I want you to know it took a lot of self-discipline not to title this post "Killing Kindergarteners." In addition to being an early education researcher, I am also a mother of a 5-year-old currently in kindergarten, so I can tell you that is pretty much the way it feels. All around this country, families are trying to figure out why their small children already dread going to a place that was supposed to serve as a gentle transition to formal learning. They are struggling with ambivalent allegiances, not wanting to be the over-protective parent who babies their child, but at the same time not being fully convinced that their child has a behavior problem just because they don't enjoy sitting at a desk, independently going through worksheets for a solid hour.
It has become axiomatic in my field to say that early learning expectations are a full year ahead of what they were 20 years ago. Alfie Kohn points out an even more critical piece of this puzzle when he says that "The typical American kindergarten now resembles a really bad first-grade classroom" (italics mine). Somehow I don't think Robert Fulghum's list of essential lessons learned in kindergarten would have the same ring to it if among "share everything" and "play fair" appeared "100 sight words," "command of capitalization and punctuation," and "compose and decompose numbers 11-19." Cynicism aside, a year's worth of additional expectations isn't in itself the biggest problem if you have a highly skilled teacher who can individualize to suit just about any learning style, and can make just about any learning task age-appropriate and engaging. That is a huge if, I would guess, according to most kindergarteners today.
Is teaching 5-year-olds really that complex an enterprise? It is true that little kids are like sponges in that they absorb discrete pieces of knowledge daily, naturally, and without effort, such as new vocabulary, locations of things in their house, how specific toys work, and what their family dinner and bedtime routines are. But in formal learning settings -- at least as they are on average in the U.S. -- the game completely changes. For better or worse, the "great divider" in formal learning settings may be whether the learner can decide to tackle new tasks or problems, not because she wants to but simply because she is being asked to. Is it OK for my 5-year-old to learn about Native American history and culture? Sure it is. The parts of the eye and inner ear -- why not? But there is no intrinsic motivation when the lesson emphasizes the proper spelling "Tlingit" or "cochlea" and there never will be. No, the kindergarteners who do well with this kind of task are the ones who have already developed the ability to override their intrinsic motivation. This takes more than compliance -- it takes executive function, which is in part attention and memory, and in part the ability to inhibit a pre-potent response. You know, like my daughter's pre-potent response to color with the crayon that most attracts her eye, rather than limiting her choices to the browns, yellows, and oranges that were actually found in traditional Native American garb, as the curriculum required.
This sounds awful -- like the only successful kindergartener is one with a broken spirit. It wouldn't have to be this way if the educational system were structured to accommodate the natural, normal, and highly variable rates of development that occur in early childhood. All typically developing children acquire the basics of executive function eventually. So universal a finding across cultures is this, that it came to be known as the "5-to-7 year shift" -- and it is the reason why formal schooling starts around this age worldwide. In this country, the word around makes all the difference. Given the range of ages at which children enter kindergarten (there is about a 25-month spread between the youngest and oldest students), and the three-year age range within which executive function skills begin to become more adult-like, children can be anywhere between preschool and third grade when the complex set of abilities required to decide to learn comes online sufficiently well. Even after controlling for age, kindergarteners still show greater variability in executive function than either fifth graders or preschoolers, indicating there is something unique about the cognitive reorganizations that take place during this period of life.
Our educational system is not equipped to support the application of this kind of knowledge.
John Medina has said, "If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you would probably design something like a classroom."
In early childhood, when children are just beginning (and did I mention, at highly individualized rates?) to acquire the ability to focus under non-optimal circumstances and learn anyway, this is not only unproductive (as it is for learners of all ages), it is dangerous. For young children for whom intentional learning isn't even on the radar screen yet, every day they spend sitting at a desk and filling out worksheets is like being in a foreign language immersion program with a teacher who believes they're fluent.
This is not a debate about exploratory vs. direct instruction in the early grades, or play vs. structure, or creative learning vs. traditional academics, or any other label for this false dichotomy. Research supports both, depending on the group of children studied and methods used. While I staunchly believe that play is a human right, you don't fix the misguided question of how to stuff knowledge into a 5-year-old's brain simply by doing it "through play." Similarly, when people tell you direct instruction "works," ask them what it worked for. If the answer was standardized tests, then you merely have an unsurprising match between method and outcome. Either way, bad teaching will be the result if a kindergarten teacher practices (or is forced to practice) any style in the extreme, and without an arsenal of creative tools for individualizing to children. For those brilliant kindergarten teachers who do possess such a toolbox, the standards and testing craze has tamped their best instincts into hiding.
I agree with Holly Robinson who says that, from a parent's perspective, the immediate answer lies in finding the right fit for your child -- a process we are right in the middle of with our own daughter. Unfortunately, good options are not nearly plentiful enough, and those that exist are not accessible enough to families and children that likely need them the most. In the meantime, my colleagues and I are trying to do our part by speaking out for differentiating education reform efforts for young children, incorporating modern child and brain development principles into teacher and principal prep programs, and consulting to early education initiatives about how to answer to the pressures of accountability without "killing kindergarteners" in the process.