ERIC Identifier: ED413105
Publication Date: 1997-10-00
Author: Schweinhart, Lawrence J.
Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education Champaign IL.
Child-Initiated Learning Activities for Young Children Living
in Poverty. ERIC Digest.
Should Head Start and other preschool programs for young children living in
poverty center on teacher-directed, large-group academic lessons or on
teacher-supported, child-initiated learning activities? The concerns reflected
in this long-standing debate are that an exclusively teacher-directed approach
fails to encourage children's social and emotional development and creativity,
while an approach based exclusively on child-initiated activities may not
sufficiently stimulate poor children's academic development. These concerns are
echoed today in the struggle of early childhood educators to cope with
academic-learning mandates that conflict with their own child-centered
dispositions, particularly in school districts that have been less successful in
helping children achieve academic success. This Digest discusses the findings of
empirical studies on teacher-directed and child-initiated preschool programs.
LONG-TERM PRESCHOOL CURRICULUM COMPARISON STUDIES
long-term preschool curriculum comparison studies began in the 1970s--the
High/Scope Preschool Curriculum Comparison Study (Schweinhart & Weikart,
1997), the Louisville Head Start Study (Miller & Bizzell, 1983), and the
University of Illinois Study (Karnes, Schwedel, & Williams, 1983). All three
included the Direct Instruction model--which offered scripted, teacher-directed
academic instruction--and a Nursery School model, in which children initiated
their own learning activities with minimal teacher support. The High/Scope study
included the High/Scope model, in which children initiated learning activities
with substantial teacher support. The Louisville and Illinois studies included
several additional teacher-directed models and the Montessori model, which
encouraged child-initiated activities with didactic materials.
These three studies found that children in Direct Instruction programs
intellectually outperformed children in child-initiated-activities programs
during and up to a year after the preschool program, but not thereafter. In the
Louisville study, the Nursery School children showed higher verbal-social
participation and increased more in ambition and aggressiveness than did the
Direct Instruction children, but both groups scored lower than their peers on
inventiveness. In the Illinois study, 78% of the Nursery School group, but only
48% of the Direct Instruction group and 47% of the no-program group graduated
from high school.
In the High/Scope study, the child-initiated-activities groups significantly
surpassed the Direct Instruction group on 10 early adult outcomes, more than
were found throughout their childhoods. Compared to the Direct Instruction
group, both High/Scope and Nursery School groups had fewer members treated for
emotional impairment or disturbance (6% vs. 6% vs. 47%) and more who engaged in
volunteer work (43% vs. 44% vs. 11%). Compared to the Direct Instruction group,
the High/Scope group had fewer members ever arrested for a felony (10% vs. 39%),
ever arrested for a property crime (0% vs. 38%), reporting 10 or more acts of
misconduct (23% vs. 56%), and identifying people who gave them a hard time (36%
vs. 69%); and more members married and living with their spouses (31% vs. 0%)
and planning to graduate from college (70% vs. 36%). Compared to the Direct
Instruction group, the Nursery School group had fewer members arrested for a
felony at ages 22-23 (9% vs. 34%) and ever suspended from work (0% vs. 27%).
PLANNED VARIATION HEAD START AND FOLLOW THROUGH
national evaluation of Planned Variation Head Start (1969-72), included some
6,000 children at 37 sites (Datta, McHale, & Mitchell, 1976). Its dozen
models included the Direct Instruction model and at least two
child-initiated-activities models--the High/Scope model and the Enabler model
guided by local early childhood consultants. Despite the many design problems
associated with a study of this size, two findings distinguished certain program
groups from the other program and comparison groups:
Teacher-directed groups had the highest scores on the achievement tests given at
the end of the preschool program.
The High/Scope group had the greatest IQ gains--23 points compared to no more
than 5 points for any of the other groups.
The Follow Through Project (1967-95) was designed to follow through on Head
Start by providing similar services from kindergarten through third grade. It
never served more than a small fraction of the nation's children who attended
Head Start, but did support the development of 20 early elementary curriculum
models. A national evaluation found that although program outcomes varied more
by site than by curriculum model, Direct Instruction students did significantly
better than their peers in regular classes--and better than students in classes
based on child-initiated learning activities--on school achievement,
self-esteem, and achievement responsibility (Kennedy, 1978). Further, in a few
communities, Direct Instruction researchers found evidence that some Direct
Instruction students had higher ninth-grade achievement-test scores, a higher
high school graduation rate than their peers, and fewer grade repetitions and
absences from school (Gersten & Keating, 1987). Direct Instruction's greater
success in elementary school than in preschool may have been partly because
elementary-school children were better able than preschoolers to adhere to its
strict rules of behavior and principles of mastery learning, and partly because
elementary-school teachers more fully embraced its methods than did preschool
RECENT SHORT-TERM PRESCHOOL STUDIES
Six early childhood
curriculum comparison studies have been conducted in the past decade: one study
contrasting High/Scope classes with non-High/Scope classes, and five studies
contrasting developmentally appropriate practice emphasizing child-initiated
activities and developmentally inappropriate practice emphasizing
teacher-directed lessons (Dunn & Kontos, 1997).
In the Training for Quality study, Epstein (1993) found that observers rated
preschool classes with High/Scope-trained teachers significantly higher than
preschool classes whose teachers were not trained by High/Scope. High/Scope
training enabled children to plan, carry out, and review their own activities,
and it helped teachers use adult-child interaction to promote children's
reasoning and language skills. Observers scored children in the High/Scope
classes significantly higher at the end of the school year in initiative, social
relations, music and movement skills, and overall development.
Burts et al. (1992) have engaged in a program of research based on assessing
teachers' developmentally appropriate beliefs and practices and related child
outcomes. They found that kindergarten children in developmentally inappropriate
classes exhibited significantly more stress behaviors (such as complaints of
feeling sick, stuttering, fights, tremors, nervous laughter, and nail biting)
than did those in developmentally appropriate classes, particularly males and
DeVries and her associates closely observed three kindergarten classes using
Direct Instruction, a constructivist approach based on child-initiated
activities, and an eclectic approach. Analyzing two game-like activities, they
found that the children from the constructivist class were more interpersonally
interactive, with a greater number and variety of negotiation strategies and
shared experiences, than children from the other two classes (DeVries,
Reese-Learned, & Morgan, 1991). Although the Direct Instruction class began
kindergarten with significantly higher achievement test scores than the
constructivist class, the significant differences between the two classes
disappeared by third grade.
Marcon (1992) identified three preschool models operated in the Washington,
DC, public schools--teacher-directed, child-initiated, and
"middle-of-the-road"--and examined the development of a random sample of 295
children attending these types of programs. Children from child-initiated
classes showed the greatest mastery of basic reading, language, and mathematics
skills, followed by children from teacher-directed classes, then children from
"middle-of-the-road" classes (Marcon, 1992). At fourth grade, this same ranking
of curriculum types appeared on children's grade point averages, overall and in
most subject matter areas.
Similarly, in detailed observations of 62 preschool and kindergarten classes
in the Los Angeles area, Stipek, Daniels, Galluzzo, and Milburn (1992) found
three types of programs--didactic, academic programs in a negative social
context; child-initiated-activities programs de-emphasizing academics in a
positive social context; and intermediate programs between these two extremes.
They found no examples of didactic, academic programs in a positive social
In the Academic Environments study, Hirsh-Pasek, Hyson, and Rescorla (1990)
studied 90 4- and 5-year-olds in a variety of academic and child-initiated
preschool programs in affluent areas in Philadelphia and Delaware and followed
up 56 of them through the end of kindergarten. Preschool program type had no
significant influence on children's academic or logical skills at the end of
The relevant evidence from these studies suggests that preschool programs
based on child-initiated learning activities contribute to children's short- and
long-term academic and social development, while preschool programs based on
teacher-directed lessons obtain a short-term advantage in children's academic
development by sacrificing a long-term contribution to their social and
emotional development. On this basis, research supports the use by preschool
programs of a curriculum approach based on child-initiated learning activities
rather than one based on teacher-directed lessons.
Burts, D. C., Hart, C. H., Charlesworth, R.,
Fleege, P. O., Mosley, J., & Thomasson, R. H. (1992). Observed activities
and stress behaviors of children in developmentally appropriate and
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(2), 297-318. EJ 450 531.
Datta, L. E., McHale, C., & Mitchell, S. (1976). THE EFFECTS OF THE HEAD
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DeVries, R., Reese-Learned, H., & Morgan, P. (1991). Sociomoral
development in direct-instruction, eclectic, and constructivist kindergartens: A
study of children's enacted interpersonal understanding. EARLY CHILDHOOD
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Dunn, L., & Kontos, S. (1997, July). What have we learned about
developmentally appropriate practice? YOUNG CHILDREN, 52 (5), 4-13. PS 526 718.
Epstein, A. S. (1993). TRAINING FOR QUALITY: IMPROVING EARLY CHILDHOOD
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"at-risk" students: A study of long-term benefits of direct instruction.
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Karnes, M. B., Schwedel, A. M., & Williams, M. B. (1983). A comparison of
five approaches for educating young children from low-income homes. In
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PRESCHOOL PROGRAMS (pp. 133-170). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Kennedy, M. M. (1978). Findings from the Follow Through planned variation
study. EDUCATIONAL RESEARCHER, 7 (6), 3-11. EJ 186 216.
Marcon, R. A. (1992). Differential effects of three preschool models on
inner-city 4-year-olds. EARLY CHILDHOOD RESEARCH QUARTERLY, 7 (4), 517-530. EJ
Miller, L. B., & Bizzell, R. P. (1983). The Louisville experiment: A
comparison of four programs. In Consortium for Longitudinal Studies, AS THE TWIG
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Schweinhart, L. J., & Weikart, D. P. (1997). LASTING DIFFERENCES: THE
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the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, 10). Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope
Schweinhart, L. J., & Weikart, D. P. (1997). The High/Scope Preschool
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