Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Obsessing with Outcomes

Last week's Christian Science Monitor has a fascinating story about an academically rigorous kindergarten program in North Carolina called "Einsteins at Five."

For the most part, the piece is balanced. Still, the author is a bit obsessed with waxing nostalgic for a time when kindergarten was about graham crackers and eating paste. That's disingenuous. All of us know kids who read The Chronicles of Narnia, or the Little House on the Prairie books in kindergarten and were horribly frustrated with the naps and counting lessons their teachers pushed.

But it's this paragraph that got me thinking:

"...while it's clear that young children have a large capacity for learning - research shows they learn faster at 5 than any other age - it's less certain whether all this early erudition has an impact in later years. The French have universal preschool starting at age 3, but Swedish children don't begin academic work until 6, sometimes 7. Studies show that both populations end up doing just as well."

This is the same issue that the Prodigy Puzzle in the New York Times hammered at for 10,000 words a few weeks ago. Yes, it's true that adult outcomes (however they are measured -- I have no idea how he's comparing the Swedish and French) are not necessarily dependent on what kind of enrichment bright children receive. We can't guarantee that a kid in a gifted program, or a kid allowed to skip 2 grades, will win a Nobel Prize while the unenriched child will not. There is a lot of luck (and other things) involved in achieving fame, or breaking new ground later in life.

But so what? You can't tell, looking at a group of babies, which will be professional athletes based on how fast they all crawl at 8 months. But that doesn't mean anyone should grip the ankles of the quick ones to keep them from scooting ahead.

Bright kindergartners want to learn as much as possible. They teach themselves to read better because they want to read better things than the tedious counting books on the kindergarten shelves. Keeping them in kindergarten programs that aren't academic, because of someone's notion of what the unhurried childhood should be, is like gripping a baby's ankles. I'm glad brainy five-year-olds are getting the chance to use their heads. Whether they become Einsteins later in life or not.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In the article Einsteins at Five it said <<..many parents endorse the new regimen, noting how it expands their childrens' learning and confidence. One mother..says .. "I think this class gives them an advantage other kids may not get,"..>>

For "normal" gifted children it can be hard enough to fit in with others once they are in school, so how will these advanced kindergartners fare once they enter first grade? How will teachers adapt for their learning needs? In most American schools adaptations for gifted students are not exactly high priority! At some point with nothing new to learn boredom will set in and these kids may become the next discouraged dropouts.
My guess is that many of these children, precisely because of their advanced intellectual knowledge base and vocabulary will find themselves rather lonely since their agemates will not have a clue of what they are trying to tell them.

I have to wonder also if these "Einsteins" do not mimic more than that they really learn? I just read the article Children Learn by Monkey See, Monkey Do. Chimps Don't in the New York Times which states that humans learn by copying. At that tender age children have an enormous capacity for memorization but what would they really learn if left to their own, creative devices? And might that not be more useful or meaningful?

My daughter (highly gifted) did not learn advanced math or even reading in German kindergarten but was immersed instead in social and creative development. The hands-on experiences which stimulated all senses such as nature walks, harvesting potatoes, carrors and strawberries, fixing soup and salad, making lanterns, listening to and also creating their own story and music, dance etc.) were more enriching than what American kindergartens offer. She was lucky to be able to experience that for three years and has fond memories of her childhood. I wonder what these Einsteins will remember?