Pre-School Math Instruction Versus Phenomenon-Based Learning

Sometimes it feels that newspaper articles about education fall into two categories: “alarming trend” and “promising trend.” The first kind might have a headline like “99% of American Schoolchildren Can’t Find the USA on a Map,” the second “New Computer Application Makes All Kids at Crumbling School in Geniuses.” (I guess there is also the “heroic teacher” genre: “Heroic Teacher at Crumbling Schools Never Sleeps, Gets All Her Students into Harvard.”) When I dig into the these articles, they are often based on a single study from a single university or researcher. And then, though I want to read the original article, I run out of time–because I am a teacher!

A few weeks ago the BBC ran an article on Phenomenon-Based Learning (PBL) in Finnish Schools, entitled “Could subjects soon be a thing of the past in Finland?” It is full of bluster but doesn’t really say much. In the end, it seems as if some Finnish schools are incorporating “transdisciplinary” lessons into their curricula and not ending academic disciplines at all.

BBC Finland article

In a charming way that made me miss Finland again, Anneli Rautiainen, the Head of Innovation Unit at Finnish National Agency for Education, is quoted as saying, “We want to encourage teachers to work in this way and for children to experience it, but we are starting it slowly. There are still subjects being taught and goals to be reached for each subject, but we also want skills to be embedded in that learning. … We are not too keen on metrics in this country overall so we are not planning to measure the success of it, at least not for now. We are hoping it will show in the learning outcomes of our children as well as in the international tables such as Pisa.”

I am not sure how the Pisa exams would measure how a student benefits from a prolonged study of the migration crisis, apparently one of the broadly taught PBL topics this year. Having spent a few days working with Finnish students on this topic in the spring of 2016, and with my American students this spring, I can see how their critical thinking skills, the knowledge of geography, or their ability to craft an argument may have benefitted. But that isn’t why studying migration right now is valuable. My students who interviewed immigrants and then designed podcasts or webpages based on their learning told me the project made them look at their country, its past, and its current controversies in wholly new ways. Other students of mine this year moved to tears by the first-person story told by a ten-year-old girl from Aleppo in Exodus, a Frontline documentary. The skill I saw growing that day was empathy. I’m not sure empathy is captured by the Pisa exams or the SAT.

The day after the EBL story appeared on the BBC website, the New York Times published an article about how structured teaching of math in pre-schools seemed to have promising results. (I know which school I’d rather go to.) Now that school is out, I had time to follow the link and look at the single study the report is based upon. (The lead author is Bruce Fuller of the Institute of Human Development, at the University of California, Berkeley.) Here is the shocker: pre-school children who are taught basic math skills score higher on math assessments after their instruction. What is intriguing is that there were higher gains for African-American children (though it is unclear to what extent this was a marker of class and not race) while Latino children did not see greater benefits than their white, non-Latino counterparts.

Of course all this assumes it’s worthwhile for four-year olds to be studying math or other academic subjects. Every moment the pre-schooler is “studying math” they are not playing outside, making art, talking with friends.

The Berkeley study notes other research “that found that time spent in cooperative peer activities, including cognitively rich tasks, helped to buoy young children’s social development.” It’s not clear to me if this means social development was more improved for those doing these tasks or if it grew at a similar rate. It’s also unclear just what “cognitively rich tasks” are. Building a tower with blocks, having it fall, and rebuilding it a slightly different way is a cognitively rich task. It was not the goal of the study to measure social development so I can’t criticize it for not covering that topic. But telling me math instruction leads to higher math scores tells me little all by itself.

Finally, when I read that the authors find it “encouraging to learn that academic-oriented preschool yields benefits that persist into the kindergarten year, and at notably higher magnitudes than previously detected,” I can’t help wondering what that means. Do the gains disappear as the students age? Of course, researchers haven’t had twelve years to track these children, but what value would academic pre-school programs have if there was no measurable gain at the end of their secondary schooling?

The problem, I would argue, is with the instrument of measurement. Higher math scores in four-year olds may correspond more to income than anything else. Perhaps such programs might help low-income students from falling behind before schooling begins. Given the levels of inequality in the US, any program to help those without every benefit is worth supporting.

The Berkeley study noted that children of better-educated mothers tended to seek out “academic-intense preschools.” Does this mean preschool focusing on social development is a luxury, that it’s only for the wealthy, who will have the means to provide a better education for their children? Which skills should be most emphasized at a younger age?

In Finland the answer is clear. They “let kids be kids.” And, as Tim Walker wrote in the Atlantic a couple years ago, “play is being emphasized more than ever” in the newest FInnish curriculum. Of course, Maria Montessori argued long ago that “play is the work of the child.” It’s worth noting, I think that Montessori began her work among the poor children of Rome. She believed that student-directed learning, especially for the very young, empowered impoverished children by teaching them to be independent and self-reliant. In American preschool programs, low-income children are often given less freedom, because of the well-intentioned belief that more structured instruction will decrease gaps brought on by economic or racial inequality. Montessori believed the opposite.

Which brings me back to the strange logic of proving the worth of teaching extra math by showing such a program results in higher math scores. To me, such fuzzy thinking reveals a lack of clarity about what schooling is for. Kirsti Lonka, a professor of educational psychology at Helsinki University, argues in the BBC piece that, “[W]hen you think about the problems in the world – global crises, migration, the economy, the post-truth era – we really haven’t given our children the tools to deal with this inter-cultural world.

“I think it is a major mistake if we lead children to believe the world is simple and that if they learn certain facts they are ready to go. So learning to think, learning to understand, these are important skills – and it also makes learning fun, which we think promotes wellbeing.”

That word, “wellbeing,” as the targeted outcome of education, really speaks to me.

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