A Day at an Elementary School with a Cognitive Psychologist

In what is becoming an annual tradition, I spent a day at elementary school last week, as part of the WATCH Dogs program. I thought I’d share some reflections.

I learn something new every time I go. If you are interested in education reform, there really is no substitute for actually spending a whole day in elementary school. I spent time in three different classrooms (two kindergarten and one second grade), I worked several shifts in the lunchroom, and watched a school assembly.

First, I am pretty confident that school has gotten better in the past twenty to thirty years. This is probably not universal, but I would guess that if we were good enough at collecting the data, it would be similar to climate change. The weather in one place may not get hotter year to year, but overall, things are definitely changing, and changing in certain direction. There are certain pedagogical practices and overall principles which have reached consensus now, and are positive improvements. I believe that the way children are taught to read (to decode) and to do mathematics overall has improved. The emphasis placed on literacy and on developing a love of reading very early in school has improved. The way young children are treated has improved. To clarify, I mean this in the value-neutral sense that we understand more about how younger minds work, and how children are motivated, and how this is applied to classroom practice. Although the evidence in limited (unlike the clear man-made influence on climate) and there may be some doubt whether these changes are “school-made” or “home-made,” there are measurements which have documented improvement in overall academic achievement.

Second, despite overall improvement, there are still times when we just flat out waste students time. I want to dwell on this point for a little bit, because I read a lot of rants about how we waste students’ time by teaching algebra or old physics, or whatever. Most of these rants miss the point regarding how difficult it is to tell  if students are being appropriately challenged or if their time is being wasted. These polemics are often written by people who haven’t actually had to struggle with teaching the rest of the curriculum, and their back of the napkin speculating doesn’t hold upon further scrutiny.  But this rant (the one that follows) tries to consider a more general case and also tries to confront the difficulties with knowing if students’ time is being wasted or not. Students often get better at stuff, but it is not always obvious whether it is because they have gotten older and it would have clicked anyways, or whether that year of torturous practice actually helped them.

Most of the skills worth having in this world take a great deal of practice, and you have to start small and build your way up. Want to learn to read? First start by practicing letter recognition. It takes most kids a good chunk of time to reliably tell the difference between a ‘d’ and a ‘b.’ So, kids in kindergarten spend a fair amount of time on activities which are little games designed to help them identify letters, then identify the sounds that go with them. Sometimes kids find this tedious (although amazingly, some kids love it), but I tend to see this as an unavoidable first step on your way to reading the Great Books. (and good books, and everything in between).

However, some skills cannot be acquired, and hence shouldn’t be practiced, until the right time. While it serves infants of any age to be read to, no one bothers tutoring a two-month-old infant on recognizing their letters. For starters, their visual acuity isn’t well-developed enough to even discriminate between the letters. No amount of practice will change this. But then at some point, we decide that children are capable of practicing a certain skill, whether it be tying one’s own shoes, or buttoning one’s own coat, or reading on your own. We recognize that the struggle in these cases in necessary for improvement.

liam and cedar grading
“And this item on the exam asks students to draw the distribution of rods and cones across the retina. Can you say fovea?”

Some skills move from being near impossible to trivially easy, either because we get older or because they weren’t really skills in the first place. These are exactly the wrong things to practice, because they just get better by themselves.  The development of fine motor-skills strikes me as a good example. Practicing grasping objects, drawing, writing, and then tying shoes are all good things to develop fine motor-skills. Practicing sharpening your pencil would be a waste of time, because the more you practice writing and drawing, the better you will be at holding your pencil. In other words, identify the larger skill (control over fine-motor movements) and practice that in the most fun and effective way possible. For example, picking up and manipulating blocks, then coloring with fat markers, and then writing with pencils. Spending equal amounts of time drawing and sharpening the pencil would be absurd. Sharpening the pencil comes for free once fine motor skills develop.

In one kindergarten classroom, I assisted at a station where the activity consisted of practicing logging in to the computer over and over again. They had to remember an order of operations, and what to do on each step. They had to begin by pressing ctrl-alt-del at the same time, then type in their login number and password (which were both written on a popsicle stick). In between fields, they had to remember to hit the tab key (and remember where the tab key was as well as the enter key). Then, once they logged in, an adult (me or another assistant) would log them out and the students would start all over again. Several kids I was helping were getting frustrated with this–because they could not remember the steps, had a hard time pressing all the keys at once, or had some difficulty finding and recognizing all the letters and numbers in their login sequence and password.

Logging in to a computer is not something you need to, or can, practice. Knowing where the keys are? Yes, that’s important. But there are so many better ways to practice that. Hitting ctl-alt-del is a dead simple thing to learn when you are eight years old, but tortuous when you are five years old, so why bother practicing it when you are five? This struck me as a classic example of practicing something that can’t and shouldn’t be practiced. It also struck me as something which is likely driven (albeit indirectly) by test-based accountability. This is a subject for another post, but even though most kindergardeners aren’t included in standardized testing (yet), there is still pressure to familiarize them with testing routines. Eventually they will be using the computer by themselves to take these tests, so the schools and teachers are eager to get an early start on computer skills and familiarity with the computer. This could be applied to testing situations, but would also seem to apply to life in the 21st century. Everyone needs to know how to log in, right? But again, why practice something which later comes effortlessly?

How would I improve this? Give younger students familiarity with the computers by showing them the cool stuff they can learn on computers. There are good games, boring games, activities which are fun and smoothly integrate the content to be learned, and activities which are electronic flashcards. Students already do these activities, so I would prefer they just continue them. Any additional time and energy should go into assessing whether younger kids are motivated and engaged in the actual content they are doing on the computer, and not into practicing hitting the right buttons or memorizing an arbitrary set of steps that is beyond the current limits of their working memory.

Or, it could be that they turn out not to be skills, but strategies, which can generally be instructed and applied immediately. Cracking an egg with one hand is a skill, while coating the inside of the bowl with vinegar to speed whipping egg whites is a strategy. It is heartbreaking to see elementary-aged kids “practice” tasks which are not really skills. These include strategies, such as those taught when reading is taught as a subject, like making inferences or gleaning cause and effect. The kids don’t feel like they are getting better at reading (or even at taking reading tests), because they aren’t. Either they are capable of completing the task (applying the strategy) or they are not. No amount of practice will change this. When students are subjected to an incoherent, fragmented curricula of random excerpts, they miss out on content-rich instruction. Sometimes, even if the passage has interesting facts in it, students learn that the information about penguins is not important. They focus on what they are told to focus on, practicing making inferences, defeating the purpose of reading in the first place: to learn stuff.

I am concerned about this. Not scared. Just a little concerned.
I am concerned about this. Not scared. Just a little concerned. Oh, and that mouse pad looks chewy and delicious.

To end on a positive note, it always strikes me both what a magical time learning to read is and how incredibly difficult it is to teach a room full of sixteen or seventeen children of this age. Younger children feel and express wonder at things we take for granted. “Bear starts with B” . . . “HEY! MY NAME STARTS WITH B TOO!” It is as if the  letter itself is a talisman of magic power, which they, by virtue of their name, own and hold.  And these letters *are* full of power and magic. They grant these little creatures their first steps into the kingdom of the grown-ups, of the learned. As my own daughter learns to read, I am reminded again how awesome reading is and, at the same time, how confusing it must have been not to be able to read anything in our text-filled world.

Even as this magic is happening for some kids in a classroom, for some it isn’t. And it is frustrating. It takes real craft to toe the line between encouraging children to practice reading, setting some students free in a world of books, and gently guiding and holding the hands of others. Some simply need to learn the lesson that great knowledge and great stories can be found in books and that school can be a place to experience these great things, even if it takes them a while to understand that the letters on the side of their orange juice don’t say “Shaky Wheel,” they say “Shake Well”. Even though I have criticized the practice of logging in above, I still have the utmost respect for all of the teachers I witnessed, for how they keep their students happy and engaged, identifying what each needs individually, and nudging them at the same time to consider their community of classmates, as well.