rethinking the cow path


Around the world, there are hundreds of cities that are burdened by daily traffic jams. I cannot imagine that anyone ever anticipated there would be so many cars. In fact, in the world’s oldest communities, the streets were around long before cars even existed! When the earliest motorized vehicles showed up, they simply used the convenient paths that pedestrians, horse carriages (and yes, possibly cows) had been using for years. Ralph Waldo Emerson joked: “We say the cows laid out Boston. Well, there are worse surveyors.” Although the accuracy of Emerson’s statement is debatable, the problem remains. As our populations have grown and our need for transportation has increased, daily maneuvering has become a stressful and sometimes costly endeavor for many people. In cities around the world, the streets are simply not meeting the needs of the community. 

Our schools face a similar problem. The approaches, routines, and traditions of our centuries-old school systems are simply not meeting the needs of our current society. What our students needed to be functioning members of a society in, say, 1925, is not at all what they need now. The world has drastically changed due to technology, and replacing a chalkboard with a smartboard and textbooks with digital books is simply not enough to prepare our students to be successful. “Today, the United States has one of the highest high school dropout rates in the world. Among students who do complete high school and go on to college, nearly half require remedial courses, and nearly half never graduate… [Schools need] to prepare all students for college, careers, and the innovation-based economy in which they will make their living. ( Just like our city streets, our schools are no longer meeting the needs of our students. It is time to rethink the cow paths. 

So, what is the solution? Do we simply need more of the same? In our congested cities, should the streets be expanded to allow more cars to maneuver? We could get rid of some local businesses and knock down a bunch of historic buildings to make room for more roads. In fact, a few cities have already taken this approach. However, it is short-sighted and requires an unpalatable and costly sacrifice. 

In the same way, some schools have expanded their academic blocks, simply doing more of the same. Along the way, they have sacrificed parts of the school day, such as social studies, Phys. ed, recess, and fine arts classes. Another alarming trend is the increase in “academic rigor” in early elementary classrooms, including the implementation of high-stakes testing in preschools. But these “more of the same” approaches are short-sighted, and sacrificing the developmental needs of our children has proven to be both unpalatable and costly. 

Widening the cow path is not the solution. We need to innovate. And more of the same is not innovation, it is inertia. Wise city planners take into account future community needs as well as predictable human behaviors. They think long-term and work with human nature, not against it. For example, if they are convenient and inexpensive, people will use bike rentals and perhaps opt for public transportation. Another innovative approach is the offering of tax incentives to city businesses, allowing their employees to telecommute which will reduce the amount of rush-hour traffic. Given the option, most people prefer to telecommute for at least part of the workweek. Whenever possible we should work with, not against, human nature.

In the same way, wise educational stakeholders should take into account the experiences and skills our students will need to be successful in our quickly-changing society. In the classrooms of our youngest learners, we should consider how to best use children’s natural curiosity and play-instincts as learning catalysts, rather than ignoring or trying to suppress them.  In education, it is especially important that we work with, not against, human nature. It is time to rethink the cow paths. 


Play on, my friends!

“In play, it is as though the child were trying to jump above the level of his normal behavior.” -L. Vygotsky

I once observed four kindergarten students during our Play-Based Centers block. They had neatly placed several sight word cards in a pocket chart at the School Center and arranged themselves on the rug. Having set up their space, they were now taking turns pretending to be me. This is both flattering and alarming as most children are astounding mimics, often detecting and imitating mannerisms we don’t even know we have! (Apparently, I say “Let’s see. . .” quite a bit.)

  Sam, a natural-born leader, even at the tender age of five, was the first “teacher” and was asking his three “students” to find a sight word in the pocket chart when given a clue. This was a familiar routine. We reviewed sight words each day, where I asked questions designed to help them notice word features. For example, I might say: “Find the word that has an /t/ sound at the end.” or “Find a word with six letters.” 

Sam praised his “students” with several high fives as they easily found the sight words matching his clues. I grinned at the general cuteness of the scene. I was once again reminded of how much I love seeing my students enthusiastically weave our academic and positive behavioral reinforcement routines into their play. It’s like watching my own kids happily eat their vegetables, and then ask for seconds. 

As I jotted down some notes on their play, Sam paused, clearly considering his next clue, a little annoyed that his friends had figured them out so quickly. “Ok, let’s see. . . ready for a challenge? Here’s a tricky one. . . Find the word that has two syllables and four letters.” My amused grin faded and was replaced by genuine surprise. I had introduced syllables to the class a couple of days ago. We had played a game, sung a song, and clapped the syllables in each of their names. But I had not yet talked about syllables in my sight word review. Ben had quite naturally taken their play to the next level, pulling ideas from separate classroom experiences to create a “challenge” for his friends. 

This is only one example of how, given a low-pressure environment with time for self-directed, free-choice activities, children naturally create new and increasingly complex connections. I have seen this again and again during PBC. Their play often transforms learning from isolated and scattered ingredients into a rich, and satisfying feast. Learning comes alive during Play-Based Centers, often going well beyond the minimum mandated curriculum covered during our regular academic blocks. 

Russian psychiatrist Lev S. Vygotsky states: “In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form; in play, it is as though the child were trying to jump above the level of his normal behavior”  (Mind in Society, 1967, 16).

Play on, my friends!