Sunday, November 27, 2011

Early Childhood Development in Real Time

I was a stay-at-home mom for twelve years and still consider myself lucky to have had the time for this important work, especially when so many must work full-time and raise children simultaneously in order to afford a house, food, etc.  Raising children is hard work.  The need for consistency is what wears most parents out since children are always testing the fence line.

I still consider my time away from teaching as an intensive course in Early Childhood Development.  It lasted twenty-four-hours-a-day for twelve years.  As a teacher, I found my own children's development fascinating--particularly language acquisition.

Now I have the chance to observe the next generation of children up close and personal: my three (soon to be four) grandchildren.  Here is what I am learning in real time.

Most Important Lesson of All: standardization in education seems like a really stupid idea after spending any amount of time around kids.  They show up in the world with totally different sets of priorities and motivations.  Our one-size-fits-all education system seems hopelessly out of date.

For instance, grandson number one is highly physical.  He literally throws himself at the world, leaping off of steps, climbing anything that is handy, shouting "Bam! Bam!"--his chosen expletive when he is either frustrated or successful. At two he can independently use all of the playground equipment he can reach, including hanging upside down from monkey bars. He runs and kicks a ball.  He manipulates objects, builds and destroys in nanoseconds, and goes full tilt until he collapses from exhaustion.  After all of that dashing around, it is possilble to convince him to sit in a lap and listen to a story.  Thanks to his mother who has made reading a daily end-of-day routine, this boy will probably excel at both sports and school.  But I'm thinking the long days in a desk are not going to be easy for him.

Granddaughter number one is thoughtful, orderly and reticent.  She does not warm to strangers and even takes many minutes to acclimate to familiar places, including her grandparents' house where she spent the first six months of her life.  She loves books and often removes herself from a room crowded with adults to read quietly (in the way that a three-year old reads: turning pages and reciting what she remembers).  She has spent many long periods pulling blankets and towels out of our cedar chest and arranging them in neat squares on the floor.  Similarly she likes grouping objects, putting small objects inside of bags and other containers and carrying them around.  All of these activities seem to please her in some way. When she found one of my ubiquitous journals and a marker, she began to make a "list" (deftly picking up the marker with her left hand and writing right to left) with a line for every person named (mommy, daddy, Marnie, Pee-Paw). When she ran out of names, she thought for a moment and then began to name things she likes (popcorn).  She'll certainly be a reader, but does the strong interest in patterns show a mind for math?

As I watch the two of them and their obviously varied strengths and tendencies I can't help wondering: how do you design a school that capitalizes on their separate potentials?  How can we use student autonomy and natural curiosity to catapult learning to where it matches the growth in knowledge and technology we face in the coming decades?

Interestingly, both grandchildren love the ipad we have stocked with books and games.  (They fight over it.)  Both seem to enjoy the mastery they have over choosing activities and switching back and forth between games, puzzles and stories.  Manipulating virtual objects with a finger is highly engaging, as most adults can probably testify.

Both of them like to bake, decorate, and "eat" a cake (in CakeDoodle) and paint in Art Set.  The grandson prefers Thomas the Train Engine for his story, puzzle, and matching game fix.  Granddaughter tends toward the Disney book where she can dress up a variety of Princesses.  They both think the game of tossing tires with "Mater" from Car Story is the funniest thing they've ever seen.  I fail to grasp the joke, but they think its a hoot.  Maybe it's the sound effects.

Watching children this way makes me think that teachers should be developing skills and knowledge in order to set the next, appropriate learning tool or activity in front of a child.  In this view of education, teachers would be adept "kid watchers" who are extremely knowledgeable about a variety of teaching strategies that all aim for the same objective, or leapfrog over objectives, to match the student's current need.  It has been said elsewhere: we need an Independent Education Plan for everybody.

I'm betting that my two, bright grandchildren will show up in kindergarten already reading- or close to it - given their rich upbringing.  In the current system, that might mean three long years before something new and exciting is introduced.

We need to work on this.