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.
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.
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!