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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