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64: Head Start -- how would it be done right??

 Proposing The Ideal Curriculum For Early Childhood 

Head Start -- done right

Head Start, launched 45 years ago, has been widely denounced as a failure. Here was a chance for our Education Establishment to show that they could step up their game. They did not do this, despite having the power, the money, and the public's hope for a superior sort of elementary school. Instead, the Establishment stayed with what hadn't worked in the past. 

Their main goals, it turned out, were providing childcare, creating jobs, and social engineering. That’s disgraceful. We want these programs to be intellectual and cognitive. We want students to know more, and be smarter, when the program is finished.
In summary, Head Start should have been a laboratory for exploring bold new ways to accelerate learning. So the enduring question is, what would that look like? What would Head Start have done if the experts in charge had been interested in giving kids a genuine head start?
These discussions remain highly relevant. There are endless discussions coming from the White House and the Department of Education about K and Pre-K. Here’s my suggestion: don’t support any proposal unless the people in charge clearly intend to make the program academic in nature. That is, the program will emphasize facts and knowledge. 

Sitting around all day doesn’t count. Empty play and pointless activities don’t count. "Discovery" doesn't count unless a great deal is discovered.
Programs should teach elementary arithmetic, pre-reading, simple science, current events, local history, and general knowledge. You do each of these things to the limit that the kids are capable of. You do not need children to be geniuses to start telling them about the world they live in.

There are 100s of basic facts that everybody needs to know, things like STOP signs, clocks, where the sun comes up, what rain is. Trouble is, our public schools don’t even want to teach this stuff in elementary and middle grades. You can imagine what a fact-free wasteland K and pre-K might be.

In general, the Education Establishment and the public school system are so dumbed down, people have stopped thinking about what might be possible. A lot is possible. Let’s find out what that is. Let’s push for more education instead of constantly accepting less education.

For the sake of discussion, here is a generic curriculum for children. Thirty minutes, which is a long time for a child, is a good length for a class period. So let’s suppose a six-hour day, perhaps 9-3, with 12 half-hour periods. (For the youngest kids, you can drop periods. On the other hand, most of this template would work when the kids are 10 or 12. Of course, the order can be changed.)

1) Music; Singing
2) General Science; Animals; Machines
3) Geography; Maps; Diagrams 
4) Rest; Study; or Foreign Language
5) Arithmetic
6) Lunch
7) Reading; Stories
8) History
9) Recess; Sports
10) Miscellaneous; Games; “Field Trips” (e.g., walk to a favorite tree)
11) Current Events; Show & Tell
12) Art; Drawing; Building Models

Doesn’t that sound like an excellent day? Wouldn’t you enjoy going to a school like that? Wouldn’t you hope your children go to a school like that?

There is, by the way, no need for lesson plans intended to fill every minute. That sort of over-planning will frazzle teachers and may not even be helpful for young children. On the contrary, teachers would focus on a few main bits of information in each period (e.g., “George Washington was the first president of the United States”). Such facts could be mixed in with any hooks the teacher thinks helpful--a holiday, something in the news, the weather, a video, a question asked by a student. All that matters is that at the end of the day each child knows that George Washington was the first president of the United States. Whatever was taught one day would be taught again, weeks or months later, in different contexts. With the goal that at the end of the year, the students all know who was the first president of the United States. That’s how real education works. A little at a time, constantly repeated and explained, and then taught again from an entirely different perspective.

The goal is to keep things light, lively, and memorable. Everyone has fun. Learning is inevitable.

This piece reflects a long-time interest in trying to come up with general rules for early education.
Much that is done in the public schools is counterproductive.
We could waste endless hours discussing each silly detail. 
The antidote is to say,
well, let’s at least move in the right general directions.
Let's favor the intellectual, the academic, the cognitive. 
Let's move up instead of down.

We’ll emphasize facts and knowledge.
We’ll do things that will make the children have to think a little.
Just those two principles lead to the curriculum proposed above.

Here are some other articles on this site
which grew out of an interest in general strategies:

 20:  The Quizz
32:  Teaching Science 
39:  How To Teach Physics, Etc. 
43:  American Basic Curriculum 
47:  Teach One Fact Each Day
49:  How Do We Learn? How Should We Teach?
58:  How To Teach A Poem 
and video below: How to Teach Anything & Everything 

Background information for this discussion:

1) John Dewey and all the progressive educators were fascinated by the word “activity.” Children were supposed to be engaged in activities. What these activities consisted of didn’t matter much to these big thinkers. Busy seems to be an end in itself. Busy was good! Now, that’s very limited thinking, and wasteful. But that’s what you get when social engineers are in charge of your schools.  

2) Maria Montessori is a much better guide to what intelligent educators should do. She worked with disadvantaged kids in Italy more than 100 years ago; her methods are valid today. That’s because she was pursuing educational and cognitive goals. She believed in a multi-sensory approach, with lots of play and games. She was trying to take children officially labeled as slow and make them fast. That’s a pedigree you want.

3) Meanwhile, classical academies are springing up. They use methods and theories first developed in Greek and Roman civilizations and then, in some schools, modified by medieval Christian influences. There’s a lot of singing, chanting, and memorization. These programs exploit the natural bent of children at each given age. You know what these civilizations were trying to produce: capable people who could handle themselves in the Senate, deliver persuasive speeches, present cogent arguments, and provide smart leadership for the future.  
In the Montessori school, the Classical Academy, or the curriculum outlined above, you see a knowledge-filled, animated educational environment. Kids are kept in motion. They experience new information every hour of every day. They are never engaged in busy-work. 

Finally, the crucial ingredient in any good school is that
everybody knows why they’re there:
kids are to be educated as much as possible, as quickly as possible.
You do this by having them swim in an ocean of knowledge.  

Intent is crucial.
Wherever there are good schools,
it’s simply because the people in charge
are intending to create good schools.
Sadly, our public schools seem to be run by people
who are content with mediocre schools.
That is a gloomy conclusion.  
But we certainly see a lot of evidence supporting it.


Now, after this much pontification, I should share with you the two items that I have never been able to decide finally. Are young children better off in coed schools or same-sex schools? Should children wear uniforms? There are certainly good arguments on both sides. If a community wanted to try either arrangement, I think they should. 

What bothers me about many of the discussions is that it seems that all the arguments were based on PC considerations. My concern is with finding the arrangement which gives the best educational results. Again, there's good evidence and arguments coming from both direction. I tend to think that in both cases (the same-sex school and the uniform of some kind), you do get a steadying or stabilizing influence. Let's say you have a fairly rowdy bunch of young students. And you make them wear a blazer and a tie each day. You're definitely going to settle those kids down. If that's what is needed, the community should go for it. 

Which suggests a broader point. Why not--when children are young, small, and impressionable, when they will still for the most part do what they are told--use this window of opportunity to teach good manners, responsibility, precision, finishing a job, and all the other qualities we might prefer to see in, for example, college students. What seems to happen, however, is  that kids (and this is more progressive nonsense) are allowed to be rude, disorganized, lazy, imprecise, fuzzy, if you will. There are many reasons why children should learn cursive handwriting, but one of the most important is subtle--it asks the child to do something as PERFECTLY as possible. 

Conversely, public schools often seem to permit or even encourage a general slovenliness. How then do you bring them back later? I went all the way through college without ever knowing that there was such a thing as a late paper. I'm glad I didn't know; I might have been tempted to deliver one. Much later, I met a woman who had gone to Sarah Lawrence and years after "graduating," she still had not turned in all her papers. I think the absolute limit was five years or seven years. That doesn't matter. No college, no school, should be run like that. Sarah Lawrence prepared that woman for a life of procrastination. 

I think in the "old days," kids used to play with straight edge, compass, and protractor. That's the way it should be. That's the kind of precise training that progressive educators stomp out of existence if they possibly can. Imagine a room full of kids creating very simple designs, perhaps cubes and triangles. The kids are encouraged to make them perfect...I say those kids are a lot better off than the kids not doing these things. There is something so satitisfying about drawing a perfectly straight line or inscribing a perfect circle. 

How to Teach Anything & Everything


© Bruce Deitrick Price 2013