Chapter 6 of Clayton Christensen’s Disrupting Class, focuses on the “education” that children receive before they even enter school and leads him to conclude:
By some estimates, 98 percent of education spending occurs after the basic intellectual capacities of children have been mostly determined.
Christensen outlines 3 important contributions of pre-school education:
- Creating intellectual capacity
- Cultivating a positive self-esteem
- Stimulating intellectual curiosity – which will in turn motivate learning
Recent research by Risley and Hart has shown that the first 36 months of life are crucial in determining a person’s intellectual capacity. Based on the number of words spoken to infants (an average of 2100 words per hour by college-educated parents compared with only 600 words per hour by those on welfare), by the age of 3 children of college parents had heard 48 million words in contrast to 13 million words heard by children whose parents were on welfare. In addition parents who were talkative to their children during the first year of life (before the children could speak back) gave their children a definite advantage in terms of vocabulary, which later led to better performance on reading comprehension.
Risley and Hart also observed the type of language – some parents spoke in an adult way to very young children, asking them questions and prompting them to think about what is happening. These parents modeled thinking aloud, commenting and planning and this led to curiosity in their children. These children also showed better auditory processing skills and this led to an improved capacity for learning as their brains became better at sophisticated thinking. When these children then entered school, they were more confident and more able to succeed when faced with difficult intellectual challenges. Children who are not so well prepared for school are more likely to struggle and suffer from poor self-esteem and therefore switch off from demanding academic work.
Christensen quotes from an article Hart wrote for the New York Times where he stated “80 percent of the variation in public school performance results from family effects … not school effects”. He argues that “if we persist in believing that the problems of schools can be solved by only improving schools, we will never succeed.”
Reflection: Given the research about the importance of early learning within the family, I'm wondering what teachers can do to best help students who don’t grow up in a language-rich home environment before they come to school. It seems a very bleak prospect to think that all teachers are doing is stopping them slipping even further behind those students who come from more educated families. How can this cycle be broken? How can schools really make a difference?
Photo Credit: Jeans by Pulihora, 2006