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Are Conventional Preschools Undermining Our Future Thinkers?

Are Conventional Preschools Undermining Our Future Thinkers?

The words “children” and “learn” are so inexorably linked, that a quick Google search will yield nearly 30 million unique search results on the subject of children learning. We, as a society, are reasonably obsessed with the topic of how children actually learn, and have pushed legislation (No Child Left Behind) to mandate a certain type of direct instruction to insure “learning” is taking place throughout our schools. While I plan to address the merits and drawbacks of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 in a post later in the month, I wanted to take a look at how direct instruction vs. exploratory learning is quite possibly failing our children, namely in the early years of preschool.

New research on the subject is revealing that direct instruction (that is the practice of having a teacher provide a very distinct lesson with clear cut parameters of engagement) as opposed to a more exploratory learning approach (allowing the child to ask questions, explore, and figure it out for themselves) is fostering a generation of children who are finding it more and more difficult to think for themselves. In an article for, author and UC Berkeley researcher Alison Gopnik, showcases two studies, done with preschoolers, she participated in (one at UC Berkeley and the other at MIT) that suggest while learning from a teacher may help children get to a specific answer more quickly, it also makes them less likely to discover new information about a problem and to create a new and unexpected solution.

Anyone who has spent any quality with young children might be able to tell you as much, but take a look at the formalities of our current educational system, and you will not see a system that reflects this truth. As Gopnik’s article outlines:

“Adults often assume that most learning is the result of teaching and that exploratory, spontaneous learning is unusual. But actually, spontaneous learning is more fundamental. It’s this kind of learning, in fact, that allows kids to learn from teachers in the first place.”

This is certainly not to say that direct instruction has no merit or place in education. Direct instruction is exceptionally useful and effective in teaching a child something very specific and this sort of direct teaching will assuredly allow children to perform better on standardized tests, which the government uses to evaluate academic performance. But this sort of direct instruction (as the research indicates) tends to hamper children’s natural curiosity, and makes them less likely to draw new conclusions – conclusions that had not already been demonstrated by a teacher. In essence, as practical as direct instruction may be, it tends to limit overall creative thinking.

In all likelihood we are dealing with more of a deficit, rather than a worst-case scenario (we are raising a generation of drones who, by the age of 22, will be unable to engage in any form of critical thinking and only be able and required to utter things like, “paper or plastic?”). Still, it seems our early educational system is a bit out of balance, with an emphasis on following the lead of the teacher and learning to conform to what it means to be a “good student” rather than a good learner. Shouldn’t young children (and older children as well) be encouraged to explore, inquire, discover and even play as a way to familiarize themselves with the world around them? Or should we stay the course and keep the test scores running in the positive margins?

Read more: Children, Family, Healthy Schools, Mental Wellness, Parenting at the Crossroads, Teens, , , , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


+ add your own
8:32AM PDT on Jun 15, 2011


8:30AM PDT on May 13, 2011

My daughter just finished her student teaching in Illinois. From what I have seen, at least in Illinois this is changing.

4:29PM PDT on May 12, 2011

If you have any doubts, take a look at the many success stories of adults who began their educational experience in HEAD START!

10:28AM PDT on Apr 29, 2011

I received my degree in education, although I have pretty much given up on teaching in FL as: 1- there aren't any social studies jobs where I am located and I can't move right now, and 2- I refuse to tie my pay to how well students do on tests. That said, I did my first internship in a middle school, had the "Gifted" students. During one lesson I asked my 7th graders what they thought. Guess what happened? They all gave me blank stares. Students aren't learning to think for themselves or creatively as much anymore because the simple fact is, that's not a skill which gets tested.

Does rote learning have a place? Yes. Students need to be able to memorize things. But when, in my second internship (American gov't, high school), I have students that can't even tell me the 3 branches of government (they should have had this down long before I came into the class), let alone write a paragraph explaining which one they think is the most essential, there is a BIG problem. This problem lies in a variety of areas: parents, teachers, schools, and biggest of all- those who determine what is important and what isn't, as they've seen fit to test the children instead of focusing on actual learning and helping them be prepared to go out into the world and be productive members of society. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, this debate could go on for yrs!

7:24AM PDT on Apr 29, 2011

while the answer to the problem continues to elude us - we continue to fail in our attempts to educate our children. so what do we try next? everything!

10:50AM PDT on Apr 26, 2011

Don't put any adult stuffs on any child! Give him or her a time to learn and enjoy childhood life.

8:15PM PDT on Apr 11, 2011

@ Lynn C, yes this is the major problem. The modern curricula lack objectivity. The students of today don't have to think, just pass standardized tests which don't do much good in the real world. When a person has to go to H. & R. Block to fill out a simple tax form, there is a problem.

12:05AM PDT on Apr 10, 2011

If schools are not offering the type of learning that suits the best interest of the child, it is our responsibility as parents to ensure that they receive that enrichment at home. This type of teaching to the test answers will only continue to grow as teachers (where I live) are being held accountable by test scores. Teachers are scrambling to get the tested info into young brains, in order for their schools to get funding and teachers to not have paycuts. If we want a more balanced way of teaching our children, we have to change the way the government runs our school systems.

2:34PM PDT on Apr 9, 2011

thank you

10:43PM PDT on Apr 8, 2011


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