This is a version of my Preschool Paradox which I’ve posted at WBUR’s new online magazine, Cognoscenti. It’s a bit more “suitable for work” than my earlier screedy blog iteration. I’ve just started as a contributor at Cognoscenti and it’s got some good voices on interesting topics – mainly ‘locals’ like Howard Gardner at Harvard.
I’m not happy with the title my piece has been given, however, nor the implication in the subtitle that I’m somehow coming out against preschool education when I’m trying to make a more nuanced argument. People often get angry about titles of opinion pieces when in fact once you hit the final ‘send,’ you give up all editorial control and the whole point of a title is to provoke and engage and – foremost – to generate viewership. But just for the record: my dream would be for all children who need preschool to have access to preschool. And for all children, period, to have access to the developmental environment that supports emotional attachment and engagement. Those are, after all, the two ingredients necessary for learning. I just don’t think there’s an intellectual case for insisting that early learning take place within school walls or within a certain specified curriculum.
The problem with my idealism, however, is that it’s much easier to find teachers who can distribute work sheets and paste little pre-fabricated apples on bulletin boards. It takes a more intelligent and more invested teacher to listen to a child and design curriculum that scaffolds specific developmental tasks (which vary from child to child) and to be emotionally and cognitively responsive to a child’s inner, developing life. The appeal of ‘canned’ curriculum that’s designed around externally generated content — like the typical fixation on projects to mark seasons, holidays, days of the week, ‘letter of the day’ etc. — is that is’ easier. At least, then, the teacher feels something has been “covered.” It takes more confidence and — I can’t emphasize this enough — more skill and more intelligence to create curriculum that is more organic to children’s developing minds and bodies.
But in societies where such teaching is prioritized and becomes a way of life, teachers grow to buy into this kind of approach and become really good at it. They learn to shift their time to tasks like observation and facilitation, and less to imposing an agenda (or cutting animal shapes from construction paper!) This shift is entirely possible when schools are organized around children’s needs, not those of the adults. For me, that shift became really obvious when I took a hard look at all the transitions I was asking my four year-old kids to do when I was teaching. One of my supervisors asked me to count how many “motor planning” steps it took to put on a coat and snow pants. It was astounding when I broke it down and then applied that same thinking to all the different tasks and shifts in the preschooler’s day. I came to see that I was asking children to interrupt really fun dramatic play in order to do hundreds of useless and oftentimes moronic transitions – for no apparent reason other that I “needed” to clear off a table in order to foist a new, teacher-imposed activity, often as not because my kids appeared restless for the simple reason that I hadn’t allowed the time and space to dig in deeply in the play that most engaged them! (Memo to self: when young children say they’re bored, it’s often because they’ve been denied anything but a superficial exploration of the thing that seems to be boring them.) I’m not suggesting kids don’t need to learn to make transitions! But the best teaching comes from a really reflective examination of exactly whose interests are being served by all the unexamined conventions in a school day. If we’re going to scale up the number of kids in “big school” – which may well be a really good idea for many children – we have to be honest about our adult agendas.