The debate over the roles of play and academics in kindergarten is not new. While my first response to this tired argument is always that it is a false dichotomy, a more specific challenge has recently entered the arena and therefore deserves a more specific response.
A study published last month in the American Educational Research Journal examined the relationship between teaching advanced content in kindergarten and academic achievement, as well as the relationship between advanced content and social-emotional outcomes.
Both valid points of inquiry.
But the resulting article, Advanced Content Coverage at Kindergarten: Are There Trade-Offs Between Academic Achievement and Social-Emotional Skills? has the potential to set a magnifying lens to a small ray of light, bending and intensifying it, adding more fire to the roaring debate.
While there are challenges to the study itself (to be discussed in a moment) the biggest threat is the way this study could be misconstrued by others. One notable example, the title and opening lines from Chalkbeat claiming “Kindergarten classes are getting more academic. Research says the kids are all right.”
Kindergarten isn’t what it used to be — and that might not be a bad thing.
Recent research has found that kindergarten classrooms look increasingly academic, with the casualties often being art and free time for play. That’s worried plenty of parents and child advocates.
…But a new study suggests the concerns about academic rigor in early grades may be overblown.”
While the article goes on to balance those claims with challenges from Dr. Marcy Guddemi, child advocate and member of the advisory board of Defending the Early Years, the implications of the headline and thesis stoke concern for many proponents of developmentally appropriate practice because of the likelihood of it being used to dismiss or belittle very real concerns about what is taking place in many early childhood classrooms today.
At some point, teachers, parents, and policymakers may all hear oversimplified references to this study presented as evidence to promote or prop up some educational program, product, or practice that isn’t in the best interest of our youngest learners.
So let’s break it down.
What did the study actually say?
When an academic study hits the scene, it’s easy to find references in splashy headlines, but as the old adage says, the devil is in the details. I’ll do my best to condense 27 pages of academic content into something brief and straightforward. It’s still pretty heavy, but reducing it to soundbites risks feeding into a false narrative.
Data results from a large sample of kindergarten students (2010-2011 school year) were examined and grouped together based on how frequently the students were taught advanced content in areas of math and ELA (English Language Arts) in their classrooms. Then, researchers looked for relationships between that frequency and outcomes in academic performance (based on assessments given at the beginning and end of the kindergarten year) and outcomes in social skills (as rated by teachers on a combined 22-item measure).
The study showed that there was a positive relationship between teaching advanced academic content in kindergarten and garnering higher scores on academic tests at the end of the kindergarten year.
Not too surprising (and not particularly meaningful, as studies have shown a fade-out and even a reversal of this type of effect).
But the bigger leaps are being made based on a finding that showed advanced math content was positively correlated with higher social-emotional scores (specifically in the areas of attentional focus, approaches to learning, and interpersonal skills), while advanced ELA content was not significantly related (positively or negatively) to measures of social skills or behaviors.
After listing several caveats, the authors ultimately draw the attention-getting conclusion that “we are cautiously optimistic that advanced academic content can be taught without compromising students’ social-emotional skills.”
In outlining the limitations of their study, the authors themselves point out three main concerns.
(Hang with me here, we’re taking a short trip through the land of research methods. They don’t end up in sexy headlines, but accepting a study’s conclusion without examining its methods is a dereliction of data.)
ONE: Correlational Study
Because this study examined the relationship between existing factors in the kindergarten classroom (what the teachers taught, compared to child outcomes), rather than randomly assigning the teachers to teach specific content or randomly assigning children to specific styles, this study is correlational, not experimental.
It’s prone to self-selection bias in that the teachers who reported that they chose to spend more time teaching “advanced content” may likely have been similar as a group in some other way, and at the same time significantly different from those who did not.
So teachers who presented advanced content more frequently may also be more effective at integrating concepts into play, more adept at creating socially and emotionally healthy classroom environments, more engaging in their delivery, or more responsive to their students’ needs. An existing correlation between any of those factors and a propensity to teach more advanced content would confound the results. Any outcome related to “teaching advanced content” could equally be attributed to any other co-existing characteristic, such as “integrating concepts into play” or even “wearing the color blue every Thursday”. We simply cannot claim causation based on correlation.
I would also add that one of the ways the teachers may have been significantly different is in the ways they perceive their instruction and student behavior. Because both measures were self-reported by the teachers, it’s possible that the correlation is actually between the teachers’ perception of both their instruction and student behavior, rather than the reality as might have been reported by an objective observer. It’s possible for social desirability bias to come into play as teachers who are more likely to report the desired quality of teaching advanced content may also report the desired outcome of well-behaved students.
TWO: Measure of Exposure
The authors conceded that a more precise measure of exposure would be an improvement to the study. In order to measure the frequency of incorporating “advanced content”, teachers were asked how many days per month they addressed those skills and concepts. So two teachers, one who covered the content for an hour and a half each day, and another who referred to the content ten minutes each day, would both be labeled in the same “daily” frequency group, even though the actual time accumulated by their students would have been very different.
If you think of this frequency in terms of dosage in a medical trial, you have patients who licked the aspirin daily categorized in the same dosage group as those who took 3 aspirin every day.
THREE: Definition of Advanced Skills
The authors acknowledged that they were limited in how they defined and measured the presence of “advanced content” because they “could not possibly cover the range of skills taught by kindergarten teachers” and admitted that the concepts they measured were “only a narrow slice” of the concepts that could possibly be taught in kindergarten. This means there could be a teacher who taught a concept on the presented list for a few minutes every day, who would be counted among the advanced content sample and another teacher who taught for an hour every day on an equally “advanced” –but omitted– concept who would be classified as not teaching advanced content at all.
Additionally, the concept of “advanced skills” itself is a slippery term in my opinion. Referencing work by Bassok, Latham, and Rorem, the authors defined advanced content based on the percentage of teachers who indicated that skill was taught at a higher grade level. But this subjective definition is arguably a moving target, particularly in the present climate. That same study (Bassok, Latham, Rorem, 2016) demonstrated that in 1998, only 31% of kindergarten teachers agreed or strongly agreed that most children should be reading in kindergarten. By 2010, 80% of kindergarten teachers indicated that they felt most children should learn to read in kindergarten. This means that in 1998, reading would have been considered an advanced skill for kindergarten, but in 2010 it would not. (Even defining what “should learn to read” really means is a whole other rabbit hole we could go down.)
Five Rebuttals from DEY
In a rapid response, Defending the Early Years outlined five concerns with the study here.
Here’s a quick summary:
ONE. Academic achievement was measured by scores at the end of kindergarten. That’s a pretty low bar. Longer-term studies have shown that academic gains at the end of kindergarten have a tendency to fade over time. DEY points out that one of the more famous longitudinal and experimental (rather than correlational) studies on the topic, the High/Scope Comparative Curriculum Study, gives reason to be concerned by these oversimplified results, showing that the most pronounced results emerged, not at the end of one school year, but about two decades later.
TWO. Academic achievement was measured by standardized tests, which (in addition to having their own challenges) are widely considered to be unreliable and inappropriate when used with children below third grade.
THREE. DEY takes issue with the fact that the study emphasizes short term gains over life-long learning by pointing to the fact that studies fail to show that children who learn to read at 4 or 5 have any long-term advantage for academic success or lifelong reading habits over those who learn to read at 6 or 7. (Read more about DEY’s position on reading in kindergarten.)
FOUR. The strength of the correlation is weak. According to DEY’s statement, it’s more likely that there are confounding variables at play than that a cause-effect relationship exists between advanced math instruction and improved social-emotional skills.
FIVE. Contributors Alfie Kohn and Peter Gray point out that some of the behaviors that would result in lower social-emotional scores (not putting toys away, for example) are more likely to be exhibited in play-based classrooms and less likely to be exhibited in rigidly controlled classrooms, skewing the results. They also point out, however, that environments without opportunity for these social-emotional challenges (which may deliver high scores for social-emotional skills by default) also lack opportunities for social-emotional learning and growth.
The reason these misconstrued headlines make childhood advocates nervous isn’t that they think children shouldn’t be challenged or that they aren’t capable of learning advanced concepts. It’s the unfortunate and dismissive nature of statements like “concerns about academic rigor in early grades may be overblown” particularly when paired with the admission that this “rigor” is often delivered in a package deal with reduced play.
The oversimplified presentation of studies like this can too easily be used to bolster programs, practices, and products that are ultimately detrimental to overall development. When unease arises, proponents can simply make sweeping claims that the “advanced content” is supported by science.
This fixation on “advanced content” can lead some parents and educators to cave to the fallacy that teaching xyz by any means necessary results in ideal outcomes.
But as another study examining advanced content in early childhood clarifies, the link is not so simplistically drawn between the subject covered and the learning outcome. In discussing the benefits of incorporating advanced math concepts, Engel, Claessens, Watts, and Farkas wrote:
This does not mean that time spent on adding and subtracting will automatically advance young children’s understanding of mathematics. For example, it is possible that having students simply memorize addition and subtraction facts may do less to advance student understanding of foundational mathematical principals than having them spend time on counting activities that require cognitively challenging engagement with concepts related to number and quantity.”
While this most recent study focused on what content could be taught in kindergarten, it’s clear that teaching content and helping children to fully grasp concepts can be two completely different tasks. Focusing on even basic skills in an in-depth way will promote more learning than will giving a superficial nod to “advanced skills”.
Additionally, making a foolhardy jump into advanced skills may well leave our most vulnerable learners in the dust. “You need number sense? That’s too bad. We know you’ll benefit from advanced content, so we’re starting with subtraction.” It sounds ridiculous, but, unfortunately, this is exactly what happens when curricula become too scripted and rigidly bound by checkboxes. We end up requiring educators to teach the curriculum rather than the child.
Children come to kindergarten with a wide spectrum of foundational knowledge. And we want to get them all to those “advanced” skills eventually. But we have to start where they are to build that sturdy foundation. If we suddenly construct a house of “advanced content” on soft soil without a foundation, things may look good for a while. Maybe even all the way through that test at the end of the year. But eventually, that soil will erode, the house will shift under the strain of another level, and the structure will eventually fall. Until we get that foundation right, it won’t matter how advanced our design for the building is.
So here’s what we should take from the study.
Setting aside all of these limitations and challenges, and the danger of performance hang-ups in early education, is not a small thing. But if we could do that for just a moment, I actually agree with a few things in this study.
The authors claim they are “cautiously optimistic that advanced academic content can be taught without compromising students’ social-emotional skills.”
Here’s where I agree. Teaching advanced skills will not automatically lead to broken children.
But “CAN” is the important word there. We certainly can teach advanced academic content in early childhood settings while still supporting healthy social-emotional development. With the same confidence, I would say that we can teach advanced academic content in early childhood settings and completely compromise students’ social-emotional growth.
Why and How
As I have taught over and over in workshops across the United States, WHAT we teach is only as important as WHY and HOW. WHAT seems to get all of the attention. WHAT will be taught in the program? WHAT is on the lesson plan for tomorrow? WHAT will these children learn?
There is no shortage of concepts (advanced or otherwise) that can be taught in any early childhood setting. But if we really want to get to the heart of the matter, let’s ask ourselves WHY. WHY this concept? WHY this activity? WHY this objective? WHY advanced content?
Knowing our WHY will inform our HOW.
Are we looking for a performance? Do we want to check a box? Are we trying to generate incrementally higher scores on questionably valid standardized tests, to be filed into a child’s school record nine months after it’s created?
If our WHY falls into any of these categories, drilling should do the trick. Shaming might be effective. Stress and anxiety may even fuel such momentary achievements.
But what if our WHY is different? Are we carefully and intentionally building a strong foundation? Are we focused on the whole child? Are we meeting children where they are and responding to what they need?
If our WHY is found here, our HOW will involve nurturing relationships, inspiring curiosity, and scaffolding play and inquiry.
In reality, we all know (or should know by now) that learning and whole child development are not at odds with one another. That when we know our WHY and it leads us to the right HOW, we can attend to learning (even “advanced” learning) in environments that are playful, child-centered, developmentally appropriate, and socially and emotionally supportive.
In fact, that’s where the BEST learning happens.
But it all hinges on HOW. Right before issuing the cautious assertion that advanced content can be taught in kindergarten, the authors shared a caveat that gets much less attention.
We do not know how advanced content was actually taught. It is possible, for example, that advanced content may have been delivered through guided play or other aspects of play not captured by the current study.”
That’s an important detail. I certainly don’t know how the content was taught in this study either. No one does, as the HOW wasn’t examined here at all.
(Though, if we want to talk about social and behavioral outcomes and the HOW, we do know from Walter Gilliam’s work that the lowest rates of preschool expulsion were found in programs with the lowest frequency of worksheets and flashcards and the highest frequency of dramatic play. Taking a more longitudinal perspective, we also know that at age 23 those in the direct instruction group of the High/Scope study were more than twice as likely to have a felony arrest than those in the play-based groups.)
I don’t believe for a second that our children will benefit socially and emotionally from advanced content in spite of poor teaching practices. But I do agree with the authors that advanced content CAN be taught in playful, responsive, developmentally appropriate ways, therefore also supporting healthy social and emotional development as they assert.
I’ve seen it over and over again.
In one of my favorite observations, I watched a preschool teacher sit down with a group of four children for snack time. She told them they would be having crackers and that each child could have three. She then asked how many she should put on the plate. “Three!” They eagerly exclaimed. She obliged, setting three crackers on the plate. The children looked around the table and used some “advanced math” to discern that this would not suffice. So the teacher let the children wrestle with the conundrum until they eventually agreed that twelve crackers should be enough for the four children to have three each.
In this setting, with context and meaning, these children worked with the foundational concepts of multiplication.
I’ve seen children regularly explore “advanced math concepts” as we examined the contents of the Number Bag brought by a classmate, as they would suggest making an even bigger number by combining the three numbers displayed on our chart (reading three digit numbers) or discover that they can make three sets of three out of nine objects (foundations of division and multiplication).
“Advanced content” is all around the play-based classroom. Teachers are introducing advanced vocabulary like “symmetry” while doing fold art. Children are experimenting with advanced physics and geometry concepts like slope in the block area. The class is engaged in advanced writing as they create a shared story after a field trip to the greenhouse, where they learned about advanced science concepts. Friends are navigating through advanced, high-powered negotiations as they assign roles in the dramatic play area.
Skilled, intentional teachers who have learned to recognize, emphasize, and maximize will plan, prepare, and respond to teaching moments embedded and interwoven into developmentally appropriate, socially scaffolded, play-based environments. Advanced content finds its way into these classrooms where well-trained teachers are supported and allowed to respond to the individual children in front of them.
And that responsiveness is key.
A one-size-fits-all approach to early childhood curricula is antithetical to the responsive nature of developmentally appropriate practice. Our children need teachers who are able to respond to learners, not just teach content.
To me, this study isn’t a blanket endorsement for more advanced content, but yet another reminder of how children can benefit from teachers who are well trained and well supported, so that they can recognize opportunities for teaching content — both basic and advanced — in responsive, engaging, and developmentally appropriate ways.
Our children won’t magically benefit from being exposed to the “small slice” of items on the advanced content list in this study, but they will always benefit from scaffolding and working within the zone of proximal development with responsive, intentional teachers who are allowed to teach the children where they are, instead of blindly starting where they want them to be.
They’ll thrive with teachers who can recognize, emphasize, and maximize learning outcomes in meaningful, developmentally appropriate ways.
That includes play. It isn’t at odds with it.
So if anyone tries to sell you on the removal of play by pointing to this study, you can let them know that isn’t what it says at all.