After a quick post on developmentally appropriate practice (with a vivid analogy) ignited a list of questions from readers, I started this series to look more deeply into DAP — what it means, why it’s disappearing, and what the consequences are.
In the last installment of this series, I want to address a common question. “But what about….” We hear it many forms, and it’s always a question worth asking. “What about my son who learned to read at 4 and has been doing great ever since?” “What about Program X, which seems to show results, even though people claim it’s not DAP?”
The best answer to this type of question that I can think of came from Dr. Marcy Guddemi of the Gesell Institute, whom I interviewed a few years ago for this post regarding the institute’s recent findings on DAP. In explaining how some children seem to perform beyond their level, Dr. Guddemi pointed out that children may actually appear to learn some of these tasks. But, she added, this “learning” is actually “training”.
Because they are not developmentally ready, the children haven’t built the appropriate connections for meaningful knowledge. Referring to these as “splinter skills” she said, “You can train them, but the knowledge and understanding—the true learning—has not happened. Our country has this hang up that if the child can perform, that they know.”
(It was this interesting juxtaposition of the words “perform” and “learning” that reminded me that Robert Titzer, the creator of “Your Baby Can Read”, holds a degree in “human performance”, not education.)
This concept of splinter skills conjures in my mind the story of “Clever Hans”, a famous horse in the early 1900s whose owner claimed he could do math, read, and spell, skills he displayed through a series of hoof taps. When the spectacle was more closely examined, however it was found that the horse (who obviously lacked the full foundation to do what people claimed he was doing) was simply responding to unintentional visual cues given by his questioners and audiences. He had all the right answers, but none of the understanding.
When I asked Dr. Guddemi to expound further on the topic of splinter skills, she offered this explanation:
“The problem with splinter skills or “performances” is that it is not REAL learning. Real learning happens when brain cells are connected to build meaning for the child. When a child memorizes a splinter skill with no brain connection, it is quickly forgotten—like cramming for a test! What a waste of time for the child when they could be developing real meaning that will stay with them and also be the foundation for more and more difficult and challenging learning!”
This is one of the points that is often missed when we lose sight of DAP and become focused on performance over learning. It isn’t just a question of whether or not the learning is effective, but there’s also a question of missed opportunity. If time, effort, attention, and other finite resources are being put into programs that are not developmentally appropriate, the flip-side is that foundational experiences that ARE needed are likely being neglected.
One quick example would be the push-down effect where the curricula from older grades is creeping into younger and younger classrooms. While some see that as an advance, the reality is that pushing down usually pushes something else out. In preschool and kindergarten classrooms in particular, what often gets pushed out are the critical and developmentally responsive experiences that come from an emphasis on social skills and play-based learning.
Continuing with the interview, I asked Dr. Guddemi what her response is to those who reject the study done at the Gesell Institute, saying their children did learn to read at 4 and have been successful ever since.
“Some children do learn to read at 4. But not all children CAN learn to read at four. Walking is another example. Some children learn to walk at 9 mo but no one can teach all 9 mo old babies to walk!! Our research supports that fact that we must respect developmental differences. Early walkers are not better walkers than later walkers, and research shows us that early readers have no advantage over later readers by the end of third grade. Each child is different! Gesell Institute wants each child to be respected and supported in the type of learning that is right for where the child is developmentally.”
1. Some children ARE ready to master skills at early ages. The bell curve of normal development allows for outliers on both sides. But the fact that one child is ready sooner doesn’t mean we can or should assume the same standard for every child.
2. Some children can perform skills without having the real knowledge behind it. In the process of mastering a performance, they’re missing out on building the skills they actually need to build a strong foundation for actual connections and learning.
Just because we can get children to perform tasks at earlier ages, does not mean they have the natural capacity to maintain those skills and convert them to real knowledge in a natural setting. Additionally, and perhaps more tragically, those children who cannot be “trained” ahead of their natural schedule suffer the consequences, being labeled as “difficult” or “slow”. By the time they are naturally ready to develop skills on an appropriate developmental schedule, they have already been left behind. It seems in an effort to create more success we have only created more unnecessary failures.
We need to ensure that our children are getting the foundational skills appropriate to their developmental level and that we aren’t settling for what amounts to a party trick in the place of real learning.