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Helping kids start smarter in school

Early-education expert says the best way to teach kids complex thinking is to stay out of the way
Yale lecturer Erika Christakis says kids do too much rote work in kindergarten.
Yale lecturer Erika Christakis says kids do too much rote work in kindergarten.

Burdened by demands to show outcomes and achievement, early education classrooms are often reduced to scripted lessons and meaningless craft work that imparts little learning.

In her book The Importance of Being Little (Viking, 2016), Erika Christakis shows how the ever-increasing pressure to deliver has caused teachers to inadvertently stifle children’s natural sense of wonder and inquisitiveness.

A lecturer in early childhood education at Yale University’s Child Study Center, Christakis is a Massachusetts-certified early childhood teacher (pre-K through second grade) and licensed preschool director. Despite outward signs of learning—at least from an adult perspective—Christakis says children are not being encouraged to develop the social and collaborative skills that reinforce learning.

“We’re stressing kids out and we’re not really getting the outcomes we want,” she says. “We’re not getting that complex thinking that comes from play and exploration and independent work.”

Your premise is that preschool and kindergarten children aren’t learning skills that they will need to succeed in school.

Kids are working harder but learning less. That speaks to a puzzling mismatch. Young children are hardwired to learn in almost any setting. They are very powerful thinkers. They are strong in many different ways, emotionally complex. Yet the paradox is that they often really struggle in early learning settings. Why is it that kids who are prewired to do well are struggling?

What I see is that we are mismatched in how we understand learning. We mistake schooling and learning.

Give me an example of how you see this presented.

One thing you see in probably 98 percent of early childhood classrooms is what’s called calendar work, where kids sit in a circle every morning and they “do the calendar.” They robotically talk about what day it is.

Well, one study found that after a whole year of this calendar work, half the kids still didn’t know what day they were on. To me this speaks to the mismatch.

Kids are doing this rote, rather pedantic exercise, and a lot of them are still not really getting it. But it’s such an underestimation of what they really can do, which is so much more creative and intelligent and thoughtful.

People in education talk about the zone of learning. That’s the key as a teacher. You are always looking for that sweet spot for learning where a child can learn with just the right amount of coaching from an adult to get to the next level. I think we’re missing that sweet spot for learning by pushing an education that really does not reflect how kids think and how they process the world.

You talk about “the right amount of coaching,” but that’s not, to my understanding, how teachers are trained.

That’s right. We often aren’t trained to see ourselves as coaches. Teachers are trained to see their role as delivering information to kids. So this idea of coaching and facilitating and, in a way, being a co-researcher with children, that is something that teachers are really not trained to do.

The teacher has a very powerful role. You have to be planful and intentional and have a clear idea of what you want children to learn.

But you also have to be able to seize on these moments of opportunistic learning. That’s hard to do if you have to adhere to a checklist of metrics, goals and objectives. There are a lot of teachers who feel like they have to teach that way, which is a problem.

Why is it a problem?

I think we’re putting the onus on kids for what really is, in some ways, a workforce problem. We’re not doing a good job with compensating teachers, providing opportunities for professional enrichment or providing opportunities for collaboration, which is so critical for good teaching.

We are shifting the responsibility from the workforce to the child. That’s where we see some of these decontextualized, chopped-up learning standards, which might be easier to implement if you are a teacher who doesn’t have a lot of support, doesn’t have a good salary, doesn’t have training, and so on. But that doesn’t really help the child.

You note that in many classrooms there’s an overabundance of visual stimuli that actually prevent children from learning.

That’s right. There is some intriguing evidence that I cite in the book. It has to do with, are we seeing the world through the child’s eyes or through adult eyes? I think that’s a really important thing that we miss. It goes back to the mismatch.

When you walk into a preschool classroom, through adult eyes it looks busy. It looks productive. It looks cute. There’s stuff all over the walls—posters, lists, words everywhere. There’s bright primary-colored plastic furniture. There’s a look that is instantly very recognizable. And it signals to adults that this is a quality environment. But I think we have to look very carefully at that.

The research base is pretty clear that kids get very little from an activity like tracing their hand and sticking fluorescent feathers on it to make a Thanksgiving turkey. That isn’t necessarily the best use of their time. But we are cued, because of cultural expectations and our own experiences, to find a lot of meaning in things that aren’t that meaningful to children.

So educators and parents look at outcomes and assume that because kids perform as we expect them to, they must be learning.

Many of them really aren’t. These cutesy crafts, as I call them, don’t appeal to a lot of kids, so they don’t perform. They are not authentic crafts like you would find in a Waldorf school, for example, where kids are learning, say, knitting or sewing. Those are legitimate crafts that take time and effort and thoughtfulness.

One thing I’ve noticed as a parent and as a teacher is that kids who seem bored often need to engage more deeply in something. But the impulse is to just move onto the next activity or the next center because kids have such short attention spans.

Well, they really don’t. The classic example is kids who are playing at the beach or in the bathtub and you have to drag them away because they don’t want to get out of the water. Those are clues that kids can tune into things very deliberately.

So I think we have to observe children more carefully and ask, “How is the child seeing the world versus how I see the world?” One of the things I suggest teachers do is just walk into their classroom with fresh eyes. Sit down on the floor or on your knees and look from a child’s level. What are you looking at? What are you observing? What do you think the child is observing? It can be humbling.

You write about “platooning,” where students move as a group from one room or activity to another. But that’s something they’ll encounter throughout their school life. If it isn’t beneficial to young children, when is the best time to introduce that?

That’s a fascinating topic, but I don’t know that anyone has an answer. I’m not sure there is research showing what’s optimal, because we don’t do a lot of randomized controlled trials in education research.

To me, platooning in kindergarten is too early. And I would suggest it probably stems from a workforce mandate. A lot of teachers in kindergarten are feeling pressured, even more so now with Common Core. It may be easier to say, “Well, all the math will be provided by one teacher who is going to be really skilled in math.”

I’d love to see the developmental rationale for platooning in kindergarten. I don’t know really what the effect on kids is, but we’re certainly upping the stakes in terms of introducing more young kids to a big school environment.

Before they’re ready?

Right. And I would argue that’s problematic. Platooning is just a natural extension. Look at what’s happened to kindergarten, with a lot less play, a lot less dress-up stuff. I think we’re going to see more of that at younger ages.

Now, some people would argue, “This will make kids ready for desk learning later.” I don’t think that’s how the human brain works.

We have more behavioral problems. We have more kids on medication. We’ve got all these pieces of evidence that we’re harming kids developmentally.

If you want kindergartners in September to come in knowing their alphabet, sure, give them the preschool that we’re offering for most kids.

But if you want them to know how to use language and to solve problems and to think creatively, to make analogies, to be able to do things that are reflective of higher cognitive functioning, I think we miss the mark. We may think we’re being wise in the short-term, but we’re actually being long-term foolish.

Tim Goral is senior editor.