The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) got me thinking back in the 1980s when they were strongly against early academic, and especially early reading, instruction. I took their arguments to heart, and my own young children freely played their way through their preschool years and were not given any type of early instruction. Instead, we created a rich and stimulating environment in which they could learn through play, experimentation, exploration, investigation, collaboration, and doing what brought them joy. And they learned. A lot. There was no stopping them. After that, school was a big disappointment. The very idea of school is that someone (usually some committee of experts) decides what, when, and how children should learn, and eventually the requirements filter down to a classroom where a teacher tries to inspire, cajole, or flat-out force the kids into learning it. WHAT a difference from the way my children had been learning until then!
My own thinking about learning was firmly rooted in the radical ideas of John Holt and A.S. Neill, both of whom I’d read before I ever had any children of my own. Both argued for supporting children’s learning without curriculum, lessons, or other imposed-from-above methods by offering real-life experiences and encouragement and assistance to a child pursuing his/her own interests. I had managed to get my children into an cutting-edge public school which had ungraded classrooms and an unusual amount of freedom for students. There were no tests and no grades. Classrooms had learning centers and children were free to move around the room, working on activities of their own choice for much of the day.
So what was wrong? Why did I continue to be so dissatisfied with the schooling my children were receiving? Even while I spent my time volunteering at the school, working in the classroom, running PTA events, promoting “teacher appreciation” and school spirit, I was disappointed with the way my children were being educated. There were good times and bad, but, overall, I thought it was stifling, and I could see that it was slowly, but surely, dulling the children’s initial bright-eyed curiosity.
And then we simply stopped doing school. We pulled the kids out of formal school and we stopped worrying at all about lessons, teaching, curriculum, assessment. We focused on creating a joy-filled and stimulating family life in which the children could discover and follow their interests. They watched, read, listened, played, built, created, explored, investigated, experimented and learned. They talked and wrote and sang at the tops of their voices throughout the day. We spent days outdoors at the beach, in the woods, hiking, swimming, and relaxing. We spent days cocooned in the house, cooking and playing games. Life happened. Learning happened.
Now they are grown. And, maybe surprisingly in light of our unconventional choices, they are quite successful in very conventional ways including work, college, relationships, and hobbies. All three are leaders in their communities. They turned out just fine, thank you very much!
The NAEYC, which inspired me so much at the beginning of my parenting journey, seems to have moved in a different direction. In their position paper, “Where We Stand on Learning to Read and Write,” they state, “Children do not become literate automatically; careful planning and instruction are essential.”* I could not disagree more. Children DO become literate automatically in the same way they learned to walk and speak automatically, if they are given the opportunity. Careful planning and instruction are totally unnecessary and can do far more harm than good. What children (of all ages) need is a rich and stimulating environment with caring adults who engage with them and support them. A rich and active home life with attentive parents and books, games, music, conversation, and socializing among people of all ages, is ideal. Ideal!
Yes, in today’s society, most children will continue to go to school. But it is NOT ideal for young humans to learn in crowded classrooms with 20 or 30 other same-age children and one adult providing lessons decided on by committees who don’t even know these particular children. It could be made better, however, if the NAEYC and other professional organizations would put their focus back on how children naturally learn. Children who learn in a rich and supportive environment do not need to be constantly assessed and tested, for example. Children naturally challenge themselves. They don’t want to be bored or frustrated – they want to learn. If adults are paying attention and are responsive to children’s expressed interests, they will automatically provide appropriately challenging activities. When curriculum is planned somewhere else and imposed on children, it is almost certainly inappropriate to any particular child and children will respond by becoming apathetic or either passively or actively resistant. Then schools are dealing with many recalcitrant children, and a vicious cycle is begun in which schools try one method after another to force learning and children become increasingly resistant.
The problem is a very basic one. It will take a paradigm shift to solve it. The entire education system is based on a faulty premise and my family, and many others like mine, are the proof. The faulty premise is exactly what is stated in the NAEYC “Children do not become literate automatically; careful planning and instruction are essential.” This is just wrong and the more careful planning and instruction are utilized, the more difficult it seems to become to get children to learn.
Children do not need to be cajoled or forced to learn. The urge to learn is as natural to human children as it is to all other animals, and their learning can be equally joyful, intense, satisfying, and successful. Education “experts” are on the wrong track as they write and rewrite learning objectives, learning standards, or new “student learning outcomes.” They redesign curriculum and they test and test and test again, hoping against hope that the newest educational fad will be the one that works.
*Here is a link to a summary of the NAEYC paper. I’m not recommending it, just citing it as the source of the quote I used. <http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/positions/WWSSLearningToReadAndWriteEnglish.pdf>