Supporting Early Math Skills Through Everyday Moments
Children are using early math skills throughout their daily routines and activities. This is good news as these skills are important for being ready for school. But early math doesn’t mean taking out the calculator during playtime. Even before they start school, most children develop an understanding of addition and subtraction through everyday interactions. For example, Thomas has two cars; Joseph wants one. After Thomas shares one, he sees that he has one car left (Bowman B. T. et al., 2001, p. 201). Other math skills are introduced through daily routines you share with your child—counting steps as you go up or down, for example. Informal activities like this one give children a jumpstart on the formal math instruction that starts in school.
What math knowledge will your child need later on in elementary school? Early mathematical concepts and skills that first-grade mathematics curriculum builds on include: (Bowman, B. T., Donovan, M. S., & Burns, M. S., (Eds.), 2001, 76).
# Understanding size, shape, and patterns
# Ability to count verbally (first forward, then backward)
# Recognizing numerals
# Identifying more and less of a quantity
# Understanding one-to-one correspondence (i.e., matching sets, or knowing which group has four and which has five)
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Key Math Skills for School
How Math Skills Link to Other Areas of Development
What You Can Do
Key Math Skills for School
More advanced mathematical skills are based on an early math “foundation”—just like a house is built on a strong foundation. In the toddler years, you can help your child begin to develop early math skills by introducing ideas like: (From Diezmann & Yelland, 2000, and Fromboluti & Rinck, 1999.)
Number Sense: This is the ability to count accurately—first forward. Then, later in school, children will learn to count backwards. A more complex skill related to number sense is the ability to see relationships between numbers—like adding and subtracting.
Ben (age 2) saw the cupcakes on the plate. He counted with his dad: “One, two, three, four, five,
Representation: Making mathematical ideas “real” by using words, pictures, symbols and objects (like blocks).
Casey (aged 3) was setting out a pretend picnic. He carefully laid out four plastic plates and four plastic cups: “So our whole family can come to the picnic!” There were four members in his family; he was able to apply this information to the number of plates and cups he chose.
Spatial sense: Later in school, children will call this “geometry”. But for toddlers it is introducing the ideas of shape, size, space, position, direction and movement.
Aziz (28 months) was giggling at the bottom of the slide. “What’s so funny?” his Auntie wondered. “I comed up,” said Aziz, “Then I comed down!”
Measurement: Technically, this is finding the length, height, and weight of an object using units like inches, feet or pounds. Measurement of time (in minutes, for example) also falls under this skill area.
Gabriella (36 months) asked her Abuela again and again: “Make cookies? Me do it!” Her Abuela showed her how to fill the measuring cup with sugar. “We need two cups, Gabi. Fill it up once and put it in the bowl, then fill it up again.”
Estimation: This is the ability to make a good guess about the amount of size of something. This is very difficult for young children to do. You can help them by showing them the meaning of words like more, less, bigger, smaller, more than, less than.
Nolan (30 months) looked at the two bagels: one was a regular bagel, one was a mini-bagel. His dad asked: “Which one would you like?” Nolan pointed to the regular bagel. His dad said, “You must be hungry! That bagel is bigger. That bagel is smaller. Okay, I’ll give you the bigger one. Breakfast is coming up!”
Patterns: Patterns are things—numbers, shapes, images—that repeat in a logical way. Patterns help children learn to make predictions, to understand what comes next, to make logical connections, and to use reasoning skills.
Ava (27 months) pointed to the moon: “Moon. Sun go night-night.” Her grandfather picked her up, “Yes, little Ava. In the morning, the sun comes out and the moon goes away. At night, the sun goes to sleep and the moon comes out to play. But it’s time for Ava to go to sleep now, just like the sun.”
Problem-solving: The ability to think through a problem, to recognize there is more than one path to the answer. It means using past knowledge and logical thinking skills to find an answer.
Carl (aged 15 months) looked at the shape-sorter—a plastic drum with 3 holes in the top. The holes were in the shape of a triangle, a circle and a square. Carl looked at the chunky shapes on the floor. He picked up a triangle. He put it in his month, then banged it on the floor. He touched the edges with his fingers. Then he tried to stuff it in each of the holes of the new toy. Surprise! It fell inside the triangle hole! Carl reached for another block, a circular one this time… Back to Top
Math: One Part of the Whole
Math skills are just one part of a larger web of skills that children are developing in the early years—including language skills, physical skills, and social skills. Each of these skill areas is dependent on and influences the others.
Trina (aged 18 months) was stacking blocks. She had put two square blocks on top of one another, then a triangle block on top of that. She discovered that no more blocks would balance on top of the triangle-shaped block. She looked up at her dad and showed him the block she couldn’t get to stay on top, essentially telling him with her gesture, “Dad, I need help figuring this out.” Her father showed her that if she took the triangle block off and used a square one instead, she could stack more on top. She then added two more blocks to her tower before proudly showing her creation to her dad: “Dada, Ook! Ook!”
You can see in this ordinary interaction how all areas of Trina’s development are working together. Her physical ability allows her to manipulate the blocks and use her thinking skills to execute her plan to make a tower. She uses her language and social skills as she asks her father for help. Her effective communication allows Dad to respond and provide the helps she needs (further enhancing her social skills as she sees herself as important and a good communicator). This then further builds her thinking skills as she learns how to solve the problem of making the tower taller. Back to Top
What You Can Do
The tips below highlight ways that you can help your child learn early math skills by building on their natural curiosity and having fun together. (Note: Most of these tips are designed for older children—ages 2-3. Younger children can be exposed to stories and songs using repetition, rhymes and numbers.)
* Shape up. Play with shape-sorters. Talk with your child about each shape—count the sides, describe the colors. Make your own shapes by cutting large shapes out of colored construction paper. Ask your child to “hop on the circle” or “jump on the red shape.”
* Count and sort. Gather together a basket of small toys, shells, pebbles or buttons. Count them with your child. Sort them based on size, color, or what they do (i.e., all the cars in one pile, all the animals in another).
* Place the call. With your three year old, begin teaching her the address and phone number of your home. Talk with your child about how each house has a number, and how their house or apartment is one of a series, each with its own number.
* What size is it? Notice the sizes of objects in the world around you: That pink pocketbook is the biggest. The blue pocketbook is the smallest. Ask your child to think about his own size relative to other objects (“Do you fit under the table? Under the chair?”).
* You’re cookin’ now! Even young children can help fill, stir, and pour. Through these activities, children learn, quite naturally, to count, measure, add, and estimate.
* Walk it off. Taking a walk gives children many opportunities to compare (which stone is bigger?), assess (how many acorns did we find?), note similarities and differences (does the duck have fur like the bunny does?) and categorize (see if you can find some red leaves). You can also talk about size (by taking big and little steps), estimate distance (is the park close to our house or far away?), and practice counting (let's count how many steps until we get to the corner).
* Picture time. Use an hourglass, stopwatch, or timer to time short (1-3 minute) activities. This helps children develop a sense of time and to understand that some things take longer than others.
* Shape up. Point out the different shapes and colors you see during the day. On a walk, you may see a triangle-shaped sign that’s yellow. Inside a store you may see a rectangle-shaped sign that’s red.
* Read and sing your numbers. Sing songs that rhyme, repeat, or have numbers in them. Songs reinforce patterns (which is a math skill as well). They also are fun ways to practice language and foster social skills like cooperation.
* Start today. Use a calendar to talk about the date, the day of the week, and the weather. Calendars reinforce counting, sequences, and patterns. Build logical thinking skills by talking about cold weather and asking your child: What do we wear when it’s cold? This encourages your child to make the link between cold weather and warm clothing.
* Pass it around. Ask for your child’s help in distributing items like snacks or in laying napkins out on the dinner table. Help him give one cracker to each child. This helps children understand one-to-one correspondence. When you are distributing items, emphasize the number concept: “One for you, one for me, one for Daddy.” Or, “We are putting on our shoes: One, two.”
* Big on blocks. Give your child the chance to play with wooden blocks, plastic interlocking blocks, empty boxes, milk cartons, etc. Stacking and manipulating these toys help children learn about shapes and the relationships between shapes (e.g., two triangles make a square). Nesting boxes and cups for younger children help them understand the relationship between different sized objects.
* Tunnel time. Open a large cardboard box at each end to turn it into a tunnel. This helps children understand where their body is in space and in relation to other objects.
* The long and the short of it. Cut a few (3-5) pieces of ribbon, yarn or paper in different lengths. Talk about ideas like long and short. With your child, put in order of longest to shortest.
* Learn through touch. Cut shapes—circle, square, triangle—out of sturdy cardboard. Let your child touch the shape with her eyes open and then closed.
* Pattern play. Have fun with patterns by letting children arrange dry macaroni, chunky beads, different types of dry cereal, or pieces of paper in different patterns or designs. Supervise your child carefully during this activity to prevent choking, and put away all items when you are done.
* Laundry learning. Make household jobs fun. As you sort the laundry, ask your child to make a pile of shirts and a pile of socks. Ask him which pile is the bigger (estimation). Together, count how many shirts. See if he can make pairs of socks: Can you take two socks out and put them in their own pile? (Don’t worry if they don’t match! This activity is more about counting than matching.)
* Playground math. As your child plays, make comparisons based on height (high/low), position (over/under), or size (big/little).
* Dress for math success. Ask your child to pick out a shirt for the day. Ask: What color is your shirt? Yes, yellow. Can you find something in your room that is also yellow? As your child nears three and beyond, notice patterns in his clothing—like stripes, colors, shapes, or pictures: I see a pattern on your shirt. There are stripes that go red, blue, red, blue. Or, Your shirt is covered with ponies—a big pony next to a little pony, all over your shirt!
* Graphing games. As your child nears three and beyond, make a chart where your child can put a sticker each time it rains or each time it is sunny. At the end of a week, you can estimate together which column has more or less stickers, and count how many to be sure. Back to Top
Bowman, B. T., Donovan, M. S., & Burns, M. S., (Eds.). (2001). Eager to learn: Educating our preschoolers. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences.
Diezmann, C., & Yelland, N. J. (2000). Developing mathematical literacy in the early childhood years. In Yelland, N. J. (Ed.), Promoting meaningful learning: Innovations in educating early childhood professionals. (pp.47-58). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Fromboluti, C. S., & Rinck, N. (1999 June). Early childhood: Where learning begins.
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement,
National Institute on Early Childhood Development and Education. Retrieved on September 22, 2008 from http://www.kidsource.com/education/math/whatis.html
Helping Young Children Channel Their Aggression
Ask any parent whether she wants her child to be an aggressive person and you are likely to get more than one answer. After all, aggression is associated with both approved and disapproved behavior in our minds and in our society—both with the energy and purpose that help us to actively master the challenges of life and with hurtful actions and destructive forces.
Most of us want our children to be able to take a stand for themselves when others treat them roughly. We hope that they will not start fights but if attacked will be able to cope with the attacker and not be overwhelmed. A child's learning to find a healthy balance between too much and too little aggressive behavior is probably the most difficult task of growing up.
According to developmental theory, aggressive impulses or drives are born in the human child and are a crucial aspect of the psychological life-force and of survival. In the course of healthy development, these drives are normally expressed in various behaviors at different ages and, with assistance from parents and others, are gradually brought under the control of the individual—moderated, channeled and regulated but by no means stamped out.
Aggression is Part of Healthy Development
During the first year, infants are not often thought of as behaving aggressively, and yet encounters in which an infant pushes, pulls, or exerts force against another are signs of the outwardly directed energy and assertiveness that reflect the healthy maturation of aggression. But the nine-month old who pulls your hair does not know that it might hurt—it is done in the same exuberant, playful spirit that is seen in other activities. It is only in the second year, when the child develops a better awareness of his separateness as a person—of "me" and "you"—that he can begin to understand that he is angry at someone and behave with intentional force. We do not usually talk about a child's being cruel or hostile toward others until some time during the second years. Even then, he does not know enough about cause and effect to understand the consequences of his action or how to regulate this behavior toward others. When your fifteen-month-old smashes a fragile object, he is caught up in the pleasure of assertiveness, not anticipating its result.
Parents sometimes tell me about their toddler who "knows better" than to hit or bite. They believe this is so because when he is scolded, he looks ashamed. What the toddler understands is not that he has hurt someone or destroyed something but that he has earned the disapproval of his parents. Conversely, when praised for being gentle with another, he knows and is pleased that he is approved of for that behavior at that moment. It will take time and many reminders before he can understand that not hitting or biting applies to many situations. Young children, particularly those under three and a half or so, scarcely know their own strength. The differences between a kiss and a bite, between patting and hitting, between nudging and pushing someone down are not automatically understood and children need many reminders: e.g., "Let me show you how to pat the baby (or the family dog or Daddy's cheek)"; "Patting feels nice. Hitting can hurt"; or "Do it softly (or gently), like this."
Learning "What to Expect" at Different Ages and Stages
As is true of the young child's development in other areas, there are steps and phases in the socialization of aggression, and it is worth your while to learn something about what kind of behavior to expect at various ages. If you understand what an infant or toddler or a four-year-old is capable of you can adjust your own actions and teaching to realistic expectations and save yourself worry and frustration. You don't need the anxiety of imagining that your toddler who gets very angry and has very little control over his aggression when frustrated or upset is destined to become an angry, destructive, uncontrolled four-or ten-or twenty-year-old. On the other hand, if your four-year-old has frequent aggressive outbursts and seems not to be concerned about the effect of his aggression, or even seems to enjoy hurting others, you are correct in being worried and in seeking ways to help him toward healthier behavior.
Parenting Strategies for Managing Aggression in Very Young Children
How then do parents moderate and channel their child's aggression without stamping it out by being too severe? While there is no exact recipe, here are twelve suggestions that may help you to provide your child with the guidance he needs.
1. Limits are part of loving. Keep in mind that your child's feeling loved and affectionately cared for builds the foundation for his acceptance of the guidance you will provide as he grows. Children who feel loved want to please their parents most of the time and will respond to their guidance. Putting reasonable restrictions on your child's behavior is part of loving him, just as are feeding, comforting, playing and responding to his wishes.
2. Try to figure out what triggered your child's aggressive behavior. Ask yourself what might have happened that set him off—your behavior or that of another person, or something else in the situation; perhaps he is overtired or not feeling well physically. Being rushed, abruptly handled, being denied something he wants, even being unable to do something he has tried to do with a toy or physical activity often produces feelings of frustration and anger that result in aggressive behavior.
3. Use what you know. Make use of what you know about your child's temperament, rhythms, preferences, and sensitivities. For example, if you know that he is irritable or ill-humored for the first hour of the day or gets very out of sorts when tired or hungry, you won't pick that time to ask a great deal in the way of control.
4. Be clear. Tell your child what you want him to do or not do in a specific situation (but try not to give a long lecture). Your child will be aware of your displeasure from your tone of voice as well as from what you say. It is important that you try to be clear about your disapproval. However, long lectures and dire predictions are usually counterproductive. Telling a three-year-old child that she can't have any television for two weeks if she hits her baby brother may upset her, but it is unlikely to help her understand and develop her own controls. A better reason is that you don't want her to hit him because it hurts. That you don't like the behavior is your most effective message. It helps any young child who has earned the disapproval of a parent to be reminded that she is loved even when you don't like the behavior.
5. Be a careful observer. When your young child is playing with other children, keep an eye on the situation but try not to hover. What begins as playful scuffling or run and chase or sharing toys can quickly move into a battle between children, and they may need a referee. However, there are times when you can let young children work things out among themselves. Age makes a difference, of course.
6. Use redirection. When your child is being aggressive in ways you don't like, stop the behavior and give him something else to do. You may either suggest and help start a new activity or perhaps guide him to a place where he can discharge aggressive feelings without doing harm to himself, to anyone else, to toys, or to the family pet. For example, a corner in which there is something to punch or bang or throw at can be utilized. You can say, for example, "If you feel like hitting, go and hit your pillow (or punching bag), but you can't hit the dog (or bang the table with a hammer)." Such an opportunity not only helps the child discharge some aggressive feelings but also helps him understand that there can be a time and place provided for such actions.
7. Be a coach. When time permits, demonstrate how to handle a situation in which there is conflict between children. For instance, if your child is old enough, you can teach him a few words to use in order to avoid or settle a conflict. A two-year-old can be helped to hold on to a toy and say "no" or "mine" instead of always pushing or crying when another child tries to take a toy. Children need specific suggestions and demonstrations from adults in order to learn that there are effective ways to handle disagreements that are more acceptable than physical attack and retaliation.
8. Use language. If your child has language skills, help him explain what he is angry about. If you are able to guess and he cannot say, do it for him, e.g., "I guess you're mad because you can't go to play with Johnny. I know how you feel, but it's too late to go today" (or whatever the reason is).
9. Ask yourself if you are sending "mixed messages" to your child about his aggressiveness. If you say "Don't hit" or "Be nice" while you are not so secretly enjoying your child's aggressive behavior toward someone else, he will be confused, and such confusions tend to make it more difficult to develop self-control.
10. Be a role model. Keep in mind that parents are the most important models for behavior and how to use aggression in a healthy way. If social exchanges in your family include much arguing or physical fighting in the presence or hearing of your children, you can count on their picking it up. Home environments like these can be unsafe and unhealthy for everyone in the family. If you are coping with a violent partner, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3244 (TTY) for support, shelter, or services, or visit Stop Family Violence for more information on getting the support and help you need.
11. Avoid spanking. Think about the very real disadvantages of physical punishment for your child. Children often arouse anger in adults when they provoke, tease, behave stubbornly, or attack others. If your practice is to hit or physically punish your child in some other way for such behavior, you need to think very carefully about what he learns from that.
12. Be patient; learning takes time. Your child's learning to love and live in reasonable harmony with others comes about only gradually and over many years. For you as parents there will always be ups and downs, periods when you despair of "civilizing" your child or when you will worry that he will be too timid for the rigors of the world. While living from day to day with the pleasures and frustrations of being a parent, it is also important to keep the long view in mind: there is a positive momentum to development. This forward thrust of your child's growth and development actually works in favor of his acquiring the ability to channel and productively use those aggressive energies that are a vital part of our makeup.
Sally Provence, M.D.
"Toddlers are little explorers who learn by doing. Play gives your child a great opportunity to develop and practice new skills at her own pace by following her unique interests. The toys and playthings your child has available to her can shape her development in important ways.
While it may seem like choosing toys for toddlers should be easy, as you walk into a toy store today, the only thing that’s easy is feeling overwhelmed. There is a huge array of toys that have been developed for the toddler market. How do you choose which are right for your child? How can you tell which are high quality and which will last? Which will engage your child’s interest for more than a few days or weeks? Below are some ideas for choosing toys that will grow with your child, challenge her, and nurture her overall development (her thinking, physical, language and social-emotional skills).
Guidelines for Choosing Toys for Toddlers
* Choose toys that can be used in a variety of ways. Toddlers love to take apart, put back together, pull out, put in, add on, and build up. Choose toys that are “open-ended” in the sense that your child can play many different games with them. For example, wooden blocks or chunky plastic interlocking blocks can be used to make a road, a zoo, a bridge or a spaceship. Toys like this spark your child’s imagination and help him develop problem-solving and logical thinking skills.
Examples: Blocks, interlocking blocks, nesting blocks or cups, and toys for sand and water play
* Look for toys that will grow with your child. We all have had the experience of buying a toy that our child plays with for two days and never touches again. You can guard against that by looking for toys that can be fun at different developmental stages. For example, small plastic animals are fun for a young toddler who may make a shoebox house for them, while an older toddler can use them to act out a story she makes up.
Examples: Plastic toy animals and action figures, toddler-friendly dollhouses, trains and dump trucks (and other vehicles), stuffed animals and dolls
* Select toys that encourage exploration and problem-solving. Play gives children the chance to practice new skills over and over again. Toys that give kids a chance to figure something out on their own—or with a little coaching—build their logical thinking skills and help them become persistent problem-solvers. They also help children develop spatial relations skills (understanding how things fit together), hand-eye coordination, and fine motor skills (using the small muscles in the hands and fingers).
Examples: Puzzles, shape-sorters, blocks, nesting blocks or cups, art materials like clay, paint, crayons or play-dough
* Look for toys that spark your child’s imagination. During your child’s third year, her creativity is really taking off as she is now able to take on the role of someone else (like a king) and imagine that something (like a block) is actually something else (like a piece of cake). Look for toys that your child can use as he develops and acts out stories. Pretend play builds language and literacy skills, problem-solving skills, and the ability to sequence (put events in a logical order).
Examples: Dress-up clothing, blocks, toy food and plastic plates, action figures, stuffed animals and dolls, trains and trucks, toddler-friendly dollhouses, toy tools, and “real-life” accessories such as a wrapping paper tube “fire hose” for your little fire fighter. The all-purpose large cardboard box is always a big hit for toddlers and is free. (Call an appliance store about picking up one of their refrigerator boxes). Boxes become houses, pirate ships, barns, tunnels—anything your child’s imagination can come up with!
* Give your child the chance to play with “real” stuff—or toys that look like the real thing. Your toddler is getting good at figuring out how objects in her world work—like television remotes or light switches. She is also interested in playing with your “real” stuff, like your cell phone, because she is eager to be big and capable like you. Toys like this help children problem-solve, learn spatial relations (how things fit together), and develop fine motor skills (use of the small muscles in the hands and fingers).
Examples: Plastic dishes and food, toy keys, toy phone, dress-up clothes, musical instruments, child-size brooms, mops, brushes and dustpans
* Toss in some “getting ready to read” toys. Books, magnetic alphabet letters, and art supplies like markers, crayons, and fingerpaints help your child develop early writing and reading skills. “Real-life” props like take-out menus, catalogs or magazines are fun for your child to look at and play with and also build her familiarity with letters, text, and print.
* Seek out toys that encourage your child to be active. Toddlers are doing all kinds of physical tricks as they are stronger and more confident with their bodies. Your job is to be an appreciative audience for your little one’s newest playground achievement! Look for toys that help your child practice current physical skills and develop new ones.
Examples: Balls of different shapes and sizes, tricycles or three-wheeled scooters (with appropriate protective gear), plastic bowling sets, child-size basketball hoop, pull-toys (e.g., toys that your child can pull on a string), wagon to fill and pull, gardening tools to dig and rake with, moving boxes (open at both ends) to make tunnels to crawl through
* Look for toys that nurture cross-generational play. While adults and children can play almost anything together, there are some toys that are designed for adult participation. As your child approaches age 3 and beyond, early board games—that involve using one’s memory or simple board games that do not require reading—are fun for all ages to play. Consider starting a “family game night” when all of you play together. Board games encourage counting, matching and memory skills, as well as listening skills and self-control (as children learn to follow the rules). They also nurture language and relationship-building skills. Another important benefit is teaching children to be gracious winners and how to cope with losing."
Common Questions on Choosing Toys for Toddlers
What are the benefits of sounds, lights and music?
Many, many toys for toddlers are ablaze with buttons, levers, lights, music, etc. Often these toys are marketed as “developmental” because the toy has so many different functions. Unfortunately, this often has the opposite effect for the child. The more a toy does, the less your child has to do. If your child can sit and watch the toy “perform”, then it is likely more entertaining than educational. In addition, these toys can be confusing to a child who is learning cause-and-effect. If a toy randomly starts playing music, or it is unclear which button made the lights start flashing, then your child is not learning which of his actions (the cause) produced the lights and music (the effect). In short, the most useful toys are those that require the most action on the part of a young child. The more children have to use their minds and bodies to make something work, the more they learn.
Can toys actually “make my baby smarter”, as the packaging and advertisements often claim?
Proceed with caution. Most products that make these claims have not been proven to increase children’s intelligence. In fact, safe household items (plastic bowls for filling and dumping, pillows for climbing and piling up to make a cave, old clothing for dress-up) are often the best learning tools. Remember, the more your child has to use his mind and body to problem solve and develop his own ideas, the more he learns.
Learning in the Age of Television
By Neil Postman
There could not have been a safer bet when it began in 1969 than that "Sesame Street" would be embraced by children, parents, and educators. Children loved it because they were raised on television commercials, which they intuitively knew were the most carefully crafted entertainments on television. To those who had not yet been to school, even to those who had just started, the idea of being taught by a series of commercials did not seem peculiar. And that television should entertain them was taken as a matter of course.
Parents embraced "Sesame Street" for several reasons, among them that it assuaged their guilt over the fact that they could not or would not restrict their children's access to television. "Sesame Street" appeared to justify allowing a 4- or 5-year-old to sit transfixed in front of a television screen for unnatural periods of time. Parents were eager to hope that television could teach their children something other than which breakfast cereal has the most crackle. At the same time, "Sesame Street" relieved them of the responsibility of teaching their preschool children how to read--no small matter in a culture where children are apt to be considered a nuisance.
They could also plainly see that in spite of its faults, "Sesame Street" was entirely consonant with the prevailing spirit of America. Its use of cute puppets, celebrities, catchy tunes, and rapid-fire editing was certain to give pleasure to the children and would therefore serve as adequate preparation for their entry into a fun-loving culture.
As for educators, they generally approved of "Sesame Street," too. Contrary to common opinion, they are apt to find new methods congenial, especially if they are told that education can be accomplished more efficiently by means of the new techniques. (That is why such ideas as "teacher-proof" textbooks, standardized tests, and, now, microcomputers have been welcomed into the classroom.) "Sesame Street" appeared to be an imaginative aid in solving the growing problem of teaching Americans how to read, while, at the same time, encouraging children to love school. We now know that "Sesame Street" encourages children to love school only if school is like "Sesame Street." Which is to say, we now know that "Sesame Street" undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents.
Whereas a classroom is a place of social interaction, the space in front of a television set is a private preserve. Whereas in a classroom, one may ask a teacher questions, one can ask nothing of a television screen. Whereas school is centered on the development of language, television demands attention to images. Whereas attending school is a legal requirement, watching television is an act of choice. Whereas in school, one fails to attend to the teacher at the risk of punishment, no penalties exist for failing to attend to the television screen. Whereas to behave oneself in school means to observe rules of public decorum, television watching requires no such observances, has no concept of public decorum. Whereas in a classroom, fun is never more than a means to an end, on television it is the end in itself.
Yet "Sesame Street" and its progeny, "The Electric Company," are not to be blamed for laughing the traditional classroom out of existence. If the classroom now begins to seem a stale and flat environment for learning, the inventors of television itself are to blame, not the Children's Television Workshop. We can hardly expect those who want to make good television shows to concern themselves with what the classroom is for. They are concerned with what television is for.
This does not mean that "Sesame Street" is not educational. It is, in fact, nothing but educational--in the sense that every television show is educational. Just as reading a book--any kind of book--promotes a particular orientation toward learning, watching a television show does the same. "The Little House on the Prairie," "Cheers," and "The Tonight Show" are as effective as "Sesame Street" in promoting what might be called the television style of learning. And this style of learning is, by its nature, hostile to what has been called book learning or its handmaiden, school learning.
If we are to blame "Sesame Street" for anything, it is for the pretense that it is an ally of the classroom. That, after all, has been its chief claim on foundation and public money. As a television show, and a good one, "Sesame Street" does not encourage children to love school or anything about school. It encourages them to love television.
Moreover, it is important to add that whether or not "Sesame Street'' teaches children their letters and numbers is entirely irrelevant. We may take as our guide here John Dewey's observation that the content of a lesson is the least important thing about learning. As he wrote in Experience and Education: "Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only what he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring
attitudes ... may be and often is more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history. ... For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future." In other words, the most important thing one learns is always something about how one learns. As Dewey wrote in another place, we learn what we do.
Television educates by teaching children to do what television viewing requires of them. And that is as precisely remote from what a classroom requires of them as reading a book is from watching a stage show.
Although one would not know it from consulting various recent proposals on how to mend the educational system, this point--that reading books and watching television differ entirely in what they imply about learning--is the primary educational issue in America today. America is, in fact, the leading case in point of what may be thought of as the third great crisis in Western education. The first occurred in the 5th century B.C., when Athens underwent a change from an oral culture to an alphabet-writing culture. To understand what this meant, we must read Plato. The second occurred in the 16th century, when Europe underwent a radical transformation as a result of the printing press. To understand what this meant, we must read John Locke. The third is happening now, in America, as a result of the electronic revolution, particularly the invention of television. To understand what this means, we must read Marshall McLuhan.
We face the rapid dissolution of the assumptions of an education organized around the slow-moving printed word, and the equally rapid emergence of a new education based on the speed-of-light electronic image. The classroom is, at the moment, still tied to the printed word, although that connection is rapidly weakening. Meanwhile, television forges ahead, making no concessions to its great technological predecessor, creating new conceptions of knowledge and how it is acquired. One is entirely justified in saying that the major educational enterprise now being undertaken in the United States is not happening in its classrooms but in the home, in front of the television set, and under the jurisdiction not of school administrators and teachers but of network executives and entertainers.
I don't mean to imply that the situation is a result of a conspiracy or even that those who control television want this responsibility. I mean only to say that, like the alphabet or the printing press, television has by its power to control the time, attention, and cognitive habits of our youth gained the power to control their education. This is why I think it accurate to call television a curriculum. As I understand the word, a curriculum is a specially constructed information system whose purpose is to influence, teach,
train, or cultivate the mind and character of youth. Television, of course, does exactly that, and does it relentlessly. In so doing, it competes successfully with the school curriculum. By which I mean, it damn near obliterates it. Television's principal contribution to educational philosophy is the idea that teaching and entertainment are inseparable. This entirely original conception is to be found nowhere in educational discourse, from Confucius to Plato to Cicero to Locke to John Dewey. In searching the literature of education, you will find it said by some that children will learn best when they are interested in what they are learning. You will find it said--Plato and Dewey emphasized this--that reason is best cultivated when it is rooted in robust emotional ground. You will even find some who say that learning is best facilitated by a loving and benign teacher. But no one has ever said or implied that significant learning is effectively, durably, and truthfully achieved when education is entertainment.
Education philosophers have assumed that becoming acculturated is difficult because it necessarily involves the imposition of restraints. They have argued that there must be a sequence to learning, that perseverance and a certain measure of perspiration are indispensable, that individual pleasures must frequently be submerged in the interests of group cohesion, and that learning to be critical and learning to think conceptually and rigorously do not come easily to the young but are hard-fought victories. Indeed, Cicero remarked that the purpose of education is to free the student from the tyranny of the present, which cannot be pleasurable for those, like the young, who are struggling hard to do the opposite--that is, accommodate themselves to the present.
Television offers a delicious and original alternative to all of this. We might say there are three commandments that form the philosophy of the education which television offers. The influence of these commandments is observable in every type of television programming--from "Sesame Street" to the documentaries of "Nova" and "The National Geographic" to "Fantasy Island" to mtv The commandments are as follows: Thou shalt have no prerequisites. Every television program must be a complete package in itself. No previous knowledge is to be required. There must not be even a hint that learning is hierarchical, that it is an edifice constructed on a foundation. The learner must be allowed to enter at any point without prejudice. This is why you shall never hear or see a television program begin with the caution that if the viewer has not seen the previous programs, this one will be meaningless.
Television is a nongraded curriculum and excludes no viewer for any reason, at any time. In other words, in doing away with the idea of sequence and continuity in education, television undermines the idea that sequence and continuity have anything to do with thought itself. Thou shalt induce no perplexity.
In television teaching, perplexity is a superhighway to low ratings. A perplexed learner is a learner who will turn to another station. This means that there must be nothing that has to be remembered, studied, applied, or, worst of all, endured. It is assumed that any information, story, or idea can be made immediately accessible, since the contentment, not the growth, of the learner is paramount. Thou shalt avoid exposition like the 10 plagues visited upon Egypt.
Of all the enemies of television teaching, including continuity and perplexity, none is more formidable than exposition. Arguments, hypotheses, discussions, reasons, refutations, or any of the traditional instruments of reasoned discourse turn television into radio or, worse, third-rate printed matter. Thus, television teaching always takes the form of storytelling, conducted through dynamic images and supported by music. This is as characteristic of "Star Trek" as it is of "Cosmos," of "Diff'rent Strokes" as of "Sesame Street," of commercials as of "Nova." Nothing will be taught on television that cannot be both visualized and placed in a theatrical context.
The name we may properly give to an education without prerequisites, perplexity, and exposition is entertainment. And when one considers that save for sleeping there is no activity that occupies more of an American youth's time than television viewing, we cannot avoid the conclusion that a massive reorientation toward learning is now taking place.
Neil Postman, professor of communication arts and sciences at New York University, is the author of Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, The Disappearance of Childhood, and other books.
Posted by Ayesha at 2/17/2009
I wonder if its because of living under authoritative governments (dictatorships,oligarchy, etc.) that most immigrants feel the need to impose an 'authoritative' Islam in their communities? (That's all we know baby and we're sticking to it.) We don't understand the concept of an 'opposition party,' nor care about respecting opposing views. There's no room for that in our black and white world. All we want is someone to tell us what to do, so we can tell someone weaker what to do, because that's how it was done back home.
Posted by Ayesha at 2/15/2009
I’m a huge 'Lost' fan. Really, I stay up for hours, after putting my household to bed, researching theories and reviewing old episodes. Last night at about 2:30 in the morning I kind of wondered what the hell is wrong with me. Why can’t I just be content with what’s plain and obvious? Why am I obsessed with solving mysteries, finding clues, trying to understand the big picture? What is it about time travel, worm holes, and negative energy that can’t wait until the next day? Why am I so intrigued with the unexplained correlations that exist between the characters?
Well, duh, maybe because it’s the story of my life?
I’m a lost spirit (definitely not from this world) who travels to distance places in her sleep each night. The morning after I don’t remember a thing, I don’t even know what I look like while I’m... erm, traveling. I’m on this island, situated in some remote part of the galaxy, trying to link all the subtle clues [of my existence?] in order to find my ultimate answer. My ultimate destination...
Life is mysterious. (stranger than fiction really). It is full of wonders and excitement. (if you take the time to observe). But most of all it reminds us that we’re all meant to be something magnificent. (We’re destined for greatness). We just don’t know it yet.
Some of us just don’t know what our purpose is just yet; maybe that’s why we struggle. We struggle with mediocrity but hope for something more. We search the universe for clues but always return to the self for self-assurance. Ultimately, the answers lie beneath the surface, within our very heart, that carries some of the secrets of the unseen; probably the only object that can truly understand the true purpose of being.
so if i repair my heart, i will know the ending of 'Lost?' Huh? Oh look, it's 2:30 am again. Wee!
Posted by Ayesha at 2/11/2009