First Person

The Problem With Hurrying Childhood Learning

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When he lectured in the United States, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget would invariably get what he called "the American question" from a member of the audience. After he had explained various developmental phases that young children go through in their understanding of concepts like length and volume, someone would raise their hand and ask, "How can we accelerate a child’s progress through the stages?"

Baffled, Piaget would explain that there is absolutely no advantage to speeding up a child’s progression. The point of knowing the stages is to be aware of what stage a child is in, so that we can create the conditions and offer the guidance to help her move to the next one. It’s not a race.

One of the most insidious results of the testing madness afflicting education has been an emphasis on speeding toward a particular outcome—a reading level, a cut score—without taking the time to ask what is sacrificed in that rush.

We need, of course, to pay attention to academic growth. It’s one thing for a child to be below grade-level or to be on a trajectory toward catching up over the next couple of years. It’s a fundamentally different situation when a child is virtually flat-lining in his progress, or is making such slow growth that if he continues at that rate, he won’t become a proficient reader in time to acquire the content and confidence he’ll need to thrive in school.

But I see too many kids who are hurried and harried toward the level they’re "supposed" to be on by the end of a given grading period, with too little attention given to the path they’re walking to get there. I see children begin to define themselves by test scores, grades, and how quickly they’re leapfrogging from one level to the next.

Here are two ways that teachers, parents, and administrators can take a deep breath and see past the timetables set by adults to the particular journeys of the children themselves.

"We should be encouraging the children in our care to revel in their childhood, not hurry out of it as if children were no more than miniature, imperfect versions of adults."

1. Focus on the path, not just the destination.

Kids should like school. They should become strong readers, writers, scientists, and mathematicians, but they should also enjoy reading, writing, science, and math.

This year, my district made a massive shift toward the Reading Units of Study developed by Lucy Calkins and others. Instead of spending so much time on phonics worksheets, textbooks, and numbered questions at the end of the story, kids now spend half an hour each day simply reading books they have chosen that are roughly on their reading level.

That half-hour block is partly a time for my 1st graders to apply the many daily mini-lessons I have taught them—everything from strategies for figuring out an unknown word to thinking about how the characters solve the problem in the story. But it’s also a time for getting comfortable in a beanbag or camping chair, doing shrill voices for the wicked stepmother in Adelita, or giggling with a friend over Piggie and Elephant’s antics.

My students’ collective reading progress this year has been remarkable. They have moved up an average of 5.6 levels on the Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System, compared to the district expectation of three levels by this point in the year, despite the fact that all 23 children are English learners.

But here’s the critical point about their progress: that growth is a positive side effect, not the end goal, of the block of time we call the "Wild Reading Rumpus." The true purpose of that reading time is for my students to come to love reading, so that they will lead richer lives—not just in the future, when they go on to college or a career, but in the present.

We adults tend to dramatically discount the present moment in favor of future outcomes. Yet childhood is a fleeting time. It’s like the Buddhist description of a human life: a bird flying in one window and flying out the other, before you have time to do more than gasp. We should be encouraging the children in our care to revel in their childhood, not hurry out of it as if children were no more than miniature, imperfect versions of adults.

2. Honor growth above proficiency.

Most kids at my school, where 99 percent live in poverty and 85 percent speak English as a second language, are reading and doing math on or above grade level by the time they leave 5th grade. But many of them don’t end kindergarten or 1st grade as “proficient” readers or mathematicians according to the benchmark level set by the district or the Measures of Academic Progress cut score.

Why? Because it takes time to learn English and to become a strong reader, writer, or mathematician. We have to give children that time. We have to celebrate every step along their steep path to proficiency, rather than holding up only the end goal—a particular reading level or test score—as the single outcome worth celebrating.

I have a friend whose daughter has cerebral palsy. I asked him once if her disability had influenced his work as a high school teacher of struggling readers. He said that watching his daughter’s gradual progress toward developmental milestones had taught him to celebrate incremental steps his students took in their reading that were so small most teachers would not even notice them.

I would love it if every 1st grader in my class finished the year reading "on grade level." But I care far more about two other measures: whether the pace of their growth has put them on a trajectory to get where they need to be, and whether they are finding pleasure and meaning in the many individual steps that make up that long journey.

We took the MAP test in math last week. Most of the students reached their growth goals, and their collective growth was 111 percent of the "projected growth met" metric—despite the fact that every child in the class is an English learner who lives in poverty.

When we celebrated their perseverance and hard work, I had children stand and be applauded not according to how high their score was, but according to how much growth they had made. Ailuk, one of my students from the Marshall Islands, had one of the lower scores in the class but she had made the third highest growth: 28 points higher than her score in September. My two students with autism, Annie and Armando, had middle-range scores but moved up the most: 35 points for Annie and 37 for Armando.

If the only thing that mattered was the score itself, Ailuk would be considered a “low-performing” student, and Annie and Armando would be seen as average students. But if you look at how far they have come, these three children are excelling.

We are workers of gradual miracles. Gardeners know how long seeds take to grow. It’s hard work tilling the soil, nurturing the first fragile green tendrils, and staying vigilant when frosts or murderous insects threaten the seedlings' survival.

Our job as teachers is no different. The work of sustaining a gradual miracle requires patience. If we can teach ourselves that hard habit, our students will grow. They may also learn to slow down, delight in the present, and take time to fully experience the many moments before the harvest.

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