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Putting the Child Back into the School

by Susan Engel - April 26, 2010

We have a golden opportunity to fix a big problem with our country’s approach to education. While Obama’s advisors formulate new standards with which the government will measure schools, we have a chance to convince him that the standards should be based on two things: research about children, and a clear sense of what it is we really want children to get out of school (besides a good test score).

We have a golden opportunity to fix a big problem with our country’s approach to education. While Obama’s advisors formulate new standards with which the government will measure schools, we have a chance to convince him that the standards should be based on two things: research about children, and a clear sense of what it is we really want children to get out of school (besides a good test score). While this might seem obvious, the truth is that over the past 15 years, the frenzy over test scores has caused educators to ignore almost everything we know about children and how they learn. Imagine a hospital that prescribed medicine and used procedures without paying any attention to the most recent findings in biological and chemical research. That’s pretty much what has happened to our educational system. The zealous pursuit of high tests scores has led schools to: insist that children memorize isolated skills and facts, mandate certain narrow bands of information, limit the time children have to talk to one another, decrease time for recess so that there will be more time for academics, and eliminate opportunities for unscripted inquiry, even though these practices fly in the face of findings from developmental science. Instead of using tests to measure the abilities and processes we think are valuable to children, we are using the tests to shape our schools. Talk about the tail wagging the dog.

Consider the following contrast between key findings from recent research on how young children develop and common school practices.

1. Young children learn most, and best, when they are intrinsically motivated, in other words, when the activity itself is meaningful and satisfying to them. In fact, external rewards (or punishments) can diminish their natural interest in an activity. Yet many public schools require children to spend most of their time engaged in activities that seem pointless and uninteresting to them. Children do the work so that they will get a reward or avoid a punishment.

2. Children understand and remember information better when they are curious about the material they are learning. Yet most topics covered in schools today are designed with little regard for the specific interests of the children in the classroom. It is not simply that children enjoy material about which they are curious. The data show unequivocally that intellectual development (as opposed to short term memory for superficial information and skills) is most likely to occur when children have exhibited a sustained interest in a domain.

3. Children learn best when they have to transform information and apply it in new ways. Yet much of the time children are simply expected to remember what they have heard or read, and have few opportunities to apply their knowledge to situations beyond the one in which they are assessed.

4. Some of the most important skills required for higher level thinking emerge in the context of imaginary play, including the ability to generate and test hypotheses, think counter factually, and understand someone else’s perspective. Yet children have less and less time to play because they are spending more and more time learning what they will soon be tested on.

5. Social interaction and conversation are essential to learning. Children typically gain a great deal cognitively and socially when they can collaborate with other children they like. Yet most teachers discourage friends from working together and leave little time for chatting during the day.

We should build curricula based on the research that shows how children develop thinking skills, what leads to a love of learning, and the kinds of motivation that underlie sustained achievement.

In order to do this well, educators must use a basic precept of modern developmental science: developmental precursors don’t always resemble the skill to which they are leading. For example, saying the alphabet does not particularly help children learn to read. However, having extended and complex conversations during toddlerhood does. Yet this important principle of development seems all but ignored in current state mandated curricula. Little of what is learned in high school or college depends on early expertise in those domains; you don’t need to be a junior historian to master historical inquiry in college, and you don’t need to do pre-algebra by the time you are 12 in order to grasp abstract mathematical concepts in high school. What children need to do in elementary school is not to cram for high school, but to develop ways of thinking and behaving that will lead to valuable knowledge and skills later on. What should young children be able to do by the time they are 12 years old?

They should be able to read a chapter book, write a story and a persuasive essay, know how to add, subtract, divide and multiply numbers, detect patterns in complex phenomena (the heart of mathematics and science), use evidence to support an opinion, be part of a group of people who are not their family, and engage in an exchange of ideas in conversation. If all of our students accomplished these things well in elementary school, they could learn almost anything in high school and college, and they might even want to. These are the important end points. But the activities and experiences children engage in day to day are equally important. Paradoxically, by focusing more on what is developmentally suited to children, we are more likely to help them reach the goals we value most deeply.

If our curricular goals were more narrowly and deeply focused, teachers would have greater freedom to use a wide range of activities, techniques and materials attuned to what children are really like. In the course of mastering those few important abilities, there would be plenty of time for playing, inquiry, and substantive discussion. For instance, instead of spending hours and hours practicing the myriad of specific language art skills that appear on current standardized tests, children could actually spend hours and hours reading, writing, and discussing books. Every shred of evidence suggests that children who have lots of time to read things that they like, and who spend plenty of time with readers more skilled than they, have an advantage when it comes to reading. This is one reason children whose parents read, learn to read more easily. Why not create an environment in school that more closely matches the home environment that has been shown to foster reading? Teachers would then have time to help children who struggle with reading, and good readers would have time for the most valuable activity of all, more reading.

Yet there is no question that a complex sprawling society such as ours needs common goals and standards. There must be certain abilities that we provide to every child, and some agreed upon measures of those abilities. We need to know which children aren’t learning what they need to, which teachers aren’t teaching what they should be, and which schools are falling behind. But our curriculum, and the assessments with which we measure our success, can and should be based on what we know about how children develop socially, how they learn to think, and what provides them with a good foundation for future development. We should design curriculum that teaches what really matters, and then figure out how to assess it. These simpler, more powerful assessments of a few core abilities could keep schools on track without strangling the curriculum, and the people who spend their days in school.

By narrowing our goals to reading, writing, computation, pattern detection, conversation and collaboration, we would provide a stronger foundation for higher learning. This would allow schools to better address the developmental needs of children, and create classrooms designed for children, rather than for high test scores. Along the way, maybe more students would like coming to school, and would learn what they really need in order to become thoughtful, knowledgeable and engaged members of society.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 26, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15956, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 4:13:10 AM

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