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December 21, 2008

Picturing Preschool

Malcolm Gladwell, one of my favorite thinkers, published an article about hiring teachers in the New Yorker. I found it when Eduwonkette responded to Gladwell's article. Gladwell uses the first bad metaphor I have ever seen him write. I am a big fan of Gladwell's work, but it seems like he hasn't talked to as many teachers as researchers before writing this article. In it he compares teaching to being a professional football player. I am sure that all of the women I work with will appreciate being compared to a 6' 2" football player but the part that is really bad about the metaphor is how it portrays the circumstances. Gladwell compares watching players in college to watching teachers in student teaching. He then compares playing pro ball to becoming a real teacher. The metaphor breaks down because one reason many players can't transition to the big leagues is that the game changes. It becomes more complex and harder in the pros. Teaching isn't hierarchical in its demands, like college to professional football, and schools are not organized so that the same types of practices are needed to be successful in each.

The truth is that in some schools, you can teach like a high school quarterback and be fine, and in others you have to teach like professional quarterback to be successful. The real difference is that you get paid better in professional football if you are successful whereas in teaching, the high school quarterbacks and the professional quarterbacks all get paid the same.

The good news about Gladwell's article is that it highlights the role of Bob Pianta's work. I have been a fan of Pianta's work for years. I know that he would not say that teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse but he would agree that the traits of successful teachers can be found in anyone. In the article, Pianta highlights what a preschool teacher does that is good teaching--allowing students to show engagement through movement. He also points out what she could have done that would have supported more learning. This is where the profession can be taught how to maximize learning situations. The teacher does maximize the learning by responding "creatively" to the situation, as in she creates more learning using what is out of her control instead of shutting it down. The section of the article about Pianta's CLASS system is some of the best description of the demands and practice of teaching preschool I have ever read. Here is a brief snippet but please read the rest by going to the orginal article and scrolling down to the large font P.

Picture a young preschool teacher, sitting on a classroom floor surrounded by seven children. She is holding an alphabet book, and working through the letters with the children, one by one: “ ‘A’ is for apple. . . . ‘C’ is for cow.” The session was taped, and the videotape is being watched by a group of experts, who are charting and grading each of the teacher’s moves.

After thirty seconds, the leader of the group—Bob Pianta, the dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education—stops the tape. He points to two little girls on the right side of the circle. They are unusually active, leaning into the circle and reaching out to touch the book.

“What I’m struck by is how lively the affect is in this room,” Pianta said. “One of the things the teacher is doing is creating a holding space for that. And what distinguishes her from other teachers is that she flexibly allows the kids to move and point to the book. She’s not rigidly forcing the kids to sit back.”

Pianta’s team has developed a system for evaluating various competencies relating to student-teacher interaction. Among them is “regard for student perspective”; that is, a teacher’s knack for allowing students some flexibility in how they become engaged in the classroom. Pianta stopped and rewound the tape twice, until what the teacher had managed to achieve became plain: the children were active, but somehow the class hadn’t become a free-for-all.

“A lesser teacher would have responded to the kids’ leaning over as misbehavior,” Pianta went on. “ ‘We can’t do this right now. You need to be sitting still.’ She would have turned this off.”

What are some other things that preschool teachers do that might help teachers be more effective at higher grade levels?


There are so many things that preschool teachers do that might help teachers be more effective at higher grade levels!

I think the first is patience. Not that my friends who teach higher grade levels lack patience--believe me, they have plenty--but I think preschool teachers have a specific kind of patience that could be useful to all teachers. Preschool teachers have the patience to sit with a child and think of all the different ways they are learning in a given moment, rather than demanding that they be learning one thing one way.

Another way in which other teachers could learn a lot from preschool teachers is that they let children explore their world in ways that lead them to learn, rather than just expecting them to learn a given concept. I understand the demands of many other grades restrict the kind of exploration that many preschool programs can still afford to provide kids. I don't think that upper grades are entirely unable to provide more self-directed learning, however. Things like centers can and should be used at upper grade levels. Maybe there's not time to have drama lab, but even blocks and art labs can be used for math, science, and more!

People are often telling me that my kids are cute and my job sounds like fun, and they are and it is, but I think they often diminish the intense amount of learning that happens. This denial may lead upper level teachers to forget not only how important Pre-K is, but also how much they have to learn from us.

I agree with you, Ashley -- I think that students throughout elementary (and probably even middle school) would benefit from more of the opportunities for exploration that are afforded to pre-kindergarteners.

Your comment also made me think back to an article that I read several years ago about the difference between "patience" and "understanding" in early childhood teachers (the article can be found in Dan Gartrell's book, The Power of Guidance). It explains that some teachers have patience -- e.g. they let their students wiggle around, but they don't necessarily like the behavior -- while other teachers have understanding -- e.g. they encourage movement in their classrooms beacause they know that, developmentally, their children need to be active to be learning. I often find myself thinking about this concept as I am teaching, and wondering where on the spectrum of patience vs. understanding I may fall at any given moment. I find that it helps me think more critically about what is happening in my classroom -- both my actions and my students' actions -- and structure a classroom environment that is appropriate for all of my students.

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