Teach Them to Read and Let Them Go!

“All the World’s a stage,” said Shakespeare’s college student Jacques de Boys in As You Like It, “and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages…”

For many of us, our parts in life are framed by well-timed expectation. We think we know how a life story is supposed to go (even if we don’t frame it as cynically as Jaques!), and the genre is often of the ages-and-stages variety: certain life tasks are checked off the list at certain ages, with “preschoolers,” grade-school kids,” “Jr. High,” “High School,” and “College Kids” each having their expected achievements and conventional idiosyncrasies. Having conventional life stages mapped out is comforting–we know what we are supposed do and when; but what if life doesn’t always fit in a box? Or what if, as recent developmental research implies, there is no box?

UPDATE for March 2009:

The researcher whose work is profiled below, Daniel T. Willingham, has now published a book on his work: Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. Whether you and/or your kids are in school or home-educated, this one is definitely worth a read!

Ages & Stages #

The most familiar modern ages-and-stages story comes from Jean Piaget. After carefully observing patterns in children’s mistakes as he worked to standardize intelligence tests for Parisian schoolchildren in 1920, Piaget organized his observations into a theoretical framework of cognitive structural stages. Children use different ways of constructing their understanding of the world based on their ongoing interactions with the world: sensorimotor stage children (roughly from birth to age two) live in the moment and know the world as sensation and motion; preoperational stage children (ages two to seven) can use language to represent the world’s sensations to themselves, but only in simple ways and from their own egocentric point of view; the stage of concrete operations (ages seven to twelve) lets children keep track of several representations of the concrete, physical world around them at once, and to use that ability to understand the difference between appearance and reality, or between their own and others’ thoughts; and the stage of formal operations (ages twelve and up) finally allows children to begin to exercise the full power of abstract reasoning, combining and transforming words and concepts the way they have previously learned to build with blocks. Children function at one level at a time, so you can’t expect a preoperational-stage child, for instance, to understand another person’s point of view, or a concrete operations age class to comprehend the ideas behind calculus. But when children build up enough challenging experience at one level to provoke a shift to the next, their old ways are replaced with the new–and behold, new abilities emerge!

Piaget’s theory actually says (at least) two kinds of things: first, it describes the different patterns of thinking (egocentric, concrete, etc.), based on Piaget’s observations of the surprising ways that children solve problems, that are different from those that adults use to comprehend their worlds; and second, it describes how and why those patterns are organized and coordinated with each other over time. They are organized, says Piaget, into a series of discrete cognitive structures, each of which has a pervasive influence, as long as it lasts, on the way the child interacts with his or her world. For each stage, assimilating some sorts of information is easy, but accommodating more complex or abstract relations requires a whole new structure. The mind is like a machine with a regular schedule of maintenance and upgrades–at around 750 days, it’s time to trade in the sensorimotor machinery for the new and improved preoperational modules, which in turn will be swapped out for the full concrete operations kit at about 3,000 days.

Piaget’s observations were penetrating, and his synthesis was brilliant; his theory shaped a lifetime of deeply fruitful study on the nature of human knowledge. It gave a generation of teachers hope that if they could only key their instruction appropriately to the cognitive stage-machinery of their students, learning would be guaranteed. But in the end, that hope has been found to be wrong. Cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham, in an article (PDF) titled What is developmentally appropriate practice? writes:

But this characterization of development–discrete stages with pervasive effects–has been carefully tested in the context of Piaget’s theory and has been found not to be true. The problem is not simply that Piaget didn’t get it quite right. The problem is that cognitive development does not seem amenable to a simple descriptive set of principles [e.g., stages with clear rules] that teachers can use to guide their instruction. Far from proceeding in discrete stages with pervasive effects, cognitive development appears to be quite variable–depending on the child, the task, even the day…

Children can be egocentric in one situation and sympathetic in the next. They can fail to comprehend and solve a problem correctly on Tuesday, after understanding mastering the identical problem on Monday. One study found a 57% chance that a child would not solve a problem the same way twice–when the first answer was correct!

This leaves us with a bit of a storytelling dilemma. If there really aren’t stages to human development, what is there? What sort of account can we give that has any hope of being true?

Many developmental psychologists, writes Willingham, expand the machine metaphor to include several sets of macinery:

Children have multiple cognitive processes and modes of thought that coexist, and any one might be recruited to solve a problem. Those sets of cognitive machinery undergo change as children develop, but in addition, the probability of using one set of machinery or the other also changes as children develop.

Others use a geographic metaphor to capture the idea that children do generally grow and develop in reliable ways, despite this great amount of individual day-to-day variation. In this account, learning and development is like a cross country journey: the landscape of Virginia, with its forested mountains, really is different from that of Iowa’s flat cornfields, but there is no single point at which the change occurs. Different travelers may move in different routes at different rates, and knowing which state you’re in won’t necessarily tell you if you’ll see a hill or a tree outside the minivan window.

I like a musical metaphor. When our church in Chicago partnered with a support ministry for teen mothers, we often spent time around a multi-age drum circle. It was a favorite activity–the church worship leader brought a couple laundry baskets full of tambourines, shakers, rain sticks, and drums, and passed something out to everyone in the room, of whatever age or musical experience. The experienced musicians in the group laid down a basic beat, taking turns and playing off each other, and the rest of us joined in according to our mood, our ability, and the opportunity of the moment. The result was a joyous clamor of multiple rhythms and interlocking tempos at different scales. Some just tried to follow the beat; some built on it to add counterpoint or fancy accents. The littlest ones just learned that this was something their family did that was fun, even if they couldn’t yet keep a beat themselves. There were persistent patterns which would sometimes dominate, but they also merged, submerged, and reemerged over time; and the pattern at the end was never the one with which we’d started. We learned by imitation and experiment in the context of a community that payed close attention to one another, and took joy in doing so. In the end, working together, we all developed at least a small amount of skill, and no small amount of love.

Different Drummers #

Piage’s machine metaphor has given us what one mom called a “square-peg public school brain,” the feeling that our children’s development must look a certain way at a certain time, and that if they don’t we are somehow “falling behind.” It makes us attentive to age, stage, & score–we try to gauge what the kids “should” be able to do and comprehend with the machinery available to them at their stage, and run them through those paces. Their scores on the test tell us if they get it or don’t get it. Failure is bad, a sign of a mismatch between the learning material and the cognitive machinery (simplifying the material is probably the solution), and success is good, especially if our child is functioning “above his level.” For the square-peg brain, we can teach no skill before its time, and the value of every skill is in the end result, a high score right on schedule.

But what if we embrace the research, and listen for the different drummers of our children’s learning? What new rhythms would they teach us, and how could we play along?

Jena listened carefully to the rhythms of her kids, and tells their stories at Life Without School in Teaching a Child to Read:

I am always surprised by the number of moms who stress out about all the things to cover in kindergarten and first grade. My suggestion has always been, “Teach them to read, and then just let them go. Reading is the door that opens the world to them.”

Her kids learned to read in radically different ways from each other, with a wide range of timing. Indeed, for her second child she writes, “I resolved not to worry until she was 12.” That child now has achievements in music and drama, is starting her own business, and is quoting Robert Frost.

Jenn’s fellow LWOS blogger, Laureen, also learned a new rhythm when her son learned his letters Upside Down and Backwards:

I spend a lot of time gagging my inner critic. For schoolish me, reading is an end in itself, and all of the side exploration is time wasting. It takes me a lot of deep breaths to not get frustrated… I had never figured out that spinning from E to M to 3 to W was fun if you draw the shapes correctly and pivot them on the center point.

The point is to realize that there are many, many fascinating things in this world, and rushing off to the same end result everyone else points to may end up with you missing some of the neatest detours available.

Instead of age, stage and score, these tales and other real stories of real lives help us focus on persons, patterns, & tasks: How is this child learning today, at this hour? Is she using one of the patterns Piaget described? If so, which one? Why is the child learning, or not learning, from a particular activity? What could she learn? Is she helped or hindered by the task? Are there other tasks that might work as well or better? In what new ways might we explore and engage with the world around us?

We need to hear these stories. Like the art and science of Shakespeare and Piaget, the observations of parents are explorations of the range of the human experience. Today’s developmental research deepens and elaborates what observant parents know: “Children learn…in fits and starts, sometimes showing that they understand and other times not,” writes Daniel Willingham, “If you wait until you are certain that the children will understand every nuance of a lesson, you will likely wait too long to present it.” This is good news for parents and other educators. It implies that nothing is segregated by age or stage, that nothing is just for grown-ups–anything can be engaged with, because we are not expecting to learn it all at once and check it off the list. We can begin learning together now, and settle in to our rhythms of learning more deeply as time goes on.



  1. Asked for his reaction to this post, Daniel Willingham had this to say:

    The comment I would make is that I think it is important to remember that the developmental work can be useful to teachers. Although the strict stage structure is wrong, many of the features of children’s thinking that developmental psychologists have identified are quite real. (I mentioned this in the article.)

    I tried to make that point clear in the post by by distinguishing between Piaget’s patterns of thinking and the strict stage-like organization of those patterns that has been falsified by more recent research. Even when they march to different drummers, children still exhibit well-understood patterns in the ways they construct an understanding of the world, and we do well as parents to learn from the scholars who study those developmental patterns.

    It’s a point that bears repeating, because although announcing that some grand theory has been overturned may be good rhetoric (grabbing attention or stroking our populist egos), it is rarely how science actually proceeds. The truth is usually more complicated.

  2. Great ideas tossed about in this post. I do think we as a country/culture tend to stress waaaaay too much about our kids measuring up in the developmental race. This goes for homeschoolers as well as everyone else. We feel so much guilt about what we’re not doing for our kids at all times, and we have a hard time letting them do for themselves. PLUS we’re pressured by media to always be keeping up. I agree that if you give them the tools to read and the time to do it, you pretty much can’t go wrong.

    The site is looking great, by the way.


  1. […] Reading Circle Books shares how to open the door for our children to learn in Teach Them to Read and Let Them Go! […]

  2. A musical metaphor for cognitive development, language, & reading in community: http://bit.ly/DifferentDrummers

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