What if K-12 Education Were More Like Preschool?

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Chris Thinnes

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, after all, if high school
students were as deeply absorbed in their ‘work’
as five-year-olds are in their play?
– Deborah Meier

The other day, a colleague and I preparing for a conference workshop gave ourselves some time to ask ourselves a number of the 30,000-foot questions we rarely take the time to ask. I found myself fascinated by how rarely in our national dialogue about K-12 school reform – dominated by a myopic, nostalgic, and restrictive construct of “college readiness” entrenched by federal education policy and public education debate — we ever dare to pose critical questions about learning theory or teaching practice in college settings; just what K-12 schools are preparing children to accomplish in college; just what colleges are doing to attend to the demonstrated learning needs of their students; or exactly what relevance much of college learning brings to bear either on the developmental needs of young adults enrolled in college, their discovery of joy and purpose, or their fitness for engagement in a democratic society.

Instead, we tend to wed ourselves to sweeping assumptions about the nature and propriety of college-level academic readiness, uncritically accept the principles embedded in it, and plan backwards from that unexamined construct of ‘college readiness’ in all the grade levels that precede it. K-12 education has become as a result, in the public imagination and in many of our schools, an elaborate dress rehearsal for a show that might not, at the end of the day, be particularly well-conceived, written, directed, or produced. But who can tell for sure?

In the shadow of national anxiety about ‘college readiness’ — in which many of us spend our time assessing how well our K-12 schools prepare children for college learning by determining how much their current learning resembles it – I have long found Deborah Meier’s account of the formation of the Central Park East schools a dynamically different challenge and welcome inspiration. When I first landed on these lines from The Power of Their Ideas a few years back, for example, something changed forever in the way I think about teaching and learning:

Just as our elementary school was based on the idea of keeping the traditions of kindergarten going through the sixth grade, so for our secondary school we largely imagined our task as keeping the spirit of kindergarten going for a few more years. I do not mean this to sound condescending or belittling. I see the spirit I’m referring to as fundamental to all good education; wouldn’t it be wonderful, after all, if high school students were as deeply absorbed in their “work” as five-year-olds are in their “play”? (p. 47)

Meier concedes that “I speak here of an old-fashioned kindergarten, one that doesn’t look like first grade” (48), and from that – as well as the increasing and regrettable insistence in recent decades that kindergartens should look more like first grade — I have taken license to ask some of the same questions about preschool and the influence it could bring to bear on older students’ learning.

In the last several weeks I’ve been spending some of my time with kindergarten and 1st grade teachers at a progressive elementary school, helping them explore together how documentation practices and collaborative inquiry protocols, adapted from the Reggio preschool model, can deepen their learning, teaching, and professional collaboration. On other days, I’ve been spending time at an extraordinary Reggio-inspired preschool – observing highly skilled teachers in practice, and participating in shared inquiry and reflection after hours – to learn how such practices are implemented among younger learners still. In off hours, I find myself – as someone who has long been preoccupied by the work of Project Zero in collaboration with leaders of the Reggio Schools since I first stumbled upon Making Learning Visible — continually thinking about how elementary, middle, and high school teaching and learning could be deepened by an explicit understanding, appreciation, and extension of practices in early learning. And in my continued research, I’ve been thinking about the ways these practices represent a dramatically more authentic and effective alternative – in their acuity, their intentionality, their integrity, and their transparency – to many of the problematic notions embedded in current constructs of ‘accountability.’

All the while, I find myself remembering the way that Deborah Meier framed both a construct of early learning, the immense power it brings to bear on our conceptualization of older students’ learning, and the remarkable prospects these principles invite in K-12 schools in a time of transformative change: not only the prospect of more engaged, joyful, and purposeful learning, and not only the prospect of more inclusive, democratic, and devoted learning communities, but also the promise of deeper, richer learning and the extraordinary academic achievement that — ironically, perhaps — inevitably emerges from it. For these reasons I wanted to share an extended passage from The Power of Their Ideas to invite your reflection:

Kindergarten is the one place— maybe the last place— where teachers are expected to know children well, even if they don’t hand in their homework, finish their Friday tests, or pay attention. Kindergarten teachers know children by listening and looking. They know that learning must be personalized because kids are incorrigibly idiosyncratic… Kindergarten teachers know that helping children learn to become more self-reliant is part of their task—starting with tying shoes and going to the bathroom. Catering to children’s growing independence is a natural part of a kindergarten teacher’s classroom life.

This is, alas, the last time children are given independence, encouraged to make choices, and allowed to move about on their own steam. The older they get the less we take into account the importance of children’s own interests, and the less we cherish their capacity for engaging in imaginative play. (In fact, we worry in kindergarten if children lack such capacity, while later on we worry if they show it too much.) In kindergarten we design our rooms for real work, not just passive listening. We put things in the room that will appeal to children, grab their interests, and engage their minds and hearts. Teachers in kindergarten are editors, critics, cheerleaders, and caretakers, not just lecturers or deliverers of instruction. What Ted Sizer calls “coaching” is second nature in the kindergarten classroom.

A good school for anyone is a little like kindergarten and a little like a good post-graduate program— the two ends of the educational spectrum, at which we understand that we cannot treat any two human beings identically, but must take into account their special interests and styles even as we hold all to high and rigorous standards…. We don’t need research on this astounding proposition. (pp. 48-49)

Many of the moments that have particularly captivated me in recent weeks have emerged from intentional dialogue with teachers about the relational elements of children’s learning: purposeful efforts by educators to learn more about individual children’s unique needs and challenges in the context of our relationships with them, and equally purposeful observation and interpretation of children’s dispositions and behavior in their relationships with each other. This makes me wonder—among many other things—just how much we’ve sacrificed in supporting students’ learning, to say nothing of the fullness of their and our humanity, to the altar of academic ‘excellence’ as it’s conventionally constructed, and the slippery signifier of ‘college readiness’ as it currently dominates debate about school reform.

I hope to explore emerging and related questions more in the weeks and months to come. For now, my primary purpose was to share this compelling passage from Meier’s work and to invite your thoughts. What do we know about children that we have neglected to honor in our commitments to traditional notions of academic excellence? What parts of this collective knowledge must we recapture and reintegrate? How might we draw on early learning practices to enrich students’ social, academic, and ethical development in K-12 schools in the years to come? What if K-12 education were more like preschool?

Reference:

Meier, D. (2002). The power of their ideas: Lessons for America from a small school in Harlem. New York: Beacon Press. (Original work published 1995)

 


You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes

  • Dawn Peterson

    Yes! Thanks for sharing and quoting Meier’s work Chris. I am a parent of a kindergarten student in public school in FL and wow am I in utter disbelief at what I am seeing and hearing! And my 5 year old is not allowed to be absorbed in “play” anymore! It is all academic “rigor” and testing!!!! I love your next to the last paragraph above.

  • Matt A

    Dear Mr. Thinnes,

    I am a ninth grade student at All Saints’ Episcopal School,
    who read this essay for an assignment. For me I feel like it really home, and
    touches on some very key issues. I find your ideas extremely interesting and
    thought provoking. At All Saints’ we have a program called the “Honors College.”It is designed to help us foster creativity and higher academic learning, in a four-year cohort-based program. In the Honors College we are continually trying to put some of the ideas you mentioned into use! Using the design thinking process, we have undergone a process of trying to ideate what our school would look like if we were to make our education process more like that of preschoolers. Currently we are trying to put some of those ideas into effect and observing what it does to our learning environment. We have gone on miniature adventures to our lower school to observe how the kids live and learn in their classes. What we found was amazing, and inspired us to make a change in the culture and norms of our everyday education. Your thoughts and ideas have been a guiding force for us on this adventure and have led us to try and change the way we learn. Thank you for sharing your ideas for those who are willing to listen.

    Matt A.

    • ChrisThinnes

      This is so exciting and inspiring, Matt — thanks so much for sharing! @DebMeier really changed the way I look at school, and I’m glad that sharing these ideas helped inspire you all to take a deeper dive in your learning community. I’d be so excited to learn what changes you make in the culture and norms to which you refer, and I’m grateful for your reaching out! CT

  • Dear Mr. Thinnes,

    Your blog caught me as soon as I saw the quote at the top. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful, after all, if high school students were as deeply absorbed in their ‘work’ as five-year-olds are in their play?” It is very hard to pay attention in a class that doesn’t interest you. In subjects that do interest you, it is much easier to pay attention, but if the teaching style is boring, you still may find yourself zoning out. The first thing I noticed when I observed the preschool students on Wednesday, was that they called what they were doing a “party”. In honor of them having been in school for 100 days, they were having a 100 celebration. It involved lots of math, but they were having so much fun and partaking in such game-like activities, that they didn’t even realize they were learning.

    There were a couple things from the preschool that really stood out to me and I wish I could incorporate into older classrooms. First of all, it was obvious that they felt like they were in a safe environment. You could see it in how talkative they were, how much they smiled, and how relaxed they seemed. In preschool, everyone is friends with everyone. They’re in a loving environment surrounded by kind people where they’re encouraged to be themselves. Another thing I observed was that trying is enough. I noticed some of them had wrong answers on their math charts, but they didn’t seem to worry about it. In preschool, there is no failure. Trying is enough. The little kids are challenged, but not to the point of breakdown. A huge problem I’ve noticed since I’ve gotten to high school is how broken down everyone is. You can see it in the circles under their eyes, the coffee they’ve become reliant on, the phone calls you get from crying friends, the conversations about what you would do just for a nap, and the lashing out. When you were little, school was a place you came to play games and be with friends. It is now a place you dread coming to and count the minutes until you go home. Finally, I really liked the preschoolers’ innocence. They’re still at the age where they aren’t addicted to technology, or influenced by pop culture. There are a lot of bad things in the world, but the preschoolers are oblivious to them. What if we could make the oblivious age last longer? What if we could eliminate some of the bad things in the world, so that oblivion and innocence were the only options? I’m very thankful to your blog for opening up my eyes a little bit and showing me that there are some people who are thinking out of the box to transform education for older kids. Imagine how much further in life kids will go if they actually get something out of school. Continue writing. Thank you for sharing your ideas.

    Nicole A (All Saints’ Class of 2018)

    • ChrisThinnes

      This is such great feedback, Nicole — thanks so much for sharing your reflections and provocative questions! CT

  • ChrisThinnes

    Thank you @DaveOstroff for inviting the students’ voices into this dialogue! So excited by the promise of their inquiry. I look forward to their continued feedback and reflections!! CT

  • Riley Weeden

    Dear Mr. Thinnes,
    My name is Riley and I am a student at All Saint’s Episcopal School. I’m in the Honors College program there and for the past few classes we have focussed on your writing and how we can change our learning experience for the better by making it more like Pre-K. First of all I want to say thank you for writing this!! I can’t imagine how many people have been inspired by this writing and probably your others too! Anyway, we went to the Early Childhood in our school and just observed the kids and asked them some questions. I was amazed to see the joy and smiles they had for learning. Every child in that class was either asking a question, laughing with their friend, or focusing intently on their project (and that’s no exaggeration!!). The major questions I had after was: What if we as high school students had this joy and this longing for learning? What if we weren’t afraid to ask a ‘stupid’ question or get the answer wrong?
    These are very thought provoking questions for me and the Honors College together. We were prototyping ways to make the Honors College like PreK and I was inspired so much by this new way of thinking. If education changed like this, learning would be something we would not just need, but want and curiosity would have no limits. Thank you for your thoughts and for inspiring me with all of your ideas and insight.
    Thank you again!
    Riley

    • ChrisThinnes

      Thanks Riley for sharing your reflections! What important questions you and your classmates are asking (What if we as high school students had this joy and this longing for learning? What if we weren’t afraid to ask a ‘stupid’ question or get the answer wrong?). I look forward to continued thoughts about how we might help to realize these and other hoped-for goals! CT

  • Kristen Godby

    Dear Mr. Thinnes,

    The moment I read the title of your blog, I immediately knew your writing would inspire me and it definitely did. Last week, my Honors College cohort read your thought provoking blog and had the chance to visit the preschoolers at our school. I noticed many aspects of preschool that are different than those of high school. The young children are eager to learn and attend school whereas mostly all high schoolers have to force themselves to wake up in the morning after a 1 A.M. night of stress and homework. Unbrushed hair and sleep deprived is what I tend to look like during school week. We count down the minutes until class is over and the days until the weekend which is a problem faced in our society today. Preschoolers wake up refreshed from a good night’s rest and are ready to go to school each day. They tackle all of the activities at school without dissatisfaction, even their weakest or least favorite activity. On the other hand, us high schoolers moan and groan at the words, “Take out a sheet of paper to take notes”. When I was in the preschool classroom, I noticed how welcoming, pleasing, and safe the environment was. Every child’s face lit up at the site of the “big kid friends” when we arrived that day, and they continued to work with those happy attitudes. It was a heartwarming experience that made me want to travel back in time to my preschool years to learn in an innovative classroom. I also feel like classrooms these days in high school are drab and lifeless unlike those in preschools. All students need a lively place to learn no matter how old they are. Furthermore, Innocence is a factor of this precious young age. There isn’t a worry in the world with preschoolers, but high schoolers are under loads of stress and have mental breakdowns due to the pressure of school. I would love to have the opportunity to go back and treasure my preschool experience. Due to your inspiration, the Honors College at All Saints’ Episcopal School has chosen to use a design thinking process to undertake the challenge of trying to make our class and education more like preschool. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas.

    Kristen Godby- All Saint’s Episcopal School

    • ChrisThinnes

      Such wonderfully and insightful lucid questions & reflections on your experience… Looking forward to hearing about the yield of the next steps of the inquiry & design process! Thanks for sharing! CT

  • Trent B

    Dear Mr. Thinnes,

    I am a freshman student at All Saints’, and I am also a member of the Honors College there. The Honors College class is a program that helps to inspire creative thinking, as well as to think and do things in school a little differently. The Honors College gives us a new perspective on learning, with emphasis on innovation and the design thinking process. We were assigned to read your essay, “What if K-12 Education Were More Like Preschool?” and I can honestly say I enjoyed it greatly. Thank you so much for introducing all of us to this amazing idea! This idea has helped spark each and every one of the members of the Honors College creativity. We’ve all begun to develop ideas for how to make our high school education more like preschool. Your essay was a very informative and knowledgeable read, and one that I learned a lot from. After reading your essay, the my classmates and I in the Honors College went over to the preschool to observe preschoolers at ‘work.’ We learned so much from a short forty-minute visit. A few of the key things we noticed were that everyone was happy and full of energy, everyone wanted to work, there was a lot of movement, and a lot of imagination involved. All of these things, among others, were positive things I would like to see implemented into my high school education. I think that school needs to be more fun and engaging, because everyone can learn better that way. We need to simplify school, and get back to the basics of education where it all began- preschool. Preschool sets a solid foundation for all of our future learning, so why would we ignore and spurn our foundation? Why does education change so much from preschool to high school? I believe that it doesn’t have to be like that. I don’t think that school has to be grueling work 24/7. I think school should be fun.

    Your essay has inspired the entire cohort to come up with creative solutions for implementing PreK ideas into high school level education. The first step in solving any problem is determining the actual problem. Here are just a few
    questions we’ve begun to solve; how might we rethink and redesign the actual
    space and environment of a classroom to make it more fun and inviting,
    prompting productivity? How might high school students be able to move around
    in class, and change things up, instead of sitting at their desk taking notes
    for an hour and a half? How might students in general be able to experience
    “controlled freedom” in which the students can pursue their own interests, with
    the guiding, helping hand of a teacher? These are just a few of the problems/
    ideas we came up with for implementing preschool concepts into our own
    educational process. We all greatly appreciate you writing this very
    informative passage, which helped to initiate our intellectual creativity and
    invoke very productive discussion on this very fascinating notion. Thank you so
    much!

    – Trent B

    • ChrisThinnes

      Fantastic Qs! @DebMeier’s writing got me so excited to think about school along these lines; I’m so excited her provocations has drawn you and your cohort into this kind of thinking as well! What exciting work. CT

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  • Christophe C

    Dear Mr. Thinnes,

    I am a freshman student at All Saints’ Episcopal School, and a member of the Honors College Cohort. This past week, we have been discussing the very topic that you have written about here: What if K-12 education were more like Preschool? After reading this, we were inspired to go visit our kindergarten and preschool classes at All Saints’, and observe how these students learn. Throughout this process, I learned many things. For example, kindergarten students are always energetic and excited to learn new things, while in high school, most students view learning as a drag. How might we use what we have learned from our visit to the kindergarten and preschool classes to improve our learning environment and overall learning experience? To start to answer this question, I developed several solutions. These include, making the classroom more vibrant and exciting, having more hands-on activities, and rotating through different stations in class. If we implement all of our solutions to this very question, our school learning experience will be changed forever. Thank you so much for writing this essay and inspiring our cohort, and many others, to make a difference in the K-12 learning experience.

    Christophe C (All Saints’ Class of 2018)

    • ChrisThinnes

      Thanks Christophe for sharing your reflections — I am excited to know you’ll have a voice in changing the environment and culture of learning in your program! CT

  • AJ Jablonski

    Dear Mr. Thinnes

    I too am a member of the honors college program at my school so I also got the chance to go to the elementary school and observe how they learn. When we got there I just kinda had to stop and take a second to look at how those kids were so eager and happy to be at school learning new things. It’s honestly amazing to see this as most kids now are just absolutely dreading school. I thought back to my own elementary experience and was actaully saddened when I remembered how my kindergarten class and teacher was. Part of what made my kindergarten year so bad was the fact that I have ADHD and she did not believe it was real or that children should be put on medication. She would often send me home for the most ridiculous things such as one time when we were given a coloring sheet and simply told to color it. Well she came around the room checking on everybody’s work to see how they were doing, when she suddenly stops at my desk, picks up my picture, turns to me and says, ” Why have you colored [insert object from picture] more than one color? I did not tell you that you could do that. You have not followed directions. I’m going to have to call up your father, and you’re moved to the red (we had colors for behavior i.e. green-excellent, yellow- mediocre, red- call home).”. She would also put restrictions on things, unlike the classroom my fellow cohorts and I visited where the teacher allowed them to have the freedom to choose what they wished to do. The classroom my group visited had stations and a freedom to choose which station they wanted to go to first. She would have them write and read sentences and did not care that the kids would misspell words, but was just happy that they were writing and understanding. Now back to what I said about my previous teacher, she was basically the opposite, she would correct spelling most of the time, give us grades based off the work and not the effort, and got upset when a student would put their own creative hand in an assignment. The environment was boring and dull, which probably did have an impact on learning while the classroom we visited was lively, full of color, and not chaotic. I wish/hope we could bring these aspects into our high school. As some people have said, kids do dread going to school. More And more the older they get. Work load increases and so does stress. We go through a cycle. We wake up, get ready, go to first period and have a lecture, go to the next period and have yet another lecture, lunch, then two more periods of taking notes and a lecture, or even possibly a test or quiz. This cycle repeats itself over and over. I myself, am speaking from experience. how can we bring a joy back into learning? How can we help make it fun for students to learn again? Though I do not have the answers myself, I can only hope to learn what/how to make this a possibility as we apply concepts from your blog into our very own program in the honors college. Thank you for giving me something tot think about to help improve my education and those of others around me. Your blog was very well written and I enjoyed reading it. I hope you get a chance to read this and I hope to read more of your blog.

    Thank you – AJ Jablonski
    Class of 2018 All Saints Episcopal School

    • ChrisThinnes

      Thanks AJ for your vulnerability and transparency in sharing your reflections, your humility in acknowledging you may not have the solutions, and your willingness to press forward with your classmates to pursue these questions! CT

  • Karoline Brown

    Dear Mr.Thinnes,

    My name is Karoline Brown and I am a freshman at All Saints Episcopal School. For the past week or so in our Honors College course we have been discussing your thought-provoking blog post: What if K-12 Education Were More LIke Preschool? I have enjoyed reading, discussing, and analyzing your writing. First off; I love the idea of making our daily learning experience just as fun, exciting, and engaging as preschool. As I was talking to some of the students in preschool, I asked several questions and I noted one common element between all of their thoughts and comments. That one common element was that their learning environment and teachers supported them collaborating and sharing ideas versus sitting in a desk, in dark room, taking notes from a powerpoint, half asleep, not comprehending any of the information given. In the preschool, the students are given the opportunity to talk to each other and speak their mind without rejection. What if every core class could be as collaborative and engaging as it is in preschool? The most important way to have an effective learning experience that actually works for and teaches students is freedom to share and in the Honors College, that is exactly what we do. Better yet; What if every core class could be as engaging and effective as it is in the Honors College program at All Saints?

    • ChrisThinnes

      Thanks Karoline for sharing your driving question — What if every *core* class could be as collaborative and engaging as it is in preschool? — and recognizing the promise of the Honors College model at ASES. I wonder if your group will have the opportunity to share your questions and reflections with classmates outside your cohort? CT

  • Ashlyn Kotarski

    Dear Mr. Thinnes,

    Thank you for sharing this article that provided clarity for my perspective on learning! Being a student at All Saints’ and in the Honors College, I definitely know what it is like to be assigned something to read and to read it, but I have never dived into any article like this one. There is a point in your article where it talks about K-12 education being like a dress rehearsal for a show that might not even be preformed. It made me think, maybe teachers are teaching wrong. If we are preparing for something that might not even happen later on in life, why should we keep doing what we are doing? Going along with this theme, you say in your article that “Kindergarten is the last place a student has independence”. This lead me to think ab out the transition between 1st grade and Kindergarten. They ask 6 and 7 year olds to grow up so fast and make a huge transition. I even know that I had trouble with this transition, let alone other kids in the school. So, why do the teachers ask such young kids to grow up so fast?

    I know that my takeaway from your article isn’t the clearest, but it defiantly sparked some questions in my mind!

    Thanks!
    Ashlyn K.

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