Lillian Katz on Lively Minds: Innovation of the Undisruptive Kind

One of the hottest questions today is this: how do we produce legions of those creative, inquiring, innovative minds to keep our beloved U.S. engine of capitalism humming?  We can’t stop thinking about it.

Why, those stubborn politicians are even crossing the aisle, falling all over themselves in support for universal preschool.   Never mind that access is still limited, and quality sketchy, or that prekindergarten is too late: we need to be supporting children and families prenatally on up. At least we’re on the right track.

But we’re going about this project in the wrong way, torturing children and teachers in the process.  We’re also alienating parents.  To be sure, they’re anxious about little Olivia’s progress on that great, big road to college-and-career readiness.  Is she doing as well as Liam, who just made the cut-off for the gifted and talented program?  But they’re also not happy with the status quo—narrow curricula and assessment run amok on the model of disruptive innovation in business.

Lillian Katz has a better idea. A beloved professor of early childhood emerita, she honed her expertise in the days before standards-based accountability at Stanford, picking up a doctorate in psychological studies.  She’s lending her formidable mind—which earned her an honorary degree at Goteborg University in Sweden (of course)—to the Early Childhood and Parenting Collaborative at the University of Illinois, in Champaign.  Aren’t they lucky?

In the meantime, Katz has penned a short paper for Defending the Early Years (the DEY Project), in which she makes the distinction between academic and intellectual goals for young children.   For those who are too busy engaging little minds or soothing anxious test-takers  to manage an eight-minute read, the video (above) is a quick four minutes.

In a discussion that has become intensely politicized—to the detriment of children’s well-being—Katz hovers above the fray, in her inside, unassuming early childhood voice:

The extent to which academic instruction should be a major goal of the curriculum for preschool and kindergarten children is a constant topic of debate among the many parties concerned with early childhood education.  The introduction of local, state and national standards has exacerbated the complexities involved in resolving these issues.

I am suggesting that perhaps one approach to resolving some of the dissension concerning curriculum focus in the early years and about the potential risks of premature formal academic instruction is to examine the distinctions between academic and intellectual goals—perhaps during all the years of education

Katz rejects the idea that spontaneous play, “…creating objects with clay, building with blocks, listening to amusing stories, and other pleasant experiences” is incompatible with academic skill formation and knowledge, “…the alphabet, days of the week names of the months, the calendar, counting.”  The goal for education at all points along the spectrum, she argues, “must be to provide a wide range of experiences, opportunities,  resources and contexts that will provoke stimulate, and support children’s innate intellectual dispositions.”

Here’s what it would look like:

An appropriate curriculum in the early years is one that includes the encouragement and motivation of the children to seek mastery of basic academic skills, e.g. beginning writing skills, in the service of their intellectual pursuits.

Extensive experience of involving preschool and kindergarten children in in-depth investigation projects has clearly supported the assumption that the children come to appreciate the usefulness of basic academic skills related to literacy and mathematics as they strive to share their findings from their investigations with classmates and others.

And this is Katz on school readiness and the intellect:

…it is widely assumed that because some young children, especially those of low-income families, have not been exposed to the knowledge and skills associated with ‘school readiness’ [learning language, and reading books: see the “word gap”]  that they lack the basic intellectual dispositions…to make sense of experience, to analyze, hypothesize, predict, as do their peers of more affluent backgrounds.

Such children may not have been read to or to have observed adults habitually reading, or perhaps have never yet used a pencil at home.  But I suggest that it is reasonable and perhaps also helpful to assume that they too usually have lively minds.

For all children, the “mindless, trivial if not banal activities frequently offered in child care, preschool and kindergarten programs”—not to mention test preparation and anxiety—are squashing this innate intellectual curiosity and drive.

If we are talking about real equality and equity, if early education is part of addressing the “civil rights issue of our time,”we need to do some real soul-searching.

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3 comments to Lillian Katz on Lively Minds: Innovation of the Undisruptive Kind

  • Nina Sazer ODonnell

    Thank you for highlighting Lillian Katz’ thinking and related issues. Care for and attention to how young children develop, learn and thrive has been sorely missing from most policy discussions.

  • Bravo to Lilian Katz, a true hero of young children and their supporters everywhere! and Bravo, also, Susan for putting this on your blog.
    I’ve already put the story of this article as reported in the Washington Post on my Facebook Timeline.
    Our voices MUST be heard!!!

  • Yes! I couldn’t agree more. Those with expertise and wisdom need to lean in to the policy tables, with outside voices!

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