Tuesday, March 29, 2011

School for babies

Here’s a short piece worth reading about why preschools shouldn’t focus too much on direct instruction. An excerpt:

As so often happens in science, two studies from different labs, using different techniques, have simultaneously produced strikingly similar results. They provide scientific support for the intuitions many teachers have had all along: Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning. Teaching is a very effective way to get children to learn something specific -- this tube squeaks, say, or a squish then a press then a pull causes the music to play. But it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions. . . .

Knowing what to expect from a teacher is a really good thing, of course: It lets you get the right answers more quickly than you would otherwise. Indeed, these studies show that 4-year-olds understand how teaching works and can learn from teachers. But there is an intrinsic trade-off between that kind of learning and the more wide-ranging learning that is so natural for young children. Knowing this, it’s more important than ever to give children’s remarkable, spontaneous learning abilities free rein. That means a rich, stable, and safe world, with affectionate and supportive grown-ups, and lots of opportunities for exploration and play. Not school for babies.

I’m generally cautious about drawing sweeping conclusions about education from human-subject research studies, but none of this is earthshaking news. Does anyone really think it’s a good idea to have three- and four-year-olds sitting quietly while a teacher instructs them on -- well, whatever it is that four-year-olds absolutely must know? (Okay, I mean, does anyone other than the federal government think that? The author points out that the No Child Left Behind Act specifically encourages more direct instruction in federally funded preschools. Seriously, is there anything NCLB doesn’t get wrong?)

What’s interesting is that the author confines her discussion to “young children.” Is there any reason to think those same conclusions wouldn’t apply to, say, elementary-age children? That “wide-ranging learning” is any less natural for older children? Or that teaching those children to narrowly focus on giving right answers to closed-ended questions would not be similarly detrimental to their educational development?

A few weeks ago, I described some educational reformers as “busybodies,” and I’m beginning to think that that term describes an awful lot about our society’s approach to education. America’s default reaction to the existence of children seems to be: “Look, there’s a child. Let’s do something to it! (For its own good, of course!)” We’re so ready to intervene in the lives of children that only the slightest excuse is necessary -- any theoretical possibility that intervention will be “good for them” is enough. It’s as if there is nothing at all on the other side of the scale -- as if kids’ time, autonomy, and freedom is entirely without value.

I’m certainly not against all intervention in our kids’ lives -- if my child’s appendix bursts, she goes to the hospital, whether she wants to or not. But I do think that kids’ autonomy has both educational and intrinsic value. Before “making” the kids do this or that, shouldn’t we be pretty sure that the value of doing so outweighs the value of leaving them alone? This is one the main arguments for minimizing or even eliminating homework in elementary school. The question shouldn’t be, “Is there any chance they might benefit from this homework?” At the very least it should be, “Are we confident that this is a better use of their time than what they would choose to do on their own?” How many times have I seen my kids spending time on worksheets of very questionable value when, given their own choice, they would be reading books, playing outside, or spending time with their family?

And doesn’t the argument for giving kids more say over how to spend their time only get stronger as the kids get older? What better skill to take into adulthood than the ability to make good decisions about how to use your time? If we constantly send the message “We know better than you do how to spend your time,” and deprive them of opportunities to make their own decisions, we’re not educating them, we’re infantilizing them. If preschoolers don’t need “school for babies,” older kids need it even less.

“A rich, stable, and safe world, with affectionate and supportive grown-ups, and lots of opportunities for exploration and play”: at what grade level would that no longer describe an educationally ideal environment?
.

1 comment:

Stoz said...

"Does anyone really think it’s a good idea to have three- and four-year-olds sitting quietly while a teacher instructs them on -- well, whatever it is that four-year-olds absolutely must know?"

Maybe a better question is: is there any age at all where this is a good idea?