Preschool teachers are the Rodney Dangerfields of the teaching profession, the "we don’t get no respect" gang. They’re often dismissed, even by their K-12 colleagues, as babysitters and not "real" teachers, but nothing could be further from the truth. The time I’ve recently spent crouching in classrooms, watching how 3- and 4-year-olds explore their universe with the aid of an inspiring guide, convinces me that these teachers are the best in the business. They're changing the arc of children’s lives — and they have a lot to teach the rest of us.
The job of a prekindergarten teacher is unbelievably demanding — if you doubt it, just spend a morning in a classroom filled with 3- and 4-year-olds. Because of the rapidity with which their brains are developing, those kids learn far more rapidly than even our smartest students — think of them as little Lewises and Clarks on their own journeys of discovery. Every teacher relishes the teachable moments, the occasions when you can almost see the lightbulbs of dawning comprehension, because for many students after their early years they’re so rare and special. Each day in a preschool classroom brings a meteor shower of these moments.
College professors usually know what needs to be taught. But for many academics, that knowledge of our own field is the only thing we bring to the classroom. We spend almost no time thinking about how to teach. Though new instructional strategies have proliferated, professors aren’t taught how to teach. They must pick up these new tools on their own, and many don’t bother.
There’s abundant evidence, for instance, that lectures rarely engage students' minds: college students pay attention to the lecturer just 40 percent of the time and retain even less of what’s being said. Still, the "sage on the stage" remains the norm, and in big universities classes of 100 and more are common. Lectures offer a way of saving money and professors’ time, dressed up in the rationale that students are empty vessels into which knowledge can be poured. To the question, "How did your class go?" an all-too-common response is "I gave a good lecture." But this isn’t how learning usually occurs.
Good prekindergarten teachers not only know what to teach; they also know how they can have the biggest impact. They’ve learned varied a host of ways to teach reading and math, art and science, gymnastics and music and much more. What’s equally important, they’ve studied how children’s minds and emotions develop. They understand that learning isn’t a spectator sport.
To be sure, preschoolers spend part of the day in "circle time," huddled together with their eyes glued to the teacher; that’s the pre-k equivalent of a lecture, though often considerably more enticing. But those lightbulbs really turn on when these three and four year olds are trying out ideas, either on their own or with a few classmates, making mistakes and trying again, as the teacher scans the room, chipping in when kids get stumped.
In these classrooms a lot is occurring simultaneously — while the teacher may be writing down children’s stories that will later be acted out by fellow students, some kids may be painting, others constructing bridges, performing experiments, staff manning a doctor’s office or ordering pizza. And some will be curled up with a picture book from the classroom library.
I became familiar with this world when I spent time crouching in classrooms in Union City, New Jersey, across the Hudson from Manhattan. Union City is the most crowded and one of the most impoverished municipalities in America, and students in such communities are often marked for failure. That’s not the case here — these schools, which I write about in Improbable Scholars, are bringing poor immigrant Latino kids (school officials estimate that 30 percent are undocumented) into the educational mainstream. In 2011, the last year for which official figures are available, the high school graduation rate was 89 percent — that’s about 15 percent higher than the national average — and 60 percent of the graduates enrolled in college. Ask the administrators how Union City manages this feat and they’ll tell you that delivering good early education is makes a critical difference.
The best way to appreciate what’s so remarkable about prekindergarten is by looking closely at what’s going on there. Walk into Suzy Rojas’s classroom and you’ll see art plastering the walls, plants hanging from the ceiling. In every niche there’s something to seize a child’s imagination. Three boys whom I’ll call Angel, Victor and Rodrigo are peering at insects through a microscope, and they’re happy to explain to me what they’re seeing. "Remember when we went to the museum and the butterfly landed on my arm?" Angel asks his friends.
Suzy has joined the conversation. "Are these all insects?" she wonders aloud. "How do you know?" "That one has eight legs," Victor responds, “and that means it’s not an insect.” Then Suzy brings over a prism. "What do you see when you look through it?" she asks, and Rodrigo looks up to say that he can’t tell them apart, that they look like leaves. "Why do you think so?" she inquires. The boys have already learned about lenses, and she tells them that the prism is a special kind of lens.
There’s still more to be gleaned from these creatures. "How about an insect salad — would you want to eat it?" Suzy inquires, and when the boys chorus "ugh," she bounces it back to them: "How come?" They stare once more at the insects. "How many parts does an insect body have? Do you remember what they’re called?" Neville knows the answer: "Three parts — the antenna, abdomen and legs."
"It’s all about exposure to concepts — wide, narrow, long, short,” Suzy tells me. “ 'I have three brothers, three sisters and an uncle — let’s graph that.’ I bring in breads from different countries. 'Let’s do a pie chart showing which one you liked the best.' " Stop for a moment to consider how we expect to absorb concepts — passively, for the most part. "I don’t ask them to memorize 1, 2, 3 or A, B, C," Suzy adds. "I could teach a monkey to count." So much for making college students memorize facts and regurgitate them on the midterm, only to see realize that in a couple of weeks most of that information has been forgotten.
Suzy Rojas’ students aren’t simply acquiring an understanding of cognitive concepts. They’re also coming to understand why you should wait your turn, how to share, how to manage your own feelings — the emotional skills that report cards once summarized as "works and plays well with others." (I’ve attended faculty meetings whose participants must have missed those lessons.) Back in the classroom, Suzy leaves Rodrigo and his friends, turning to several students who are solving a puzzle on a computer. But when she sees Victor and Rodrigo fighting over who gets the next look at the insects, she quickly returns. "Use your words," she says — familiar teacher-talk — but then she adds a twist. "What can we do?” “We,” not “you”: the boys think about it. "How about adding another container for insects," she suggests. “That way you can all take turns.”
Cognitive and noncognitive, thinking and feeling, Descartes’ mind-body dualism — in a good preschool classroom these distinctions vanish. The teacher is always on the lookout for both kinds of lessons, aiming to reach both head and heart. College students are more mature, of course — fights don’t break out in our classrooms — but if we ignore their emotional responses we risk irrelevance. Our students often react to what’s being said in class at an emotional as well as an intellectual level, paying attention to how the message is being delivered, not just its content. If a professor is so busy imparting knowledge that he misses the students’ body language — the arms folded in "show me" posture or the fingers busily tweeting — he’s lost the class.
Suzy Rojas’s approach to teaching offers a reminder that professors should be relying can do better. We need to rely less on lectures, varying the classroom experience with give-and-take discussion and breakout groups, online learning, outside experts who can join the conversation, student-led classes and group research projects. And we should check in with the students — midcourse corrections can make a world of difference.
There are days when preschoolers come to school agog about what’s happening in their world, a fierce snowstorm or a great movie they’ve seen over the weekend, and a talented pre-k teacher like Suzy Rojas knows how to incorporate their excitement into her lesson. That’s another takeaway — finding ways to incite our students into thinking hard matters a lot infinitely more than marching them through the syllabus.
David L. Kirp is the James D. Marver Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of the forthcoming Uncommon Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for American Education.