What do we do about the slide in US Rankings in PISA?

When building with these blocks, the girl in the photo had to build her understanding of balance, height, quantity, color, depth, dimension...and, importantly, she had to imagine a structure which she then had to construct.  All the skills needed to
When building with these blocks, the girl in the photo had to build her understanding of balance, height, quantity, color, depth, dimension...and, importantly, she had to imagine a structure which she then had to construct. All the skills needed to

Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas. Albert Einstein

I astonished my Calculus teacher in High School by telling him that the reason I loved Math so much, was because Math, like poetry, distilled ideas into their most essential form.  Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) are at their core, creative, beautiful and essential to the growing child.

Recently, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) released the results of  the acheivement exams taken by 15-year-old high school students globally,  The rankings by country in the areas of math and science, showed the USA has slipped from 25th to 31st in Math since 2009, and from 20th to 24th in science.  The results were also discouraging in reading, where the US slipped from 11th worldwide to 21st.

There may be several explanations for this downward slide by the US.  The 15% of the US population living in poverty, greater than many other industrialized countries, was one reason why we may have scored lower than Finland, where the homogeneous population is also more consistently affluent.  Finland also boasts a focused practice of recruiting and retaining highly effective teachers.

It may be that we didn't test a large enough or representative enough population sample. 

The decline in US scores however, cannot be blamed on how much we spend on education per pupil, which at $115,000 on average, is the highest in the world.

There was a correlation found between higher test scores and students' school attendance and punctuality, but there was a low connection between class size and test scores.

Or maybe, the US is pushing academic learning too soon.  In Poland, where the educational system recently was overhauled, a one-year delay was implemented, before tracking children into academic or vocational programs of study, giving them more time to develop intellectually.  Poland has seen a sharp improvement in their scores.

Certainly, if you ask a teacher in Fairfield County, the high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind and now the Core Curriculum, has forced the abandonment of the art of teaching-with-insight, in favor of dropping more creative approaches and replacing them with highly teacher-directed, lecture-based instruction.  It is a trend, I believe, that numbs the minds of our students, and obliterates our society's chances for innovative change.

The ethic of each of these federal initiatives are laudable, but the way they have been put into practice is deplorable.  Certainly we agree that no child should be left behind, and that all children are competent to achieve to high standards if high standards are expected of them. It is a good thing to agree as a society what core content knowledge all children should be exposed to, and what skills all students should be helped to learn.  But in our rush to meet these goals, we have crushed the life blood out of the learner's intrinsic motivations to learn.  We have trampled on their curiosity.  We have removed their creative soul, and taken all the joy out of their education.

I am happy to report, however, that there is hope; but we have to act immediately, for our youngest learners, our preschoolers.

The greatest period of brain growth and development is between the ages of birth through age 5.  If children in that time frame, are allowed to be active learners in an enriched environment, set up for their free, self-initiated discovery, they will develop not only the skills needed to attain at higher levels of math and science competency, but they will do so using their own uniquely creative thought processes.  These are the students our world desperately needs.  Not automatons absorbing the closed adult mindset, but free ranging creative thinkers, who will design new systems:  science, technology, engineering and math systems, that will revive our stagnant economy and stimulate what is essential ~ delight in the joys of the intellect.

What does this environment look like?  To the uninitiated it may look like chaos, but the developmentally appropriate classroom is highly intentional and highly facilitated, even though you may never hear a teachers voice except to ask the question, "What do you think?"

You will see a variety of centers where children are engaged in experiences that interest them and suit their style of learning.  You will see children experimenting with sensory materials such as sand, water, seeds, or bubbles.  Here is where children develop the rich vocabulary of science such as liquid, melt, above, below, greater than.  What looks to a parent as an opportunity to get messy is really an opportunity to learn to measure, weigh, sort, compare and analyze.  Higher order thinking occurs at the sensory table.

You will see children luxuriating in a cozy book corner.  Here is where children develop literacy skills such as how to handle a book, to track words from left to right and top to bottom, to recognize that the written words recall and represent the spoken word.  They learn to interpret meaning visually by taking clues from the illustrations.  When read to by a wise adult, they learn to anticipate consequences and understand character.  They also realize in that warm and cozy experience, that reading is delicious!

You will see children working cooperatively to solve a puzzle, build a block structure, or develop a dramatic play scheme where they will try on the roles they see at work around them.  The cooperative social experience is more properly called cognitive planning.  It is where children must work together to plan out their ideas, test their hypothesis, and culminate their learning experience by practicing, practicing, practicing.

You will see children working on the skills they need to become fluid writers and designers. What may only look like scribbles to the undiscerning adult, is actually a definable sequence on the continuum of learning to write.

You will hear children conversing, playing with language and learning new vocabulary; all the essential skills needed to develop their ability to comprehend language and become literate, a critically important ingredient for learning through reading. 

The curriculum you see will be developed around each child's interests and passions.  A child may come to school excited by his encounter with a worm in his backyard garden.  This is the teacher's cue to outfit the classroom with books about worms and a worm habitat where the remains of snack are fed to the worms.  The topic is sustained over time by checking out the habitat every week, seeing how the worms have grown and multiplied.  The children count the worms, document how they change, feed them again, and repeat until their understanding of worms has been magnified.  The curriculum is never the same from year to year because the children bring new things to stimulate projects and construct new knowledge for themselves. 

The topics range from garbage and recycling, architecture, building and construction, floods, storms and geography, communities and mapping, fiddler crabs and river life, vegetable growing and vegetable cooking, farms, farmers, animals, veterinarians, no topic is too small or too large for the inquisitive young mind.

By paying attention to the questions children ask or imply, artful teachers can help to create that "teachable moment" when the child and the teacher share mutual attention, and so make the learning moment memorable. 

This variety of learning memories frames children with a deep well of background knowledge.  It is a resource children can draw on throughout their lifetimes.  They take their own questions and explorations forward into school, and continue to work out their dreams in this solid frame of reference. It launches them into life with the ability to approach new subjects, ideas and skills with confidence. 

Visit our Nationally Accredited program to find out how rich an experience early learning can be for your child's developing brain.  Call us at 203-838-4266,  email us at 5milerns@gmail.com, find us on Facebook and Twitter or visit our website at www.fivemilerivernurseryschool.com to learn more.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Lauriston Avery December 06, 2013 at 02:26 PM
Sorry, the caption to the picture was cut off! Here is the whole sentence: All the skills needed to become literate in math and science are intricately integrated into creative thinking.
James Gallegos December 06, 2013 at 03:30 PM
You have described what our house is like...my wife a stay at home mother of nine never opted to send our children to a pre-school or to full day kindergarten. Our children were not fully institutionalized until age 6. Oddly enough our children score higher on standardized testing after summer, while most children are flat or show regression. (all ages) Our children show regression at midterm standardized testing, after being in school for four months.
Lauriston Avery December 06, 2013 at 03:42 PM
Thanks for your comment James! I believe you prove my point. Another interesting fact to ponder is that if Massachusetts scores on the PISA were disaggregated, their students would score 9th in the world. What are they doing differently? I am wondering if the state where David Elkind (The Hurried Child) lives and works and teaches teachers, has impacted how their institutions operate. I am wondering if the push down of highly academic curriculum has been rejected in favor of time to think, savor, and dare I say it, play; if that has helped their students succeed?


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