“Lively Minds: Distinctions Between Academic versus Intellectual Goals for Young Children”

by Lilian G. Katz, Ph.D., University of Illinois Clearinghouse on Early Education and Parenting (2015)

The extent to which academic instruction should be a major goal
of the curriculum for preschool and kindergarten children is a
constant topic of debate among the many parties concerned with
early childhood education. The introduction of local, state and
national standards has exacerbated the complexities involved in
resolving these issues. I am suggesting that perhaps one approach
to resolving some of the dissention concerning curriculum focus in
the early years and about the potential risks of premature formal
academic instruction is to examine the distinctions between
academic and intellectual goals – perhaps during all the years of

Some participants in these debates assume that we confront a
choice between a traditional preschool curriculum that emphasizes
spontaneous play plus many simple activities, (e.g. creating objects
with clay, building with blocks, listening to amusing stories, and
other pleasant experiences) versus introducing and emphasizing
formal instruction on basic academic skills and knowledge (e.g.
the alphabet, days of the week, names of the months, the calendar,
counting, etc.).

The main argument presented here is that the traditional debates in
the field about whether to emphasize so-called free play or formal
beginning academic instruction are not the only two options for the
early childhood curriculum. Certainly some proportions of time
can be given to both of those kinds of curriculum components.
But in the early years, another major component of education
– (indeed for all age groups) must be to provide a wide range
of experiences, opportunities, resources and contexts that will
provoke, stimulate, and support children’s innate intellectual

ACADEMIC GOALS. Academic goals are those concerned with
the mastery of small discrete elements of disembodied information,
usually related to pre-literacy skills in the early years, and practiced
in drills, worksheets, and other kinds of exercises designed to prepare
children for the next levels of literacy and numeracy learning. The
items learned and practiced have correct answers, rely heavily on
memorization, the application of formulae versus understanding,
and consist largely of giving the teacher the correct answers that
the children know she awaits. Although one of the traditional
meanings of the term academic is “of little practical value,” these
bits of information are essential components of reading, writing,
and other academic competencies useful in modern developed
economies, and certainly in the later school years. In other words,
I suggest that the issue here is not whether academic skills matter;
rather it is about both when they matter and what proportion of
the curriculum they warrant, especially during the early years.

INTELLECTUAL GOALS. Intellectual goals and their related
activities, on the other hand, are those that address the life of the
mind in its fullest sense (e.g. reasoning, predicting, analyzing,
questioning, etc.), including a range of aesthetic and moral
sensibilities. The formal definition of the concept of intellectual
emphasizes reasoning, hypothesizing, posing questions, predicting
answers to the questions, predicting the findings produced by
investigation, the development and analysis of ideas and the quest
for understanding and so forth.
An appropriate curriculum for young children is one that
includes the focus on supporting children’s in-born intellectual
dispositions, their natural inclinations. These would include, for
example, the disposition to make the best sense they can of their
own experiences and environments. An appropriate curriculum in
the early years then is one that includes the encouragement and
motivation of the children to seek mastery of basic academic skills,
e.g. beginning writing skills, in the service of their intellectual
pursuits. Extensive experience of involving preschool and
kindergarten children in in-depth investigation projects has clearly
supported the assumption that the children come to appreciate
the usefulness of a range of basic academic skills related to literacy
and mathematics as they strive to share their findings from their
investigations with classmates and others. It is useful to assume
that all the basic intellectual skills and dispositions are in-born in
all children, though, granted, stronger in some individuals than in
others…like everything else.

further points to emphasize in connection with the importance of
intellectual goals. One is that it is widely assumed that because some
young children, especially those of low-income families, have not
been exposed to the knowledge and skills associated with ‘school
readiness,’ e.g. have not had experience of using books, etc., that
they lack the basic intellectual dispositions such as to make sense
of experience, to analyze, hypothesize, predict, as do their peers of
more affluent backgrounds. Such children may not have been read
to or to have observed adults habitually reading, or perhaps have
never yet used a pencil at home. But I suggest that it is reasonable
and perhaps also helpful to assume that they too usually have
lively minds. Indeed, the intellectual challenges many children
face in coping with precarious environments are likely to be
substantial and often complex. It is incumbent upon the school
to connect with them in terms of the unique aspects of intellect and
dispositions that they bring.

Secondly, while intellectual dispositions may be weakened or
even damaged by excessive and premature formal instruction,
Lilian G. Katz, PhD | Defending the Early Years
they are also not likely to be strengthened by many of the
mindless, trivial if not banal activities frequently offered in
child care, preschool and kindergarten programs. I visited a
school district in one of our Western states not long ago in which
the kindergartens had adopted as a theme for the year “Teddy
Bears” – a whole year!! In the classroom visited, the children were
to take turns “showing and telling” about their own teddy bears, to
count the number of them in the class collection, to measure the
lengths and weights of the items, define their colors, and to make
up stories with them as main characters. While such activities are
probably not harmful and may even – at least briefly – be fun for the
children, they are unlikely to be intellectually provocative, engaging
or stimulating. By contrast, when young children engage in projects
in which they conduct investigations of significant objects and
events around them, for which they have developed the research
questions and by which they themselves find out how things
work, what things are made of, what people around them do to
contribute to their well-being, and so forth, as can be seen in many
reports of project work in the early years (see reports of projects in
each issue of Early Childhood Research and Practice http://ecrp.
uiuc.edu)1, their lively minds are fully engaged. Furthermore, the
usefulness and importance of being able to read, write, measure
and count gradually becomes self-evident (See also Katz & Chard,
2000; Helm & Katz, 2001). We need significant meanings as the
center of education. Significant meanings through action-based
learning environments provide reasons for children to represent
experiences through many formats and deserve to be the center
of education.

While many academic skills are both useful and essential, the
question to raise here again, is a developmental one; namely: at
what point in the course of development are academic exercises
most appropriate? We all agree with the proposition that learning
to read — and in the processes of doing so, acquiring the disposition
to become lifelong readers — is a major educational goal. But just
when this process should be started and with what formality and
intensity raises many questions among those concerned with our
youngest children (Carlsson-Paige, Almon & McLaughlin, 2015).
No doubt one of the factors accounting for increasing concern
and effort to formulate clear desirable outcomes and standards for
preschool programs may be the growing recognition of the role of
stimulation in early brain development. However, Blair’s analysis
of neurological research does not imply that formal academic
instruction is the way to optimize early brain development
(Blair, 2002). On the contrary, Blair proposes a neurobiological
model of school readiness based on his analysis of recent neurological
data, the implications of which are that preschool programs are
best when they focus on social, emotional and intellectual goals
rather than narrow academic goals. On the basis of his model,
an intellectually rather than academically focused approach
is most likely to yield desirable “school readiness” as well as
longer term benefits. Blair’s analysis emphasizes the positive
role of early experiences that provoke self-regulation, initiative,
and what he calls sustained synchronous interaction in which the
child is interactive with others in some continuous process, rather
than a mere passive recipient of isolated bits of information for

Furthermore, the common sense notion that “earlier is better” is
not supported by longitudinal studies of the effects of different
kinds of preschool curriculum models. On the contrary, a
number of longitudinal follow-up studies indicate that while
formal instruction produces good test results in the short term,
preschool curriculum and teaching methods emphasizing children’s
interactive roles and initiative, while not so impressive in the short
term, yield better school achievement in the long term (Golbeck,
2001, Marcon, 2002; Schweinhart & Weikart, 1993).

There are two points to emphasize about the implications of these
data. One is that it is mainly in the long term that the disadvantages
of early formal instruction become apparent. The disadvantages
are not usually observable in the short term. To some unknowable
extent the apparent short-term benefits of formal instruction are
related to the extent to which the curriculum covers the items that
are on the tests. Preschoolers who do not have formal academic
instruction on items that are on the tests are – not surprisingly –
unlikely to perform well on them.

Another issue here is that early formal instruction, in the long
term, is more damaging to boys than to girls. Explanations for this
finding are not entirely clear. One possible explanation is is the
well-known fact that girls mature neurologically slightly earlier
than boys. However, another explanation may be that girls in most
cultures generally learn to accept a passive role early and accept
passivity more easily than do boys. On the whole in most cultures,
boys appear to prefer active and interactive experiences and to be
visibly assertive.
1See also a description of a project with four- and five-years olds “All
About Balls: A Preschool Project,” It can be accessed at:
Lilian G. Katz, PhD | Defending the Early Years

Taken together, these sets of distinctions suggest that, depending
on the extent and intensity of it, introduction of formal academic
instruction in the preschool years may not be in the best interests
of many of our children, and in fact, may be damaging to some of
them in the long term. I suggest that early childhood curriculum
and teaching methods are likely to be best when they address
children’s lively minds so that they are quite frequently fully
intellectually engaged.
Blair, C. (2002). School Readiness: Integration of cognition
and Emotion in a Neurobiological Conceptualization of Child
Functioning at Sch ool Entry. American Psychologist. 57, (2) 111
– 127.
Carlsson-Paige, N., Almon, J. & McLaughlin, G. (2015). Reading
Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose.
Boston, MA: Defending the Early Years; New York, NY: Alliance
for Childhood.
Goldbeck, S. L. (2001). Psychological Perspectives on Early
Childhood Education. Reframing dilemmas in Research and
Practice. Malweth, New Jersey. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Helm, J. H., & Katz, L. G. (2001) Young Investigators. NY:
Teachers College Press.
Katz, L. G., & Chard, S. C., (2000). Engaging Children’s Minds,
The Project Approach. Stamford, CN: Ablex Publishing Co.
Marcon, R. A. (2002). Moving Up the Grades: Relationships
Between Preschool Model and Later School Success http://ecrp.
Schweinhart, L. , & Weikart, D. P. (1993). Lasting Differences.
The High/Scope Preschool Curriculum Comparison Study through
Age 27. Monographs of the High/Scope Educational Research
Foundation. No. 10. Ypsilanti, MI. High/Scope Press.
Lilian Gonshaw Katz, PhD

Lilian G. Katz is Professor Emerita of Early Childhood Education
at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) where she is on
the staff of the Clearinghouse on Early Education and Parenting
(CEEP). Dr. Katz is Past President of the National Association
for the Education of Young Children, and the first President of
the Illinois Association for the Education of Young Children. She
is currently Editor of the on-line peer reviewed trilingual early
childhood journal, Early Childhood Research & Practice (English,
Spanish & Chinese).
Professor Katz is author of more than one hundred publications
including articles, chapters, books, pamphlets, etc., about early
childhood education, teacher education, child development, and
the parenting of young children. For 13 years she wrote a monthly
column for Parents Magazine.
Defending the Early Years (DEY) was founded in 2012 to rally
educators to take action on policies that affect the education of
young children. DEY is committed to promoting appropriate
practices in early childhood classrooms and supporting educators in
counteracting current reforms which undermine these appropriate
practices. DEY is a non-profit project of the Survival Education
Fund, Inc., a 501 (c) 3 educational organization.
Copyright © 2015 by Defending the Early Years. All rights reserved.
First printing April 2015.

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