The Competency of Children

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Let’s say you are visiting a preschool to which you may send your child. And let’s say you saw the following interaction between the teacher and some students:


James and Brapulley playndon have created a pulley of sorts, using a thick piece of wool tied to a hollow wooden block. They are completely, utterly, fabulously engaged and absorbed in this activity: James places a small plastic animal inside the hollow block and then pulls on the other end of the rope. The “elevator” rises, along with the animal inside. Up and up and then, BAM! They drop it back down. The crash of the wooden block on the hard floor is delicious to the boys and a sure indication to them that “that block is really heavy!” Next, Brandon takes a turn, except now he cannot remember which end of the rope to pull on. The teacher, who was drawn to the activity after the BAM, says from a bit away, “Brandon, pull on the other end of the rope,” which he does. The elevator rises. At the top, Brandon lets go of the rope and BAM! The teacher has had enough. She removes the rope from the pulley and says warmly, “Boys, let’s build a house with these blocks instead. I’ll get it started.” And she does. You are impressed with her helpfulness and her warmth. She is kind when speaking to them and helps redirect their play so that they do not make so much noise.


This scene is, in fact, a pretty typical scene in an American preschool. The role of the teacher is to guide, direct and encourage her students. She is well-trained and knows what they need to know before they move on to kindergarten. This year, they will learn to recognize their letters and numbers. They will learn the names of all the shapes and lots of things about calendars, weather, various animals, typical modes of transportation and, perhaps, a bit of painting. The children will bring home, many days, the products of their activities: drawings of animals and trees, their hand prints in paint, their name traced over lightly dotted letters. They will have some time each day to play indoors and out, with their indoor play divided up into chunks of time so that they can spend some time in each center every day. They will read books and learn songs.

Now imagine this: You arrive at work. Your boss greets you at the door warmly and then explains that the staff is at the conference table working on a project that is your boss’s idea. She asks you to join them and begin working on the project. You comply, even though this is not really the project you want to work on. After a while, you do become engaged and start to enjoy the work a
nd the camaraderie with your colleagues. Your boss warmly announces that you have 5 minutes to finish up your work. You are startled because you did not plan for a time limit and you really cannot do exactly what you had wanted to do in five minutes. You finish up as best you can, and then your boss assigns you to one of the six areas of desks, and says you can work on any project you want in that area.

Being WatchedAt this point, you are more than a bit frustrated. Even though the projects in each area are fun, the area you are in is not the one you wanted to be in. You begin your work and start getting into it because the co-workers you are with are creative and fun. However, after 10 minutes, your boss announces that it’s time to move to a different area and work on a project there. While you are in one of the centers creatively engaging with a project, you boss comes over a watches you for a bit. You pause for a moment, wondering to yourself how you want to solve a problem you just encountered, but your boss leans in and tells you how to fix it in a warm and friendly voice. You are a bit irritated because solving problems is something you really like about your job and you could have fixed it yourself if she had given you space and time. You sense that she does not have much faith in your ability to do the task. This goes on the entire day.

Hopefully, you get the picture. Many children experience preschool this way, but they are not worldly enough (yet) to realize that they do not deserve to be treated this way. As sweet as their teacher is, her actions actually subtly reveal a lack of trust in her students’ competence, reflect little faith in their ability to effectively choose their own activities and undermine the children’s ability to sink deeply into their own play and explorations.

pablo2I can guess at why some educators are uncomfortable providing time and space for children to investigate their own ideas and interests. First, despite loads of research refuting the benefits of early academics (and, in fact, exposing the harm of pushing academics on young children), the misconception remains: earlier is better. One website, TeachReadingEarly.com, asserts that “teaching your child to read early and well has multiple benefits and is the key to your child’s academic future.” Parents pressure schools and teachers to teach preschoolers how to read and think critically. Children must be ready for the rigors of kindergarten! Absolute malarkey! In fact, I googled benefits of early education and discovered something curious: finding research that does not debunk the myth of the early learner is challenging these days. Why is this lie still so pervasive? Why are our educational institutions still drinking this kool-aid?

Second, many educators perceive themselves (or other educators) as lazy and not really doing anything if child-led investigations and play are the curriculum. What do we do when children are self-directed? What do we do when they explore their own theories?

Finally, child-led play can look messy, loud, chaotic. It is not linear, nor is it neatly packaged. It does not come in the three primary colors, nor does it color in the lines. Child-led learning is wild, at times meandering, faltering, passionate and oftentimes intensely peer-connected. Yet, child-led learning is essential to real learning, developmentally appropriate practices and cognitive development that is passionate and rich.

No ResearchSo, each year, preschool teachers return to the classroom with their monthly themes planned out and their lesson plans at the ready. They know what their students will experience and learn during the year. They confidently meet with parents at orientation night and explain what their children will do during the day and all of the wonderful concepts they will study throughout the year. The parents put their trust in the teachers as experts and, to a certain extent, perceive the teachers as more able to educate the child. They rely on the practices of the teacher to be developmentally appropriate and academically enriching. But how much of the their planning time do teachers spend researching their practice? What portion of teacher workweek is devoted to current research discussions among educators and administrators? Zero, that’s how much. How often are teachers encouraged to develop their own theories about children and test those theories out in their classrooms? Rarely. I have taught in public, religious and private preschools, public high schools and community colleges. Of the schools in which I have taught over the past 20 years, not one school devoted even 30 minutes during any portion of teacher workweek to current research discussions.

When and how does this shift? Who or what is the catalyst? I say the impetus of this transformation in the American educational system will come from each individual teacher. If teaching is a social and political act, what does my teaching say about my concept of freedom and democracy? If teaching is a cultural act, how does my teaching reflect and support the ideas and customs of my local area? If teaching is a collaborative act, what do my practices reveal about my belief in community? These are the questions we need to be exploring and researching. We’ve talked enough about the harm of early academics. We know what the research says. What are we pretending not to know and, more importantly, why? Of what are we afraid?

©Shelley Welch 2016