Teacher Tom: I Don’t Need To “Teach” Them.


After reading this Washington Post editorial on why so many children are crying as they do their homework, I was reminded of this post from a couple years back. Standardization is the enemy of learning.


Last week as I sat down to lunch with 8 of our 9 Pre-K children (older 4 and 5-year-olds), I asked if anyone was missing from class. Some of them immediately started counting the people around the table. Others seemed to be studying the faces, playing a kind of memory game within themselves to determine which friend was missing. A couple launched into a trail and error method of calling out the names of the people who ought to be there, hunting for the one who wasn’t. There was discussion around and across the table, a sharing of information, speculation, and data, a discussion of strategy, until it was determined by consensus that Orlando wasn’t there. 

So how many are here today? They all started counting at once, the volume rose rapidly, then without any intervention by adults the sound fell again as each boy took a turn counting. Some ended with 8 others with 9. There were re-counts, which resulted in the same discrepancy, until Isak noticed that some of the kids were including Teacher Tom in the count, while others were only counting children. A debate erupted over whether or not Teacher Tom should be included, until they finally came to the agreement that there were 8 kids, but if you included Teacher Tom it was 9.
And Orlando was still missing; he was traveling with his family.
A reader recently wrote asking about how, in a play-based curriculum, the children in Woodland Park’s Pre-3 class learn to count, recite their A-B-C’s, and other “conventional things.”
I know parents worry about these things, especially with this insane “Tiger Mom” talk that has recently been injected into an already emotional conversation. Let me assure you right here that the only children who are genuinely at risk for not acquiring literacy and basic math skills are those whose parents lack them, who do not speak English, or who have a learning disability. I’m sure there are isolated examples of the contrary, but by far the number one determinate for actual illiteracy or mathematical illiteracy are illiterate parents. Everyone else always learns these “conventional things” almost in spite of what we do as teachers. And there is no correlation between learning these things early and future academic attainment. 
None. Zip. Forget about it.
I tell the parents when they register at Woodland Park that “we never bring letters or numbers into the classroom, except as they naturally occur in the world.” By that I mean, we have books, we wear name tags, there are labels on things, and useful signs, but there is no drilling or “teaching” about literacy or numeracy; no games specifically designed to learn letters, sight words, or counting. For one thing, Pre-3’s are generally thought to be developmentally too young to have to worry about such things. For another, there’s no rush.
Letters and numbers are abstractions from the real world: they represent something real, but they are not real and are therefore too artificial for the concrete brains of most young children to really comprehend. I could, of course drill them to memorize their ABC’s but that’s not the same as learning them. I’d much prefer to work with young children on language development, which is something for which they are genetically programmed. And there’s no better way to do that than by having lots of conversations with them on a variety of topics, which is simply fun. I like to toss in new words when appropriate to expand vocabulary, practice silly rhyming, and encourage them to tell me stories — anything to get them using their language “muscle.” I’ve never met a child who did not enjoy this because it is simply what the human animal is designed to do at this age. It is play. That said, I’ve never taught a Pre-3 who didn’t come in already knowing the alphabet song, which is a fun way to at least learn what to call the letters, even if it may take a few more years to really understand what letters are and what they do. They learned this song by playing with their parents.
As far as counting goes, I don’t expect the Pre-3’s to make it much farther than 10, although many can, but consistently identifying numbers doesn’t typically start to happen until around 4. Again, however, I’m not worried about it. It always happens as they need to know it to be able to communicate about and understand the things they want to do as part of their play. Instead of drilling, we again focus on things that Pre-3’s are designed to learn like sorting and patterning, which after all, is all math really is no matter how far you go in the field. When a child fills one basket with blue buttons and one with yellow, or when they make a basic A-B-A-B stripe pattern on a tiger they’re drawing, that’s “real” math as opposed to the digits, which are an abstraction and won’t make much sense to them until they get older.
As they get older, they naturally start working on one-to-one correspondence, which is what children demonstrate when they, say, count beans or pennies. When young children play board games, they are matching, taking turns, counting, making patterns, all of which are “conventional things.” Yes, you can drill a young child to memorize numbers, just as you can letters, but that isn’t the same as comprehending what they mean. The meaning has to come first — the numbers are just a way to communicate about the “real” thing.
I’ve been teaching preschoolers for well over a decade employing nothing but play as our curriculum. Not play “with a purpose,” but simply creating an environment in which children play according to their passions and interests. They all head off to kindergarden either reading or right on the verge of reading, which is right where kindergarden teachers around here expect them to be. They all have a solid understanding of what numbers mean and can even, as our Pre-K class did last week, carry on a meaningful, sophisticated conversation about mathematical concepts. These are things that naturally emerge from play.
I don’t need to “teach” them. I just need to play with them.