Learning with dinosaurs

Cover edit 3What are the best educational videos available for streaming? Mike Petrilli is making a list.

He’s been watching a BBC series, Walking with Dinosaurs with his sons, who are 5 and 3. Thanks to the series (narrated by Kenneth Branagh!), the five-year-old “has a rudimentary understanding of evolution (paving the way for many scientific and theological conversations in the years ahead) and has absorbed key vocabulary to boot (carnivore, herbivore, omnivore, Cretaceous, Jurassic, etc.).”

A five-year-old’s curiosity knows no bounds, Petrilli writes.

As E.D. Hirsch, Jr., has argued for a quarter-century, the early elementary years are the ideal time to introduce children to the wonders of history (natural and otherwise), geography, literature, art, music, and more.

By providing a solid grounding in the core domains of human civilization, we are providing two wonderful gifts for our children: A store of knowledge that will help them better understand the complexities of our universe as they grow older; and a rich vocabulary that will make them strong, confident readers in these early, formative years.

Petrilli hopes to identify the best streaming videos available to teach core content to early elementary-school children.

PBS Kids vs. Nick Jr.

The best PBS shows for children are better than Disney Jr. and Nick Jr., writes Fordham’s Mike Petrilli in In praise of PBS Kids. He thinks the government subsidy makes the difference.

The best PBS shows in my view—and my elder son’s!—actually teach something. Not something vague like “reasoning skills” but something concrete like science! Yes, his favorite shows are Sid the Science Kid and Wild Kratts, a very clever program about wildlife. At four and a half, he can’t read yet, but he can learn a ton about our world—and with his curiosity on overdrive, he’s eager to learn and learn and learn.

Other PBS shows are strong on content knowledge too, especially Dinosaur Trains and The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot about That. Others focus on teaching decoding and comprehension strategies—these stem from the early 2000s and reflect the Bush administration’s obsession with early reading — namely Word World, Super Why, and Word Girl. And the line-up is rounded out with several pleasant if content-free offerings that aim to teach character and the like (Arthur, Caillou, Clifford, and so forth).

Nick Jr. offers The Backyardigans, which is “brilliant.” He’s heard Disney’s Gaspard and Lisa is great for vocabulary. But he blames Nick for “the poisonous Sponge Bob Square Pants and the hugely annoying Dora the Explorer — the crack cocaine of children’s television.”

PBS shows are more educationally sound because “the Department of Education’s Ready to Learn program provides upwards of $30 million a year to develop high-quality programs” and related web sites and games, Petrilli writes.

In an e-mail discussion thread, parents and grandparents agreed that Caillou is loathesome.

As a good libertarian, Neal McCluskey thinks government should stay out of the TV business and questions whether “at-risk” kids watch PBS shows.

MATCH founder Michael Goldstein, the father of a four-year-old, doesn’t think PBS shows are “more educationally sound.”

1. Nick Jr shouldn’t be accountable for the fact that its sister channel, Nick, has SpongeBob.

That’s like holding Disney Channel accountable for John Carter. Or dinging Curious George because PBS has pledge drives. No relationship.

2. I’m not that impressed with PBS Dinosaur Train on dino content. Nick Jr. Dino Dan is at least its equal.

3. PBS Cat In The Hat has a lot of knowledge? What are you smoking there in Northern Virginia? It has Martin Short. Case closed.

4. I agree that Nick Jr Backyardigans is amazing — if that ran on PBS would you argue that it’s only possible b/c of the subsidy?

5. I agree PBS Kids has good science shows for kids. But

a. Since they do, Nick Jr presumably looks for the niche PBS doesn’t fill. One is multicultural characters that 3 and 4 year olds seem to like — Ni Hao Kai Lan, Little Bill, Dora, Diego.

b. If PBS didn’t produce the science shows, what makes you think that Nick Jr wouldn’t?

Nick Jr runs Team Umizoomi. It’s all about math. “Geo” and “Mili” are the lead characters, and most of the show is finding patterns. Why wouldn’t they do the same if PBS weren’t already on the scene?

It’s been many years since I watched Sesame Street with my preschooler in the pre-Dora era, so I have no dog in this hunt.

My three-year-old granddaughter has abandoned Elmo for Disney’s Peppa Pig. She now refers to herself as “Julia Pig” and calls her little sister “George Pig” after Peppa’s little brother. She’s picking up Peppa’s British accent, especially when she says, “Let’s give it a go!” or answers the phone, “Julia Pig speaking.”

Common Core reading: Too hard? Too factual?

The new common standards for K-2 reading are too hard, “harsh” and “dreary,” writes Joanne Yatvin, a former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, in Education Week. The standards “overestimate the intellectual, physiological, and emotional development of young children,” Yatvin writes.

This amounts to meeting children where they are and keeping them there, responds Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog. He lists the standards’ “three big ideas.”

1. Students should read as much nonfiction as fiction.

2. Schools should ensure all children—and especially disadvantaged children—build coherent background knowledge that is essential to mature reading comprehension.

3. Success in reading comprehension depends less on “personal response” and more on close reading of text.

The standards call for teaching vocabulary and background knowledge. It’s too much academics too soon, writes Yatvin. She thinks children should “learn words connected to their everyday lives and their interests rather than to things and experiences as yet unknown.”

We learn most words in context, Pondiscio replies.

So while it certainly it makes sense to connect words to kids “everyday lives and experiences” it’s something very close to educational malpractice not to make a concerted effort to expand a child’s knowledge base beyond their immediate experiences.  If there is anything that ensures a low-level of academic achievement it is the idea that kids can only learn from their direct experiences.

Yatvin also disagrees with the standards’ call to teach non-fiction as well as fiction. Young children have “limited experience in the fields of science, geography, history, and technology,” she writes. “It is one thing for a child to read The Little Engine That Could for the pleasure of the story and quite another for her to comprehend the inner workings of a locomotive.”

Actually, many children, especially boys, enjoy reading about science, nature and technology, including trains. I was a huge fan of history and geography — anything that wasn’t about the boring suburb where I lived.

Little Engine That Could “is ripe with opportunities to build background knowledge” about “colors, mountains, trains and transportation, to name but a few,” writes Pondiscio.

I’m all for reading for the pleasure of the story.  But start building background knowledge of the world beyond a child’s immediate surroundings today, and you geometrically expand the number of stories a child can read for pleasure tomorrow.

Very few kids have personal experiences with dinosaurs, dolphins, pirates or superheroes, yet many enjoy reading about them.  The first graders I’m tutoring in reading love the Magic School Bus series, which teaches science. They can’t read the book I’ve got (about kitchen chemistry), but they’re longing to be able to.