The way we middle-class, degree-holding types typically think early childhood education should work is the following: read books early and often, talk often to our babies and make frequent eye-contact, enroll the little one in the best preschool we can afford around the 3rd birthday, start Kindergarten between the ages of 4 and 6, panic if son/daughter cannot read or write during that first school year.
We get a lot of information as parents that this is the best, maybe only, way for our children to lead interesting and successful lives. Also, the experts tell us this is what’s best.
But a couple of interesting articles challenge some of our presumed notions of how kids learn. In fact, one reaches the conclusion that if you have a somewhat precocious child, you’ll want to wait to send them to school.
The first article looks at the sometimes trying (for the parents) phase of child development: the incessant need to ask “why?” Salon’s Thomas Rogers interviews Paul L. Harris, an education professor at Harvard, whose book Trusting What You’re Told concludes that hands-on, Montessori-style, self-guided learning, while nice for kids, isn’t where the most learning in the early years is happening. Rather, dialogue — especially with parents — is how kids grasp even the most abstract concepts such as religion and history.
If you think your 3-year-old asks questions incessantly, you’re probably right. Consider what Harris tells Salon:
[…] if you look more closely at the kinds of questions they ask, about 70 percent of them are seeking information as opposed to things like, for example, asking permission. And then when you look at those questions, 20 to 25 percent of them go beyond asking for bare facts like “Where are my socks?” Children ask for explanations, like “Why is my brother crying?” If a child spends one hour a day between the ages of 2 and 5 with a caregiver who is talking to them and interacting with them, they will ask 40,000 questions in which they are asking for some kind of explanation. That’s an enormous number of questions.
The important part of your attempts to answer these questions aren’t what you tell your child either.
When children ask questions and you answer them, that is actually a setting for a sustained dialogue, and they’re trying to get clear in their minds about a particular issue that’s confusing to them or bothering them.
Harris explains, too, that the mother’s education level predicts a lot about how much talking goes on and the type and richness of vocabulary a child is exposed to. The studies also showed that children asked more questions of their parents than of their preschool teachers and also that kids tended to trust their parents’ answers to questions over answers from other adults, including teachers.
If dialogue and one-on-one conversation with trusted adults is so important, what does this say about how we start educating kids? While preschools with a rigorous academic program might make for a nice party trick, all that time tracing letters might be better spent just sitting around chatting about life.
Which is something Dr. Richard House, a senior lecturer at Roehampton University’s Research Centre for Therapeutic Education, would likely agree with. He’s touting the conclusions from an eight-decade-long study that found so-called gifted kids actually suffered by starting school too young. In fact, House recommends that your young smarty pants not actually start school until he or she is 6 years old.
“The conventional wisdom is that naturally intelligent children should have their intellect fed and stimulated at a young age, so they are not held back.
“Yet these new empirical findings strongly suggest that exactly the opposite may well be the case, and that young children’s run-away intellect actually needs to be slowed down in the early years if they are not to risk growing up in an intellectually unbalanced way, with possible life-long negative health effects.”
Those negative health effects include “less educational attainment, worse midlife adjustment and, most importantly, increased mortality risk.”
Instead, the author of the study, Howard Friedman, a psychologist at the University of California, says that children 6 and younger should have more, not less, playtime. And the adultification of early childhood education should be reconsidered.
Which leads me to ask if we are doing early childhood education wrong.