What We Can Learn From Preschool

This month’s copy of The Atlantic includes an interesting (and attention-grabbingly titled) article by Erika Christakis on “How the New Preschool Is Crushing Kids.” While I can’t vouch for the conclusions regarding early childhood education (though there are lots of outlets that have weighed in—Slate, a bazillion early childhood education blogs), I was struck by how many of the observations and conclusions rang true for me when thinking about library instruction, teaching, and higher education.

The crux of the article is this: Preschools have become more and more about “school readiness” and teaching kids academic skills before they get to primary school, and the curriculum has shifted away from exploration and play toward “accountability.” This all seems to be backfiring, as a recent study from Tennessee showed that students who attended preschool were performing worse than their non-preschool attending colleagues by the second grade, and had a worse attitude about school by the first grade. You can read the full study from Vanderbilt here.

Here’s the part of the article that really struck me:

…We forget how vital spontaneous, unstructured conversation is to young children’s understanding. By talking with adults, and one another, they pick up information. They learn how things work. They solve puzzles that trouble them. Sometimes, to be fair, what children take away from a conversation is wrong. They might conclude, as my young son did, that pigs produce ham, just as chickens produce eggs and cows produce milk. But these understandings are worked over, refined, and adapted….

Teachers play a crucial role in supporting this type of learning…Consider the difference between a teacher’s use of a closed statement versus an open-ended question. Imagine that a teacher approaches a child drawing a picture and exclaims, “Oh, what a pretty house!” If the child is not actually drawing a house, she might feel exposed, and even if she is drawing a house, the teacher’s remark shuts down further discussion: She has labeled the thing and said she likes it. What more is there to add? A much more helpful approach would be to say, “Tell me about your drawing,” inviting the child to be reflective. It’s never possible to anticipate everything a small person needs to learn, so open-ended inquiry can reveal what is known and unknown.

In fact, it’s never possible to anticipate what anyone, regardless of age, needs to learn, so this focus on inquiry-based learning and encouraging conversation and reflection on a topic is critical no matter what age we are working with.

For example, when I’m working with a student and they find a peer-reviewed article, I have basically two options in the way I talk with them. I could say, “Excellent work. You found a peer-reviewed article,” and basically end the conversation there. Or I could say, “Tell me about the article you found and how you know whether it’s relevant for the assignment,” which will get them to reflect on their process, consider whether the article is (in fact) appropriate for what they are doing, and potentially highlight any problem areas (e.g., “Because I found it in EBSCO” does not demonstrate deep understanding of evaluation).

So while academic librarians work with a different population and a different skill set, we can take many of these lessons from preschool and apply them to our own work: conversation-based sessions, a focus on inquiry, working with other students to solve problems. As we’ve discussed on this blog before, there’s a huge body of empirical data pointing to the efficacy of these methods, and this article was a great reminder of how this is key across the field of education.


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Filed under Education, Library Instruction, Posts by Dani Brecher

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