Ideas to shift early education

Michael Alcorn
Posted

Over the past two weeks, I’ve started to make the case that, for all the seriousness and drama with which our community seems to be tackling the issue of education reform, we’re really not talking about serious, important reforms. Instead of tackling first principles, and redefining critical parts of what we do, we seem to be caught up in what Elon Musk calls “reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations.” And that’s fine, I suppose, but it’s not worth all of the angst it has inspired.

What would be worth it? Allow me to propose a few radical ideas that, whether you agree with them or not, might actually be worth all the drama.

First off, the young mind, and by that I mean pre-adolescent, is an amazing feat of computer engineering. The learning curve on a young brain is hundreds of degrees steeper than our most advanced computer circuits, and yet, we rarely try to accomplish anything with younger students commensurate with their innate potential.

Right now, we have a system that is designed for younger students very basic—with rare exceptions, kindergarteners rarely get “specials” (art, music, physical education: AMP) taught by a qualified specialist; from first through fifth or sixth grade, students only get each AMP the equivalent of every third day; recess and free play are increasingly getting squeezed out of the day; instrumental music is not offered until fifth or sixth grade; foreign languages rarely show up before middle school. What a waste!

If we really wanted to build brains, instead of just churning out proficient test-takers, then we really need to look at the younger years differently.

• Young students (first-fourth years) should have music every day! And not just because I teach music and it would be great for my profession — I teach music because it is important! The research is voluminous, but let me just highlight one study out of Beijing (remember the Chinese? the next superpower and all?) as reported in the South China Morning Post: “Early musical training ... changes the brain and these brain changes could lead to cognitive advances ... (Yunxin) Wang found that musical training starting before age seven appeared to thicken areas of the brain involved in language skills and executive function.” That sounds a little like a shortcut to building a better brain.

• Youngs should have art every day! In the same way that music rewires the brain, so do the visual arts. One study from Stanford, et al., draws a connection between concentrated time spent on making art and the ability to do mathematical computations. Other studies have linked art and creativity, and art and delayed gratification, which is one of the most important success-builder skills we can impart on students.

• Youngs should have physical education every day! Physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, which is good for cognition; it helps clear mental clutter and return the emotions to a state of equilibrium, which are good for academic development; and it’s critical to overall health, which contributes to both physiological and academic growth. If it were me, I’d prescribe martial arts for everyone, but I’m flexible ... some might prefer to dance.

• Youngs should be taught a foreign language from the moment they step into a school. The pre-adolescent proclivity for language acquisition is well-documented. But, setting aside the utility of knowing a second language, learning a second language while getting command of the first (presumably, English) does nothing but strengthen the language centers of the brain, which has far-reaching benefits to students.

Do you notice anything about the first four ideas I’ve laid out? None of those subjects are tested currently, which means that none of them are valued in our system of education. And yet the documentation of the benefits of all of these is incontrovertible.

So if we’re going to have knock-down, drag-out fights over education reform, then let’s start to talk about actual reforms, and stop getting so fired up about analogous tweaks.