“Perri Klass is a pediatrician who writes fiction and non-fiction. She writes about children and families, about medicine, about food and travel, and about knitting. Her newest book is a novel, The Mercy Rule (Families! Children! Doctors! Pediatrics! Private schools! Crazy parents! Baseball!), and the book before that was a work of non-fiction, Treatment Kind and Fair: Letters to a Young Doctor, written in the form of letters to her older son as he starts medical school (Medical training! Scientific advances! Ethical dilemmas! Family!). She lives in New York City, where she is Professor of Journalism and Pediatrics at New York University, and she has three children of her own. She is also National Medical Director of Reach Out and Read, a national literacy organization which works through doctors and nurses to promote parents reading aloud to young children.”
She also writes periodically for the New York Times on children. This article appeared January 20, 2020
SHANGHAI — We sat in toddler-size wooden chairs around an orderly circle of Chinese 2-year-olds, busy with circle time. As a parent of three children who collectively spent 15 years in American day care, I am very familiar with circle time.
But I was in this Shanghai classroom as a professor, with college students from many different countries in a class I’m teaching here on children and childhood.
We were observing in a private kindergarten, designed to provide young children — starting at age 2 — with a carefully structured, fully bilingual curriculum, especially important because English language skills are vital for educational success in China.
Visits to Chinese educational institutions allow the college students in my course to get a look at real children and the ways that they learn, while also thinking about Chinese society today. They get windows onto certain slices of this complex country: a high-end private bilingual program that starts with toddlers; a city high school for academically gifted students; a middle school created for the children of the rural migrants who have come by the millions from China’s poorer provinces to work in Shanghai, but whose rights to social benefits are severely limited in the city.
These visits offer the college students insights into many of the social issues facing China, and we spend time in class discussing questions like the huge role that the annual gaokao college entrance exam plays in determining a child’s educational destiny (English is one of the required subjects), the pressures on families that create a culture of cram schools, and the controversies over reserving spots in colleges for kids from rural areas.
But all of those questions have powerful resonances when you think about the issues of childhood education and child development, which have to be addressed in every country. As my college students discuss the different facets of childhood around the world, visiting the Chinese schools also helps them in remembering and thinking about what children look like at different ages, and how they play and interact and learn.
So there we were, watching the Chinese 2-year-olds at circle time, as they answered questions in English about the months of the year and the days of the week, and we watched them, as well, pointing out the written words — in English letters — that named those days and those months. In my own children’s day care experience, years ago in Cambridge, Mass., no one in the 2-year-old room was teaching — or learning — written words for days or months or anything else in English, let alone in any other language.
Then we watched 3-year-olds at their circle time, taking part in a lesson on Humpty Dumpty in which they read the words — in English — and went on to discuss the story, answering the “W questions”: What was Humpty Dumpty? He was an egg. Where did he sit? On a wall, of course. They jumped around the three-dimensional cardboard “wall” that figured heavily in the story, demonstrating their understanding of English terms like “behind,” “beside” and “in front of” (that’s early math in action).
At the end of the lesson, the teacher provided them with a number of eggs, all but one wrapped in Bubble Wrap or cloth or cardboard. The children dropped these from a uniform height, and sure enough, the naked, unprotected egg was smashed — everyone was gleeful.
And we watched older children at circle time, studying the animals under the sea — the octopus has eight legs, the sea turtle is a reptile. They could all read, they were all comfortable in English. More than that, they were clearly comfortable in the classroom; they knew all the subtle rules of classroom conduct, like making eye contact with the teacher, raising their hands to answer, giving their answers in complete sentences.
As we walked through the bright hallways, decorated, like day care and kindergarten hallways everywhere, with personalized cubbies (all the names here in English and Mandarin) and children’s art, we could hear much more raucous noises coming from the gym where groups of children were presumably engaging in more physical — and more chaotic — activity. All the classroom schedules featured playtime, built into the day in carefully programmed increments.
But in showing us circle time, what the school was showcasing was something far more curriculum-based and far more instructional than anything my own children experienced in their years of day care. In fact, the people running the kindergarten acknowledged that parents in Shanghai are deeply aware of the competitive nature of the educational system for which the children are being prepped — and expect them to emerge ready to take tests and excel.
I knew that some of the college students would have concerns about whether what we were seeing represented early academic pressure on very young children. But I also knew that my students were impressed — and so was I.
The classrooms were cheerful, the teachers were positive, and the children seemed to be engaged in the back-and-forth of learning. Yes, the 2-year-olds sometimes seemed to be speaking English sentences they had memorized, without necessarily completely understanding them — but that’s also a part of how children learn language, and they were clearly enjoying shouting out the words together. And the older children — the 4- and 5- and 6-year-olds — understood what they were saying well enough to be making jokes and even teasing their teachers.
When my own children were in day care, all those years ago, I never yearned after curriculum — I just assumed that my children would read on schedule, and read well, that they would learn math just fine when the time came (by the way, the Shanghai day care center told us proudly that it follows the Singapore math curriculum, which produces much better results than our methods in the United States.) But watching the process of deliberately creating bilingual 5- and 6-year-olds, taking full advantage of that remarkable developmental window that helps children learn fluent language in those early years, I felt downright wistful.
To speak a second language from childhood is to have a more capacious brain and a larger connection to the world. I never aspired to having young children who were prepped for testing, or who had been drilled to get a jump on elementary school subjects. But I looked at the way those 2- and 3-year-olds navigated a second language, and I wondered whether I could have done this for my children — or found them a setting that would do it.
The language of upscale early childhood centers is international. Private day cares and preschools in the United States offer the same assurances we heard from the curriculum director in Shanghai that every facet of a young child’s development, from motor and cognitive to social and emotional will be nurtured, fostered and polished; everything will be attended to, from early math to character development.
I looked up the website for my own children’s beloved former day care center, which was certainly a privileged and protected place, in the best of ways. I noted with approval that nothing is posted about formal education or curriculum; the website celebrates the importance of play in young children’s lives.
I took a deep breath. I let go of the fantasy of the bilingual children — I love the children I have, and I loved the childhood that day care gave them. They’re all doing fine, and they’ve had occasion to study languages, in high school and college, and none of them has ever asked accusingly if we couldn’t have managed an earlier start.
But, man, those Shanghai 5-year-olds were impressive.
This article again illustrates the bind that many Americans experience when it comes to schooling in general and kindergarten and preschool, in particular. That bind is how to best combine the value of play, exploration, cooperation, and developing the whole preschooler with the value of excelling individually, acquiring academic skills (e.g., reading, math, learning another language) as early as possible. Klass’s final paragraphs reveal that value clash in comparing what she sees observing Shanghai youngsters with her own children.
This ongoing struggle over what is the best way to teach and best way for young children and youth to learn has been around since the beginnings of tax-supported public education. Reduced to soundbites it is traditional vs. progressive, Deweyan ideas vs. conservative educational practices, teacher-centered vs. student-centered.
There is no one best way to teach children or have children learn given the variation in innate abilities and lived experiences in preschoolers and youth and the beliefs and expertise that teachers bring to the classroom.
Long sentence, I admit, but it summarizes my experience in schools and the research I have done for decades.