Death of a dogma?

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In the late 1960s, David P. Weikart embarked upon a study. He and his team randomly assigned preschool students from poor backgrounds to one of three different curriculum models – a standard nursery school, a preschool programme based upon the Direct Instruction approach developed by Carl Bereiter and Siegfried Engelmann and a child-centred preschool programme developed by Weikart and his team known as “High/Scope”.

Weikart and colleagues then followed up the original participants at age 15, found little difference in academic outcomes but claimed to have found that children who participated in the Direct Instruction model were significantly more likely to be involved in criminal behaviour. These findings have been strongly challenged by Bereiter and Martin Kozloff. The main criticisms centre on the implausibility of such a long-term effect based on a limited preschool programme, the small sample sizes, the high rate of attrition, the fact that the High/Scope group had a significantly greater proportion of females and a lack of information in the way that the criminal activity self-reports were presented.

Nevertheless, as others have documented, the influence of this study is hard to overstate. It has become ‘best practice’ to avoid any direct teaching in preschool, with many jurisdictions mandating play-based, student-led learning. When you peel back the layers, you often find the High/Scope study lying inside.

It was with this in mind that I read a new study by Le, Schaack, Neishi, Hernandez and Blank, that examines the connections between ‘advanced content’ in the kindergarten curriculum and other outcomes. The researchers made use of the fact that the amount of this content has been increasing in recent years due to policy decisions.

Firstly, it is important to make it clear that this study took place in the U.S. where kindergarten involves five-year-old students – it can mean younger children in other parts of the world. It is therefore not directly comparable with the High/Scope study that involved three- and four-year-olds and so it is possible that something happens at the four/five age transition that causes different curricula to have different effects (for those who are interested, Project Follow Through involved children in kindergarten to grade three).

It is also important to notice that throughout this discussion, curriculum and teaching methods have been conflated. In theory, you could ask students to discover advanced concepts through play or you could directly teach social skills such as empathy. However, in practice, I don’t think this happens very much. The kind of ‘advanced content’ we are talking about is reading multisyllable words, recognising fractions, telling the time etc. and so I suspect this is a good proxy for some use of direct teaching methods.

Le et al. found that greater exposure to advanced content was associated with improved maths and English skills, as well as with improved social-emotional outcomes such as interpersonal skills, approaches to learning, attention and behaviour.

Le et al. make it clear that they are familiar with the arguments made against teaching advanced content early i.e. that it is developmentally inappropriate and they make efforts to investigate this. Perhaps, for instance, children entering kindergarten with lower levels of academic skills or social-emotional skills may become frustrated by advanced content and be harmed relative to their peers. However, no such association was found. Lower skilled children followed the same general pattern as their peers. Strikingly, “…advanced maths showed significant associations to selected social outcomes for children who entered kindergarten with low scores on approaches to learning, interpersonal skills, or self-control, or with high scores on externalising behaviors.”

This evidence is necessarily based upon correlations. I don’t think you could realistically do an experiment to test these relationships, as the debacle around the High/Scope study seems to show. So we must always be alive to the possibility that some other factor is at play. Perhaps students with the potential to make the greatest progress somehow get selected into schools that teach more advanced content. I’m not sure how that would work but it remains a possibility.

However, I think it puts to bed the idea that directly teaching academic content to young children is somehow harmful. As more evidence accumulates, it is time to ditch the rules restricting what teachers of young children are allowed to teach them and how they are allowed to teach. The dubious concept of developmental appropriateness has had its day.

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8 thoughts on “Death of a dogma?

  1. Except, here in the U.S. at least, there will be legions of teachers who will proclaim that children just need to play, and that having them do otherwise is akin to abuse. Evidence be damned.

  2. As usual Greg you portray Direct Teaching as if it seen as evil by others who advocate for a progressive approach to education – in this case play based-learning. But the 2 are not mutually exclusive and in fact if you really understood (or wanted to understand perhaps) play-based teaching for the early years and well executed student-centred constructivist teaching for primary students you would also understand that these are highly teacher planned and directed. Of course Direct Instruction or scripted teaching (as advocated by John Fleming and Noel Pearson) to “teacher proof” education is something else entirely. You need to stop setting up “straw men” arguments.

  3. Also yu fail to mention that in Australia 5 year olds are NOT in kindergarten but in school – either called Reception or Prep where teachers are expected to teach “‘advanced content’ – reading multisyllable words, recognising fractions, telling the time etc”. Go spend some time in Narelle Lynch’s classroom in Williamstown North @NarelleLynch1

    1. Kindergarten in the US is part of school. It is roughly equivalent to Reception or Prep. That’s why US educators tend to talk about ‘K-12’ education in the same way that we might talk about ‘P-12’. The study therefore supports teaching academic content in Year prep.

      I am sure Narelle Lynch is a fine educator but I’m not sure we can draw firm conclusions from the work of a single teacher. Randomised controlled trials and correlational studies are likely to give us more generalisable evidence.

      1. In NSW, the first year of primary school is called kindergarten too. Not sure about other Aus states/territories.

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