06/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Educating for Democracy: How Children Learn

A few weeks ago I was at a conference on early childhood education at CCNY titled: "In Defense of Childhood: Play and Active Learning in Urban Schools." The major theme in the presentations I attended was the importance of child-centered play activities in the early years of learning. Several of the speakers warned that the "didactic" models that are being used in many schools around the country as revealed by studies on early childhood teaching practices are detrimental to good learning in this vital early period of a child's education. Children, the research indicated, should be afforded an opportunity to develop their own forms of learning through self-initiated play and be given the chance to explore the world they imagine.

Several weeks later, as I sat at a friend's house, watching her seven-year-old twins and their nine-year-old brother "play" by cutting out paper dolls and imagining little worlds of their own making, I could see in this real-life situation one of the principles behind the importance of "child's play": children are their own best teachers.

These three bright young learners were using nothing more "high tech" than scrap paper, scissors and scotch tape which could lead them toward mastering such basics as proportion, geometrical forms and, what I believe is one of the most important elements in learning: cooperation. They invented the characters that peopled their stories which they then shared with each other.

When I was told by a number of the presenters at the conference at CCNY about some of the common practices in didactic instruction in which five-year-olds were limited in their learning opportunities through predigested questions given by the teacher, and little if any time is given for self-directed play, I really wasn't surprised. The practices that I have noted in the New York City schools which stress forms of "control" to enforce passive behavior at the expense of imaginative, spontaneous, and self-motivated learning which could lead to independent thinking compliment the didactic formats being used in the earliest grades where testing is now becoming more commonplace. One of the presenters also pointed out that the results of testing children under the age of eight is no more reliable a measure of their learning than a coin flip.

If these restrictive practices starting in early childhood that are being reinforced in later grades continue to be accepted as the "norm" for teaching in the public schools, at least we can be reassured that the more able learners will find ways to learn despite rather than because of such schooling. Yet it will certainly put the rest of them who need best practices at a disadvantage. Of course, most of the more fortunate children who are given the learning opportunities afforded by the Montessori and other progressive programs will not have to endure the strictures that are the result of "high stakes testing." Those exempt from such compulsive testing are more often than not also the children of privilege.

I would not claim that there are no children whose disruptive behavior can distract a class from a positive learning atmosphere and need some strong discipline, but that shouldn't become the norm for the entire class. Many good learners can be turned hostile in such circumstances. This controlling approach can also result, as I have been told by parents whose children attend a number of charter schools, in young learners becoming so traumatized by these practices that they are fearful of even going to school.

Moreover, the behavior of many hostile or reluctant learners could be the result of learning disabilities that were either detected later than they should have been for effective intervention or simply neglected due to insufficient staffing of teachers adept at educating such children. As a result, these children respond to the negative experiences they have in the classroom in being considered "inferior" with the disruptive behavior that leads to serious discipline problems, suspension and dismissal from school, delinquency, incarceration, or worse. There is a significant correlation between low literacy and delinquent behavior since only a tiny fraction of inmates are proficient in reading.

I am not claiming that all of the children with learning problems can be "saved," but many more of them can be if they were just given a chance to learn. I believe that most children are natural learners, but sometimes they need the nurturing that will enable them to reach their potential. Didactic education, especially in the early grades, is no way to achieve this goal.