Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Perry Preschool Project & Reflections on Play

My guess is that the vast majority of people who spout off about education have never spent a significant amount of time with children. For most people, spending nearly everyday dealing exclusively with kids (any number, or any age) is not an easy thing to do, even when the children are their own.

Because much of this work can be frustrating drudgery, I think many parents who could afford to stay home with their young children are happy to hand their kid over to a minimally-paid nanny or daycare provider, then preschool teacher, to do the bulk of actual early childrearing. It’s probably a relief to be able to drive away to the world of adults where there are no ongoing messes, no nasty temper tantrums or crying spells, and no unpleasant potty accidents to contend with, day after day, week after week, and year after year. It seems like most parents don’t mind leaving those challenges to someone else.

Spending time with children is exhausting, hard work, and this is why I give my utmost respect to people who take care of kids; they are performing a huge service for everyone else. And along with that, I absolutely do not understand why teachers are so vilified these days. Perhaps it is because so many people are detached from the experience of dealing directly with children themselves, for hours and days and weeks and months and years on end, and thus have never developed any sense of empathy for those who do. To them, the experience is all abstract.

For a time I had a turn at being a part-time preschool teacher. The opportunity presented itself when I joined a preschool which was a parent cooperative. This was when my younger daughter was just over two years old. Like most families who went there, we grew to love Peter Pan and I often reflect on that wonderful time.

If I had my way, I would make sure every single child had this type of experience when they were young. And as for young parents, there is no better introduction to reality-based childrearing than to spend a few years, supported by an experienced expert, helping a range of little kids learn to navigate as newcomers in this complex social world.

Peter Pan has been a play-based preschool in Oakland since 1947. As a cooperative, each parent is required to work at the school one morning per week, as well as to perform one other duty such as keeping an area tidy and clean, serving on the board, maintaining equipment, etc.

The main portion of our (comparatively inexpensive) tuition covered the salary of our Director. She was an experienced, early education specialist who would float from zone to zone handling the most difficult problems which came up, and modeling her patient, kind behavior for the rest of us.

During our work mornings, we oversaw and interacted with the kids who would wander into our assigned area. At the end of the school day the director always debriefed us as a group; we would we talk about the various things that had gone on that day, mostly re the kids and their behavior. As a parent, this was a fantastic learning experience.

The typical Peter Pan day looked like this.

The little kids (ranging from potty-trained two-year olds to young five-year olds) would arrive, deposit their jackets and lunchboxes in their cubbies, and then go off to play. The site was divided into different areas: a reading nook, an area with live animals (two guinea pigs, an aquarium, etc.), an arts and crafts table, a big room with building blocks, cars, dress-up, and animal toys, and an outside play area. The morning session consisted of a four phases: kids at liberty to roam from zone to zone, an on-the-rug story and music group session led by the Director, snack time, then mandatory outside play. Nothing is more perfect for a kid this age.

I heard a radio documentary about the Perry Preschool Study last weekend, and was brought back to those Peter Pan years. This page will give you access to hearing the broadcast or the transcript. Please take time to listen or read, all the way to the end where you will learn how the findings of the Perry Study tie in with test scores.

Some excerpts are below.

In the days we attended Peter Pan, it was primarily used by white, middle-class families, even though it was located in central East Oakland, an area of town with a more diverse population. The explanation for why so few non-white families were interested in the school, was, according to an African American neighbor, because “It’s not strict enough.” I wouldn’t be surprised if a study proved that being forced to attend one of the stricter, more academic, non-play-oriented preschools (which sometimes have graduation ceremonies complete with little caps and gowns), actually contributes to creating an early negative association with school.

As the research in the Perry Study will eventually demonstrate, play-oriented, rich environments are the ones which lead to the development of important non-cognitive skills needed for making future decisions which create a more successful life.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

From “Early Lessons” by Emily Hanford, an American RadioWorks documentary, October 2009

And by the time the study participants were 40 years old there were big differences between the two groups. The people who'd gone to preschool were doing much better - in life. They were more likely to be employed; they made more money. They were more likely to own homes, cars, to have savings accounts. The men who'd gone to preschool were more involved in raising their children. And the biggest difference of all had to do with crime. The people who had not gone to preschool were twice as likely to have been arrested by the age of 40…
But, here's something interesting about the people who went to the Perry Preschool. Even the ones who did not graduate from high school ended up doing better in life. They did not get more education - but they were still better off. Why was that?...
Jim Heckman is probably one of the world's most influential economists. He won a Nobel Prize. And he's really interested in the Perry Study because of what he sees as the fundamental paradox at its core. The people who went to the preschool were not smarter than their peers, but they did better in school. And they did not necessarily get more education, but they did better in life. And the assumption at the heart of a lot of economic theory is that intelligence and education level are the keys to everything.

… And here's what Heckman's learning.

Heckman: There are traits that seem to be somewhat different from just the raw ability to solve a problem.

Personality traits like...

Heckman: Perseverance, self-control, things like openness, agreeableness, extroversion ...

Heckman calls these non-cognitive skills. They're less a set of skills than a collection of traits and abilities that are not about how much you know or how fast you think. Heckman says we used to think of these traits as part of a person's character - sort of an old-fashioned notion that didn't get a lot of attention in economic theory. But a growing body of evidence from psychology suggests the development of cognitive ability itself is associated with personality traits, defined by psychologists as "patterns of thought, feelings and behavior."

Heckman: What we're coming to learn is that traits of young children like openness to experience, lack of shyness, some agreeableness even, will make the child much more ready to explore the environment. The act of exploration builds skills; it creates mental capacities, it gives you facts.

It's a dynamic process; the desire to learn, the drive, can't really be separated from learning itself, the process of becoming capable and intelligent. So if a child is discouraged from learning early in life, that can actually shut down the learning process. On the other hand, success in learning early on makes people want to learn more. The more they want to learn, the more they end up learning. Motivation is key.

Heckman: Now you're getting into something really deep. How is it that motivation is affected? What causes motivation? And that's something that I think we still don't really understand but I think what I do think we've found from these early interventions is they have affected the motivations of the children.

And here's the kicker. Motivation really matters when it comes to testing. The very tests that purport to measure how smart you are, or how much you know - these tests are time consuming, and hard. You need a reason to do well. Incentives make a difference...

...IQ remains a deeply divisive issue partly because people with high IQ scores typically do better in all kinds of ways. They get more education, they make more money. But what do IQ tests really measure? Heckman says one of the things they measure is motivation. How much effort are you willing to give? And so it raises the question: do people do well in life because they have high IQs? Or is the thing that helps you do well on an IQ test the same thing that helps you do well in life? Heckman thinks what matters more is motivation, perseverance, attitude; the "soft" stuff that he says schools tend to ignore these days because they're so focused on raising test scores.

Heckman: No Child Left Behind, the whole emphasis on cognitive skill testing is insane. I mean, it's really misdirected.

1 comment:

The Perimeter Primate said...

James Heckman on the high return of early childhood education: "Why Early Investment Matters."