I’ve ranted about this before. Maybe, with enough evidence from studies like this, we can go back to kindergarten being what it’s supposed to be: a place for children to learn to interact with others, develop social skills, and just be kids. In other words, let them play. Why throw money into a program that isn’t showing clear positive results? The Finnish study I referenced before says “play is a very efficient way of learning for children…and we can use it in a way that children will learn with joy.”
Learning with joy. I’ve seen what curriculum is like for pre-K and kindergarten, and in my mind it’s too focused on achievement. Arja-Sisko Holappa, a counselor for the Finnish National Board of Education, says “those things you learn without joy you forget easily.” Joy. What a simple word, and what a lot to convey in a simple word. We need to bring back joy into our youngest students’ lives, allowing them time to be what they are, children who eagerly look forward to coming together with their classmates for play.
Learning can take place organically, as each child shows interest and becomes ready. It doesn’t have to be pushed to meet some arbitrary state standard of learning. “There’s no solid evidence that shows that children who are taught to read in kindergarten have any long-term benefit from it,” says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emeritus of early childhood education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So if there are no advantages to teaching kids to read in kindergarten, why push for more funds to teach it to pre-K?
Hopefully the pendulum will start to swing back to a happy medium in this country sooner rather than later. I hope that US education lawmakers will take a stronger look at the early education programs in Finland that lead to such amazing results later in high school, where the Finns have been outperforming the US on something called the Program for International Student Assessment. And Finland wasn’t always seen as such a powerhouse–it’s only been within the last 40 years that Finnish education policies have allowed it to surpass most other countries in assessment of 15-year-olds in math, science, and reading.
I want US education policies to reflect a more humanitarian aspect of learning, placing less emphasis on standardized testing and more on the child as a whole person. I remember the stress and pressure my kids were under in kindergarten. Spelling tests. Reading instruction. At the time I just did the best I could to encourage them and help them along. I want this to change for future generations. I want to bring joy back into the classroom, not only at the primary but at the secondary level. Joy. Is it such a difficult concept?
The gig is up — children should still be learning cursive in schools. According to an article written last June in the New York Times by Maria Konnikova, children that formed letters in their own handwriting vs. typing or tracing them show connections to broader educational development. In other words, “it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.” Studies are showing that children who write by hand learn to read faster, show an increased vocabulary, and retain what they learn better. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain,” says Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. To me, it’s kind of like a body memory when you train for something over and over; in a stressful situation, your body knows how to react faster than your brain. By learning to write by hand, the brain is forced to recognize “messy” letters; being able to interpret all forms of an “a” for example, may increase the likelihood of recognizing the letter more quickly.
In free-form handwriting, the brain exhibited increased activity in three areas, an increase not seen in those who typed into a computer. But only the actual act of handwriting itself, not the observation of it, demonstrated increased brain activity. Children who produced text by hand generated more words more quickly, and they also produced more ideas in general. (James, 2012)
The benefits of handwriting extend to adulthood itself, as “not only do we learn letters better when we commit them to memory through writing, memory and learning ability in general may benefit.” (Berninger, 2006.) And things just keep getting better as we write our notes long-hand instead of typing them into a computer: “writing by hand allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and re-frame it — a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.” (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2013.)
My own belief tends to uphold the opinion of these studies, that teaching cursive to children and making them take notes by hand produces both immediate and long-term benefits. I personally take notes much better by hand than by computer, and I usually write out all my papers longhand before typing them up. (Granted, I am a generation removed from easy access to electronic devices – I still prefer books over Kindles, I’m not attached by the hip to my phone, and I don’t need a constant blast of music in my ear from my iPod.) I was taught cursive from fourth grade to eighth grade (in a private Waldorf school in California); even my peers in public school were taught cursive. With today’s bipolar emphasis on standardized testing and yet producing creative, inventive individuals, teaching cursive can only provide a benefit to students both directly and with lasting positive effects.
I hear the whining all the time at school: “Why do I have to learn a foreign language? Everybody in the world speaks English.” Yes, but you can’t always count on it, and by learning a new language you learn about a new culture, a different way of life. Discovering a culture other than one’s own is an incredibly enriching, eye-opening and sometimes mind-bending experience. Not to mention the fact that in today’s global marketplace, chances are good that at some time in your career you will be working with someone from another country. Or you may be transferred to another country in which your company has a branch. Alan November, an education technology consultant, apparently is fond of recounting a story about a conversation he had with a senior executive at a global investment bank. November asked the executive what was the most important skill a student should learn for future success. The answer? Empathy – the ability to understand and respect different points of view. The marketing executive stated that it was easy enough to find smart, talented workers, less so to find those that were able to empathize with the needs and values of different nations.
Learning a different language helps build this cultural empathy. And a growing number of k-12 leaders are starting to realize that exposure to foreign languages and cultures, even from a very early age, is critical to student success and forms an integral part of being a global citizen. I can personally attest to the value of learning a language from the elementary years–I started learning French and German in fourth grade, Spanish in sixth. I kept up with my French studies in high school, eventually earning a double major in French and Anthropology. But I remember enough of both German and Spanish to be able to hold a rudimentary conversation even though more than 40 years have elapsed. And learning a language at an even earlier age, like preschool, can result in native or near-native pronunciation and intonation. That’s why, in part, that the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages recommends that students “be provided the opportunity to learn a second language as early as possible in school.” Other benefits to learning foreign languages in the early grades include “strengthening of literacy in students’ first language, raising standardized test scores in other subject areas, and developing comfort with cultural differences,” the council states.
This is nothing new to most European nations, who start teaching English to very young students in preschool. As my students noted earlier, most foreign students speak English fairly well by the time they reach their teens, so they balk at having to learn something other than their mother tongue, which some of them speak and write only marginally well into the bargain. But until the great education policy makers in places of power get on board with the fact that learning a foreign language is a critical skill necessary in today’s global marketplace, the status quo will remain, and English-speaking-only individuals will be left behind in the multi-lingual dust of their competitors.