Preschool teachers and pint-sized scientists

Tuesday October 23, 2012

Last month a preschool teacher I know asked a townsperson to visit her classroom to discuss an important issue with her students. His response? "Sorry, I have a real job." She felt ambushed by his reply and could not manage a clever retort. Instead she was left feeling -- once again -- unappreciated and misunderstood. Want to experience "real" work? Visit -- or volunteer in -- a preschool classroom. Try corralling and educating the pure rocket fuel that is barely housed in the body of a 4-year-old; then you might understand a little of what these educators actually do.

In the educational pecking order, early childhood educators ought to be treated like the preening, cocksure rooster -- valued, respected and revered. Instead, they seem to rank somewhere just above stewing chicken. There are many reasons for this. Early childhood educators do traditionally "woman's work" and are paid less than other teachers. Our society often equates pay with status. Childcare is distressingly undervalued, and any classroom that--to the uniformed -- looks like childcare is similarly unappreciated. Certainly it also has something to do with the fact that everyone seems to think they can do the job. How hard can it be? Hang out and play with kids?

But play is serious business. Dr. Alison Gopnik -- psychology professor at UC Berkeley and a leading cognitive development researcher -- asserts that "children at play are like pint-sized scientists testing theories." Gopnik focuses on why young children can learn so much so quickly, and she's narrowed in on a kind of thinking children do while pretending: counterfactual thinking. Counterfactual thinking is the process by which we express what did not happen but could have happened if conditions had been different. (If she hurried she would have caught the bus. Or: If kangaroos had no tails, they would fall over.) While studying 3- and 4-year-old preschool students, Gopnik and her team found that children who were better at pretending were also better counterfactual thinkers. Children at play, much like scientists in the lab, "imagine ways the world could work and predict the pattern of data that would follow if their theories were true, and then compare that pattern with the pattern they actually see." Gopnik argues that preschool play -- and the counterfactual thinking embedded in it--is vitally important for children but also for the larger society. As Gopnik stresses, "it is a crucial part of what makes all humans so smart."

Preschool teachers not only help to shape the minds of future scientists, they also more effectively train future workers than many job-training programs. NPR reporter Alex Blumberg reports that University of Chicago professor -- and Nobel Prize winning economist -- James Heckman set out to understand why a job-training program did not help a group of workers get better jobs. He realized that workers enrolled in the job-training program still did not have critical skills needed to advance in the work world. He identified these as "soft skills" like paying attention, focusing on an activity, being curious, resolving differences, and controlling one's temper. Heckman argues these skills are learned primarily in preschool, and this makes preschool an excellent job-training program. He cites the Perry Preschool Project -- a 1960s experiment in Michigan -- in which 3- and 4-year-olds from poor families were divided into two groups; one received preschool education and the other did not. The students then attended the local public schools and continued to live in the same community. Twenty years later, the men and women who once attended preschool were much less likely to be incarcerated, earned much more money, were far more likely to have savings accounts, and were more likely to be employed. Other studies have shown similar results.

Early childhood educators are also on the front lines in the battle to protect imaginative play. We can poke fun all we want about "choice time" and how it doesn't stack up against hard academics, but the research -- a lot of it -- says otherwise. Imaginative play develops a vital cognitive skill called executive function, which has many elements, but the main one is self-regulation. Underdeveloped executive function has been linked to high dropout rates, drug use and crime. Conversely, healthy executive function is a good predictor of academic success in school. Laura Berk--longtime executive function researcher -- explains that during make-believe play, children engage in something called private speech. A child will discuss with herself what and how she's going to play. Berk says, "[T]his type of self-regulating language is highest during make-believe play and has been shown in many studies to be predictive of executive functions." Private speech declines precipitously when children's play is more structured and proscribed.

Apart from shaping minds and developing future scientists and workers, preschool teachers are highly skilled translators. Despite having my own two small children, I still feel like a traveler in the Casbah when visiting my son's preschool classroom. Recently, I had two incidents in which I absolutely could not understand what students said to me. Each time I turned to one of the teachers for help. They focused entirely on the child and accurately translated what sounded like utter gobbledygook to me. I don't have the gift, and I am grateful they do. They guide our kids on the path from clever cavemen to fully functioning homo sapiens -- no small endeavor.

I suspect that our condescension towards early childhood educators reveals something deeper: A dismissive attitude about young children and what they're capable of achieving. In this, we show our own Neanderthal tendencies.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at Read her blog at


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