The Lessons of Kindergarten

​by James St. Clair

Recently a young teacher of 5 year olds came to me to ask my advice. This teacher runs a very developmentally appropriate classroom with lots of choice for children and long periods of time that they can work-play together. (I always use this compound verb to emphasize the fact that much of this small group play is the work of early learners.) The teacher, who I’ll call Nicole, was worried because other teachers and administrators in the building were going to do a ‘walk through’. This involves peers visiting classrooms to observe learning and then talking about it afterward. Nicole’s problem was that staff was reminded, strongly, that they needed to have the learning objectives for each lesson posted where children and teachers could see them.

This school runs from junior kindergarten, children as young as 4 ½, to
Eighth grade. Nicole, working with the youngest children, was trying to figure out what to put up as the ‘objectives of the lesson’ in the dramatic play area, which was set up as a restaurant. When I asked her what she was thinking to put up her answer was “nothing”. I encouraged her to do just that. The alternative was to put up a long explanation of the many mathematical, language, social, emotional and literacy concepts the children are learning through their restaurant play as well as the skills they are developing.

There are lots lessons in kindergarten, both practical and profound. You might see a teacher demonstrating how to hold scissors or you might see a teacher initiating a discussion of friendship after a powerful read aloud. But the bulk of their social and cognitive learning happens during open-ended play with carefully chosen materials and guidance from knowledgeable teachers, when they practice the skills they are learning and test the concepts they are beginning to understand.

Nicole and I agreed that it wasn’t fair to expect her to teach the administrators about the work of Piaget and Vygotsky, and that it shouldn’t fall on the classroom teachers shoulders to teach decision makers how early learning works. This would require a lot of time that Nicole doesn’t have.

The team that was ‘walking through Nicole’s room consisted of two administrators, a math coach, and two teachers, neither of which was a kindergarten or pre-school teacher. This series of ‘walk throughs’ had the particular goal of looking at clarity. Whole books and numerous chapters have been written about this teaching skill. Very simply stated, it defines the teacher that knows her students very well, their learning style, and their prior knowledge. Clarity demands that a teacher has a repertoire of ways for checking for understanding and many alternative ways of explaining, both visual and aural. When reading about clarity the examples are often lessons like 2 digit multiplication or square roots. Seldom do the examples relate to five and six year olds.

Clarity was chosen as a goal for the faculty of Nicole’s school at the beginning of the year.  Nicole has been working on clarity all year. She has made sure that children understand how the classroom operates, what the rules are, and where to find things. As she moves around the classroom she is checking for, not just understanding, but children’s physical abilities, the cognitive concepts they have down as well as the knowledge they have. She does this by observing, questioning, looking at what they produce, and sometimes just wondering aloud and listening to how they chime in. She may have 20 different goals for 20 different children at any given moment.  That can’t be posted on the wall.

So when looking at a kindergarten or pre-school classroom, it is imperative that someone be on board who has the knowledge of how young children learn and what that looks like. We wouldn’t make decisions about a heart health program without cardiologists being part of the discussion. Nor do baseball teams let the business department make trades without input from the baseball people.

Some time later, I asked Nicole what happened afterwards. She told me the team talked among themselves and gave general feedback to the entire faculty on the issue of clarity. Nicole is not shy and so she asked specifically what clarity looks like during choice time in a junior kindergarten classroom. She never really got an answer. Nor did she ever get feedback specific to her classroom.

We certainly can understand why a school would want to discuss  clarity. Knowledgeable teachers of young children have a plethora of methods for assessing what children know, are learning, and what they are wondering about. Observing children playing and interacting with each other provides a rich lode of information about children’s thinking. Samples of their speech, what they draw, paint, and try to write can also elicit important insights.

I often found I could learn much of what was assessed on an individual basis by observing children in action. Watching a youngster pointing to the text while ‘reading’ along in a big book gave me much info about their concepts of print. Likewise, their phonetic writing, labels on their block buildings and menus in the classroom restaurant, provided insight into their knowledge of letters and sounds. But at some point, this information that could help teachers as they interacted with students became data to be analyzed for other purposes. The need to rush the process became paramount. No longer was this information solely helping the teacher guide little Michael’s activities, suddenly it was now telling us that Michael hadn’t reached the reading benchmark. Then remedial activities came in to move him along quickly. And then he is no longer making labels for his block construction; he is keeping a wordbook. And little by little, as the demands of the data increase, the joy in Michael’s learning is likely to decrease. Someone versed in the importance of play-based learning for young children would see this. Someone versed in data might not. And therein lies the danger.