Monthly Archives: May 2015

New York Times Discovers Play-Based Learning, Pretty Much Stops There

The New York Times Sunday Review has a bit of a drive-by take  (picked up by Diane Ravitch among others) on early childhood education that, I’m sorry to say, I’m going to have to send back for revisions if it’s going to get a passing grade.

The gist of the piece is in the title: “Let the Kids Learn Through Play”. I usually say, go read the whole article, but I think I can do it justice in a short summary here with some bullet points and a couple of quotes. Essentially:

  • 20 years ago, there was a lot of play in schools (a bold statement without much citation, but let that go)
  • formal, didactic instruction has worked its way down to preschool (sad but true)
  • research suggests that this may not be such a good idea

Here Kohn quotes an authority:

One expert I talked to recently, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emerita of education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., describes this trend as a “profound misunderstanding of how children learn.” She regularly tours schools, and sees younger students floundering to comprehend instruction: “I’ve seen it many, many times in many, many classrooms — kids being told to sit at a table and just copy letters. They don’t know what they’re doing. It’s heartbreaking.”

Heartbreaking indeed. If only there were body of theory and experimental work in how young children learn, that could be broadly applied with predictable results across cultures and classes…

Kohn goes on to ask a question:

As the skeptics of teacher-led early learning see it, that kind of education will fail to produce people who can discover and innovate, and will merely produce people who are likely to be passive consumers of information, followers rather than inventors. Which kind of citizen do we want for the 21st century?

Which kind indeed? Sergey Brin. Larry Page. Jimmy Wales. Montessori and innovation. If only there were a method…

Kohn touches on a few other points: Common Core, Finland, inequality, and (at last) cites some intriguing research: The “Marcon Study”, by Rebecca A. Marcon  at the University of South Florida, which compared didactic, child-initiated, and “blended” pre-school models. Kohn doesn’t actually come out and say it, but Marcon found the strongest support for child-initiated preschool programs. From the abstract:

By the end of their sixth year in school, children whose preschool experiences had been academically directed earned significantly lower grades compared to children who had attended child-initiated preschool classes. Children’s later school success appears to have been enhanced by more active, child-initiated early learning experiences.

And he closes with this:

But the early education that kids get — whatever their socioeconomic background — should truly help their development. We must hope that those who make education policy will start paying attention to this science.

Indeed, education should be in the service of development, and proceed from a scientific basis. One way we can start is by calling it by name.