The testing that is driving the US educational approach is “completely at odds with what scientists understand about how children develop during the elementary school years, ” writes Dr. Susan Engel in an op-ed for the New York Times on Feb. 1 that advocates more reading and writing and talking about stories, essays, articles and books, along with learning skills in computation, pattern detection, conversations that support views with evidence and use questions to learn more, and collaboration.
A professor of psychology and director of the teaching program at Williams College, Engel’s analysis is particularly useful for me in my Digital Storytelling presentations, because she explains why the skills that I talk about with teachers are essential:
“…Educators should remember a basic precept of modern developmental science: developmental precursors don’t always resemble the skill to which they are leading. For example, saying the alphabet does not particularly help children learn to read. But having extended and complex conversations during toddlerhood does….
“So what should children be able to do by age 12, or the time they leave elementary school? They should be able to read a chapter book, write a story and a compelling essay; know how to add, subtract, divide and multiply numbers; detect patterns in complex phenomena; use evidence to support an opinion; be part of a group of people who are not their family; and engage in an exchange of ideas and conversation. If all elementary school students mastered these abilities, they would be prepared to learn almost anything in high school and college.”
Engel describes an ideal, third grade classroom. It is well worth your time to read her full essay. The following pertains to my interest in language art.
“[In the theoretical classroom] children would spend two hours each day hearing stories read aloud, reading aloud themselves, telling stories to one another and reading on their own. After all, the first step to literacy is simply being immersed, through conversation and storytelling, in a reading environment; the second is to read a lot and often. A school day where every child is given ample opportunities to read and discuss books would give teachers more time to help those students who need more instruction in order to become good readers.
“Children would also spend an hour a day writing things that have actual meaning to them — stories, newspaper articles, captions for cartoons, letters to one another. People write best when they use writing to think and to communicate, rather than to get a good grade….
“Along the way, teachers should spend time each day having sustained conversations with small groups of children. Such conversations give children a chance to support their views with evidence change their minds and use questions as a way to learn more….
“A classroom like this would provide lots of time for children to learn to collaborate with one another, a skill easily as important as math or reading. It takes time and guidance to learn how to get along, to listen to one another and to cooperate. These skills cannot be picked up casually at the corners of the day….
“Our success depends on embracing a curriculum focused on essential skills like reading, writing, computation, pattern detection, conversation and collaboration — a curriculum designed to raise children, rather than test scores.”