re-thinking school readiness: knowledge goals vs. intellectual goals and short-term vs. long-term outcomes
by Marcy Guddemi, PhD, MBA
Dennis the Menace is coloring pictures with Joey, spread out on the floor, and
says, “When it comes to numbers, Joey…there’s always one more. (Ketcham,
This is one of the basic principles of numeracy. There is always one more. It is
one of the first things children learn on their path to understanding and using numbers.
Dennis figured this principle out himself; and thus, that is meaningful knowledge/information
that he can build upon.
Unfortunately, today’s typical pre-pandemic preschool/kindergarten curriculum often
consisted of memorizing meaningless bits of information and then regurgitating that
information on a test—e.g., counting, matching names to numerals, and simple arithmetic
facts. The so-called “online PreK’s,” utilized at home during the pandemic, also focus on
the same rote learning. Memorizing meaningless information, at this point in the child’s
development, is useless—except for passing the test. Piaget call these “verbalisms,” not
knowledge. Parents need not fear that children will be “behind” when traditional school
returns. The child will quickly and easily pick-up the facts later when school reopen and
when the facts make sense to the child.
The dilemma for educators is that the current teach-to-the-test curriculum is based on
reaching short-term goals in order to improve test scores rather than on developing long-term intellectual goals. Teaching “verbalisms” does not help children construct meaningful
knowledge. Short-term memorization of items, however, can be easily tested. Developing
long term intellectual goals, such as reasoning, hypothesizing, predicting, analyzing,
questioning, etc., have been neglected because they are too difficult to evaluate whether the
children have mastered them. However, long-term goals have a much higher dividend.
According to Piaget, there are three types of knowledge—physical knowledge (physical
properties that can be observed through the five senses), social-conventional knowledge
(social standards such as manners, rules, etc.), and logico-mathematical knowledge (mental
relationships). Physical knowledge is easy to learn: cats are soft, tables are hard, flowers
smell, etc. A child simply needs lots of experiences with things and others to acquire this
knowledge. Social-conventional knowledge is learned as the child interacts with others;
e.g., language and communication, manners, and what behavior is appropriate in circle time
vs. on the playground. Logico-mathematical knowledge is the most difficult to learn. It
requires the child to figure out, or construct, relationships—like Dennis discovering there is
always one more. Logico-mathematical knowledge can only be truly learned when children
construct knowledge for themselves; and, when the child is developmentally ready.
Knowledge goals are different than intellectual goals. Intellectual goals include reasoning,
hypothesizing, predicting, analyzing, questioning, etc., and, also, include a range of
aesthetics and moral sensibilities (Blair, 2002; Katz, 2005). Intellectual skills are processes
that the child uses to make sense of new information and construct knowledge.
Today’s schools provided little time for developing long-term intellectual skills, and, too
much time drilling “verbalisms” without meaning.
The Covid-19 pandemic is providing an unexpected pause in education. This pause affords
educators the perfect opportunity to create a new meaningful curriculum, a new paradigm,
for preschoolers and kindergarteners. This new curriculum should be based on what we
know about child development and what we know about how children construct knowledge.
It should primarily focus on developing long-term intellectual skills, rather than memorizing
meaningless facts of information. The new curriculum should focus on instructional
strategy, the role of the teacher, and the environment. A quality curriculum marries
appropriate content and appropriate instructional strategy. Appropriate instructional
strategies strengthen intellectual skills and lead to understanding the content and achieving
meaningful knowledge goals.
Appropriate instructional strategies include hands-on manipulating and investigating or
playing with concrete items, so that children have opportunities to construct their own
knowledge (Guddemi, 1988). Appropriate instructional strategies also encourage the child
to use intellectual skills like reasoning, predicting, analyzing, questioning, etc., to figure
things out. For example, when children are building with blocks, they are predicting what
size block will build the walls of the castle. They discover that two little blocks (one unit)
equals one longer block (two units), they analyze the stability of a large foundation vs. a
small foundation, and they question the effects of the slope angle of a board on the speed a
toy car going down the ramp.
The new curriculum should also help develop social and emotional skills, help children learn
how to interact with others, and help children learn how to appreciate the world around
them. This is what children need to learn. The outcomes of this new curriculum will bring
true school readiness, as well as, long term academic, social, emotional, and health
benefits (Heckman, 2012). By focusing on intellectual goals, not academic or knowledge
goals, children will also develop self-regulation, initiative, and “sustained synchronous
interaction” with others, thus becoming an active learner, rather than a passive learner
simply memorizing factoids (Blair, 2002).
All children deserve this new curriculum focused on experiences and developing long-term
Intellectual skills. Now is the time to abandon meaningless memorizing, and inappropriate
testing, of short term “verbalizations.” Now is the time for early childhood educators and
legislators to plan for and provide a new curriculum based on the research of how children
learn. For children to be truly “ready” for first grade and beyond, they need a curriculum
focused on developing long-term intellectual skill and facilitating children constructing their
Blair, C. (2002). School Readiness: Integration of Cognition and Emotion in a Neurological Conceptualization of School Functioning at School Entry. American Psychologist,
Guddemi, M.P. and Waas, L.L. (1988). Applying constructivism to the writing of instructional objectives. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 9 (5), 10-11.
Heckman, J. (2012). The Heckman Equation: Invest in early childhood development:
Reduce deficits, strengthen the economy. www.heckmanequation.org.
Kamii, C. (2015). Selected Standards from the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, Grades K-3: My Reasons for Not Supporting Them. Defending the Early
Katz, L. G, (2015). Lively Minds: Distinctions between academic versus intellectual goals
for young children. Defending the Early Years, www.dey.org.
Ketcham, H, (May 2, 2019). Dennis the Menace. Comic from Daytona Beach News Journal, North America Syndicate, Inc. via Associated Press.