Teaching Profession Opinion

Stop Teaching Preschoolers? Not So Fast

By Sara Mead — March 17, 2011 4 min read
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Several people have e-mailed me this recent Slate article by developmental scientist Alison Gopnik, which Slate, in its Slate-y wisdom, has chosen to run with the subhead, “New research shows that teaching kids more and more, at ever-younger ages, may backfire.”

Does this mean, folks are asking, that all this pre-k stuff you keep talking about could actually be hurting kids?

Not exactly. Gopnik’s research, presented in the article, is interesting stuff: Basically, she compared how children engage and problem solve with a novel toy when teachers directly demonstrate its workings to them, as opposed to encouraging them to explore it. Children who were encouraged to explore demonstrated more creativity, engagement, and were more successful in figuring out how to get the toy to do something new than those who were shown directly how the toy worked.

These findings will probably not surprise most people who are involved in conversations about preschool quality--because they reflect what research already tells us about how good preschool teachers interact with kids.

You see, the issue Gopnik’s research illuminates is actually less about whether or not young children should be taught at all (despite how Slate has chosen to frame it), than about how teachers (including parents as first teachers) can most effectively interact with children to produce learning and growth. Good preschool teachers, for example, ask children lots of questions. A teacher introducing children to a balance scale, for example, might hold up two different objects and ask children to predict which is heavier. She might ask the children if they have ideas for how to use the balance scale to find out. Good preschool teachers also resist the temptation to correct children who get something “wrong” or give them the “right” answer--rather, they patiently ask children questions that help them recognize the error and find their way to the correct answer on their own (this is one of many reasons good preschool teachers need a lot of patience!). (I strongly recommend looking at some of the videos of preschool teaching on the Teachstone website to get a sense of what this looks like in practice.)

This all sounds more like the “not teaching” example in Gopnik’s study--but it is still teaching! In fact, engaging children in this way to help them learn is very sophisticated and complex teaching. And it is different from teaching older children, or from what many adults’ instincts might tell them to do.

Getting this right is a big quality challenge for pre-k programs. When I talk to researchers and practitioners who work with pre-k teachers to help them become more effective, they say that one of the biggest challenges they face is in getting teachers to let go of some control and be less structured so that children engage in more play and exploration and come to answers on their own. Ironically, a less structured approach actually requires a higher level of teacher skill and pre-planning than a more structured one. When we consider the skill and education levels of much of our existing preschool workforce, this is a big challenge.

Moreover, there are things that young children can’t learn without being more explicitly introduced to them--from letter sounds, to what people in other countries eat for dinner. Introducing kids to these concepts directly then opens up whole new realms of exploration for them. (For example, once kids learn about the concept of rhyming, they find all kinds of ways to play around with and explore rhyming. It’s a total hoot.) This is particularly important for disadvantaged youngsters who may have a limited range of experiences and lack exposure to things like museums, parks, zoos, vacations.

This gets to a more general issue around class and our conversations about early childhood education--indeed education more generally--in this country. Slate’s audience includes a lot of middle class parents who feel a sense of increasing academic pressure--on both their kids and on themselves to provide all sorts of learning experiences for their kids--and are concerned about a loss of play and freedom for young children. But this is hardly a universal reality. Lots of kids just aren’t getting much of anything in their early years. What we need to worry about is not that explicit instruction will kill these kids’ creativity, it’s that a lack of stimulating activities or nonpunitive interaction with adults deprives them of opportunities to learn and keeps them from being ready to succeed in school. That’s why we need high-quality preschool.

Btw, I have no idea what this line from Gopnik’s article means: “So does the law--the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act explicitly urged more direct instruction in federally funded preschools.” Head Start, the largest federally funded preschool program, is not a part of NCLB. The law does include some provisions addressing quality in Title I funded pre-k programs (school districts may elect to use Title I funds for pre-k; only about 2% of Title I funds are used for this purpose), but none I know of mandating direct instruction. The only thing I can think of is that Gopnik is referring to the Early Reading First program, a relatively small program that was part of the now defunct Reading First program. That program did support efforts to implement research-based strategies to develop children’s language and early literacy skills in pre-k programs. I encourage any one who thinks these policies turned pre-k programs into joyless instruction factories to visit AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School and Bridges Public Charter School in D.C.--two recipients of ERF funds who put the lie to that notion.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook 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.