Good preschool teaching: what is it?

Several readers have asked me to comment on a recent article in Slate magazine by Alison Gopnik. The article was titled “Why Preschool Shouldn’t Be Like School”. The subtitle was “New research shows that teaching kids more and more, at ever-younger ages, may backfire”.

Based on these titles and subtitles, I think that many readers might expect that the article would provide good reasons to be opposed to preschool. The article has been reported on and interpreted that way in various news outlets. For example, in my hometown newspaper, the Kalamazoo Gazette, their summary of the Slate article is titled “Preschool lessons may “backfire”, studies suggest”.

There have already been excellent responses to the “spin” that headline writers and others are apparently giving to Gopnik’s article. At her Education Week blog, Sara Mead provides an excellent and quite detailed analysis. Lisa Guernsey at Early Ed Watch also provides some excellent comments. So I can be brief, as readers can refer to these more detailed analyses.

The basic point is that Gopnik’s article does not show that preschool can’t be effective, or that preschool teaching isn’t needed. What it shows is that bad preschool teaching makes preschool far less effective than good preschool teaching.

Bad preschool teaching is overly immediately directive. Such bad teaching immediately directly instructs children about toys or objects that can be manipulated, short-circuiting the creativity and explorations of children. Good teaching may provide some hints, and respond to children and ask them questions. But good teaching allows plenty of room for children to learn from their own explorations, while helping them more indirectly along the way.

I think it is interesting that some people respond to Gopnik’s findings in the ways that they do. These responses may reflect some anxieties people have about a society that seems to become ever more pressured and intense, for both children and adults. However, Gopnik’s findings say nothing about whether preschool can be effective. They just provide some guidance as to how to improve preschool teaching. Any broader interpretations express social anxieties more than research findings on preschool.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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