Challenging Content In The Early Grades: What’s Not To Love?

Posted by on June 26, 2014

The latest issue of The Progress of Education Reform (released a few days ago by the Education Commission of the States) rounds up some recent research supporting the case that “all children need high quality early science learning experiences” and “science supports children’s learning and school readiness in other areas” — see here. The brief argues that even though science has not traditionally received the attention afforded to other preschool domains, such as literacy and mathematics, “science content and skills are critical and do not detract from literacy development; “in fact, [science] contributes to the goal that all children read with understanding by grade 3.”

These statements should come as no surprise. At the Institute, we have long advocated teaching rich, challenging content (including in English language arts, math and science) in the early years. Knowledge, which is what’s underneath words and vocabulary, is the foundation for acquiring more knowledge; it’s what allows us to read with understanding — or read to learn. This is important because it means that we must focus on teaching children about a wide range of interesting “stuff” – including, as the ECS report argues, early science. As I wrote elsewhere:

It’s important to start teaching knowledge in the early years and through oral language because children’s preexisting knowledge creates a framework that facilitates the acquisition of new information; knowing more words and concepts scaffolds children’s ability to slot novel information in the “right places,” and to learn related words and concepts more efficiently.

In fact, the idea of teaching “literacy” versus teaching “science” constitutes an unnecessary dichotomy and perhaps not the most useful lens to understand what is needed in early childhood education. Children need challenging content in every domain — be it science, math, English language arts, social studies, music, or the fine arts. Unfortunately, the ECS report notes, “very little science happens in early care settings, and what does happen tends to consist of single activities, disconnected from what came before and what will come next.”

This lack of curricular sequence and coherence is a problem because children learn faster and more independently when they are taught concepts that are related. When children learn words in isolation, with little attention paid to how they words fit within broader ideas, they do not understand their relationships and tend to forget them just as quickly as they learn them. By contrast, as Susan B. Neuman and Tanya S. Wright have argued in All About Words:

When we teach words in meaningful clusters, it creates a self-teaching device that supports independent learning. In a sense, you are building a powerful schema for children that will enable them to attend better to new words, understand them, and retain them in a way that is easily accessible for future reference.

For example, when we teach words such as coyote, giraffe, leopard, and rhinoceros in a meaningful semantic cluster, and teach children that they are all wild animals with a number of common features, children can begin to make the following generalizations about these animals: Wild animals are animals that live outside and away from people. Wild animals are not tame.

Then when children are introduced to a new wild animal, they already have a frame of reference where they can easily slot the new information, and make inferences and generalizations about it.

A recent paper by Aubry L. Alvarez and Amy E. Booth (2014) from Northwestern University adds to this discussion in several ways. The authors looked at whether the inherent attraction of causal information could be used to motivate preschoolers’ task engagement. The researchers conducted an experiment where they looked at whether children would persist in a boring task for longer if they were assigned to different experimental conditions: children were given causally rich information as a reward, causally weak information as a reward, stickers, or no reward at all.

Results revealed a powerful influence of causally rich rewards on the number of times children were willing to complete the boring task.

Perhaps the most interesting finding is that “providing new knowledge per se as a reward was not enough to sustain children’s engagement.” Recall how ECS report pointed the disconnected nature of science activities in many early childhood settings. In these classrooms, children are probably receiving information that is new but not the kind of information that, according to the Alvarez and Booth study, would promote persistence and engagement.

According to the authors, this research “reveals the viability of causally rich knowledge-infused reward as an effective tool for enhancing task engagement in preschool-aged children,” “reinforces long-standing views of children as hungry to acquire causally rich information,” and “suggests a new approach to rewarding young children that has the potential to encourage (rather than detract from) a mind-set that embraces the pleasure and challenges of learning.”

My take away from this paper is that perhaps we should not think about academic content and student rewards separately. Wouldn’t an age-appropriate curriculum that is rich, challenging and carefully sequenced be a ‘rewards embedded curriculum’?

Another recent study supports the idea that exposing young children (in this case kindergartners) to more advanced rather than basic content “might promote the skills of all children and has the potential to sustain the benefits of preschool attendance.”

Using a nationally representative sample of kindergarteners, Amy Claessens (University of Chicago) Mimi Engel (Vanderbilt University) and Chris Curran (Vanderbilt University) explored “whether the reading and mathematics content taught in kindergarten might help to sustain the gains acquired through preschool participation.” The authors found “a consistent and positive effect of exposure to advanced content for all children in both reading and mathematics” and “a negative or, in the case of reading, often null effects of exposure to basic content.”

Although the researchers had predicted that children who did not attend preschool might benefit from receiving instruction that focused on basic content, the data did not support this hypothesis. Conversely, they found that all children, regardless of socioeconomic status or early childhood care experiences, “likely benefit from exposure to more advanced and less basic content.”

The authors concluded by noting that:

Shifting to more advanced academic content coverage in kindergarten classrooms is a potentially low-cost means for helping preschoolers sustain the academic benefits they acquired through preschool attendance while simultaneously garnering positive effects for children who begin kindergarten without that advantage.

In sum, teaching children interesting “stuff” that is challenging and coherently presented:

  • Sets the foundation for reading with understanding;
  • Supports children’s ability to learn faster and independently;
  • May make children more perseverant and more engaged in their learning; 
  • May benefit all children, while also helping to sustain the benefits of pre-k into elementary school.

So, what’s not to love about a fun, challenging, well thought out and well taught curriculum in the early years?

- Esther Quintero


2 Comments posted so far

  • Bravo! Well said, I agree with you on every point. I am a K-3 teacher. Every learning experience is positive for the young child. The richer the learning experiences the more well developed the mind, language and thought a child will have as s/he grows into an adult. Oral language is the first tool we have for learning and it makes sense that we continue to develop that tool through authentic curriculum in PreK- 5. Learning about science is learning about literacy; both compliment and inform each other. It is schooling that has created artificial separations of learning by labeling them and compartmentalizing them.

    As educators we should strive for creating curriculum with cycles of learning where children engage in inquiry about topics that are important and relevant in their lives.
    Thank you!
    Blanca

    Comment by Blanca
    June 26, 2014 at 9:14 AM
  • Thank you for this. While this is something that good early childhood teachers have known for years, it is exactly the point that so many districts — in trying to address the achievement gap and align to the Common Core Standards — are missing. “Rigorous” is not the same thing as rich, engaging, or even challenging. While I wasn’t necessarily sad to see a shift away from thematic teaching (as in, “This week we’re doing apples”) the shift away from integrated curriculum to very discrete lessons (“This is our literacy skills building block”) has been detrimental to children’s learning, particularly children who won’t necessarily get those deep, enriching experiences outside of school. In my district I have seen many excellent kindergarten teachers transfer to 4K classrooms in response to the very narrow, rigid curriculum being imposed in Kindergarten. (Sadly, the 4Ks aren’t immune to wrong-thinking either.) If we’re going to be data-driven, let’s look at the data that shows what kind of curriculum REALLY helps students make long-term gains, not just boosts the next test score.

    Comment by Suzy
    June 27, 2014 at 2:10 PM

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