An Ageless Education
May 28, 2012
Julie A. Riess, Ph.D., is the Senior Advisor on Child Development and Education at Families and Work Institute. She is a developmental psychologist and the director of the Wimpfheimer Nursery School at Vassar College.
Portions of this article were originally published in the Poughkeepsie Journal by Gannett Publications on May 27, 2012.
As the director of a laboratory school on a college campus, I sometimes hear parents say to their preschool children that they “go to college”. In fact, one of our advertisers recommended the tag line “Send your child to college!” – a phrase that made me bristle. “An early childhood education is NOT the same as a college education,” I stated emphatically. To me, this was the ultimate push-down of a curriculum. Is kindergarten the new sophomore year?
But as I sat in my black robe at Vassar’s 148th Commencement last Sunday, I began to ponder a different perspective. In her commencement remarks, President Catherine Hill took on the challenge of the value of a liberal arts education – the kind that Vassar creates to serve as the gold standard. She described a project that the Vassar faculty undertook “…to identify, in addition to the subject matter of each of their courses, what outcomes and skills a student would take from the course that they consider important.”
The list from departments and disciplines across the college was then reduced to the 13 key outcomes. After she read the first two items on the list, I started counting to myself how many were rooted in early childhood. It was all of them. As graduation marched along, I started making a mental list of examples from early childhood education that were the early scaffolding of these same core outcomes we strive for in a Vassar education. The 13 outcomes are listed below, followed by early childhood examples in italics, and told from a child’s perspective.
1) Think about problems and issues for which there are complex, ambiguous, or contradictory answers.
“The tooth fairy will leave me a present under my pillow tonight!”
“There’s no such thing as a tooth fairy.”
“Yes there is!”
“Is too because I got a quarter last time I lost a tooth!”
2) Conduct original independent research using primary sources.
“What happens if I pour this water through this tube and over this wheel? Can I make it go faster with more water, like a big ocean wave?”
3) Learn the discipline of close and sustained attention required for the full appreciation of a work of art.
“Will you read me Where The Wild Things Are again? I just love the picture of the wild rumpus!”
4) Apply scientific methods to an inquiry.
“Who do ya think will win if we race our cars down the slide together?”
“Mine, ‘cause it’s blue.”
“No, mine, ‘cause it has bigger wheels…”
On your mark, get set…
5) Recognize the limits of a given body of information in terms of reliability and validity.
“Is Cinderella real or pretend?”
“She is real because there are real princesses.”
“No, she is pretend because she is just a story that someone made up and pumpkins don’t turn into carriages.”
“She’s real to me…”
6) Challenge received opinion and question claims of knowledge.
“My dad said a long time ago there weren’t computers!”
“No way ‘cause then you couldn’t play Angry Birds.”
(Pause) “Teacher! His dad said…”
7) Attempt to understand a culture different from one's own.
In a discussion about celebrating December holidays during snack time, two preschoolers said:
“Are you Christian?”
“Are you Jewish?”
(Pause) “Then what are you?”
8) Develop awareness of one's own subjectivity as it is formed by categories such as class, race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or nationality.
“Hey look! My skin is browner than your skin.”
“Yep! We’re two beautiful princesses. I know! Let’s get married and have a big party at the castle!”
9) Construct a clear and persuasive argument in both written and oral form.
“Teacher, can you write a sign for my block building that says: ‘Stop. Do not touch. I worked hard. I want to make it bigger tomorrow. You can help tomorrow. Do not touch today.’”
10) Give and receive constructive criticism.
Teacher at rest time: “Remember, this is our quiet time and your body needs to rest.”
Child rolls over to another child: “Remember, this is our quiet time and…”
11) Take a stand on a moral or ethical issue and engage with others who may be in disagreement with your position.
“She hit me!”
“But you took my special book out of my cubbie without asking and I said it was for showing but not sharing!”
“Yeah but hitting hurts!”
“You broke the rules!”
(Pause) “Teacher! We have a problem and need some help to fix it!”
12) Demonstrate intellectual openness and cultivate a capacity to respond to others' points of view.
“Let’s get some more blocks and make the building taller!”
“OK! Let’s add more rectangles!”
“No, that’s too heavy. The rectangle blocks will make it fall.”
“Can we try it? I’ll help you make it again if it falls down.”
“OK. We’re a construction team, right?”
KABOOM! (followed by peels of laughter)
13) Make valid connections among different disciplines or distinct bodies of knowledge.
“Hey, that duck has webbed toes just like the polar bears ‘cause they both swim fast in water!”
“Yeah, isn’t that cool? One’s a bird, one’s a mammal!”
Yep, that is very cool.
*Portions of this article were first published in the Poughkeepsie Journal by Gannett Publications on May 27, 2012.