Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book review: The Importance of Being Little

Practice makes progress. My 4-year-old is learning this. If you work at it, you’ll get better. It’s an important lesson for kids. But while practice makes progress, it doesn’t make new, according to Wharton professor Adam Grant in a recent New York Times op-ed. In other words, it doesn’t foster creativity. 

Expertise relies on depth of knowledge. People can get really good at something with a lot of practice, but it doesn't necessarily lead to something new. Creativity, Grant points out, relies on both depth and breadth of knowledge. Grant urges parents to back off a bit. He says "creativity may be hard to nurture, but it's easy to thwart." Focus on values rather than rules and respond to the intrinsic motivation of your children. Give them guidance, facilitate practice, but give them the room to discover and explore interests. Let them go into the weeds to see what's there.  

It was Grant's article that I kept coming back to as I read Erika Christakis' book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grown Ups. Christakis reflects on her experiences as an early childhood educator and offers guidance about closing the gap between schooling and learning, two things she laments are often not aligned. Young children have the capacity for tremendous growth, learning, and creativity, but rather than focus on those dimensions of learning most crucial to development, standardization (increasingly even at the preschool level) has led to a focus on "skills and metrics that look nice on paper but don't really tell us much about what individual human beings do." 

Christakis, like Grant, urges us to back off. Only she is talking to all of us: parents, educators, politicians, pundits, and anyone else responsible for schooling but not focused on learning.

To be sure, Christakis doesn't succumb to the either/or dilemma John Dewey lamented in Experience and Education. Namely, that one must choose between traditional or progressive instructional ideas. Like Dewey, she argues for recognition of the intermediate possibilities. 

And that's one of the most valuable lessons of the book. Christakis attempts to articulate what occupying the middle space would look like for the preschool world. While she notes that "getting out of the way is often the best thing we can do for a young child," her book makes the point that child-centered doesn't mean unstructured. Just the opposite. It takes tremendous effort and expertise to design and facilitate learning environments that take into account the intermediate possibilities. 

Christakis argues that among the obstacles we face in changing how we think about early childhood education is changing the way we think about childhood. One unintended consequence of advances in the understanding about individuality is what Christakis calls the "fragmentation" of childhood. Rather than looking at childhood holistically, as a period of life through which all people go and in which variances could be considered normal, our learning has narrowed the focus from childhood as a thing unto itself to childhood as a collection of discrete parts, resulting in labels that she fears may be inhibiting or leading to some of the obstacles put in the way of children. Behaviors, personality traits, learning styles, disorders, and symptoms, while, on the one hand, reveal much about the human experience and have led to appropriate, helpful treatments also lead to labels that perhaps, on the other hand, result in restrictive learning environments and undermine children's confidence or freedom to learn. 

"The human brain appears unwilling to zoom in on both the background and the foreground at the same time," she writes. "So, at every level of observation, we are missing something - the big picture or the small parts - and there is always a cost to observing only one."

What's the cost? 

American scores in creative thinking measures have declined in the last 20 years with the greatest declines occurring among elementary and early secondary aged children. Kyung Hee Kim of the College of William and Mary found that children’s ability to produce ideas has significantly decreased. Children have become less verbally expressive, less imaginative, less perceptive, and less able to connect seemingly irrelevant things. Kim suggests the causes include children’s diminishing freedom to participate in the mental processes required for creativity and their diminishing ability to assess themselves apart from the assessment of others (internal locus of evaluation).

I think this is reflected in what Christakis observed in The Importance of Being Little

While explicit and systematic instruction is effective for "imparting intentional knowledge," young children "learn primarily from their relationships" and benefit from opportunities to be creative. For Christakis, creativity means "a sense of generativity" or a child's desire to be productive. "Creative, generative children feel confident that they can create meaning - whether from an idea or even a relationship - because they see a world of possibility and see themselves as capable of unlocking that promise."

Creative. Confident. Capable. Sounds like a pretty good outcome to me. ★★★★★
  • Christakis, E. (2016). The importance of being little: What preschoolers really need from grownups, New York: Penguin Random House.  
  • Kim, K. H. (2011). The Creativity Crisis: The Decrease in Creative Thinking Scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 23(4), 285–295. doi:10.1080/10400419.2011.627805

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