This year didn’t quite start out the way I had hoped. BUT, I did manage to cross off a goal millions of people set at the beginning of the year, and after only a few weeks in.
I lost weight.
(Stick with me here, I promise this is relevant to child development.)
You see, I’m a pretty health-conscious person. I’m a fairly consistent runner, logging my 10th half marathon just a few months ago. To celebrate turning 40 recently, I added in (and fell in love with) a high-intensity, boxing-infused circuit training workout, complete with hand wraps, gloves, heavy bags, and angst.
I think it’s fair to say I know how to work out hard. And I enjoy it.
But even with all of that activity, I don’t really lose weight. And I’m fine with that. I’m focused on overall health, strength, and stamina.
But then I stumbled on something that changed everything. A much more effective approach for moving the needle on that metric of weight.
Here’s the secret: Contract a virus.
I’m not sure exactly which virus. Maybe it was all of the viruses. I’m pretty sure WEbMD listed the Plague among the comforting options on its symptom checker.
So, while I had envisioned launching into the new year with productivity plans and goal sheets, I instead found myself buried under my bedsheets, the absolute antithesis of productivity.
But at least I still hit the all-valued metric: weight loss. And you can too! (*Insert sarcasm.)
Just spend several days in bed, sweating out a fever, which has also conveniently killed your appetite. Add in regular coughing fits for some high-intensity interval training. And just like that, poof! Those holiday pounds are gone in a matter of days!
Easy peasy. You’re welcome.
(Side effects may include bad bedhead, bizarre febrile dreams, and being unable to lift your arms above your head for more than five seconds without feeling woozy.)
Now, I’m obviously not recommending this as a safe or sane health practice.
But I bring this up to make a point and offer an analogy of sorts.
No One-Stop Shop for Metrics
Weight is one metric of health. Not a meaningless metric, to be sure. It’s a very important one, but it is only one among many. Valuing and monitoring only the metric of weight would lead one to conclude that I was doing something “desirable” for my health.
However, with a more holistic approach, taking in other metrics — my elevated body temperature — and observing other factors that can’t be measured — my coughing, aches, and chills –one would quickly conclude I have not been the picture of health recently.
With similar absurdity, it’s tempting in early childhood education to make decisions based on one – or a few – measurable statistics, and to assume that if the metric shows improvements, the methods are desirable.
Are children passing off more sight words?
Are test scores going up?
Are we checking off boxes?
In and of themselves, these all seem like well-intentioned goals. We want kids to learn. We want schools to be effective.
But are we using the right metrics? And are we looking holistically?
Missing the Mark
Back to my example, weight is a good metric to monitor for health. My doctor weighs me every time I come in for an exam and I weigh myself regularly at home as one way to proactively keep an eye on my health.
But if I allow that to be my only measure, the one that governs all decisions, then by that standard, catching a virus was a fantastic health plan.
And if I allow a test score or one performance outcome to be my only measure for education decisions, a lot of similarly harmful practices can be allowed to masquerade as fantastic educational approaches.
Just as I was able to sweat off several pounds through a fever, we can get kids to sweat out academic results by canceling play and recess and the arts. “The reading indicators went up! We’re doing this right!” But in the same way that plaguing fever killed my appetite, some of the approaches we use –that seem to effectively yield results on one metric– are killing the joy and curiosity of our little ones.
As I checked the “desirable” box of losing weight, my body was actually struggling to get what it needed — hydration, regulated body temps, and congestion-free lungs! True to our analogy, some early childhood programs are checking boxes while kids struggle to get what they really need — play, relationships, and exploration!
An observant, holistic consideration of my other health factors made it clear that this weight loss was NOT progress. Likewise, an observant, holistic consideration of what’s going on in some of our learning environments makes it clear that some of these indicators we obsess over are NOT offering real, lasting progress for our kids.
That isn’t the same as saying these indicators don’t matter. Weight still matters to health. But it isn’t the ONLY factor to consider. It isn’t even the main one. It just happens to be the one our society tends to obsess over. Similarly, for young children, academic foundations are important, but many of these measures our society obsesses over truly are not the most important indicators.
Often, what we can easily measure is the low-hanging fruit. We grab onto it, and we squeeze as much juice out of it as we can. Because it was easy to get. But that doesn’t make it the most important, simply because it’s the easiest to get a hold of. And while much of it matters, it is rarely the full picture.
For example, measuring specific academic tasks in kindergarten is relatively easy and concrete. Sit down, take a test, get a number.
Measuring social skills takes more time and more work. It requires repeated observations, anecdotal records, and honestly, some subjective assessment. It’s not easily acquired or quantified.
But we (as a system) persist in measuring — and valuing heavily — one metric over the other.
And this isn’t solely an academics vs social learning argument (though I side heavily with integrating both). Even within academic skills, we can easily fixate on one measure over another, based on ease of measurement rather than importance.
In one example I’ve used before, literacy researchers have expressed concern that while alphabet recognition and oral language development are both critical aspects of literacy development, alphabet recognition is more easily measured. Because it’s easier to measure, it tends to get more attention and emphasis in classroom practice than the equally critical, but harder to measure oral language skills.
As the old adage goes, sometimes what we measure doesn’t matter and what matters can’t be measured.
Thankfully, after a lot of care and vigilance, I’m feeling much better today (thanks for asking). Hopefully, our vigilance and care will offer our children healthy, whole environments for learning as well.
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