Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Whatever Happened to Kindergarten? (Part Two)

Today, as an addition to my previous post, I'm going to talk about the Common Core standards for kindergarten (which, by the way, can be reviewed here, so you don't need to depend on my word regarding what they say).

To be honest, I don't find much there that's objectionable in the reading or math strands (though I'm sure others might disagree). At the kindergarten level at least, the problems parents are having with so-called "Common Core Math" appear to have more to do with unscrupulous curriculum developers taking advantage of the "Common Core" label than anything in the text of the standards themselves -- and the reading standards include phonics (thank goodness) and seem solid.

The writing strand, on the other hand? Well, that's a different story. Here, the Common Core authors seem to be putting the cart before the horse.

The first thing little ones need to learn, in my experience, is how to correctly and smoothly form their letters. Of course, as adults, we write letters effortlessly. We've drawn, say, a lower-case "b" so often that the order of the strokes has been stored in our long-term muscle memory; we don't have to think about what we're doing and can essentially run on "automatic pilot." A five-year-old, on the other hand, has no such ability. As he writes a "b," his working memory has to train all its focus on how to properly hold the pencil, how to draw the down-stroke so it's straight and touches the top and bottom lines, and how to draw the little bump so it's facing the right direction. That's why b/d confusions happen all the time in this age group even with perfectly normal children. Their processors get overloaded!

Beyond letter formation, five-year-olds also have to put a lot of conscious thought into how to spell very simple, common words. To us, the spelling of "cat" is self-evident, but a five-year-old has to segment the sounds, associate each sound with the appropriate letter, and then put the letters in the right order. Once again, this taxes the working memory, which makes writing even simple sentences incredibly laborious.

Now, keeping all of this in mind, imagine asking a five-year-old to "use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic or the name of the book they are writing about and state an opinion or preference about the topic or book (e.g., My favorite book is...)." Kindergartners, in my view, will have a lot of difficulty with this -- unless adults write down what they say and then ask them to copy it. That might be the intention behind this standard, but the wording is pretty vague -- and at any rate, I'm not sure children this young really need to know how to write persuasive, informative, and narrative texts. By all means, teach them what makes a sentence through oral instruction and copy-work -- but wait until they've got some basic English grammar and spelling under their belts before you ask them to compose their own original content.

Another thing kindergartners don't need to do? Peer revising. Standard CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.K.5, however, reads: "With guidance and support from adults, respond to questions and suggestions from peers and add details to strengthen writing as needed." Five-year-olds have neither the knowledge nor the emotional maturity to do this! Hell -- I actually think peer revising is pretty useless even when it's used with older kids. As a private tutor in the state of Virginia, I have seen many a deeply flawed high school research paper draft because my students' "peer editors" were rank amateurs when it came to style and rhetoric. Bottom line? Kids - even in the later grades - are still essentially novices; if they're going to become competent writers, what they really need is the guidance of experts. Asking novices to judge the work of other novices is a recipe for -- well, not learning very much.

The Common Core authors also over-emphasize technology. Standard CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.K.6 states: "With guidance and support from adults, explore a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing, including in collaboration with peers." Really? We're doing this in kindergarten? I love computers and tablets as much as the next "connected" American, but devoting class time in the early elementary grades to the use of these devices is probably unnecessary and potentially detrimental. I say unnecessary because, as Peter Gray has reported, a group of unsupervised children is perfectly capable of figuring out how a computer works without any direct instruction whatsoever. And I say detrimental because, as I'll discuss in a future post, there is evidence that the blind, unthinking use of technology before age eight may actually hinder the healthy development of our youngest children. No -- let little ones master the art of writing with pencil and paper before you bring in the word processor. And don't worry -- you really don't need thirteen years to teach a child how to use the net. Waiting until the later grades will not leave kids irreversibly crippled.

What the Common Core authors appear to be doing here is taking what they view to be the typical workplace environment and tracking it back to kindergarten. "We have board meetings and use the Internet," goes the thinking, "so our children should do a simplified version of the same thing." What they're forgetting here are the fundamental dissimilarities between children and adults. To put it simply, you can't teach a beginner to do what an expert does. From the classical Trivium to Piaget, educators have generally been in agreement that cognitive development happens in discreet, distinguishable stages. To use classical terms (since that's the style I will favor once I start homeschooling children of my own), you can't expect a child in the grammar stage to do a task meant for the rhetoric stage. It doesn't work; the young child's brain is different, and it should be taught differently. Further, the Common Core authors' eagerness to embrace the "digital" has not been fully examined and may actually do more harm than good. Before we start putting tablets in every classroom from kindergarten to the twelfth grade, more rigorous research needs to be done regarding these technologies' educational utility and potential adverse impacts.


  1. The digital stuff scares me in particular. I really hate to see it enforced in common core, because there is some evidence coming in that these things break children's brains for motor skills. And yes...that still matters.

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