The Myth of School Readiness

I’m back! How was everyone’s summer? Did you get all your professional development reading done? lolsob.

I did watch a webinar called The Myth of School Readiness by Ida Rose Florez. She’s an excellent presenter and well qualified to speak on this topic. She delves into models of thinking in order to help us understand and deconstruct the idea of school readiness. This is deep work. You won’t find a packaged solution here, you’ll find a new model for how to think. I absolutely loved it.

Here’s a recap of her main points and my reflection.

Where Does School Readiness Come From

School readiness is primarily based on Piaget’s idea of maturation, a theory that there’s a natural unfolding of pre-programmed developmental milestones. Florez uses the metaphor of a plant to describe how this theory translates to our treatment of children: You put the seed in the ground, care for it, and it will germinate and grow until the seedling can eventually be transplanted into the real world.

Why Age 5?

Florez pushes us to think about why as a society we have decided that age 5 is the age to be school ready. There is no research that shows age 5 marks a critical developmental milestone for most children. This is partly why school readiness is so ill-defined. If a child is deemed “not ready” for kindergarten at age 5 the common solution is to make them wait one school year. Florez says this is evidence that the school system drives when kids start school, not children’s developmental needs.

Debunking School Readiness

Early childhood education research shows that Piaget’s developmental milestones can be taught at much earlier ages than Piaget’s research suggests. She points out that Piaget’s research was done on a small group of white children in Switzerland and yet his findings have been so widely accepted.

“Every time we talk about school readiness we’re actually working at odds with early childhood efforts because we are reinforcing this mental model of maturation.”

Florez insists that even those who claim they have moved on from this model still adhere to it because their answer to what to do with a child who isn’t ready for school is still to wait.

She then turns to sociocultural theory by Vygotsky which posits you get ready for kindergarten in kindergarten. It’s only by doing and experience something for yourself that you learn. Unfortunately, this is why preschools have gradually become kindergartens and kindergartens have become first grade.

Lastly, Florez states that school readiness assessments are invalid because there are no agreed upon set of skills that define school readiness. There is no test you can give an individual child four months before starting kindergarten that will predict how they will do.

The Power of Myths

So what’s going on? There are so many smart people who have been working on this topic for a long time, but we are in the same place we were 30 years ago.

“When humans don’t have enough information to accurately explain phenomena we create myths.”

A myth is a narrative model that attempts to explain something we have a limited understanding about. We come up with a story. We do this all the time with all sorts of things in our world – we live our lives in story. They are helpful! They act as bridges that help us function in our everyday lives. When the myth of school readiness was developed we knew much less about learning and child development. With mounting dis-confirming evidence, the bridge needs to collapse.

When we investigate a model we can start to change the way we think. A model is something that helps us understand the world. Florez uses the example of the Taj Mahal constructed out of LEGO at LEGOLAND. Although it helps us understand the real Taj Mahal, it is wrong in many ways – tiny, made out of plastic, in the wrong location. Being able to distinguish these differences helps us hold these models loosely in our minds.

“Myths are narrative models. All myths are wrong. Some are useful.”

We know school readiness is wrong, but is it still useful? According to Florez, the answer is no.

A New Paradigm

Florez turned to the field of systems engineering because they distinguish between complicated and complex systems. She says it is so important for early childhood leaders to begin to understand the difference. Complicated systems are made up of parts that act in fixed and predictable ways (i.e. machines). The prevailing paradigm in our society thinks of humans as machines. Florez says this extends to the way we think of children and the way we think of our early childhood systems. The machine model runs deep.

“Complicated systems can be understood by assessing parts or components.”

This is what we do to assess children. We try to break them into different parts to see what is working and what isn’t.

Complex systems, on the other hand, are not designed nor built. It is an emergent process that makes complex systems more than the sum of its parts. They are layered, entangled networks. Florez quotes John Muir who says, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find its hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Florez created a handout called Complexity Thinking for Early Childhood Leaders you can access on Early Childhood Investigations.

So What?

Children are complex systems. Nobody builds a child out of different parts. They cannot be programmed to act in specific ways. They are a tangle of interconnected networks. Children can only be understood as a whole.

Florez suggests we can write a new narrative. We can create a new myth, even knowing parts of it are wrong. At least it will be useful. Florez recommends the narrative of regenerative learning. The principles includes:

  • Learners and learning are complex.
  • Learning happens in complex contexts.
  • Learning is about being and becoming.
  • Learning brings forth something new.
  • Learning and life are inextricably connected.

This model raises learning to its proper place. In regenerative education there is no one point in time to prepare children for the artificial progression to be “school ready.” In the new paradigm you nurture children where and when they are for the sake of that moment and that experience, not for the next step. What if schools asked students to come to kindergarten curious? How would that change how we interact with children in the early years? If we can embrace this new paradigm of thinking we can support children in become curious, creative thinkers who are intrinsically motivated to learn and and create.

My Reflections

One of the reasons I watched this webinar is because I have long been frustrated with the emphasis we in the library field put on school readiness as a motive for what we do in the early years. I wrote about it in Early Literacy Research is Not Neutral, but at the time I couldn’t unpack the mental paradigm that lay beneath things like Every Child Ready to Read and kindergarten boot camp programs. This webinar helped me get to the root of why libraries tie so much of our identity into getting kids ready to start school. It was like the pulling back of the curtain in The Wizard of Oz.

If we embrace the narrative model of regenerative learning, how would that change what we do in the library? How would it change our programs? How would it change the early literacy messages we share with caregivers? I feel like I need to learn more about complexity and what it looks like when many complicated and complex systems are working together. Florez mentioned some schools in Scandinavian countries who are in closer alignment with regenerative learning. My inkling is that these countries are able to move into this post-industrial view of childhood because they also have the social supports in place that North American countries lack.

I’ll be taking reflecting on the this topic for a long time to come. If you have any reflections to share, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from others!

15 thoughts on “The Myth of School Readiness

  1. Thank you for sharing! I learned about some of these theorists in grad school, but this is my first introduction to regenerative learning. It makes me think about how, as a parent, what I want most out of children’s spaces is first, a place where my child can be fully himself. After that, I also really appreciate thoughtfulness about which activities are chosen, whether they’re inclusive, and if there’s an opportunity to build community. I can see how the regenerative learning model, which acknowledges complexity, could be suited to developing these sorts of experiences!

    I think one application to library practice would be to balance the activities of our programs (the “bringing forth something new”) with other considerations that might feel invisible otherwise. Related to the “being and becoming” principle, you might appreciate the book Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves by Louise Derman-Sparks, Julie Olsen Edwards, and Catherine M. Goins. It goes over in depth how to support identity development in young children.

    1. Some of this is reminding me of why I struggle with the common rationale for Summer Reading programs which is to improve kids’ reading abilities (which we’ve never been able to prove – I know you’ve gathered a bunch of research on your website) so that they do better in school. But what would summer reading look like if we created a space where kids can be fully themselves and are nurtured to love reading for the sake of curiosity and enjoyment. Thanks for the reading recommendation. I have heard of that book but never read it cover to cover.

  2. Wow, this came at a very interesting time for me! I always love a new Lindsey post (you are a great mentor!), but I so appreciate your thought and perspective on this. Our city’s school district has really been floundering, especially in reading, and my library system is sort of bracing for some sort of reckoning with the city looking to the library to solve this problem (!!!!) I don’t know how much of that is real and how much is imagined, but suffice to say that the pressure on providing school readiness and reading readiness is high. I will go watch that webinar!

    1. “A new Lindsey post” – that very much describes what I am trying to do here, haha! Think out loud in my very rambling way. I know exactly the situation you are in. I have seen so many libraries move into a very heavy handed school readiness platform specifically because they are facing pressure from local schools and governments. Often this pressure comes with financial ties, so it can be really, really hard to say, “nah, we’re good.” We have to be able to articulate the framework around which we build services and programs, and that is really hard to do when (1) we are still figuring out our framework and (2) the framework is a huge shift away from how schools work. I’m excited to see how this work evolves over the coming decades. It definitely won’t happen over night.

  3. Hello there,
    This was a thoughtful piece but I am curious, you seem to circle an idea of what we should be doing but not stating one. What do you want out of our future and a poat-industrial childhood?

    I believe we have so many resources at our hands these days it is why more of our children are in a place educationally that are “school ready”. In my public library we have less emphasis on literacy and listening and more on motor skills. We’re picking up the slack that normal play and unstructured time used to fill for many masses. In the past I believe we were the structured spots and now it’s flipped. Parents are so concerned (myself included) with the judgement and markers that many of us are doing the school ready stuff at home all the time.

    I find libraries are now a place where parents unwind OR use us as a resource to support skills at home. But not often are we used by the same family for both.

    1. Your comment on motor skills really hit the nail on the head for me – I have been doing art programs with school aged kiddos recently, and I’ve been astounded by the lack of fine motor skills development I’ve been seeing, even among older grade school kids! To meet this obvious need in my community I’ve been focusing a lot on cutting and tracing and gluing in my activities, to provide more opportunities for practice in a relaxed environment. I’ve also been doing a lot of “process art”, because like you say, there’s such a need for unstructured play. I even had a child tell me how excited they were to have a place where “nobody tells them what to do”, which was really eye-opening.

    2. That’s a great question and you are absolutely right – I have a vague idea but it’s still very unformed for me. This webinar made me think a lot but it didn’t out a new blueprint with exactly how to proceed. This post was meant to share the ideas Florez explained because I found them intriguing. To try to answer your question, I would say first and foremost I want a future where childhood is holistic, integrated, creative, and joyous. Where the focus of schooling is, at the heart, on relationship building and nurturing curiosity. A recent blog post I read says this type of learning includes: “Learning-to-care about the self, each other, the planet, life, and future life. Learning-to-know facts, figures and cognition. Learning-to-be someone living in a regenerative way. Learning-to-anticipate towards and from desirable futures.” Maybe a good starting point is learning more about the schools in Scandinavia who are already operating in this mental framework to get a better sense of what it actually looks like on a day-to-day level.
      Thank you for sharing how your library is meeting the needs of your families. Over the years I have grown to see how important the library is a public space, and the decisions we make around what to put in that space (toys, collections, programs) have a big impact on our communities.

  4. This is something that’s been on my mind a lot recently, as the parent of a child who will be starting Kindergarten next September.

    As a librarian, I confidently spouted “early literacy tips” for years, but once I actually had a child, everything suddenly felt so heavy – there’s this sense that we, as parents, hold our children’s futures in our hands, and can ruin them if we don’t do everything the *right* way, whatever that even means (everyone has an opinion on the right way to raise kids!). Don’t even get me started on developmental milestones – talk about a major source of parental anxiety, even among those of us who work in education and early childhood development!

    I had a really informative chat with one of my child’s preschool teachers that helped reassure me, where she talked about how they perceive kindergarten readiness at their center. For them, it’s about supporting the development of social and soft skills – helping children learn to separate from caregivers, work through big feelings, take turns, share. We can’t expect children to master these skills before the age of 5 (these are life-long skills that many grown ups struggle with, after all), but focusing on them in preschool or daycare or in the home can help children have a happier and easier transition to school, especially those who haven’t been in care outside the home before.

    So for me, school readiness is about preparing my child emotionally and mentally for the transition to school, by building resilience and a growth mindset and working through separation anxiety. Numbers and letters, shapes and colours, he can learn those at home and with a teacher, and there’s plenty of worksheets and workbooks on that. But if he’s too upset by being in a strange place or struggling to get along with his peers, he can’t focus on anything else. And these soft skills can be a lot harder to teacher and learn!

    1. Thank you for sharing your personal experience, Jane. I am sure many parents can relate to the feeling of pressure to do things the “right” way. I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about how to phrase things to a toddler, and we both realized that sometimes it doesn’t matter what we say! Toddlers are gonna toddler.

      I liked her statement about social emotional learning – there is no such thing as SEL, all learning is social and emotional! I would have loved for her to expand on this and to give her opinion about the explosion in SEL tools, assessments, and learning supports. Even in the library field we use this term all the time, and I’m not sure what we even mean by it anymore.

  5. I was never in school. The first day I spent all day in a school that wasn’t a university I was a Children’s Librarian doing outreach. I work with a lot of home and unschoolers now, as well. As a result, my position on school readiness is…flexible. I don’t think I have ever said early literacy prepares any one for school (I don’t know that it does) only to be ready to learn to read (which I think was particularly what I was taught to say when I was trained on Every Child…). Because we don’t (and shouldn’t be) all ready for school at the same time–nor for reading. I learned to read around the normal time, but I guess I wasn’t ready for school till university. My youngest sister didn’t learn to read till she was 10, but she was ready for high school at the normal time. Being at home for us meant we could take our time to be ready, and I will always be grateful for that, and do my best to help every child who does need me to be ready to read at the right time for them.
    Sorry, that’s a bit all over the map, but I definitely agree that school readiness is a myth, and that even reading readiness by a certain age is a myth, and although I will always do my best to help families work to fit into those mythologies, I do also let them know, if the kids don’t fit, that I had a sister who didn’t read well till 12, and now has a master’s degree, while helping try to make up for the fact that the myth doesn’t work for them. It at least makes them feel better, and maybe gives the kid a little room.

    1. Thank you for sharing all this, Polly! You are right – ECCR is about reading readiness, not school readiness. It’s good to remember that because I think I have blurred the two together after seeing so many presentations, programs, and books that tie it to school readiness. Mostly along the lines of “if your child’s brain is prepped and ready to learn to read they will have an easier time in school and do better academically.” And that’s the narrative model I’d like to move away from. It’s a big picture idea. I really like how you say you continue to help families work into the current mythologies because that is their reality right now, and as such we have a responsibility to support them.

  6. Hello, Lindsey!
    I just wanted to recommend the book There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids by Linda Ã…keson McGurk. It’s technically a parenting book, but she writes quite a bit about Scandinavian vs. North American childhood and schooling. You might also do some research into the Forest School Movement that’s been gaining momentum in North American, also borrowed from Scandinavian culture. Just a thought. It might not lead to the exact answers you’re looking for, but it might be a good start.

    1. Hi Ranea, thank you for the book recommendation. I will definitely check it out. We’ve got a bit of the forest school movement happening here in Canada, but I agree it is closer to what Florez talks about in terms of regenerative education. Super appreciate you taking the time to help me and others continue to learn!

  7. “What if schools asked students to come to kindergarten curious? If we embrace the narrative model of regenerative learning, how would that change what we do in the library?” I love the beautiful questions you are asking lately on the blog, Lindsey!

    I have a lot of feelings about school readiness programs in the library (due in big part to being a preschool/kindergarten teacher before becoming a librarian). I’ve never been convinced that school readiness should be part of the library lane. I can’t wait to watch this webinar recording! Thank you for sharing your thinking and learning!


    1. Thank you, Jessica! Your comment reminded me of one of my favourite lines by e.e. cummings: “Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.”
      If ‘school readiness’ was about nurturing creativity in young children then I can envision a role of the library as a place where we give families opportunities to play, try things, fail, and be in relationship to one another. But it’s that mental model that has to shift first. I hope the webinar inspires you as much as it did me!

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