Early Childhood Opinion

Finding Deeper Learning in a Preschool for ‘Visible Learning’

By Contributing Blogger — February 24, 2017 4 min read
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This post is by Kathleen Cushman. Her most recent book, with WKCD colleague Barbara Cervone, is Belonging and Becoming: The Power of Social and Emotional Learning in High Schools (Harvard Education Press).

At four years old, how do children best learn? What does it look like when they “go deep”? Looking at pre-kindergarten programs in my very diverse urban neighborhood, I kept asking myself those questions.

With passion and purpose, New York City has recently rolled out an initiative that offers free full-day schooling to every four-year-old in the city. In its second year, 60 percent of those children--roughly 69,000 children--attend pre-K programs housed in district or charter elementary schools or in nonprofit community partners, such as the Y or religious preschools.

True to form, the New York City Department of Education has set out a comprehensive set of standards to guide instruction and assessment for these young learners. It comes with a curriculum of interdisciplinary units, grounded in the state’s Prekindergarten Foundation for the Common Core.

I’m all for stretching young minds. But as I observed these classrooms, I wondered what really constitutes success in the preschool experience. How might children (and adults) go deeper in these early years of schooling?

“What Do You Notice?”

Substantial research in the science of learning shows that early learning emerges from children’s own questions, thoughts, ideas, and theories. When teachers enter into that inquiry process alongside the children, the evidence shows, it enlarges everyone’s understanding.

I saw current concepts of “scaffolded play” and “guided play” in the interdisciplinary units that New York City’s Department of Education expects pre-K programs to use. A teacher, for example, might give children geometric shapes to play with, and then help direct their attention to key features of each shape, to foster deeper conceptual processing.

But my visit to a remarkable preschool program at the Sugar Hill Museum of Arts and Storytelling showed me a different approach. Inspired by an approach made famous in the Italian city of Reggio Emilia, its teachers do not direct curriculum projects, but let them emerge through observation. Their daily actions treat with unusual reverence “the hundred languages” (such as art, movement, fantasy, emotion, imaginative play) in which a young child’s understanding develops.

“What do you notice?” a banner on the wall asked, as I walked through studios where small groups of children investigated in their own way, choosing from materials freely available. Playing with shadows and light, writing their own stories about how the sun moves across the sky, they continually shared ideas and made things together with others in the group.

That included their teachers, who acted more as co-questioners than supervisors or implementers of these activities. They entered the world of children on its own terms, not as evaluators. “Why do you say that?” they asked. “What else can you tell me?” Observing what was going on in a group, they might point out a child’s intent, and facilitate conversations about whether the work hit the mark. They also encouraged revision, inviting other children to add their ideas.

Going Deep Toward Equity

A key part of teachers’ work at this preschool is close observation and documentation of the children, and they continually make rough notes to inform their reflection and assessments. Far from measurement and evaluation, the goal here is “making learning visible.”

Its approach, incubated and coached since 1997 in a research initiative at Harvard University’s Project Zero, regards the group as a powerful environment that helps individuals construct meaning--but that also creates collective knowledge and capacity greater than what any one individual knows.

That belief animates the entire Sugar Hill project, which grew from a committed effort to democracy and equity by the nonprofit Broadway Housing Communities, which since 1983 has worked to support families with young children in Harlem and Washington Heights.

Conceived as an oasis for children and families, the Sugar Hill building, by architect David Adjay, takes up the whole block. Its upper stories consist of 124 units of affordable housing. On the lower floors, eight light-filled preschool studios and classrooms connect, via interior courtyards, to the spacious museum where children can explore and create. An onsite early childhood center serves 200 children with preschool programs, in-home visits, parent education, and other services.

As New York pushes for universal pre-K, how might the work of a preschool like Sugar Hill help us understand equity and diversity in relation to individual and group learning in our classrooms and schools? For policymakers, educators, and parents, this shining example of building “collective knowledge and capacity” could serve as a prime model.

Photo by Kathleen Cushman.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.