Christopher P. Brown is a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin.
Kindergarten has changed. It’s now commonly referred to as the “new first grade.” This has happened because kindergarten no longer reflects a nurturing environment that prepares children for school. Rather, it’s become a race where children zoom from skill to skill so that they’re ready for the academic achievement tests they will take continuously throughout their time in school.
Debates over what kindergarten is and/or should be are not new. The central tension over the purpose, process, and direction of kindergarten has been and continues to be over what exactly children and teachers should be doing daily. Historically, most education stakeholders have framed kindergarten as a place that nurtures children. However, policymakers’ recent focus on the issues of school readiness, standardization, testing, and accountability has made kindergarten a place where teachers must race their students from skill to skill. This push for high academic achievement by all through standardized teaching practices negatively impacts the thoughtful practices of teachers and the learning experiences of children and does not align with what is known about how children learn and develop.
This shift in kindergarten towards racing from skill to skill is also changing what school is and what teachers and administrators do on a daily basis. Unfortunately, a generation of experienced teachers who have the institutional and practical knowledge of what kindergarten was prior to policymakers’ standards-based accountability reforms are leaving the classroom. The question now becomes whether education stakeholders will be able to conceive of a different type of education for children and teachers so that the kinder-race is rerouted and joy can be restored to the classroom.
Recently, I talked about the kinder-race with a range of education stakeholders in Texas, in West Virginia, and at the national level, including students and their families, teachers, school and district administrators, policymakers, and education advocates and researchers. When discussing how kindergarten has changed with them, each group worried that the current joyless and singular focus on children learning specific sets of academic knowledge and skills limits the instructional practices of teachers and demoralizes them as professionals. They also recognized these policies deny children the opportunity to engage in learning experiences that reflect their sociocultural worlds, their own interests in learning, and their level of learning and development.
To move forward, these stakeholders want kindergarten classrooms to become places where: (1) children engage in meaningful learning activities that foster their desires and competence as learners, (2) teachers listen to their students while fostering positive emotional and social interactions, and (3) children take the lead/ownership in their learning while seeing themselves as capable learners—all of which have been shown to improve children’s academic learning.
While there are range of instructional, administrative, and policy changes that I believe can reroute the kinder-race, one simple act all stakeholders can engage in is to reframe this idea of kindergarten as a place that is to race children from skill-to-skill. Instead, kindergarten should be seen as a place that expands children’s learning.
In stating that kindergarten is the expansion of children’s learning, which is based on Hubble’s law about the expanding universe, I am intentionally avoiding such fixed terms as journey, odyssey, or exploration because I do not want to assume there is an ending to children’s (or adults’) learning. When an ending or clear destination is attached, systems of assessment and/or accountability can easily be installed and stakes for academic achievement created—making it a race again!
By framing kindergarten as an expansion of learning, I also am moving away from the traditional garden metaphor to de-center the teacher as the gardener who tends to their students. Instead, I am prioritizing learning as a collective act in which teachers, students, and the larger learning community work together to foster the learning of everyone involved. Engaging in such community-based practices supports all students and seeks out alternative ways of knowing.
Replacing the image of kindergarten as a race with the idea of kindergarten as a time for expansion of learning is a simple but necessary step. The way kindergarten and other institutions of learning are framed matters, as their framing impacts how public education is governed by policymakers.
Furthermore, this and other steps that seek to reroute the kinder-race are necessary so that kindergarten specifically and public education in general can produce the next generation of educated and engaged democratic citizens. For instance, one small act that focuses on the expansion of learning is having kindergarten teachers and/or families simply ask, “Is my child/student happy in school? Do they see themself as a learner and/or a member of a learning community? Is their learning valued by their classmates and teachers? Where do they want to go in their learning? How can they work with their classmates to achieve such goals?” Such questions can help any stakeholder begin to envision a path forward for change.
Thus, to reframe kindergarten as a place that expands children’s learning is a matter of working collectively to promote and sustain such a vision of learning. In the short term, allowing the kinder-race to continue will negatively impact the learning of many students currently enrolled in school. In the long term, racing from skill to skill without fostering children’s joy and curiosity in a supportive community has the potential to weaken our democracy by failing to teach the next generation of students how to be engaged democratic citizens who strive to learn and create a better world.
Photo by Natalie via Pexels