Learning Environments and Curriculum
The presentations stimulated discussion about a number of topics, and implications for research, practice, and policy were suggested throughout. Much of the discussion clustered around three themes that closely matched those posed by the workshop planning committee. The relationship between cultural and socioeconomic factors and cognitive development in mathematics and science was clearly important to many participants. Participants also saw the question of how a preschool curriculum should be defined and what goals it should serve as very important. Finally, the ways in which research on children’s developing cognitive capacities can provide near-term benefits to young children in terms of improved curricular materials was a recurring theme.
CULTURAL AND SOCIOECONOMIC INFLUENCES ON DEVELOPMENT
The issue of cultural biases that may be embedded in some of the expectations people have of the way young children should learn and behave came up in a number of contexts. Barbara Bowman raised the question in the context of the classroom videotape shown by Lucia French, in which several of the children were distracted from the planned activity and doing other things, while others were attending closely and responding to the teacher’s cues. Bowman’s query was about identifying the boundary between the essential components of cognition and the expectations that grow out of particular cultural contexts. Bowman suggested that very different approaches to pedagogy in other countries, such as
Iran or China, in which she believes that much more rigid behavioral structures are imposed on very young children, seem to yield not only very successful adult scientists, but also students who can flourish in U.S. colleges. She raised the question of how one might identify the critical elements of learning behavior and distinguish them from cultural habits.
In response, several participants acknowledged that current cognitive research may not make it possible to identify a precise boundary between components of cognition common to all and intellectual traditions that develop in particular cultures, but cautioned that this level of precision may be beside the point. Children need to learn to operate within the cultures of science and mathematics as they are in the cultures in which they live. The cognitive and cultural components of the expectations adults have may be intertwined, but teaching is also embedded in a cultural context, and the task at hand is to find the best ways to use teaching to help children develop the kinds of thinking they will need as they grow to adulthood. Karen Worth noted that whether inquiry is a purely intellectual notion or a partly cultural one, it is clearly recognized as an integral aspect of science, as evidenced in the science standards and elsewhere, and its intrinsic value is not in question.
However, Bowman argued that not all children in the United States are experiencing the mainstream cultural context and that these differences can have effects that are observable at very young ages. Prentice Starkey pointed out that differences that match up with socioeconomic status are evident in children as young as 3, and he added that while Japanese and Chinese 4-year-olds are approximately 1 year ahead of middle-class American children, those middle-class children are about 1 year ahead of low-income children in the United States. He reiterated the importance of examining more closely the influence of children’s learning environments on their developing mathematics and science knowledge.
Other differences among children could interact with their science and mathematics learning as well, in ways that are not well understood. Participants pointed out that gender differences, as well as ability differences and differences in learning style or intellectual approach, may well affect the ways children respond to teaching and the ways they learn, but these issues in preschoolers have not yet been much studied.
Without questioning the importance of that goal, however, Nora Newcombe pointed out the significant methodological and practical challenges to that kind of research. She noted that such links are much easier to track in the context of language development because one needs only a fairly brief tape of parents’ conversation that can be coded for syntactic complexity and other features to get a measure of a child’s environment. In the case of mathematics and science, however, the kinds of actions and conversation from parents that can enhance development would not generally occur frequently enough for a random sample of interaction to capture them. Moreover, the kinds of parental inputs that are beneficial can vary widely and may not be as readily identified and described or
as readily captured on audiotape. Her point was not that such research should not be attempted but that because of its expense it may not be the source of much near-term benefit.
In contrast, Doug Clements pointed out that cultural differences can be taken into account in other ways. In his model for developing curricula, for example, the process of trying things out in different kinds of classrooms, in increasing numbers at each stage, allows researchers and developers to adapt a program so that it can be used successfully in very different settings without the underpinning of refined research such as that described by Newcombe.
Another facet of this conversation related to more structural issues about how preschool education is delivered. Preschool has not been widely seen as a high priority in the United States (though that is beginning to change) and is consequently perennially underfunded. Salaries and benefits for preschool and early childhood teachers are at the very lowest levels on the spectrum for teachers, and indeed for U.S. workers; consequently the turnover rate is very high—43 percent, as Sharon Lynn Kagan noted. Job requirements for teachers in licensed centers are low, and a significant percentage of children are likely served in unlicensed settings that are not regulated at all. The children most likely to be found in the least beneficial settings are those who already face such disadvantages as low family income and low levels of parental education. While efforts are being made in a number of states to improve both the training and ongoing development of preschool educators and the professional benefits available to them, the current state of affairs nevertheless raises questions about what can reasonably be expected of the corps of teachers who are currently teaching the majority of young children. These points provided one link to the discussion about what a curriculum for preschool should be expected to accomplish.
WHAT IS A PRESCHOOL CURRICULUM?
Underlying the discussion of preschool curricula was recognition that defining what is meant by that term is not straightforward. Participants recognized that it can serve as shorthand for notions of what content should be presented, how content is presented, who is responsible for determining the details of what is presented, and the like. The discussion did not resolve these potentially conflicting ideas about what curriculum means in a preschool context but addressed them from a variety of angles.
A starting question about goals for a preschool curriculum is just how prescriptive it should be. One view is based on the current reality that the teaching force at this level is generally characterized by inadequate preparation and offered inadequate ongoing professional development and that these teachers generally have few years of experience because of high turnover rates. Given this reality, it may be logical to offer them comprehensive, detailed curricula that can help them succeed even without having had strong preparation and experience.
Participants took this point seriously, but noted at the same time that big questions remain not only about what should be in such a prescriptive curriculum, but also about who should be responsible for developing it, ensuring its quality, and overseeing its implementation. Moreover, some people argued that teachers cannot really succeed if they do not fully grasp the underlying educational intent of the program they are instituting, so that professional development for teachers deserves as much consideration as student learning.
At present, participants noted, many different kinds of curricula are in use, and some efforts have been made to categorize them to get a sense of the balance that currently exists among different approaches. At the same time, however, others cautioned that what many people refer to as a curricular approach is really a pedagogical style. Teachers and centers that use the Reggio Emilia or Montessori approach, for example, are subscribing to theories of the way children should be taught, rather than signing on to teach children particular content or even particular academic skills. The overlap between the concepts of curriculum and pedagogical approach was explicitly acknowledged, along with the recognition that each has a role to play in a consideration of the content and teaching methods that are effective in early learning settings.
Some participants spoke up for understanding a preschool curriculum in much the same way curricula for older children are viewed, as a specification of concepts to be taught. At the same time, Catherine E. Snow, for example, argued that even a program such as High/Scope, which is intended as a curriculum, stops short of the level of specificity that she would describe as a curriculum.
For Karen Worth the issue was one of depth. A curriculum, she argued, should not just list “the life cycle,” for example, as a topic to be covered, but specify what children should come to understand about it. Noting that the life cycle is also a graduate-level topic, she explained that simply observing the life cycle of a single animal would not yield the understanding that she would consider adequate for preschoolers. A curriculum should explicitly direct that the children be guided in exploring the life cycles of different plant and animal species and helped to link these observations to broad biological concepts that have been specified. She argued, further, that there should be, if not a finite list of scientific topics that must be covered in the preschool years, a clearly defined set of concepts from which preschool curricula should draw.
Another approach, Nora Newcombe pointed out, would be to use the objectives for elementary school mathematics and science to guide the development of a preschool curriculum. While she expressed hesitation about how readily this could be done, she argued that it is the long-term goals for development in mathematics and science that provide the best guide to what preschoolers should be doing.
Sharon Lynn Kagan raised the related issues of the pros and cons of having formal standards that could guide the development of individual curricula, as well as the question of when and how preschool children’s development in math-
ematics and science should be assessed. Several participants were quick to point out that the kind of assessment that would be most useful with young children is the formative kind that allows teachers to see what children have learned and tailor their practice to improve learning.
Questions about assessment relate directly to policy questions about the ways in which early childhood education is regulated. As has been noted, the regulatory structure at this level is significantly less thorough than that which governs K-12 education. One implication of that fact is that it is not obvious who has the responsibility for devising curricula, what qualifications curriculum developers ought to have, or which institutions ought to play a role in such a process. More fundamentally, participants pointed out that many, many children are not now benefiting from any curriculum or particular pedagogical approach at all, so the baseline for improvement is, for those children, exceedingly low. While no one questioned the absolute benefits of identifying ambitious goals for mathematics and science education in the early childhood context, the importance of addressing the most urgent needs—that is, of making use of what is already known to ameliorate the inadequacies of the preschool settings in which many children are enrolled, immediately—was articulated many of times.
MAKING THE MOST OF RESEARCH
The urgency of some of the problems with early childhood education was at the root of many participants’ comments about the role research can and should play. First, it was clear from both presentations and discussion that a significant body of sound research is already available and that much of this research has not been adequately mined for contributions to practice. However, participants also noted some problems. As Gregg Solomon and others pointed out, when new research that has not yet been adequately vetted in its professional context makes its way prematurely into the public eye, it can have a harmful rather than a helpful effect. At the same time, the existence of many inconsistencies both within and among fields, in terms of both findings and their implications, means that many research results are not yet useful to practitioners, curriculum developers, and others.
Second, there is a tendency, which probably exists in virtually all scholarly fields, for researchers to pinpoint targets that are so narrow that the results have little apparent application. Kathleen Metz cited as an example the large body of research on the errors children make in doing subtraction. Given that this research thread does not address strategies for helping them avoid errors, or other related questions, its benefit to teachers is not evident. While it may offer theoretical insights that provide benefits down the road, Metz’s point was that such work may not be the highest priority.
Although many participants seemed to agree on the importance of research models in which both theoretical research goals and methods and the practical
experience gained in the classroom have influence, a caveat was raised. Although the value of practical knowledge seems clear, it is important to remember that it does not offer the same possibility of reliability that formal research does. In general, there are only informal ways to try to replicate practice to confirm the conclusions it seems to yield, and there is an ever present danger that anecdotal experience might be confused with confirmed results. Nevertheless, maintaining tight connections to classroom experience seems to offer researchers an important way of guarding against a variety of pitfalls.
Reflecting on the day’s discussion, participants agreed that a clear challenge is to determine how the available research fits together and to identify findings that are sufficiently robust to be trustworthy guides for action, as well as developed at a level of detail that makes them meaningful at a practical level. A number of research questions and goals were identified throughout the day as having particular merit in the context of what many participants regarded as urgent problems with the current state of preschool education, and the report closes with these.
What are young children (3- and 4-year-olds) capable of learning? What is the floor (or ceiling) of their competence?
What is there to be learned from international colleagues and practical experience in other countries?
What are the learning trajectories in the domains of mathematics and science?
What role does the integration of knowledge across mathematics and science play in children’s learning trajectories?
What principles should guide decisions regarding content for preschool curricula?
How can children in different environments best be supported in learning mathematics and science?