Wednesday, October 7, 2015

We have little evidence that our approach is effective, but at least it's inhumane -- UPDATED

Children deserve an opportunity to play. If you deny them that opportunity, you'd better have a damned good reason.

This excellent article by Tim Walker (a former teacher in the U.S. now based in Finland) illustrates a couple of points we've been making about the education reform movement over the past few years.

The first is just how tough on kids many of these policies are, from crushing workloads to harsh discipline to attrition practices that routinely discard kids who can't handle the strain. The underlying (and sometimes explicit) assumption of the movement is that what matters is optimizing certain metrics that appear to correlate with future earnings. Even if the policies perform as promised, that doesn't mean we should ignore the other costs kids have to pay.

But what if these new policies aren't actually better than the more humane ones they're replacing?

As with the education reforms of the sixties, the major precipitating factor of our current reforms was fear that we were falling behind other countries, particularly, in this case, Finland, but if you look closely, you'll notice a strange contradiction: arguments that start out with the premise that we need to be more like countries such as Finland and Canada,  often end with the conclusion that we need to employ the opposite educational approaches.
“The changes to kindergarten make me sick,” a veteran teacher in Arkansas recently admitted to me. “Think about what you did in first grade—that’s what my 5-year-old babies are expected to do.”

The difference between first grade and kindergarten may not seem like much, but what I remember about my first-grade experience in the mid-90s doesn’t match the kindergarten she described in her email: three and a half hours of daily literacy instruction, an hour and a half of daily math instruction, 20 minutes of daily “physical activity time” (officially banned from being called “recess”) and two 56-question standardized tests in literacy and math—on the fourth week of school.

That American friend—who teaches 20 students without an aide—has fought to integrate 30 minutes of “station time” into the literacy block, which includes  “blocks, science, magnetic letters, play dough with letter stamps to practice words, books, and storytelling.” But the most controversial area of her classroom isn’t the blocks nor the stamps: Rather, it’s the “house station with dolls and toy food”—items her district tried to remove last year. The implication was clear: There’s no time for play in kindergarten anymore.


But Finland—a Nordic nation of 5.5 million people, where I’ve lived and taught fifth and sixth graders over the last two years—appears to be on the other end of the kindergarten spectrum. Before moving to Helsinki, I had heard that most Finnish children start compulsory, government-paid kindergarten—or what Finns call “preschool”—at age 6. And not only that, but I learned through my Finnish mother-in-law—a preschool teacher—that Finland’s kindergartners spend a sizable chunk of each day playing, not filling out worksheets.

Finnish schools have received substantial media attention for years now—largely because of the consistently strong performance of its 15-year-olds on international tests like the PISA. But I haven’t seen much coverage on Finland’s youngest students.

So, a month ago, I scheduled a visit to a Finnish public kindergarten—where a typical school day is just four hours long.

* * *

Approaching the school’s playground that morning, I watched as an army of 5- and 6-year-old boys patrolled a zigzagging stream behind Niirala Preschool in the city of Kuopio, unfazed by the warm August drizzle. When I clumsily unhinged the steel gate to the school’s playground, the young children didn’t even lift their eyes from the ground; they  just kept dragging and pushing their tiny shovels through the mud.

At 9:30 a.m., the boys were called to line up for a daily activity called Morning Circle. (The girls were already inside—having chosen to play boardgames indoors.) They trudged across the yard in their rubber boots, pleading with their teachers to play longer—even though they had already been outside for an hour. As they stood in file, I asked them to describe what they’d been doing on the playground.

“Making dams,” sang a chorus of three boys.

“Nothing else?” one of their teachers prodded.

“Nothing else,” they confirmed.

And there’s no such thing as a typical day of kindergarten at the preschool, the teachers said. Instead of a daily itinerary, two of them showed me a weekly schedule with no more than several major activities per day: Mondays, for example, are dedicated to field trips, ballgames, and running, while Fridays—the day I visited—are for songs and stations.

Once, Morning Circle—a communal  time of songs and chants—wrapped up, the children disbanded and flocked to the station of their choice: There was one involving fort-making with bed sheets, one for arts and crafts, and one where kids could run a pretend ice-cream shop. “I’ll take two scoops of pear and two scoops of strawberry—in a waffle cone,” I told the two kindergarten girls who had positioned themselves at the ice-cream table; I had a (fake) 10€ bill to spend, courtesy of one of the teachers. As one of the girls served me—using blue tack to stick laminated cutouts of scoops together—I handed the money to her classmate.

With a determined expression reminiscent of the boys in the mud with their shovels, the young cashier stared at the price list. After a long pause, one of her teachers—perhaps sensing a good opportunity to step in—helped her calculate the difference between the price of my order and the 10€. Once I received my change (a few plastic coins), the girls giggled as I pretended to lick my ice cream.


“Play is a very efficient way of learning for children,” she told me. “And we can use it in a way that children will learn with joy.”

The word “joy” caught me off guard—I’m certainly not used to hearing the word in conversations about education in America, where I received my training and taught for several years. But Holappa, detecting my surprise, reiterated that the country’s early-childhood education program indeed places a heavy emphasis on “joy,” which along with play is explicitly written into the curriculum as a learning concept. "There's an old Finnish saying,” Holappa said. “Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.”

After two hours of visiting a Finnish kindergarten, I still hadn’t seen children reading. I was, however, hearing a lot of pre-literacy instruction sprinkled throughout the morning—clapping out syllables and rhyming in Morning Circle, for example. I recalled learning in my master’s degree courses in education that building phonemic awareness—an ability to recognize sounds without involving written language—was viewed as the groundwork of literacy development.

Just before lunch, a kindergarten teacher took out a basket brimming with children’s books. But for these 5- and 6-year-olds, “reading” looked just like how my two toddlers approach their books: The kindergartners, sitting in different corners of the room, flipped through pages, savoring the pictures but, for the most part, not actually deciphering the words. Osei Ntiamoah told me that just one of the 15 students in her class can currently read syllable by syllable. Many of them, she added, will read by the end of the year. “We don’t push them but they learn just because they are ready for it. If the child is willing and interested, we will help the child.”


Meanwhile across the Atlantic, kindergarten students like that of the Arkansas teacher are generally expected—by the end of the year—to master literacy skills that are far more complex, like reading books with two to three sentences of unpredictable text per page. “These are 5- to 6-year-olds!” the Arkansas teacher wrote in disbelief.

More than 40 states—including Arkansas—have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which contain dozens of reading expectations for kindergartners. In the United States—where 22 percent of the nation’s children live in poverty (more than 16 million in total)—the Common Core’s emphasis on rigorous language-learning in kindergarten could be viewed as a strategy for closing the alarming “Thirty Million Word Gap” between America’s rich and poor—holding schools accountable for having high expectations for their youngest students.

Furthermore, unlike the reality of teaching kindergarten in Finland where the poverty rate is 10 percent and the student-teacher ratio is typically 14:1 (based on national guidelines), most American kindergarten teachers don’t have a choice whether or not they teach reading. Under the Common Core, children should be able to “read emergent-texts with purpose and understanding” by the end of kindergarten. Ultimately, they’re expected to, at the very least, be able to decode basic texts without the support of a teacher.

“But there isn’t any solid evidence that shows that children who are taught to read in kindergarten have any long-term benefit from it,” Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emeritus of early childhood education at Lesley University, explained in a video published by the advocacy group Defending the Early Years.

Research by Sebastian Suggate, a former Ph.D. candidate at New Zealand’s University of Otago studying educational psychology, confirms Carlsson-Paige’s findings. One of Suggate’s studies compared children from Rudolf Steiner schools—who typically begin to read at the age of seven—with children at state-run schools in New Zealand, who start reading at the age of five. By age 11, students from the former group caught up with their peers in the latter, demonstrating equivalent reading skills.

“This research then raises the question,” he said in an interview published by the University of Otago. “If there aren’t advantages to learning to read from the age of five, could there be disadvantages to starting teaching children to read earlier?”
[note: I fixed a couple of garbled sentences shortly after posting this. -- MP]

P.S. Thoreau points us to this relevant story from Minnesota:

Two Edina elementary schools hire recess consultant
Playworks reports that its partner schools boast drops in disciplinary incidents and increases in participation and focus in class.

The aim is to build skills that would make kids “incredibly successful adults,” said Shauna McDonald, executive director of Playworks Minnesota. “It’s about creating opportunity.”

Mathematica Policy Research and Stanford University studies found that Playworks resulted in less bullying and more learning focus in schools.

Playworks has offered its services or had its staff in elementaries around the metro area — including schools in the Minneapolis, St. Paul, Anoka-Hennepin and Minnetonka school districts — and across the country.


Edina school officials say that data collected through the fall will determine whether Playworks will eventually be rolled out at all schools. Its implementation wasn’t spurred by any extreme uptick of behavioral issues, but rather a desire for quality playground experience, said Susan Brott, district communications director.
After kids have a lot of fun playing outside, it can be difficult getting them settled down and focused on classwork. Everybody knows this and has known this since we introduced the concept of a classroom. What has always been in dispute is whether these difficulties warrant the elimination of unstructured play.

The supporters of Playworks are using an old rhetorical dodge: starting out with a universally accepted premise and a highly questionable conclusion, they focus all of their arguments and evidence on A andd hope that people don't notice its weak connection to B.

1 comment:

  1. This is a part of an article from a NZer with an American educated son visiting NZ

    Let me tell you some tales out of school.

    Towards the end of his second year of public school in the US, our then 6 year old skipped two weeks of school to travel to New Zealand. One day we were visiting my brother, who lives over the back fence from a primary school. Picture my son jumping on the trampoline (a novelty: they’re virtually verboten over here, due to most home-owner insurance policies) and having a look over the fence at what a New Zealand school looks like.

    It was noon. The children poured out onto the playing field and started, well, playing. They sat on benches, under the trees, out on the grass, eating their sandwiches and generally romping about.

    Forty-five minutes later they were still out there, frolicking and chatting, and my puzzled child, still bouncing and ogling the charming Brueghel-esque scene over the back fence, asked what on earth they were doing.

    “Lunchtime, what else?” I asked.

    He thought he was witnessing the longest and most disorganized fire-drill ever seen.

    That would be pretty typical of a NZ primary (grade/middle) school - 30 mins mid morning and 60 mins at lunch time for eating and free play. PE is part of the curriculum.