Sunday, January 31, 2010

Thoughts on Formal Education for Preschoolers

Delay Formal Education for Our Preschooler? 

After reading David Elkind's Miseducation: Preschoolers At Risk, I was convinced of delaying any formal education for our son.  But we struggled with this issue.  Although we were outdoors a lot, our days were largely unstructured and free, not to mention I was a proponent of unschooling at that time, our son really loved sitting down and reading book after book after book.  At one point we were borrowing 60 books a week from the library because he loved to read, but would NOT read any one book twice - and he was only 1 years old. He loved being outdoors though and did not enjoy any structured activities (gym, library, music, preschool homeschool or other).  After much thought, I bought  the Core Knowledge Preschool Activity Books 1 and 2 and it was a success.  Our son finished the books in a year.

When to Start Formal Education? 
Our son is now 3 and our homeschool schedule and Charlotte Mason style (with 10-30 minutes/day of Direct Instruction) is comfortable.  And after recently reading David Elkind's other book Reinventing Childhood, I am relieved that we introduced some type of formal education to our son when he seemed ready and responded positively to it.  In The Gifted and Early Childhood Education chapter, he writes that contrary to popular belief, formal education has positive results for children who are ready for it: 
"During the early and middle decades of the twentieth century, educational programs for gifted young children consisted primarily of early admittance to kindergarten and acceleration through the grades.  For example, beginning in 1932, children in Brookline, MA were admitted to kindergarten on the basis of their Mental Age as well as their chronological age.

All children were admitted to kindergarten if they were four years and nine months of age on October 1st.  In addition, children who were chronologically younger but who attained MA's of four years and ten months (later raised to five years) were also admitted.  As a result, some children as young as four years of age were admitted to kindergarten on the basis of their MA...  A follow-up study of these children was conducted over a ten-year period.  In first grade and in each of the succeeding years, the younger children received more A's and B's, had fewer failures and trial promotions, and had higher test scores...  A number of studies in other states reported similar results...found that children's Mental Age was significantly more influential in determining the children's achievement than was their chronological age, their IQ, or some combination of the two...  There is ongoing controversy about what is the appropriate age for children's entrance into kindergarten and whether or not to hold children back who are not "ready" for first grade.  What some of these policies ignore, and what the [above] study reflects, is that early childhood is a period of very rapid intellectual growth, and children with the same IQ's may nonetheless grow at different rates.  The MA is therefore a better measure of intellectual growth rate than is the IQ, in that the MA measures the child's qualitative progress...  And it is the attainment of these operations, rather than IQ or chronological age, that is the most important factor ensuring a child's success with formal instruction."

Why Practice Makes Perfect - And Sooner Rather Than Later 

Having a musical child, reading Daniel Levitin's book This is Your Brain on Music: Understanding A Human Obsession further affirmed our belief that exposure while young to many appropriate subjects and especially to what our son cares about makes a difference:

"If a child doesn't learn language by the age of six or so (whether a first or a second language), the child will never learn to speak with the effortlessness that characterizes most native speakers of a language.  Music and mathematics have an extended window, but not an unlimited one: If a student hasn't had music lessons or mathematical training prior to about age twenty, he can still learn these subjects, but only with great difficulty, and it's likely that he will never "speak" math or music like someone who learned them early.  This is because of the biological course for synaptic growth.  The brain's synapses are programmed to grow for a number of years, making new connections.  After that time, there is a shift toward pruning, to get rid of unneeded connections."

And learning needs practice:

"Like experts in mathematics, chess, or sports, experts in music require lengthy periods of instruction and practice in order to acquire the skills necessary to truly excel.  In several studies, the very best conservatory students were found to have practiced the most, sometimes twice as much as those who weren't judged as good... This suggests that practice is the cause of achievement, not merely something correlated with it...

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert - in anything.  In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again.  Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years... no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time...  The then-thousand-hours theory is consistent with what we know about how the brain learns.  Learning requires the assimilation and consolidation of information in neural tissue.  The more experiences we have with something, the stronger the memory/learning trace for that experience becomes... The strength of a memory is related to how many times the original stimulus has been experienced.  
Memory strength is also a function of how much we care about the experience... Caring may, in part, account for some of the early differences we see in how quickly people acquire new skills.  If I really like a particular piece of music, I'm going to want to practice it more... these factors... lead to measurable neurochemical changes.  Dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with emotional regulation, alertness, and mood, is released, and the dopaminergic system aids in the encoding of the memory trace..."

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