Friday, October 08, 2010

Jasper's flash cards

(cross posted at My168Hours)

My 3-year-old, Jasper, attends a full-day preschool program. From my observations, preschool seems to have experienced an academic upgrade since my days of hanging out in my church in Raleigh, NC eating graham crackers. When I started kindergarten, our first set of reading words included "cat," "dog," and "fish." I thought of "fish" as a rather difficult word to foist on the 5-year-old set, given that it had 4 letters. My son, on the other hand, learned all his letters and numbers by age 3. Not because I was teaching them. Because his daycare was teaching them. Now that he is officially in the preschool class, they are tracing letters (a rather humorous thing to watch a 3-year-old boy attempt, by the way). Part of me thinks this is a bit much for people who have just learned to go to the potty by themselves. But the interesting thing to me is that my son loves it. Indeed, the other day, he was very excited to show me his "words." This was a sheet of paper with eight short words ("up" "to" "I" et al) in boxes that we could cut up to make flash cards.

Yes, flash cards.

Now, flash cards are a flash point, if you will, in the whole education/parenting debate that consumes a lot of modern mindshare. They've become a symbol of the excesses of our culture of standardized tests, pushy parenting, etc. Indeed, a book came out a few years ago called Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. I don't know if he did or didn't, but here's the charge: Flash cards present one fact or thing, divorced from any context, and usually involve drilling -- pushing a concept into the brain's temporary memory, to be regurgitated when required, then forgotten. This is not a great way to learn.

But my 3-year-old doesn't come to learning with any of this baggage. To him, words are an exciting thing. Grown-ups can read them, and he wants to see what the grown-ups can see. Plus, we got to use scissors to cut the flash cards out, and that was exciting in its own right. So I tried to respond to the flash cards in the same spirit. We had fun making them. Then after he read me all the words on the cards, we made some other flash cards with different words so we could make real sentences. "School," and "playground" and "the" got added to the mix. We tried moving them around on our coffee table so we could read phrases Jasper might say like "I go to school" or "we go to the playground." He squealed when he realized that the words he'd read formed an actual thought. And then when we tired of this, as one does quickly at age 3, we had fun piling the flash cards into another toy and carting them around the house.

I have been realizing, as I think about how I spend my time with my kids, that there is a lesson here. The best contribution I can make to their education is not to make sure their homework is all done right, or to introduce new and advanced topics, or to work with them to get them to read early, or what have you. It is to make sure that they continue to find learning enjoyable. It is exciting to work hard to understand something new about the world. I want them to want to learn for its own sake. For now we seem to be doing OK with this. The other day, when I couldn't identify a certain dinosaur species, Jasper thought about this problem for a minute, then went and found his dinosaur encyclopedia so we could look it up. We never did find the right dinosaur name, but we learned all sorts of other interesting things in the process, so that was good too. We shall see how this pans out as the years go by and he can't just explore what piques his interest, but I figure it's worth a shot.


Bostonian said...

Thanks for your essay. Bright children often WANT to learn things that some fear are not "developmentally appropriate".

Anonymous said...

Some people figure he ought to be able to continue to explore what piques his interest, i.e. "unschooling."

These people are confident that children are wired to learn. If we support them in learning what they're interested in, they will learn that learning is fun and they will learn how to learn. Then, if they discover they need to know something (say, algebra) in order to do something they want to do (say, college), they will learn it.

Sounds great to me, but we are not in a position to do any kind of homeschooling. We do try to follow up on interests, and we've already found that the best learning happens outside school.

hschinske said...

Yes, even flashcards can become playthings -- and become more valuable in the learning process that way. I don't think that means that they're a great idea, though, only that children can be remarkably creative and resilient learners.

My son's daycare when he was three had some educational worksheets around. They struck me as very odd things to put in front of a three-year-old, and rather clearly intended for kindergarten. I know one was about the number eight; well, my son could read the numeral eight, and could count eight things with reliable one-to-one correspondence (things that as far as I know most three-year-olds cannot do), but he wasn't capable of tracing an eight neatly or of coloring in the eight objects as they appeared to want him to do.

Fortunately he was young enough not to take the matter seriously, but at a later age such a mismatched task could well have been a source of extreme anxiety.

Bostonian said...

Replying to hschinske:

If a little boy can understand a math concept but does not the have the handwriting ability to fill a worksheet, let the parent or teacher fill in the worksheet based on his verbal instructions. I don't think math instruction should be delayed just because fine motor skills are lacking. Those skills are important, of course, and should also be developed (maybe at a later age).

Anonymous said...

Daycare was an utter joy for my son because they had all the learning materials at hand and the children were allowed to explore and try new things. Consequently, my son started his first day of kindergarten reading at a third-grade level and doing double-digit multiplication in his head. You'd think this would be a *good* thing, but instead it infuriated his kindergarten teacher, who demanded that he placidly recite his ABCs over and over and over again and punished him for sneaking books to read during nap time. That was our first inkling that public school is absolutely the WORST place for a smart, enthusiastic learner.

hschinske said...

Bostonian, he was three, and already doing just fine picking up stuff environmentally, with only the most informal parental guidance (taught himself how to read two-digit numbers from bus signs, that kind of thing).

I don't think ANY three-year-old should be learning math (whatever level they're at) from worksheets. Much better to be working hands-on and orally. In any case those particular worksheets had nothing on them he didn't already know, and no way of reinforcing what he did know except activities that it wouldn't make sense to have another person do (such as coloring eight things).

Anonymous said...


Bravo. Let the little ones be little and learn the way they're made to learn, through play. My son has known his letters and numbers since before he was two, but I chose his preschool because they did NOT do worksheets or have homework. They taught those concepts in ways appropriate for their 2, 3, and 4-year-old students.

As for learning concepts, my son boggled my mind one afternoon at age 2 when I picked him up from his child care provider's house, and in the car he announced that Miss Jackie had four cribs in her house--two downstairs, one in the living room, and one upstairs. Had anybody taught him to add, or even been counting cribs for fun? Nope. I asked. He just figured it out and thought it was interesting.

Anonymous said...

Actually worksheets (along with other methods like textbooks and educational programs on tv with subtitles) were GREAT for me as a highly gifted hyperlexic 3 year old with severe auditory processing difficulties.I can't learn through auditory methods and hand-on learning is also pretty tough to do if you can't understand what someone is saying. My parents didn't intend me to be using them but I found my sister's worksheets from school. I was able to use them to map to concepts and context in the real world. Worksheets and flash cards are not bad for every kid, sometimes they are a good place to start.

Anonymous said...

Just want to say yay for another Jasper! Mine is 12.

MarnelynM said...

Your thoughts were very insightful. I find it interesting that some parents find flashcards as "not a great way to learn." I agree that in most cases, facts are just "regurgitated" with flashcards and "divorced from any context." However, there are instances when flashcards become very very powerful.

I find that some students in upper elementary do not know their basic multiplication facts. Besides in-school instruction, an effective way to learn them is to use flashcards at home. The drilling and daily memorization will help students master their basic facts and in turn tackle more complex application problems.

I am glad to read that your son enjoyed the process of making flashcards. He got more out of the "flashcard strategy" than just memorization. He was actually playing an active role in his own learning.