An Early Start to Automated Teaching

I have never taught elementary-age students. My teaching experience was with kids in grades 7 and above. However, I have worked with teachers in elementary schools and I have tremendous admiration for them, especially those who spend their days with the youngest kids.

My memory of what goes on in those spaces that are the first formal classrooms for most kids is fuzzy and I’m sure very incomplete but I’m pretty sure it didn’t look like this.

Step into an American preschool classroom today and you are likely to be bombarded with what we educators call a print-rich environment, every surface festooned with alphabet charts, bar graphs, word walls, instructional posters, classroom rules, calendars, schedules, and motivational platitudes–few of which a 4-year-old can “decode,” the contemporary word for what used to be known as reading.

Because of the Common Core standards, with the associated over-emphasis on testing (even in schools outside that program like here in Virginia), even Kindergarten students are spending large parts of their day on “seat work” and “tightly scripted teaching known as direct instruction”, instead of the guided exploration of their world I remember seeing just a few years ago. The idea of Kindergarten was as a “welcome mat” and a beginning of the transition to a more formal learning process.

The idea of “tightly scripted” direct instruction is bad enough in middle or high school. It’s downright depressing for four and five year olds. And it seems to be souring kids on school early in their lives.

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills.

The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning. [emphais mine]

The writer of this article is an experienced early childhood educator and says the focus in those years should be “not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening”.

We forget how vital spontaneous, unstructured conversation is to young children’s understanding. By talking with adults, and one another, they pick up information. They learn how things work. They solve puzzles that trouble them. Sometimes, to be fair, what children take away from a conversation is wrong. They might conclude, as my young son did, that pigs produce ham, just as chickens produce eggs and cows produce milk. But these understandings are worked over, refined, and adapted–as when a brutal older sibling explains a ham sandwich’s grisly origins.

Actually, putting the focus on “talking and listening, and those concepts of spontaneity and unstructured conversation, should be at the core of instruction at all levels. High school students also need to learn how things work (at a slightly higher level) and “solve puzzles that trouble them”. Direct instruction in middle and high school doesn’t work nearly as well as many educators think it does.

Anyway, in the end, this educator says the “academic takeover of American early learning can be understood as a shift from what I would call an ‘ideas-based curriculum’ to a ‘naming-and-labeling-based curriculum’”. A curriculum that can be scripted and “delivered without substantially improving our teaching force”.

A school experience that can be automated, “personalized”, and “individualized”. Words and phrases that fill the sales presentations for any number of ed tech startups.

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