Will 1st graders be lost in the ziggurat?

New York’s first-grade curriculum module on Early World Civilizations is troubling Chris Cerrone of Schools Matter @the Chalk Face. The vocabulary includes priests, religion, ziggurat, caravan, chariots, pyramid, archaeologist, hieroglyphs, sarcophagus, afterlife, prophet, etc.

Nearly all the Chalk Face commenters believe the unit is not “developmentally appropriate” for first graders, writes Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist. Some cited Piaget’s stages of development, arguing little kids can’t learn abstract ideas. Others cited their experience teaching first grade.

Willingham doesn’t think much of Piaget’s theories. And the experience argument cuts both ways:

 . . . if we adopt a proof-of-the-pudding-is-in-the-eating criterion, lessons on ancient civilizations are fine because they are in use and children are learning. The material shown above is part of the Core Knowledge sequence, around for more than a decade and used by over a thousand schools. (NB: I’m on the Board of the Core Knowledge Foundation.)

. . . Another curriculum has had first-graders learn about ancient civilizations not for a decade, but for about a century: Montessori. (NB again: my children experienced these lessons at their school, and my wife teaches them–she’s an early elementary Montessori teacher.)

Montessori schools teach the “Five Great Lessons” at the beginning of first, second and third grades on: the history of the universe and earth, the coming of life, the origins of human beings, the history of signs and writing and the story of numbers and mathematics.

“Our understanding of any new concept is always incomplete,” Willingham argues.

For example, how do children learn that some people they hear about (Peter Pan) are made up and never lived, whereas others (the Pharaohs) were real? Not by an inevitable process of neurological maturation that makes their brain “ready” for this information, whereupon  they master it quickly. They learn it bit by bit, in fits and starts, sometimes seeming to get it, other times not.

And you can’t always wait until children are “ready.” Think about mathematics. Children are born understanding numerosity, but they understand it on a logarithmic scale–the difference between five and ten is larger than the difference between 70 and 75. To understand elementary mathematics they must learn to think of numbers of a linear scale. In this case, teachers have to undo Nature. And if you wait until the child is “developmentally ready” to understand numbers this way, you’ll never teach them mathematics. It will never happen.

Developmental psychology  provides some help in thinking about how children learn, Willingham concludes, but isn’t a good guide to what children can learn.

I just spent two days in Disneyland with Julia, 4, and Lily, 2. A major fan of Peter Pan, Julia thinks “fairy dust” enabled us to fly back to northern California. (I suggested the plane had been sprinkled with aerodynamics.) She also watches Little Einsteins, which teaches music terms. On the drive from the airport, she told her grandfather he was driving presto and should instead drive moderato.

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Comments

  1. IME 6 and 7 year olds love learning about pyramids and ziggurats and hieroglyphs. What is cooler? And it’s a good age for reading epics too–I read my kids Rosemary Sutcliff’s versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey, which are very appealing to the 6yo mind. Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh, all that stuff.

    • Good grief. My kids start their fascination with Egypt around the age of 3!

      And a lot of Homeschoolers read Susan Wise Bauer’s History of the World to their PreK kids.

      Why would a ziggeraut be any more foreign to a 6 year old than an airport? Most kids seldom visit either!

  2. My kids also loved learning about ancient history. We had a great time building a ziggurat with cardboard boxes and then painting it with a mix of acrylic paint and sand. They also have great memories of the model Nile delta we made – dirt, grass seed, rocks in an aluminum foil roasting pan. We read age-appropriate retellings of Iliah, Odyssey, etc., so they were ready when we read the full versions. They still find ancient history interesting.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    This seems to have been a bad week to quit sniffing glue.
    I swear some educator is saying that we shouldn’t intro kids to words and concepts they don’t know because they might not know them.

  4. The classical curriculum also starts the ancient world in first grade; history, geography, culture, literature etc. Science is the natural world, IIRC.

    The teacher comments on the linked article were almost universally negative. Given the lack of this kind of content-heavy material over the last decades, I wonder how many of the comments reflect their own lack of content knowledge in this area and their ability to teach it.

    • Part of the problem might be that the sort of people who volunteer to teach first grade do so because it’s “easy” stuff like “who are the people in your neighborhood.”

      The elementary ed teachers with a passion for history end up in the 5-8 grades.

      So, they’re probably complaining because THEY think this is dull and confusing. Sheesh. It’s like they’ve made it their mission to make school as boring as possible!

  5. Amusing to see mom and Deirdre call teachers stupid, since neither of them has shown signs of thinking their way out of a soggy paper bag, much less anything approaching originality of thought. Yes, yes, I’m sure *their* children are brilliant.

    The material on display is appropriate for the well-educated children of Dan Willingham’s acquaintance. I bet even mom and Deirdre’s kids can handle it.

    Lower half of the cognitive ability spectrum? I do not think so.

    • Cal: I did not call teachers stupid.(or my kids brilliant) I said that it is likely that many (probably the younger ones) have never been required, either as k-12 students and/or as student teachers, to learn traditional history, geography and culture. I saw the gaps when my kids went through school (in the leafy suburbs); little on the Fertile Crescent, India, China, Japan, Russia, the Renaissance, the Reformation and little on American/comparative government and almost nothing on geography. We covered those things, and many others, at home, but I’m sure many parents did not.

      I also agree with you that some kids do not have the cognitive ability to handle a number of academic areas. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be given as much as they can handle, but the kids who can handle more should be given more. Right now, kids in the upper third (probably sometimes more) are not challenged. The “those kids will do fine anyway” mindset has been around since my late FIL started teaching in the 30s. I would prefer to see a solid curriculum modified as needed for those unable to handle it, as opposed to a weak curriculum, with “enrichment” (timewasting artsy projects, in my experience).

      • 5th grade, our teacher hated history, so we never made it past the early European explorers and Indians in our US history class. (Luckily I was coming from PA, so we’d covered up to the Westward expansion the year before.) 6th grade, we had an excellent history teacher who did a great job on Greece, Rome, and Egypt. Then she got sick and left mid-year, and we were stuck with…. random projects.

        7th and 8th grade– Eastern Intermediate, so Awesome History.

        High School- STEM program, so the history was hit or miss depending on what teacher we got.

        Really, in most school systems, you only cover what the teacher happens to LIKE. So if you get lucky, and have teachers who like history and who are willing to cover all periods, you get good stuff. If you get one with an axe to grind, forget it. (We spend an entire high school semester on ‘the red scare, the Vietnam war, and why the USSR was AWESOME, MAN. Learned some fun protest songs though. Really got to relive the teacher’s 60s experience except for the part where he was in prison….)

        • This is why Core Knowledge would be a huge step up from what most students get. Parents may think their kids are getting a ‘well-rounded education’ when they send their kids to school, but it’s actually hit or miss.

          I think homeschoolers are more conscientious about teaching things we DON’T enjoy, because we know the kids who education depends on us.

    • Cal, it’s perfectly socially and pedagogically acceptable for 3 year olds to watch “Dinosaur Train” and “Wild Kratts” and learn all sorts of complex vocabulary and concepts about dinosaurs and wild animals. Most kids have never seen a dinosaur or a platypus, yet they learn from these shows.

      So why is it insane to think that 3 years later, they could learn about Babylon and Egypt? In most areas, first grade social studies is devoted to “This is what a policeman does. This is what a Doctor does.” Daniel Tiger already covers these things for 2 year olds. Why shouldn’t the 6 year olds have something better?

      There are plenty of excellent books, videos, and hands on activities that can teach first graders words like “canal” and “Shaduf.”

      BTW–I didn’t say that STUPID people taught first grade. I said people who don’t like history teach first grade. You can be perfectly intelligent and still hate history and want to avoid grades where you have to teach it.

      I’m not sure why you quickly resort to sarcasm and ad hominem attacks whenever you feel like people disagree with you. Perhaps you need to take a deep breath and calm down?

  6. As others are saying, kids are fascinated by this stuff and won’t have any problem with it. Clearly this guy has never heard 3 and 4 year olds explain the difference between dinosaurs with nearly unpronounceable names. I really have little patience with people like this. I would have been thrilled if my children’s first grade had studied this. Instead, they learned that they live in a “community” – as if this is some great discovery.

  7. “I’m not sure why you quickly resort to sarcasm and ad hominem attacks whenever you feel like people disagree with you.”

    I’m perfectly calm, thanks. And I am untroubled by disagreement.

    Apparently, you can insult people and you’re not mad. But when I do it, I’m mad? Only difference is, you insult people behind their backs.

    “Part of the problem might be that the sort of people who volunteer to teach first grade do so because it’s “easy” stuff like “who are the people in your neighborhood.” The elementary ed teachers with a passion for history end up in the 5-8 grades. So, they’re probably complaining because THEY think this is dull and confusing. Sheesh. It’s like they’ve made it their mission to make school as boring as possible! ”

    This post was deliberately insulting and nasty to elementary school teachers. There’s nothing wrong with being insulting and nasty. Go right ahead. But since you do it all the time, and you’re wrong, I will simply remind you that you’re not as smart as you think you are, and really, really predictable,.

    Ditto to the woman who feels it necessary to announce her parental status.

    “As others are saying, kids are fascinated by this stuff and won’t have any problem with it.”

    This is an absurd statement made by someone who doesn’t understand the cognitive ability of 75-90% of first grade students.

    • So, are Dinosaur Train and Wild Kratts developmentally inappropriate for 75-90% of 3-6 year olds?

    • >>This is an absurd statement made by someone who doesn’t understand the cognitive ability of 75-90% of first grade students.

      So, you’re saying that 10-25% of first graders are cognitively special needs? The stats here say only 13% of 3 to 21 year olds are served under IDEA:
      http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d11/tables/dt11_048.asp

      It’s absurd to lower the first grade expectations to below developmentally normal for neurotypical, English-as-a-first-language children who do not qualify for a special education label.

  8. Linda Seebach says:

    Cal said, “This is an absurd statement made by someone who doesn’t understand the cognitive ability of 75-90% of first grade students.”
    Cal knows a lot of stuff (though apparently not where hyphens are conventionally placed) but this sounds to me like “making stuff up.” Suspiciously precise.
    Anyway . . . when I was a grad student (in linguistics, ~ 1990 ) I took a grad course in child psychology and the instructor told us that nobody much believed that Piaget stuff any more, but they were still teaching it because there wasn’t any other grand unified theory of (learning) everything.

  9. cranberry says:

    New York City students taught in Core Knowledge schools posted higher scores on reading tests than NYC students in control groups.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/12/nyregion/nonfiction-curriculum-enhanced-reading-skills-in-new-york-city-schools.html?pagewanted=all

    Low expectations reinforce themselves. It’s hard to learn something you haven’t been taught, particularly if your parents don’t take you to museums on weekends.

    • You might want to check out that study a little more closely. The gains were highest for kindergarten and were lower for each subsequent year (It only went up to second grade.) It is interesting to note that even this limited study showed no positive effects for vocabulary. It is highly likely that the positive results shown for the kindergarten students were due to the intensive phonics program that was instituted at the same time. It would be interesting to see how these schools scored on the latest round of testing. The results are out, but I don’t hear any bragging from Core Knowledge supporters.

    • Another thing I think the critics are missing is that to a 6 year old, the idea that “Men built the Ziggerauts is no more alien than “Men built the Skyscrapers.” Both involve the idea of men building something that, to these kids, has existed FOREVER. And the tie in to the ancient world is a useful social studies point, because it helps show that throughout human history, human nature has been pretty constant. “People Build Cool Things” is totally in line with first grade thinking. I mean, yes, it would be insane to teach first grade history the same way you’d teach 12th grade history, but that doesn’t mean you can’t approach the concepts from a first grade level!

  10. I’ve written about how much we like Core Knowledge before, but what surprises me about the specific ‘Egypt’ complaints is that, where we live, many kids learn some of these concepts in Sunday School. Stories about Pharaoh, scribes, priests, etc are standards for small kids precisely because they are concrete enough for them to build, draw, or act out.

  11. Perhaps Cerrone could also enlighten us as to what style and size of shoes would be developmentally appropriate for “first graders.”