Monday, June 14, 2010

Engineering Childhood

 A report in the New York Times on June 13 (click to read) should raise alarms with anyone interested in freedom of thought and action - especially in the lives of young children.(Note the skepticism among engineers as well as some educators who comment in the article.)

The article is titled "Studying Engineering Before They Can Spell It," and examines kindergartners in Glen Rock, N.J. who solve "engineering problems" in their classes. The article says "Spurred by growing concerns that American students lack the skills to compete in a global economy, school districts nationwide are packing engineering lessons into already crowded schedules for even the youngest students..."

The trend toward earlier and earlier "education" is, naturally, not limited to a small, upscale town in New Jersey. It spans the country and "educational" toys, games, books and online activities are a major industry. (Green eggs and ham? Turn 'em in for a calculator.)

Somehow, this refrain seems all too familiar. In fact, it was heard as long ago as the 1880s when the United States began its meteoric rise to world supremacy. It resurfaces on an irregular but perennial basis. We heard the refrain immediately following Sputnik in 1957. We heard it again in the mid 1970s when Japan burst upon the scene as an industrial world power and we hear it again when we may be challenged by China, and possibly India.

Familiar lyrics go along with the tune. The school year is too short, the curriculum is too weak, teachers are either under-qualified or underpaid. American kids are - mix and match - lazy, under-informed, unmotivated, and studying the wrong subjects.

Science, math, engineering and related disciplines are the usual antidotes that will lead us into the salvation of the nation.

The counter current that should be put forth is that it is the very easy going nature of past American education logistics and strategies that has put and kept us in the forefront of almost every major scientific and engineering development of the last 100 plus years. How can that be if we are always behind or about to fall behind?

When we as a nation do fail - high speed rail comes instantly to mind - it is not for a lack of certain skill sets, but for lack of political leadership or failure of the investment community to step forward and take useful, as opposed to mindlessly dangerous, risks.

If, as a liberal democracy, we believe in freedom in its most basic incarnations, then teaching "engineering" in kindergarten needs a resounding condemnation. Teaching tots to begin serving the needs of the corporate/industrial complex smacks of another kind of engineering - social engineering.

What we should be encouraging is individual development based on the freedom of a child to explore, invent, innovate on his or her own level, and yes, fail, at his or her chosen play forms. Not all children are meant to be engineers anymore than they are meant to be doctors, lawyers, musicians, writers, farmers, Indian chiefs, etc.

When I was a child, my father arrived home one day with a little hand cranked printing press kit. You set rubber type and assorted cast rubber graphics onto a flexible template that was then attached to a cylinder; next the machine's reservoir was filled with ink, you cranked the handle and fed 5 x 8 inch sheets of paper into its mouth and voila... out came a tiny neighborhood newsletter authored by my 8 year-old self.

There was little guidance from my father, aside from the actual nuts and bolts part... here's how you do it, biff bam boom, now go knock yourself out, kiddo. It took me days and days to get it right on my own, but so I did. And The Gazette was born - and died all in the same hot, long summer in the cool of the basement.

The experience influenced me deeply. When I was in my late 30s, I started my own grown up magazine.

I wonder what my inclinations might have been had I been "taught" magazine-making in kindergarten.

Likewise, although there were many books, newspapers and magazines around our house, I can honestly say I only remember being read to sporadically. But, word play, jokes, word game books, a kids monthly named Jack and Jill, and tons of kiddie records surrounded me. It was all about playing, loafing, and relaxing with words and their myriad uses.

Kids learn through playing. And not the kind of ham-handed guided play that a fanatical hard core of educators seem intent upon foisting on our children.

Kids need free play much more than they need to learn engineering, math or reading at age 5. They need to let their little minds wander. They need to find, on their own, a path to what they do best and like best. The straitjacket of over-structuring will be our undoing, not the free form learning of yesteryear.

The marketplace will determine at some point in the kids' future lives how many engineers will be needed and where they will come from.

Dedication to one's life's "work" could not be taught to the tune of a hickory stick in days of yore, and won't be taught through an overwrought curriculum better suited to 12 year-olds than to 4, 5 and 6 year-olds.

Teach them to love exploring on their own, in their own time, in their own unique way. Allow them to make their own way.

Kindergarten should not be a junior trade school.

1 comment:

  1. You are so right here. Children are naturally curious. They don't need to be taught to observe or to want to "know" about how things work. They naturally want to engage in the world and make discoveries. The risk of this curriculum is that it will turn children off and impede what is naturally a part of them. Instead, schools should support their desire to learn and provide hands-on opportunities for them to figure-it-out, with teachers there to guide them if needed. But often they can do it on their own. This is how children become thinkers and problem solvers and learn about themselves, as well as the world around them, and other people. Help them learn to think, and to solve problems, and much later they will be able to decide if they want to be an engineer, or a teacher, or mathematician, artist, dentist or anything else.