Thursday, March 17, 2011

Learning the Hard Way

Alison Gopnik wrote "Why Preschool Shouldn't Be Like School." In it, she discusses two separate studies which suggest children are more likely to explore, be creative, and come up with novel approaches to problem solving when they are given freedom in a less structured environment rather than instructed on how to proceed. She uses these studies to turn a critical lens on incentives (like those outlined in No Child Left Behind) for preschools and kindergartens to become more instruction-centered.

This article is interesting to me on two fronts: as an educator and as a mother.

As a mother, I am already looking at preschools and already overwhelmed. I live in an urban area, so there are a lot of options, but it's an urban area with an under-performing public school system, so it gets very complicated. One of the things I've wondered about is what philosophical underpinning is best. I've looked at some Montessori schools, some preschools attached to elementary schools, and some more relaxed daycare settings. My daughter is three months old, so I'm in no rush to decide, and I think a large part of the decision is going to depend on her personal development and individual personality.

As an educator, though, the results of the study ring true to me. I adjunct a few classes at a private university with overall good students. The hardest part of teaching, by far, is getting these students to think independently. They have been trained to prioritize information based on what's going to be on the test, and they tend to get a little panicky if there's not a definite answer to write in their notes. I am constantly trying to get them to question the information they're consuming, but it's a difficult battle.

I know this is exacerbated by the fact that most of my students are freshmen and therefore still figuring out how to navigate a college environment, but I can't help but think this anecdotal evidence in support of what Gopnik is saying. People, not just preschoolers, need the chance to explore freely outside of the confines of standardized answers. After all, no one ever discovered anything new by studying what is already known.

[Edit: I think we also have to consider what kind of pressure we're applying to preschoolers when a parent pays $19,000/year for pre-school education and then sues the school for not properly preparing the 4-year-old for the Ivy League.]

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