Another Look at What Young Children Should Be
Learning. ERIC Digest.
by Katz, Lilian G.
The question of what should be learned must be addressed by all teachers
at every level. In terms of broad goals, most teachers and parents readily
agree that children should learn whatever will ultimately enable them to
become healthy, competent, productive, and contributing members of their
communities. But when it comes to the specifics of what should be learned
next month, next week, or on any particular day, agreement is not so easily
The answers will depend partly on the ages of the learners. In other
words, the question of what should be learned to some extent depends upon
when it is to be learned. Although the what question deals with the goals
and objectives of education, the when question involves considerations
of what we know about the nature of development and how it relates to learning.
What should be learned takes on new importance as states begin to establish
standards for student performance, and as new concern is voiced about "social
promotion." The interest in standards, competencies, and promotion policies
is likely to have a renewed "push-down" effect on prekindergarten education.
It is interesting to note that the recent legislation reappropriating funds
for Head Start establishes performance standards and stipulates that all
Head Start graduates must learn 10 letters of the alphabet (National Head
Start Association, 1998, p. 5). What the letters are expected to mean to
the children has not been addressed; these new requirements are apparently
intended to address the issue of readiness for formal instruction in literacy
This Digest first defines the concept of development and then outlines
some ways to approach both the "what" and "when" questions in terms of
what we are learning from research about the effects of various curriculum
approaches. THE NATURE OF DEVELOPMENT The concept of development includes
two major dimensions: normative and dynamic. The normative dimension concerns
the typical or normal capabilities as well as limitations of most children
of a given age within a given cultural milieu. The dynamic dimension concerns
the sequence and changes that occur in all aspects of the child's functioning
with the passage of time and increasing experience, and how these changes
interact dynamically (Saarni, Mumme, & Campos, 1998). Although the
normative dimension indicates a probable range of what children typically
can and cannot be expected to do and to learn at a given age, the dynamic
dimension raises questions about what children should or should not do
at a particular time in their development in light of possible long-term
dynamic consequences of early experience. In many preschool programs and
kindergartens, for example, young children are given instruction in phonics
and are expected to complete worksheets and recite number facts in rote
fashion. But just because young children can do those things, in a normative
sense, is not sufficient justification for requiring them to do so. Most
young children willingly do most things adults ask of them. But their willingness
is not a reliable indicator of the value of an activity. The developmental
question is not only, "What can children do?," rather it is also, "What
should children do that best serves their development and learning in the
FOUR CATEGORIES OF LEARNING GOALS
The four categories of learning outlined below are relevant to all levels
of education-especially to the education of young children:
KNOWLEDGE. In early childhood, knowledge consists of facts, concepts,
ideas, vocabulary, stories, and many other aspects of children's culture.
Children acquire such knowledge from someone's answers to their questions,
explanations, descriptions, and accounts of events, as well as through
active and constructive processes of making the best sense they can of
their own direct observations.
SKILLS. Skills are small units of action that occur in a relatively
short period of time and are easily observed or inferred. Physical, social,
verbal, counting, and drawing skills are among a few of the almost endless
number of skills learned in the early years. Skills can be learned from
direct instruction or imitated based on observation, and they are improved
with guidance, practice, repetition, drill, and actual application or use.
DISPOSITIONS. Dispositions can be thought of as habits of mind or tendencies
to respond to certain situations in certain ways. Curiosity, friendliness
or unfriendliness, bossiness, generosity, meanness, and creativity are
examples of dispositions or sets of dispositions, rather than of skills
or items of knowledge. Accordingly, it is useful to keep in mind the difference
between having writing skills and having the disposition to be a writer,
or having reading skills and having the disposition to be a reader (Katz,
Dispositions are not learned through formal instruction or exhortation.
Many important dispositions, including the dispositions to learn and to
make sense of experience, are in-born in all children-wherever they are
born and are growing up. Many dispositions that most adults want children
to acquire or to strengthen-for example, curiosity, creativity, cooperation,
openness, friendliness-are learned primarily from being around people who
exhibit them; they are strengthened by being used effectively and by being
appreciated rather than rewarded (Kohn, 1993).
To acquire or strengthen a particular disposition, a child must have
the opportunity to express the disposition in behavior. When manifestations
of the dispositions occur, they can be strengthened as the child observes
their effectiveness and the responses to them and experiences satisfaction
from them. Teachers can strengthen certain dispositions by setting learning
goals rather than performance goals. A teacher who says, "See how much
you can find out about something," rather than, "I want to see how well
you can do," encourages children to focus on what they are learning rather
than on an external evaluation of their performance (Dweck, 1991).
FEELINGS. Feelings are subjective emotional states. Some feelings are
innate (e.g., fear), while others are learned. Among feelings that are
learned are those of competence, confidence, belonging, and security. Feelings
about school, teachers, learning, and other children are also learned in
the early years.
LEARNING THROUGH INTERACTION
Contemporary research confirms that young children learn most effectively
when they are engaged in interaction rather than in merely receptive or
passive activities (Bruner, 1999; Wood & Bennett, 1999). Young children
therefore are most likely to be strengthening their natural dispositions
to learn when they are interacting with adults, peers, materials, and their
surroundings in ways that help them make better and deeper sense of their
own experience and environment. They should be investigating and purposefully
observing aspects of their environment worth learning about, and recording
and representing their findings and observations through activities such
as talk, paintings, drawings, construction, writing, and graphing. Interaction
that arises in the course of such activities provides contexts for much
social and cognitive learning.
RISKS OF EARLY ACADEMIC INSTRUCTION
Research on the long-term effects of various curriculum models suggests
that the introduction of academic work into the early childhood curriculum
yields fairly good results on standardized tests in the short term but
may be counterproductive in the long term (Schweinhart & Weikart, 1997;
Marcon, 1995). For example, the risk of early instruction in beginning
reading skills is that the amount of drill and practice required for success
at an early age seems to undermine children's disposition to be readers.
It is clearly not useful for a child to learn skills if, in the process
of acquiring them, the disposition to use them is lost. In the case of
reading in particular, comprehension is most likely to be dependent on
actual reading and not just on skill-based reading instruction (Snow, Burns,
& Griffin, 1998). On the other hand, acquiring the disposition to be
a reader without the requisite skills is also not desirable. Results from
longitudinal studies suggest that curricula and teaching should be designed
to optimize the simultaneous acquisition of knowledge, skills, desirable
dispositions, and feelings (Marcon, 1995). Another risk of introducing
young children to formal academic work prematurely is that those who cannot
relate to the tasks required are likely to feel incompetent. Students who
repeatedly experience difficulties leading to feelings of incompetence
may come to consider themselves stupid and bring their behavior into line
accordingly (Bandura et al., 1999).
VARIETY OF TEACHING METHODS
Academically focused curricula for preschool, kindergarten, and primary
programs typically adopt a single pedagogical method dominated by workbooks
and drill and practice of discrete skills. It is reasonable to assume that
when a single teaching method is used for a diverse group of children,
many of these children are likely to fail. The younger the children are,
the greater the variety of teaching methods there should be, because the
younger the children, the less likely they are to have been socialized
into a standard way of responding to their social environment.
In this way, it is more likely that children's readiness to learn school
tasks is influenced by background experiences that are idiosyncratic and
unique. For practical reasons, there are limits to how varied teaching
methods can be. It should be noted, however, that while approaches dominated
by workbooks often claim to individualize instruction, individualization
rarely consists of more than the day on which a child completes a particular
page or other routine task. As suggested by several follow-up studies,
such programs may undermine children's in-born disposition to learn-or
at least to learn what the schools want them to learn (Schweinhart &
Weikart, 1997; Marcon, 1995).
THE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT
As for the learning environment, the younger the children are, the more
informal it should be. Informal learning environments encourage spontaneous
play in which children engage in the available activities that interest
them, such as a variety of types of play and construction. However, spontaneous
play is not the only alternative to early academic instruction. The data
on children's learning suggest that preschool and kindergarten experiences
require an intellectually oriented approach in which children interact
in small groups as they work together on projects that help them make increasing
sense of their own experience. Thus, the curriculum should include group
projects that are investigations of worthwhile topics. These projects should
strengthen children's dispositions to observe, experiment, inquire, and
examine more closely the worthwhile aspects of their environment. They
usually include constructions and dramatic play as well as a variety of
early literacy and numeracy activities that emerge from the work of the
investigation and the tasks of summarizing findings and sharing the experiences
of the work accomplished.
This Digest is a revision of the 1987 Digest WHAT SHOULD YOUNG CHILDREN
BE LEARNING? by Lilian Katz.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Bandura, A., Pastorelli, C., Barbaranelli, C., & Caprara, G. V.
(1999). Self-efficacy pathways to childhood depression. JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY
AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY, 76(2), 258-269.
Bruner, J. (1999, April). KEYNOTE ADDRESS. IN GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES ON
EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION (pp. 9-18). A workshop sponsored by the Committee
on Early Childhood Pedagogy, National Academy of Sciences, and the National
Research Council, Washington, DC. PS 027 463.
Dweck, C. S. (1991). Self-theories and goals: Their role in motivation,
personality, and development. In Richard A. Dienstbier (Ed.), NEBRASKA
SYMPOSIUM ON MOTIVATION: VOL. 38. PERSPECTIVES ON MOTIVATION (pp. 199-235).
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Katz, L. G. (1995). Dispositions in early childhood education. In L.
G. Katz (Ed.), TALKS WITH TEACHERS OF YOUNG CHILDREN. A COLLECTION. Norwood,
NJ: Ablex. ED 380 232.
Kohn, A. (1993). PUNISHED BY REWARDS: THE TROUBLE WITH GOLD STARS, INCENTIVE
PLANS, A'S, PRAISE, AND OTHER BRIBES. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Marcon, R. A. (1995). Fourth-grade slump: The cause and cure. PRINCIPAL,
74(5), 17-20. EJ 502 896. National Head Start Association. (1998, Fall).
Head Start Quarterly Legislative Update, 1-5.
Saarni, C., Mumme, D. L., & Campos, J. J. (1998). In William Damon
& Nancy Eisenberg (Eds.), HANDBOOK OF CHILD PSYCHOLOGY. 5TH ED. VOL.
3. SOCIAL, EMOTIONAL, AND PERSONALITY DEVELOPMENT. New York: Wiley.
Schweinhart, L. J., & Weikart, D. P. (1997). LASTING DIFFERENCES:
THE HIGH/SCOPE PRESCHOOL CURRICULUM COMPARISON STUDY THROUGH AGE 23. (High/Scope
Educational Research Foundation Monograph No. 12). Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope
Press. ED 410 019.
Snow, C. E., Burns, M. S., & Griffin, P. (1998). PREVENTING READING
DIFFICULTIES IN YOUNG CHILDREN. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
ED 416 465.
Wood, E., & Bennett, N. (1999). Progression and continuity in early
childhood education: Tensions and contradictions. INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL
OF EARLY YEARS EDUCATION, 7(1), 5-16.