In Old Whine, New Bottle, Robert Pondiscio rips a New York Times op-ed, Playing to Learn by Susan Engel, a lecturer in psychology and director of the teaching program at Williams College. Engel imagines a third-grade classroom where children
“…spend two hours each day hearing stories read aloud, reading aloud themselves, telling stories to one another and reading on their own. After all, the first step to literacy is simply being immersed, through conversation and storytelling, in a reading environment; the second is to read a lot and often.”
Pondiscio wonders why “phonics and decoding is neither the first or even the second ‘step to literacy’.” And what about curriculum and content?
Engel wants children to spend “an hour a day writing things that have actual meaning to them — stories, newspaper articles, captions for cartoons, letters to one another.”
That’s three hours on reading and writing. But only “a short period” would be spent practicing computation.
Once children are proficient in those basics they would be free to turn to other activities that are equally essential for math and science: devising original experiments, observing the natural world and counting things, whether they be words, events or people.
Students wouldn’t learn “isolated mathematical formulas” or memorize “sheets of science facts that are unlikely to matter much in the long run.” (Do third graders learn math formulas — isolated or not — or memorize sheets of science facts?)
Scientists know that children learn best by putting experiences together in new ways. They construct knowledge; they don’t swallow it.
Teachers would have conversations with small groups of children so they could have “a chance to support their views with evidence, change their minds and use questions as a way to learn more.”
And there would be lots of time for play and collaboration.
In short, Professor Engel is offering not one new idea here, but rather a steaming gumbo of fads, failed ed school homilies and constructivist ideology.
It does seem like the kiddies are going to teach themselves reading, writing, math and science with the teacher needed only to engage in conversations. They’re going to construct knowledge from the sort of experiences available to third graders. It sounds . . . confusing. I don’t think I could or would have come up with meaningful science experiments in third grade or devised instructional math games. I certainly didn’t spend my play time counting things, though I was one of the few third graders who wrote newspaper articles in my free time for The Wednesday Report, which I founded with my best friend, Janice. (Janice went on to become a botanist and I don’t remember her doing freelance science experiments either.)