Private kindergartens became public ones at the end of the 19th century. It is a reform that has stuck.
Yet what early childhood teachers do everyday in their kindergartens has been a mystery for years. Mary Dabney Davis’s study, published by the National Education Association, was the first systematic examination of kindergarten teaching practices.
To get a sense of dominant teaching practices, Davis analyzed stenographic reports of observations done in 131 kindergartens.. These descriptions of 449 lessons in these kindergartens form the basis of the analysis. Of the selected kindergartens, three-quarters were located in public schools. Geographically, the sample was drawn from 34 states from every region of the nation. Nearly 40 percent of the children were immigrants and 3 percent were black.
While uncommon efforts were undertaken to get a cross-section of teachers, it was not a random sample since the list of participants was drawn from the records of the National Educational Association and classrooms were chosen on the basis of the superintendent’s or principal’s recommendation of teachers who were both exceptional and average. Nonetheless, what Davis did represents a giant leap beyond the fragments of data and anecdotes that researchers and policymakers have had available.
Davis constructed a five-point scale that tried to measure degrees of control in the classroom. At one end is the teacher-directed control and, at the other, student-directed control. Headings for each point on the scale are as follows:
- The teacher plans and directs the program activity
- The teacher carries out her plan with the cooperation of the children
- The children suggest and carry out the plans under teacher guidance
- The children make the plans and program under pupil leadership with teacher guidance
- The children make the plans and program without teacher guidance
To analyze and rate these descriptions, Davis went through all of them and rated each on the scale. Of the 449 lessons, Davis found the dominant modes of practice to be number 1 with 32 percent and 2 with 52 percent. She found 14 percent of the lessons were in 3 and 2 percent were in 4. No lesson was rated a 5.
To supplement these data she secured additional information on classroom practices from a survey of 535 kindergarten teachers and 162 administrators on subject matter, activities, aims, and teacher methods. This survey corroborated the observations of classrooms being largely teacher directed with different activities being more or less student-centered.
To give a clearer sense of what a kindergarten session was like, Davis assembled typical schedules that emerged from the stenographic reports of kindergarten practices.
From a public school with large enrollment of immigrant students, the typical schedule was as follows:
8:10-9:20 Self-adopted activity
9:20-9:30 Period for replacing material
9:30-9:50 Conversation. Discussion of problems in connection with work, health habits, nature study, the need for being careful in crossing streets, and so on.
10:20-10:30 Games and rhythms
10:30-10:45 Songs and stories
And from a large public school, the schedule was as follows:
9:00-9:15 Conversation and greetings
9:15-9:55 Group work
10:55-11:30 Varied activities as, Monday and Tuesday, music and dramatization; Wednesday, stories and rhythms; Thursday, stories and music; Friday, stories and rhythms
Cryptic as these schedules are and confining as they appear when combined with the analysis of 449 lessons and a survey of experienced kindergarten teachers, these examples of two calendars suggest in a crude way how teachers constructed various classroom compromises in trying to finesse the core curricular and instructional dilemma facing preschool and kindergarten teachers: should the content of kindergarten focus more on the child’s social and emotional needs or should the content of kindergarten get children academically ready for the first grade (i.e., language, science, arts)?
This teaching dilemma showed up in the survey where teachers were asked what the aims of kindergarten were. Davis could find no consensus among teachers. She found a mixture of goals that sought “social behavior and habit formation; development of skill and technique (motor and physical, intellectual and thoughtful); factual information and aesthetic appreciation.”
Similarly, another dilemma presented itself to Davis as she went through the 449 lessons. Teachers were conflicted over authority. Teachers who believed in a developmental perspective encouraged identifying and using children’s needs to guide children in planning each day. Yet to guide children to act as independent individuals, teachers must exert authority in the child’s behalf. How much to leave to children to decide and how much for teachers to direct created tensions within teachers.
The core dilemma, however, that emerges from the stenographic reports involves choices between academic and behavioral preparation for the primary grades and holistic activities that blend reading, writing, arithmetic, and other skills matched to the students’ intellectual, social, and emotional maturity. Davis states that integrated skill work appeared naturally in quartering apples, counting napkins, and straws needed for lunch or writing on the blackboard the names of the fruit and vegetables that the children brought to school.
The two dilemmas were not made easier by the isolation of kindergarten from the primary grades. She found only three kindergartens in 137 schools where explicit cooperation occurred between the first grade teachers and kindergarten teacher.
Viewers, please note that Mary Dabney Davis completed her analysis of 449 classroom observations and the teacher survey in 1924.
Of course, dilemmas facing early childhood teachers nearly a century ago are still around now. Part 2 takes up those persistent dilemmas facing preschool and kindergarten teachers. For viewers who want a full account of the kindergarten school reform, beginning in the late-19th century, and citations omitted from above post, see here.