Thirty-five years ago, when I was at the beginning of my teaching career, Piaget was all the rage. We read his books, and puzzled over how observation of children interacting with real life situations could enable us to understand the development of their minds. We also were able to catch the tail end of interest in the work of Freud and saw how childrens’ early struggles with issues like autonomy, jealousy, and initiative, could affect their ability to emotionally manage the ups and downs of life later on in development.
These days, it seems that Piaget and Freud are hardly ever mentioned in educational discourse, let alone read. Instead, the buzz words of the day are accountability, standards, data, and academic achievement. If we’re interested in the child’s development at all, it’s usually to help us understand how to get the child to achieve academically. This explains why we are now expecting children to master academic material at younger and younger ages. Again, back in my early days of teaching, early childhood education was seen primarily in terms of play experiences that children created out of their own imagination.
Today we have preK-16 programs that attempt to foist the atmosphere of later academic learning on children as young as three or four. And the sad thing is that the child development experts of our day are busy researching a child’s ability to master academic learning in the early years, rather than questioning whether or not this is such a good thing in the first place.
Twenty years ago, I wrote a column on learning for Parenting Magazine, and when I did the research for an article on computers in education, it was difficult to find anyone in the field who would come out and say that children below the age of four should have access to computers. Now, if I suggest that children under four not be exposed to computers, I’m considered out of touch with the times. Thirty years ago, the National Association for the Education of Young Children wrote a position paper which stated that young children should not be subjected to standardized tests. Today, they have abandoned this position and talk instead about the different sorts of tests that young children appear now to need. Is there anyone with a historical sensibility that can see how vastly we’ve shifted over two or three decades in our understanding of what children need?
I believe we need to keep a historical perspective in order to see more clearly how the concept of “developmentally appropriate” has been perverted into a mandate to teach things that were clearly developmentally inappropriate thirty years ago. And those of us with the experience to see the broad view of education over thirty or forty years, ought to raise our voices and let it be known that what is going on with young children and academic learning is not okay, and can only serve to harm their deeper sensibilities and interfere with their full development as whole human beings.
Thomas Armstrong is the author of If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education.
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