, even in school, particularly at the very early and tender ages of the pre-schooler, 3-4 year olds.
Our recommendation is that parents evaluate their choices in pre-school very carefully. Keep in mind that there is no evidence that pre-school programs are necessary for academic success long-term. We urge families to make sure if they enroll their children in pre-school, that it be fun. That's right, fun.
Fun pre-schools offer your children a much higher chance that their teacher will indeed have effective interactions with their teachers, a rather minimal, but highly essential qualification for any educational program, including pre-school.
Here is to a Happy and Healthy New Year to all!
Dr. Arthur Lavin
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