Sunday, September 23, 2007

Too Much Too Soon?

Are we asking too much of our students, too soon? At what cost? I believe that we are; or at least asking too much of the wrong thing. At earlier ages, a child’s world fuels curiosity; curiosity fuels experimentation, experimentation fuels learning.

Rote learning (including the rote learning of sight words) leaves little room for natural curiosity within that teaching method. Yes – a child can learn that “b” + “at” reads “bat” – but this is like teaching them to play Beethoven without letting them first listen to the music. With the emphasis on “reading at grade level”, there is also an emphasis on “seat work”, and seat work does not fuel curiosity. Life fuels curiosity.

I recently read an article about a school called “waldkindergarten” – or “forest school”. Originating in Scandinavia, the schools I have read the most about are in Germany, and most of the websites are in German. The basic concept is a “school without walls.

This type of school uses a child’s inner curiosity and need for movement to teach them about nature, science, natural consequences, physical education, and more. It does this while improving gross motor skills, logic skills, and awareness of the world around them. Waldkindergartens believe that a child who is able to build on the foundation of motor development is better able to manage his or her own body.

Being able to manage his own body enables a child to recognise and use shapes, signs, deal with quantities and abstract numbers. Only a child that has learned to orient himself in play and experience can bring this orientation to paper or on a blackboard.

Just like in any other kindergarten, we offer paper, pencils, paint, brushes and scissors, and teach the children how to use them. Children who were able to run around and let off steam in kindergarten are able to sit still and concentrate later in school, as they have learned to occupy themselves with simple things and with few distractions in nature.

Children who have mastered day-to-day life in the forest, together with other difficult situations, and have learned to make arrangements and stick to them have gained social skills for living and working together. Skills that are not only valuable at school.

In this type of school, children are learning. They are learning about the world around them, they are learning about "how stuff works", they are learning about the limits of their own abilities.

Incidentally, this pressure for “too much too soon” is demanded by standardized, high-stakes testing. What do the Germans call this testing? Amerikanische Prffung (American tests). Whether or not high-pressure performance in first grade leads to better learning in high school and beyond really remains to be seen. But for those children who “make the cut” in kindergarten, childhood is lost forever.

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