Friday, May 19, 2006

Vertical Relevance

In Better Get Used to It, Alfie Kohn writes:

Here’s another option for those who would rather not have to offer a substantive defense of their views: In response to a humane and respectful educational practice, they can say, “Yeah, but what’s going to happen to these kids when they learn that life isn’t like that?” Invoking a dismal future, like invoking human nature, can work both ways – to attack practices one opposes and also to promote practices one prefers. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard someone respond to the charge that a certain policy is destructive by declaring that children are going to experience it eventually, so they need to be prepared.

This kind of reasoning is especially popular where curriculum is concerned. Even if a lesson provides little intellectual benefit, students may have to suffer through it anyway because someone decided it will get them ready for what they’re going to face in the next grade. Lilian Katz, a specialist in early childhood education, refers to this as “vertical relevance,” and she contrasts it with the horizontal kind in which students’ learning is meaningful to them at the time because it connects to some other aspect of their lives.

Vertical justifications are not confined to the primary grades, however. Countless middle school math teachers spend their days reviewing facts and algorithms, not because this is the best way to promote understanding or spark interest, but solely because students will be expected to know this stuff when they get to high school. Even good teachers routinely engage in bad instruction lest their kids be unprepared when more bad instruction comes their way.

HT: Throwing Marshmallows
And here in California, this seems to be a large factor in the justification for Universal Preschool. (this link is actually to a site that opposes the idea of UP). (which is a site advocating UP) puts it this way:

A federally supported universal preschool program would ensure that quality preschool education is available to every child in America. Such a program would promote school readiness by providing all children with the early education necessary to begin school ready to learn. Studies of high-quality early childhood programs demonstrate that they are especially beneficial to children from economically disadvantaged households. In addition, a universal preschool system would help meet the growing demand for child care that stems from the increasing proportion of families that have both parents in the workforce.
See, though positively rather than negatively formulated, the message is similar: learning is defined as being school-ready. The school is not conceived of as being a place to support childrens' learning; rather, the children's early learning is conceived as being a preparation for school.

My personal experience with this is with my special needs child's Early Intervention sessions, where a key part of the curriculum for the 2 year olds was learning how to sit in circles and follow rules to get ready for, yes, preschool. Was there any genuine developmental need for him to learn how to cope with preschool logistics, when he was functioning as an 18 month old? No; rather, it was a frank acknowledgement of "vertical relevance". We are doing X today so that your child will be prepared for Y tomorrow which in turn is simply preparation for Z ( Kindergarten). Kindergarten was once thought of as an optional preparation for academics proper. How far back can this go and is this really serving the need of the child rather than the convenience of the system?

Is there another side to this? Is there a proper kind of vertical relevance? I would say yes, and bring up the Ignatian idea of formation. But this post is already too long, so that aspect of it will have to wait.


JoVE said...

This relates to some very good work that I have read on notions of time in our understanding of children. Children are more often understood (in pschology and sociology and the other disciplines that provide the evidence for the kinds of things you report) in developmental time (as always 'becoming' adults) rather than in historical time (which would suggest that different things might be appropriate in different historical and cultural contexts) or even in just plain day to day time. If you are really interested, I'm sure I could dig out the piece (it was an academic article but short and not too jargon laden, if I recall).

I suspect that we who are struggling with unschooling (as I am too), may be struggling with treating our children as people in the here and now (a specific here and now, to boot) rather than solely as 'becoming' (especially in some ahistoric way). Worth contemplating a bit, I think.

WJFR said...

Those are good points, JOve. Those are things I struggle with too. I would be interested in the article if you can dig it up. Thanks for the comments.

JoVE said...

I suspect I only have it on paper. I used to use it when I taught a sociology of gender class. I'll have a look for you but it might take me a couple of days.