Assessment Opinion

Re-Learning What We ‘Know’

By Deborah Meier — October 20, 2011 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

I loved Nancy Creech’s piece from Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post blog last summer. Thanks, Diane, for sending it along. It’s a vital reminder as the nation faces a new federal Race to the Top demand: Start testing at age 3. Or else.

Creech’s detailed minute-by-minute counting of what it means to pursue the latest early-childhood “Reform Agenda” is mind-boggling! Thanks, Nancy, for writing it. I’ve done something similar to show the absurdity of most homework policies. Designing, assigning, reading, thinking about, and responding to 20 to 30 students’ homework accounts for a staggering amount of teacher time—if it’s taken seriously and conscientiously. Not to mention that one cannot observe how homework is actually “getting done,” nor who is doing it!

For these reasons we decided, at Central Park East and Mission Hill, on a different approach—certainly for 3- to 7-year-olds. We made an agreement with our children’s families: You don’t tell us what to do during the hours a child is with us, and we won’t tell you what to do during the hours the children are with you. But we can both make suggestions! We promise to take your advice seriously, and we hope you will accept ours in the same spirit. Taking children’s parents seriously as their child’s first teacher requires collaboration not mandates.

Nancy Creech quotes a distinguished educator who says that teaching what one already “knows” is a waste of time. I disagree. We’re constantly re-learning; it’s how things that we have “learned” get consolidated, and sometimes revised. It’s why I found teaching 4- and 5-year-olds so intellectually fascinating—because I was rethinking facts and concepts I thought I “knew,” but had barely scratched the surface of, or had—in fact—misunderstood. My (frequently retold) story about 5-year-old Darryl convincing his peers that rocks were actually alive neatly captures this idea for me. In looking at the concept of living vs. nonliving he naively he picked up on “the wrong” clues. My scientist neighbor noted that he was therefore actually “on the cutting edge of modern science.”

In fact, of course, as with a lot of instruction, just re-teaching something may only entrench the confusion rather than expand understanding. Watching children “in action,” one learns the most about what they “know” (and don’t know). It’s in organizing the environment so that children are driven by curiosity to make sense of the world that they learn to drive themselves. It’s in organizing the environment and then carefully observing each of those 20 children’s response to it and to each other that we learn the vital stuff—the stuff to “teach.”

If we carefully observe children at play we realize how enlightening their ignorance is if viewed respectfully and nonjudgmentally. They grow dumb (silent) when we fail to acknowledge it because it’s our job to correct mistakes.

Jean Piaget had a big influence for a time on American educators. But mostly by giving labels to stages of development. I found, especially after reading Eleanor Duckworth’s The Having of Wonderful Ideas, something more fascinating. She reminded me that we, as adults, all get stuck at an early stage with respect to ideas that either don’t interest us much or where simplistic theories serve our purposes well enough. My amazement, over and over, at the light rays that came directly to me—and only me—across the lake is perfectly natural and obvious and only rarely requires realizing that it’s an “illusion.” That the ray of light is also coming straight across the water to you—standing 100 feet to my right—is absurd. Who cares? But, once you do ....

Teachers have never figured out how to teach more than 10 new words a week—some of which are soon forgotten, but meanwhile children between birth and adolescence actually are learning more than 10 words a day. Some more and some less, but no normal child doesn’t do better teaching themselves, so to speak, than their teachers do. To turn the education of 3- to 7-year-olds into planned, deliberate, step-by-step “instruction” is to retard their intellectual growth.

The whole idea of prepping for standardized tests as a model of teaching/learning goes against not only what is most amazing about human learning, but especially the part that engages us in the work essential to our modern world. To accept, as young children do, the fact of uncertainty, and to tolerate this state of mind, grows increasingly rare as we “grow up.” Asked constantly to choose: a,b,c, or d—Which is the one right answer?—is bound to retard growth even further.

I’m stuck on the form of accountability that says “throw the rascals out.” Democracy in its many forms is the answer to accountability, if practiced close to where we all live, work, and think about the world.


P.S. I have spent some time observing Zucotti Park, and watching it with my kindergarten teacher eyes and ears helps me see how they have hit upon some very novel but powerful educational tools. Spending time there was fascinating. More on that next week—maybe.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.