Young children can learn more and faster than anyone knew, certainly faster than the parents and teachers of just twenty years ago knew. Does this mean that schools should teach more, earlier? Some say we should. Preschoolers and kindergarten children are held to higher academic expectations than ever before in history. Five-year olds in most Oregon schools are required to have an hour and a half of literacy instruction every day, leaving scant time for science, art, math, stories, music or simple playfulness. This intense focus on academics coupled with high anxiety about education creates incredible pressures — on children and their teachers.
But is clamping down on early learning in a one-size-expectation-fits-all way really the way to go? I don’t think so. Instruction that works with older children is not so effective with young children. Preschoolers and kindergarteners are not simply little, less informed adults who learn in the same ways you and I do. You know this as parents — very young children have particular ways of learning. As teachers, we know this too — from developmental psychologists, pediatricians, brain researchers, and of course, from our own experience.
For this reason, teaching and learning in the Beehive looks unlike it does for any other age group, and academics are one part of early schooling, not the centerpiece. Unlike colleagues in other schools, we are lucky to have professional latitude to support each child to be a curious, creative, self-directed learner who uses his or her mind well. Here, children’s days are not defined by goals dictated by distant experts, textbook publishers or curriculum directors who may or may not understand young learners. Teaching and learning in the Beehive is informed by research, national standards, many years of classroom experience, and what we know of your children — what they are curious about, love to do, or are especially good at.
Our approach works. Honeybees and Eagles come happily to school, always a good sign. By the end of kindergarten, most have beginning academics in place, developed in classrooms customized for young learners. I think of it as “riding the horse in the direction it wants to go,” designing curriculum that fits children, not the other way around.
Many over-estimate the importance of early academics. In the end, we know every child here will learn to read, write, and compute. Four- and five-year-olds have so many big, important things to learn. We want academics, of course — and so much more for your children.
This article was written by Pam McComas, former beginning school head and associate head of school