An article in the New York Times by Kate Zernike presents two divergent views of early education. One taken at Kumon preschool enrichment programs is of a child, just out of diapers, sitting at a table writing the numbers 42, 43, 12, and 13; of a three-year old learning to read; and of a six year old able to recite the past, present and future tense of the word "practice." It is a world of work sheets, of drill and practice, all motivated by external rewards, like extra stickers.
The other is a world of young children playing with mixing bowls on kitchen floors, in sandboxes and balancing blocks, calculating how tall to make a block building.
In the middle of these two worlds are the parents. In the article, parents describe themselves as uncertain about how to provide the best education for their young children, but quite certain about not wanting them to "be behind the curve" when starting kindergarten, of wanting their children to be able to compete. They are quite certain that education is the key to a successful life. These parents are ready to give up other things, even during a recession, to ensure their children have a good early education. One parent quoted in the article said, "I'm scared for the future of our country. These children are going to be central to our social security, to our political decisions."
These are the two divergent views of education that have been pitted against each other for decades -- either of pouring knowledge into children to build bigger and better brains or of putting them out in the sunshine and giving them opportunities to explore and play.
There is a middle road, I would argue, and it's a much better route than either of these two divergent views. I would also argue that the results Kumon reports achieving have much less to do to do with their philosophy and practice about teaching and learning and much more to do with the fact that it gets parents and assistants (as its teachers are called) genuinely involved in children's learning. There is a quote in the Times article that may go unnoticed, but says it all. A mother reports that she treats her children with more respect, now that she sees what they are capable of.
And that's the point! Although children can learn much more and remember much more from real experiences -- from those pots and pans on the kitchen floor, those blocks, and that sandbox -- than from worksheets, they need the adults to be active participants in their learning. They need adults who don't just stand by and watch, but ask: "How many blocks did you put in that building? What do you think would happen if you put another block on top? Do you think the building would fall down? Let's see."
In other words, children need adults to get engaged in their learning, not just by using a large vocabulary or surrounding them with books (as the article suggests are very important), but by asking them questions with that larger vocabulary that encourage them to think or by bringing a book about tall towers to the child who loves to build them. Children learn from adults who have a fire in their own eyes about children's learning. That fire is contagious. On the other hand, too much drill and practice and extrinsic rewards can easily dull children's inborn passion to learn. In the middle of these two divergent views of education is another path of meaningful, experiential guided learning.
My 10 years of reviewing the research on children's learning for Mind in the Making lead me to a series of additional principles that provide a solid track to kindergarten and beyond. Here are a few.
Help children set and work toward their own goals. The best preschools ask children to make a plan for their work, whether it is working with puzzles or looking at books in the story corner. And parents can do the same -- ask children to make plans for a rainy Saturday and follow through on their plans. Setting and working toward goals involve what researchers call "executive functions of the brain," which studies suggest are more important to life success than simply IQ.
Build on and extend children's learning. Write down what they say about their time in the sandbox or their visit with grandmother--this is a very important early reading experience. They can learn to recognize the letters in their stories. Or you can play rhyming games with the words they use: "you built with a block or was it a rock?" These games help children learn the sounds of letters, again a very important pre-reading experience.
Have them tell you have they have learned. Studies show that children are more likely to remember what they have learned when they talk about it.
Promote their curiosity. Don't always answer their questions, but help them begin to answer them themselves: "What would happen if we plant that seed from the avocado? Let's find out."
Praise their effort or strategies ("you figured out that you needed to find another blue piece for that puzzle"), not their intelligence. That helps them strive to be their personal best, to take on challenges, and not to need stickers for rewards.
Fast-tracking to kindergarten? No! This is a better way--of meaningful, experiential guided learning--that helps children thrive in kindergarten and beyond.