Great Expectations: Are We Expecting Too Much From Pre-Schoolers?

Preschool classrooms have become increasingly fraught spaces, with teachers cajoling their charges to finish their ‘work’ before they can go play. And yet, even as preschoolers are learning more pre-academic skills at earlier ages, I’ve heard many teachers say that they seem somehow—is it possible?—less inquisitive and less engaged than the kids of earlier generations.”

baby math

A visible shift has occured in kindergarten classrooms across America. Ericka Christakis, author of “The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups,” notes that the walls of these classrooms are covered in text and charts instead of crafts and artwork. With this change in scenery comes a change in the focus of a child’s kindergarten education. In a study entitled “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?,” researchers determined that between 1998 and 2010, kindergarten teachers’ expectations for students grew from expecting 30 percent of their students to read to 80 percent. The research also noted more classroom time spent on workbooks and worksheets than music and art.

As curriculum changes, the purpose of kindergarten as a “gatekeeper” for elementary school becomes devastatingly apparent. The expectations that were formerly placed on 5- and 6-year-olds have now been shifted back even younger.

“As a result,” says Christakis, “expectations that may arguably have been reasonable for 5- and 6-year-olds, such as being able to sit at a desk and complete a task using pencil and paper, are now directed at even younger children, who lack the motor skills and attention span to be successful.”

How do parents feel about this? Christakis says the parents she’s talked to seem to be all for an education shift into overdrive: “They fear that the old-fashioned pleasures of unhurried learning have no place in today’s hypercompetitive world or because they simply can’t find, or afford, a better option.”

As an early childhood educator and scholar, Christakis warns against the negative effects that a more strict pedagogy might have on America’s children. The focus should not be placed on reading words off of a page, but fostering unstructured interactions with language.

“The real focus in the preschool years should be not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening,” Christakis says. “We forget how vital spontaneous, unstructured conversation is to young children’s understanding.”

Christakis contends that we are doing a disservice to our children by measuring their achievements based on their progression along a scripted program: “… The preoccupation with accountability has led to a set of measures that favor shallow mimicry and recall behaviors, such as learning vocabulary lists and recognizing shapes and colors…, while devaluing complex, integrative, and syncretic learning.”

Christakis’s plea for conversation- and listening-based education for preschool-age children is not unheard of. Part of our mission at School Literacy and Culture is to bring literacy education to children on their terms, by listening to them, talking to them, and fostering a natural love for language and reading.

Read Erika Christakis’s full article here:

Written by Cassy Gibson, Community Bridges Intern, Rice University’s School Literacy and Culture

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