Looking for Intelligent Life in Early Childhood Education

I am half way through Erika Christakis’ book, The Importance of Being Little. It is nice to read something written by someone who a) Understands early childhood, and b) isn’t overly academic, and c) isn’t too gentle with the idiocies of the corporate early education model. My friend, Rae Pica, also writes with the courage of her convictions. I try to emulate these women.

The point I am at in my reading is the chapter she aptly names, “The Search for Intelligent Life.” She writes that the standards movement, which I do not condemn, by the way, has birthed a marketing volcanic eruption of pre-packaged materials for teaching to standards, everything from plastic leaves to fake logs. Fake food is rampant in preschools. In my preschool career, thank goodness, our policy was that if children wanted to play with fake food, they could engineer and create it themselves. For thinking about food, looking at foods, and deciding what characteristics are the most important to each individual child is certainly more thought provoking (problem solving; creativity, anyone?) than using the plastic foods created by the masterminds of Chinese manufacturing. Children play with their own “foods” with the same intensity. Within the “standards units” marketed by Lakeshore Learning, there are whole kits to teach math to kindergarteners. Adorable plastic cards give your average five year old a chance to “solve problems” written by the company that makes them. But as I have written before, spoon feeding artificial problems to children is antithetical to mentoring their natural inclination to question, and to actively explore solutions.

So, what is a teacher, underpaid and overworked, to do?

For math, throw out the work sheets and plastic fakery. They are not “academic.” If a child needs or wants a worksheet to solve a problem, you can mentor them by asking what, exactly, they want to know? Do they want to count the birds on the playground? This is statistics and a math activity of their choosing. Ask them to draw a grid (you, know, lines that are parallel, going horizontally and vertically. Ask them which birds they want to count, and then ask them to draw birds going down, and numbers going across. If they ask for help, only give as much as they need (scaffolding). Then hand them clipboards and pencils, shooing them outdoors. We aren’t looking for accuracy. We are looking for a learning process. As Dr. Christakis writes, “The ingredients of good teaching and coaching are learning processes, not facts”.

Facts masquerade as reality, but they are not. I think of the slew of facts I was made to memorize in grade school: Pluto is a planet; slavery was not the reason for the Civil War, etc. Facts can become outmoded, but creative thinking never does. Children want to learn to think things through, and follow their hypotheses to their conclusions, gaining insight whether or not those hypotheses are correct. It is the scientific method, and so much more invigorating and playful than memorization. Understanding the underpinning, the intellectual vigor, behind apparent “facts” shapes children’s ability to think. And gosh, don’t we want them to learn to think? Parents want their children to get into a “good college.” And good colleges want thinkers, not memorizers.

Nothing substitutes for relationships with adults where listening and thoughtful exchange are the gold standard. This is the “intelligent life” we search for. Mimicry is for parrots. Teachers and parents: Don’t be so eager to impart your knowledge and wisdom without invitation from the children. Give children every opportunity to focus on solving problems inherently important to them. Notice how they just happen to pursue a path towards which you might not have dreamed.

For teachers with standards to cover, watch this video of how two first-grade teachers cover standards through child-centered, intellectually stimulating, individually responsive programming. After you are properly blown away, think about what you can take away from their example. Teachers of the very young: Flush the flashcards and watch this video of a project for toddlers on balls. Toddlers are capable of learning and applying what they learn in new ways. Wouldn’t you love to see this happen in your classroom?

Every habitual, unconscious idiocy of early childhood education can be infused with the lightness, playfulness, and focus of true learning. Let’s get on it!


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