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Watch Out for Performance Hang-Ups in Early Childhood

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A few years ago, the Gesell Institute, named for developmental pioneer Dr. Arnold Gesell, decided to test the premise that kids today develop more quickly than they used to.  They took the developmental norms established by the work of Dr. Gesell in the 1940s and launched a three year study concluding in 2010 to gauge whether or not the same framework still holds up.  What they found, of course, is that even over the span of decades, the developmental norms remain the same.

(Read more about that study and the follow up interview with the director of the Gesell Institute, Dr. Marcy Guddemi.)

While there are many, many quotes from that study’s roll out that caught my attention, one that particularly made me think was when Dr. Guddemi responded to the question of why it may sometimes appear that children are capable of skills beyond their developmental level:

You can train them, but the knowledge and understanding—the true learning—has not happened.  Our country has this hang up that if the child can perform, that they know.”

It was that word, “perform”, that stood out to me most.

It seems we really do have a hang up with performance in our country.  We talk about the importance of getting kids to perform well on assessments and how to make assessments out of performances.  And while I agree that we need to make sure kids are learning and can translate that learning into meaningful, useable, applicable knowledge, I also agree that our cultural hang up with performances can be detrimental.

I remember back in high school, learning a story about a horse named Clever Hans.  Clever Hans became famous in Germany back in the early 1900s.  His trainer believed Hans could answer math problems, calculate what day of the week a date would fall on the calendar, and understand the German language both written and spoken.  All of this he would answer by tapping his hoof to indicate his answer.


People, particularly curious about animal intelligence at that time due to the then-recent writings of Charles Darwin, flocked to watch Clever Hans perform.  This attention eventually spread to a group of scientists who set out to discover if and how Clever Hans had learned all that he seemed to.

What they found was that Hans was certainly clever.

But he wasn’t doing math.

He wasn’t reading German.

He was performing.

The panel of scientists discovered that Hans was using his “horse sense”, so to speak, to perceive the social cues around him and know when he had tapped long enough to arrive at the correct answer.

It was amazing to think this horse was doing complex computations, but a horse’s brain just isn’t wired for that.  Instead, Clever Hans was using his senses to perceive expectations and perform as though he knew.

I worry sometimes that there’s an unwitting willingness to trade real learning for performances.  That instead of working on the foundation, we’re trying to plop down the whole house at once because that’s what people want to see.

We can get children to recite or to perform, but do they know?  Are we trading real, foundational learning for a parlor trick that simply gives the appearance of knowing?

As Dr. David Daniel, psychology professor at James Madison University and managing editor of the journal Mind, Brain, and Education,  stated in the Harvard Education Letter:

The four-year-old has a four-year-old brain and a six-year-old has a six-year-old brain. There are certain things connecting in a six-year-old brain that are still being worked on in the four-year-old brain.”

Getting four year-olds to do what six year-olds once did isn’t necessarily moving forward.  It may be more akin to driving down a freeway that hasn’t been completed yet.

Let’s not get so caught up with performances that we neglect to keep building the roadway.

Originally posted on Not Just Cute 11/17/16.

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Amanda Morgan, MS, has nearly 20 years of experience teaching children, parents, and teachers in a variety of environments. She is a speaker and educator with degrees focused on early childhood education and child development, and currently writes at the blog, Not Just Cute
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