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.
In my 14-year tenure as president I have often been asked to define and defend the notion of a "useful" liberal arts education. The general public has difficulty associating the liberal arts with anything useful. That obstacle prompts them to dismiss liberal arts colleges as repositories of graduates with majors such as philosophy, history, anthropology and American studies who cannot get jobs. The thought that these same colleges also have majors such as biology, chemistry, physics and economics is totally missed.
The public is not to blame. American higher education never really experienced the American Revolution. While we threw away the oppressive dictates of monarchy, we never threw off the privileged notion of an English upper class liberal education that was literally defined as being only for those with sufficient wealth to do nothing professionally but dabble in learning. We remained enthralled by the notion of learning for learning’s sake and despite our emerging pragmatic nature, wanted our education to remain sublime and removed from the business of life.
There were prominent founders of the nation who argued for a new kind of liberal education for a new kind of nation. Thomas Jefferson urged a "practical education" for his University of Virginia. And Benjamin Rush, the founder of Dickinson College, decried the unwillingness of Americans to reform education after the Revolution:
It is equally a matter of regret, that no accommodation has been made in the system of education in our seminaries [colleges] to the new form of our government and the many national duties, and objects of knowledge, that have been imposed upon us by the American Revolution. Instead of instructing our sons in the Arts most essential to their existence, and in the means of acquiring that kind of knowledge which is connected to the time, the country, and the government in which they live, they are compelled to spend [time] learning two languages which no longer exist, and are rarely spoken, which have ceased to be the vehicles of Science and literature, and which contain no knowledge but what is to be met with in a more improved and perfect state in modern languages. We have rejected hereditary power in the governments of our country. But we continue the willing subjects of a system of education imposed upon us by our ancestors in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Had agriculture, mechanics, astronomy, navigation and medicine been equally stationary, how different from the present would have been the condition of mankind!
But these singular calls for a more pragmatic education in America to match a new form of government went largely unheeded. Rush’s founding of Dickinson is particularly illustrative. In his 1785 "Plan of Education" he called for a "useful liberal education." The curriculum was to be absent instruction in the writing and speaking of Greek and Latin, but rich in instruction of German, French, Spanish and even Native American languages as those would be highly useful to Americans striving to establish a native economy that would grow as it interacted linguistically with trading nations throughout the world and in the United States. Democracy was to be established through commerce informed by useful liberal education. Liberal education, commerce and democracy were interdependent. The Dickinson course of study was also to include chemistry as Rush thought this subject held the greatest number of connections to emerging knowledge useful to the nation.
The first president of the college and Rush’s fellow trustees ignored his plan. They recommitted to what Rush once called "the monkish" course of study, unchanged for centuries.
Latin and Greek were taught and a chemistry professor was not hired. Additionally, the college refused to hire a German professor. Rush was so angry that he founded nearby what was called Franklin College (today Franklin and Marshall College). It wasn’t until 1999 that Rush’s notion of a "useful" liberal education was reintroduced and embraced explicitly as part of a revised mission statement some 216 years after it was introduced.
Unfortunately for those in America today who wish to argue the usefulness, and thus the worthiness, of a liberal arts education, the founding fathers were not explicit. We know that a liberal education was to yield informed citizens who could build and protect the new government. We know that certain courses were to be taken out and others inserted — those that related more to emerging and immediately explicable knowledge, expanded the appreciation of democracy and created new knowledge and wealth that would materially power the nation’s development. A useful liberal arts education was essentially entrepreneurial. But for all the novelty and potent force in this "disruptive technology" in American higher education introduced by the founding fathers, we know little about how a liberal arts education actually becomes useful — that is, how the study of the liberal arts converts to material effect in the wider world.
Much is at stake to define explicitly and to reassert the usefulness of a distinctively American liberal arts education. The liberal arts are under assault by those who, under the mantle of affordability and efficiency, would reject it for the immediate, but often temporary, benefit of higher education defined as job training. My own experience offers a definition for the 21st century, in fact, for any century, where economic uncertainty prevails. I was a German and philosophy double major. At first glance, what could be more useless? And yet, my professional life has proven such a conclusion wrong.
I have been — sometimes simultaneously — a military officer, a pre-collegiate teacher, administrator and coach. I founded an athletic team, developed a major center at a prestigious research university, acted as a senior consultant to the U.S. Department of State with diplomatic status, served as a corporate officer at two publicly traded companies and now serve as president of Dickinson College. For none of these careers did I ever study formally or take a class.
I gained competency through independent reading, experience and observation. I appreciated that the breadth of knowledge and the depth of cognitive skill that my undergraduate courses in social science, political science, art and science prepared me for any field of professional pursuit. I was prepared for professional chance. I knew how to ask the right questions, how to gather information, how to make informed decisions, how to see connections among disparate areas of knowledge, how to see what others might miss, how to learn quickly the basics of a profession, how to discern pertinent information from that which is false or misleading, how to judge good, helpful people from those who wish you ill. All of this I gathered in a useful liberal education — in and out of the classroom — and in an intense residential life where experimentation with citizenship and social responsibility were guiding principles.
There were no formal, discrete courses to learn these habits of mind and action — no courses devoted to brain exercises, critical-thinking skills, leadership and citizenship; rather, professors and staff were united in all interactions to impress upon students day after day, year after year a liberal arts learning environment that was intellectually rigorous and defining. This was contextual learning at its fullest deployment. We absorbed and gradually displayed ultimately useful knowledge and skill not in a studied manner, but discretely and naturally. Time after time in my various careers, I applied these liberal arts skills to solve materially wider-world problems. And most important, except for my military service and my college presidency, none of my jobs existed before I assumed them. My useful education has enabled me to maximize opportunity within highly fluid and changing employment rhythms. As I now face another job transition in my life, I go forward with confidence that something appropriate will develop. I have no concrete plans and I like it that way. I know I am prepared on the basis of my liberal arts education to maximize chance. Something will develop. Something that probably doesn’t yet exist.
I am not alone in my appreciation of the liberal arts. Those of privilege have appreciated liberal education historically. It has contributed to their access and hold on power and influence. Their sons and daughters, generation after generation, have attended liberal arts institutions without hesitation. There is no job training in their educational landscape. It would be tragic if all the new and previously underserved populations now having access to higher education missed the opportunity for their turn at leadership and influence simply because of the outspoken — arguably purposeful — dismissal of the liberal arts as "useless," often by those who received a liberal arts education themselves and intend nothing less for their own children.
William G. Durden is president of Dickinson College.
"I know my time is short," G. tells me, "and I want to pack as much thinking as possible into what’s left."
It's the last night of class in the last course these students can take with me. A mix of nostalgia, excitement and exhaustion is in the air. We are saying goodbye with presentations and food, quick hugs and promises to keep in touch. Against all odds (some acknowledge with stunned expressions), this class has not been a mere deposit in the bank vault of education. We have changed each other.
G. is not dying, just graduating. But tonight feels like the death of ideas. All our fellow thinkers and talkers and dreamers are walking out the door. There’s no structure left to reel them back tomorrow, next week, next year. Our community has dispersed (something we’ve talked about this semester — the virtual nature of community) and the finale, as always, has a melancholy feel.
For the past several weeks, we have collaborated to create what Hemingway might call a "clean, well-lighted place" to question our own practices. Now, the lights are going out throughout the building and, in many ways, throughout the world. Slashed budgets, job cuts, strange politics, war, discrimination, willful misunderstanding, despair. And here we sit, asking, "How is identity formed? What is the nature of community? Who is the oft-cited 'they'?"
After 16 weeks of intellectual abandon, G. and I both know that the space to come and talk about these things is narrowing to a pinpoint of light.
And so he stays to talk after everyone has left, a habit we’ve fallen into these past few months, unusual tonight only because it’s the time most of us — students as well as teachers — are coiled tight and ready to bolt at the precise moment when break begins. It's the latest in a series of late-night concept pitches and strategy sessions about how he can articulate his thoughts without stifling them.
Much later, as I’m driving home, I will think of all the things, trite and otherwise, I should have said. This is not the end; it's a transition. You can never really lose a mind. The universe would not be so cruel to limit thought to a mere 16 weeks. You are leaving the institutionalization of critical thought. Now, you will have to create your own clean, well-lighted place in the face of what can seem like a very dark world. From here on, you have to make it happen.
But for now, we talk as if G.'s interpretation is truly our plight, the only reasonable conclusion given our experience. We discuss biology and culture and personal choice, wrong-headed policies, the future of education, his envisioned place in the corporate world. We make cross-generational references to popular films. We finish each other’s sentences.
"The really exciting thing about J.’s work is—"
"--everything we’ve been talking about is only 5 percent of the potentiality--"
"--even if the theory is ultimately proven false—"
"—it opens up so much—"
Which, we agree, is both terrifying and exhilarating.
G. thinks at warp speed, a far greater velocity than the everyday world requires or supports. A simple assignment turns into a 50-page thesis. Every sentence that comes out of his mouth or pen has several disclaimers, qualifiers, and alternate interpretations lurking behind it. If he tries to follow our mandates to "focus" and “frame,” his work becomes a strangely truncated outline with key connections missing. When everything seems important, editing is an arbitrary act. What to cut? How to choose? In a world full of meaning, which vital thing will you omit?
He's been medicated, counseled, mentored, and rewarded for this. But he remains the passionate explorer. Once an idea grabs him, he can’t seem to edit out intersecting issues. He experiences everything at once. Nothing is backdrop; it’s all center stage. He wants to explain totality. Anything less is a cheat.
"You’ve got to go to grad school," I tell him. We laugh.
We are suddenly aware of a peculiar silence. The building has taken on that hushed waiting that all public spaces get after hours. We can hear little pings and creaks in the walls and air ducts all around us, no longer masked by the rush of humanity through the rooms and halls. It’s long after 10:00 p.m. The security guard rattles the main doors, checks the side entrance. We are about to be "secured," and we decide that we don’t want to be the ones to discover whether exiting after lockdown sets off the alarms.
Backpacks and briefcases gathered, keys jangling as I shut down the computer and enter the security code, we walk, still talking, through the halls and out into the deserted parking lot. My cheap, reliable car sits not far away, in a little pool of streetlight, and we head toward it. As I unlock my door, I glance around the empty lot.
"Where’d you park?" I say, expecting to see his car lurking in the shadows nearby.
He flings one hand toward the deep-dark at the far end of the lot. "Back over there," he says. "I just didn’t want you walking out here alone."
I pause, keys in hand. It’s a courtly gesture, an everyday kindness. But tonight, it feels a lot like hope. I stand here, five thoughts warring at once in my head, each jamming the others so that not a one gets spoken. Because it strikes me just then that we create these clean, well-lighted places for each other. Hope flows both ways. It flows both ways. We conjure these temporary, malleable, and, most importantly, collaborative spaces for, and with, each other. We build them, not as escapes from a world gone unaccountably off track, but as paths through it. And from here on, we’ll have to make that happen. The scaffold is falling away.
"You have my e-mail," I say finally. "Use it." G. gives me a quick smile and saunters off, leaving me in a pool of light.