"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Friday, February 20, 2015

Learning to Walk Before One Could Stand

It was very exciting to see for the first time my son standing inside his crib. He was still clinging on the crib rail but his smile was definitely gleaming with an aura of accomplishment. After being able to stand on one's legs for some time, the next challenge was to move. I could not wait to see him walk on his own. It was tempting to buy one of those walkers that could help a baby move within a room.


It was important to consider though that years ago, Siegel and Burton had already cautioned parents not to use walkers. In an article published in the journal Developmental and Behavioral Practices, the following developmental delays as measured by Bayley Indexes were presented.


Walkers in this study are divided into two groups to illustrate precisely why such supports may hamper an infant's development. An occluding walker is a walker equipped with plastic trays that prevent the baby from seeing his or her legs. This type of walker is apparently the worse in terms of delaying both motor and mental development. The chart above clearly shows that for a baby to develop, seeing what the body does is important. There are indeed risks in providing artificial support for development and not allowing for nature to take its course.

Babies continue to grow and by the time they reach school age, they grow even more with the help of their teachers. Learning to walk before learning to run must equally apply to basic education. There is a need to balance support and challenges. There is likewise proper timing. How much one should expect and how much support one should give are the top questions an instructor must address. Oftentimes, only the first question is given attention. This is not surprising since drawing goals and assessments is usually at the top of the agenda. One simply has to attend an Individualized Education Plan meeting to measure how much attention is spent on writing goals and how little time is given to planning interventions.

There is considerably more emphasis on what a child must accomplish in school. Being able to think is a primary objective of basic education and the activity that provides the best opportunity to demonstrate thought is writing. Yet writing requires so much from the executive function of the brain. Writing involves initiating, sustaining, inhibiting, shifting, organizing, planning and self-monitoring. Any one of these tasks can be challenging. A child who has difficulty in any one of these tasks will find writing quite demanding. These tasks describe only the processes, there is likewise content because writing after all requires knowledge. The task of writing is one area in education where goals or objectives are known so well. How these goals can be achieved unfortunately is seldom discussed.

"How many went through elementary school and were asked to write a paragraph that started with either 'How I spent my Christmas/ Summer Vacation' or 'My New Year's Resolution' while the teacher simply waited for the bell to ring?" is just one comment yet it captures how much there is to be desired regarding how writing is taught inside elementary classrooms.

Children can indeed develop writing skills early in their lives but they do need plenty of support. Cindy D’On Jones of Utah State University has examined two interventions designed to help young children develop writing skills. In the article, "Effects of Writing Instructionon Kindergarten Students’ WritingAchievement: An Experimental Study", D’On Jones specifically looks at two writing instructional procedures, "Writing Workshop" and "Interactive Writing":


These two are compared against "teaching-as-usual" (Control):


The results of these instructional methods have been obtained by administering the Test of Early Written Language - Second Edition (TWEL-2), which measures both basic and contextual writing. In the basic test, there are 57 items that test a student on directionality, letter formation, punctuation, and sentence construction. In the contextual part, a student writes a story after being shown a series of three sequential pictures. There are 14 compositional items, each one graded on a 4-point scale. The findings are summarized in the following graphs. First, with regard to punctuations, spelling, capitalizing the first letter of the first word in sentence, and other foundational writing skills, the instructional method does not matter:


On the other hand, the control (teach-as-usual) group somewhat underperforms in the compositional part:


One must keep the above scores in a proper perspective, however. In a thesis submitted by Emily Boss at the University of Pittsburgh, it is noted that in a sample of 139 kindergarten children from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Tallahassee, Florida, the average score for the foundational skills test is 33.3 (6.3). For the compositional skills test, the mean is 6.9 (3.3). (The numbers inside the parenthesis are standard deviations)

There seems to be no harm in using either the "Writing Workshop" or "Interactive Writing". There seems to be benefits. What needs to be examined more is how to sustain these efforts. These methods clearly require a teacher to be much more involved and consistent. These methods require a specific environment that supports writing. It is social. It does not begin from a vacuum. This is how we, as adults, write. Walkers are bad because we as adults do not walk with such a support unless we are disabled. And unlike learning how to walk, we have to recognize how much support a child really needs to learn how to write, to learn how to think. The reason is simple: Even grown ups need the right setting and support.







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