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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Barr (M.A. M.Ed)

The Problem with Short Term ECE Research!

"If we care about the happiness and healthy development of children, we should be very concerned about what is happening with preschools. Increasingly, they are becoming what kindergartens have sadly become, that is, places for academic training of little children regardless of their interest in or readiness for it."

Peter Gray

This article is somewhat of a review or celebration of an article by Peter Gray. At the bottom of the page you can find a link to his original article. All quotes are from that article and I will expand on them with thoughts from my time in international private education.


There are countless programs, guides, syllabuses and curricula for a wide range of subjects in early childhood education. If you have worked in three or more schools or your child has attended more than one school you will have likely encountered these differences. Different math curriculum's with "special/unique" math materials and lessons, phonics programs with "special/unique' songs, readers and materials etc. Each curriculum is promoted as DAP (Developmentally Appropriate Practice) and the accompanying research has shown the apparent "effectiveness"of each program. Unfortunately this is often untrue and as Peter Gray highlights "most research on pre-K curricula is short-range, short-sighted, and misleading." Many parents accept what teachers or schools tell them about their phonics, math etc. curriculum, mostly due to the fact they like their children learning these things as they are more desirable and easy to track progress when being taught. Even scarier, most teachers accept the information 'on the box' as true without digging into the research, how it was conducted and for how long.

 

Why is this important?

Understanding the research is important because most research conducted over a short time period is useless if it doesn't show the long term effects of certain methods used, skills taught or information learnt!

 

Currently in the USA under President Biden there is a push for universal Pre-k (making it available to all young children and paid for by the government). The current plan cites the need for universal Pre-k to be based on 'developmentally appropriate best practice'. In the 'Child Development Brief', published by the Society for Research in Child Development, it claims its recommendations are based on DAP. After looking into the evidence Peter Gray found that "None of the studies cited in the brief provide evidence that academic training in preschool benefits children later in elementary school." All the studies cited in the brief claiming to promote DAP were based on short term research that only shows the difference in children over one year after being given academic training compared to children who weren't.

 

"These researchers ignore the long-term studies, such as those I have reviewed (go to Peter Grays article, link at the bottom of the page), showing that any advantage of early academic training, in either preschool or kindergarten or both, washes out and in some cases reverses itself as children go through the further grades."

 

How are typical short term research studies conducted?

  1. You do an experiment in a preschool or kindergarten where children in some classes but not others are explicitly taught something such as math skills, or literacy skills through a certain program or method.

  2. Next, you test them on those skills in both classes at the end of the preschool year—or in a few cases at the beginning of kindergarten.

  3. The research often finds those who were taught the skills through a certain curricula score better on assessments that test those specific skills than those who were not explicitly taught. As Gray says in his article,

"Well, of course they do! How could that not be true? Somewhat surprisingly, they don’t score much better, but sufficiently so to reach statistical significance. Does it lead them to do better later in school than they would have if they had not suffered the preschool training? If it doesn’t, then what’s the point of it?"

Think of it this way. Let's say you have two classes of Pre-k children. In one class (class A) the teachers spend an hour per day teaching children how to tie their shoe laces. In the other class (class B) they don't spend an hour per day specifically learning this skill. At the end of the school year you test both groups of children to see which are better at tying shoe laces. You find that the children who spent an hour per day learning to do it were better than the children in the class B that didn't spend an hour per day learning this skill. You then tell the world that by spending an hour per doing this children will be able to tie their shoe laces by the time they are 4 years old and so it is highly recommend and research proven that the shoe lace tying curriculum be applied in all classes of three and four year olds.


But...


In two or three years time will the children who spent an hour per day still be considerably better at tying their shoe laces as the other children? No, they won't! This is the same for reading instruction/phonics programs targets at 3-5 year olds. Research consistently shows children catch up by grade 3 or 4 and have a more positive disposition to reading and writing.


EXCLAIMER: That doesn't mean we ignore pre-literacy skills, mark making, language development and each child's own readiness for learning to read. Check out an article on this subject


Too many schools let non ECE educators or admin pick these academic training curricular because they read on the website or the sales person told them "research shows it works". We must understands that education is a journey not a race and children develop at different rates. For teachers they also can think too much about the short term, particularly if they only teach one grade, ever! Educators who are unwilling or say they are unable to work with younger or older children do so because they care more about the content/curricular of that age group rather than children themselves and how they learn over time, or developing a deeper understanding of how skills look before their grade level and after. The best teachers I have worked with are those that had experience with more than one age group over their career.

Looking at the Long Term Research!


Many of the best ECE or whole school (K-12) education programs are from countries that implement the findings of long term research into education policy. For example, in 1970s Germany experimented with traditional academic kindergartens and found that children in those programs did worse, later in school, than those who were in play-based kindergartens (see Darling-Hammond & Snyder (1992).


When long term research studies are used to make policy decisions it usually results in happier and better education for children. Even countries like China and Japan which are often seen as academically rigid focus more on DAP in the early years and early primary.


The question is why are short term studies often considered and used more often than long term research. Peter Gray believes;

 

"the self-interest of too many researchers and practitioners lies in short-term thinking. Researchers conduct short-term studies because they are easy to do and can be published in a timely fashion, which helps the researchers get promoted.

"Policy makers accept the results of the short-term studies on face value because they are too lazy, too busy, or too ignorant to dig deeper. "


"Administrators and teachers (often reluctantly) accept the curricula promoted by the short-term studies because the higher-ups who evaluate them look mainly at short-term results, the immediate test scores, not at the long-term well-being or even the immediate happiness of the students. All this happens at the expense of our kids. Shame on us for allowing it."

 

I agree with his assessment although I would also say for some ECE educators the attraction of set curricula makes them feel safer and more confident in what to teach. At Barrkinderplay we value and promote an emergent curriculum approach and in fact probably what we do would be too teacher led for Peter Gray who believes children should be in far greater mixed age settings. We also really appreciate the 'Chinese National Curriculum guidelines for 3-6 Year Olds' as being holistic and aligned to long term research study results. But again, for some its too vague and they need more curricula, more specific things to teach. Going down this rabbit hole takes us further and further away from best practice.


Whether you are a teacher, leader, or parent beware of research based claims of set preschool curricular. Do the hard work of digging into how the research was conducted, how much time was spent to produce the promised results and the long term benefits of what children are being asked to learn in the early years.

Click below to see Peter Gray's original article: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/202112/beware-evidence-based-preschool-curricula


References:

Darling-Hammond, L., & J. Snyder (1992). Curriculum studies and the traditions of inquiry: the scientific tradition. pp 41-78 in Philip W Jackson (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Curriculum. MacMillan.


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