Monday, December 05, 2011

How Our Youngest Students Learn

In Mind and Brain (yeah I read geeky magazines) there was a great article on preschools and how we teach kids younger than 7.  Seven is a key age because 0-7 is the most malleable time in the brain’s development. What and how we teach kids below that age is much more important than what we do after.  This is the period where they develop critical thinking skills, interest in creative thought, and enjoyment of exploration and uncertainty.  This is where they figure out that they can learn informally from the people around them by paying attention and being social.  The under-seven year old's brain is actually not designed to learn through focused, goal-directed, in-the-seat, learning.

But instead of leveraging the wonderful abilities that our children can develop at this age, we are intimidating our preschool teachers by instituting standardized tests that focus on isolated facts and skills that force them to teach to the test. Teachers are evaluated based on their students' standardized test scores.  One mother in New York sued her daughter's pre-school because it was not teaching to the test (the entrance exam of the private preschool she wanted her daughter to attend).  Are you serious??? 

But it gets worse.  It turns out that when we teach to the test, children learn that the correct way of learning is to imitate the teacher.  They don’t develop their capacity for creative and innovative learning.  During this malleable stage of life, it is important that they practice and develop these skills.  If they don’t, it is much harder to develop them, even at only 8 years old.  Use it or lose it.

And then it gets EVEN WORSE than that.  It turns out that this creative exploration is also what provides the basis for the child’s future mental health.  In one study, 6% of children in a play-based preschool went on to develop emotional problems, compared to 50% in the heavily academic preschool.  The focused, in-the seat, kind of learning causes stress that physiologically damages the child’s developing brain.   It can cause anxiety, depression, and even cardiovascular problems.  The feeling that they have no personal control causes the release of toxic neurotransmitters that can damage the hippocampus, which is important for learning and memory.

Children ages 0-7 should never see a flashcard, a multiple choice question, or a fill-in-the-blank (OK, I am exaggerating a little here).  But the focus of preschool should definitely be on exploring, innovating, playing, creating, being social, trying new things, failing often and not being penalized for it, being comfortable with uncertainty, and using their imaginations. In a further damage to this last trait, more and more young learners are being plopped in front of a computer screen for their education. Online-only education, previously reserved for students going for online college degrees through for-profit schools who are mature enough to handle this kind of independent responsibility, has now been adapted for K-12 education. Nearly 2 million kids are now taking class through a computer screen, in a move that's saving money for school districts, but sure to reduce the interactions between students. The age of the care free pres-schooler seems to be coming to an end, as young learners learn how to master the linear progression of schools, when they should really be learning how to be themselves.

Is it possible to overcome this trend in today’s gridlocked politics, tight education budgets, and fear of global competition?  Are we stuck teaching to the test and losing our edge in innovation (the one competitive advantage the US still has left)?  You think the economy is bad now, just wait. 

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