That’s the question posed by a working paper out of the University of Virginia in January. It’s something that has bothered me since my own kids were in kindergarten ten years ago. I remember kindergarten as a place of play and learning to get along with others. I didn’t start learning to write the alphabet until first grade, though I do remember my mom going through flash cards with me during kindergarten. I always thought that kindergarten was more of a socializing stage, where you learned to share and learned the first rudiments of conflict resolution. A formalized curriculum was not the order of the day. My kids, on the other hand, learned their ABCs in kindergarten, and regularly brought home projects to be completed. They had spelling tests every Friday, and at the end of the year there was a little graduation ceremony with caps and gowns and diplomas. Pretty scary.
“In some ways, kindergarten classrooms in 2006 do, in fact, look more like first grade classrooms in the late nineties than they do kindergarten classrooms. Specifically, the increase in time spent on ELA as well as the drop in time spent on art and music, are more aligned with the time-use patterns reported by first grade teachers…we find strong evidence that, relative to their counterparts in 1998, kindergarten teachers in 2006 are far more likely to believe that academic instruction in literacy and mathematics should begin in the preschool and kindergarten years.” (p. 21) The study also stated that there was a trend toward less time spent in PE activities, which could negatively impact the benefit children receive from physical activities.
Bottom line, the effect of the changes of kindergarten from 1998 to 2006 remains “an open-ended question.” Teaching academic content “need not be at odds with ‘play’ and other types of pedagogical approaches considered developmentally appropriate in early childhood.” (p. 22) Somehow, some way, the pendulum has to swing to find a happy medium in teaching academic content in a pedagogically appropriate manner, ensuring we don’t mess up our kids any more than is absolutely necessary.
As I mentioned in a previous post multi-tasking is largely a self-imagined myth. Another study, published in 2010 by Dr. Nick Perham, a lecturer in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, demonstrated how music can interfere with short-term memory performance in serial recall tasks. Interestingly, Perham discovered that listening to liked or disliked music impaired serial task performance equally, and both were worse than the quiet room control condition. He also stated that it was the lyrics in music, not acoustical variation, that was responsible for impairment while reading. “You’ve got semantic information that you’re trying to use when you’re reading a book, and you’ve got semantic information from the lyrics,” Perham says. “If you can understand the lyrics, it doesn’t matter whether you like it or not, it will impair your performance of reading comprehension.” David Cutler, a high school history and government teacher from Florida, interviewed Dr. Perham in 2013 and wrote an article for Spin Education, describing his experience with his own students and their desire to listen to music while working on assignments.
There is some evidence that suggests that listening to something you like (whether music or a book on tape) before attempting a task may improve arousal and mood, leading to better task performance. More studies have to be done to confirm this supposition, Mozart effect to the contrary. In the meantime, the bottom line is: don’t listen to music while trying to perform other tasks.
What I’ve suspected all along has just been given weight in a report published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS). Contrary to public opinion, a liberal arts major is the equal of any STEM major in terms of long-term earning potential and employment. “Recent attacks on the liberal arts by ill-informed commentators and policy makers have painted a misleading picture of the value of the liberal arts to individuals and our communities,” said AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider. “As the findings in this report demonstrate, majoring in a liberal arts field can and does lead to successful and remunerative careers in a wide array of professions.” The report also notes that liberal arts graduates are over-represented in social science fields, such as social services and counselling. Unemployment rates are low and decline over time.
With all the increased emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) classes lately, liberal arts have gotten a bad rap. This report demonstrates that a liberal arts degree does indeed have high value. The authors note that “the liberal arts and sciences play a major role in sustaining the social and economic fabric of our society.” We need liberal arts every bit as much as we need STEM, and perhaps more so, as the liberal arts provides the teachers and counselors that will guide the next generation.