George Brown Elementary in San Bernadino is a glossy new school: Construction finished just two years ago. And what's going on in the classrooms is just as cutting edge.
The walls of Diana Enciso's dual-language kindergarten classroom proudly show off descriptive paragraphs the students wrote about frogs, a skill they normally wouldn't learn until the first grade. A few weeks ago, the 5-year-olds were engaged in comparing Martin Luther King to Cesar Chavez and mapping it all out in a concentric circle graph, a fourth-grade skill.
While the debate over new Common Core standards' higher expectations for kindergarteners has raged around whether kindergarten is too academic, pushing out play for more structured learning time, this school is going in the other direction. It's exposing its youngest students to complex learning that goes way beyond the standards.
The school's principal, Maribel Lopez Tyus, said her teachers used to expect kindergarteners to write a few sentences by the time they moved on to first grade.
"And I posed the question to them: Well, what if we were to expect them to do more?" she said.
New research in early cognitive development shows 5-year-olds can handle more intellectual challenges than schools currently throw at them.
“I think that we are generally underestimating, really, their capacity to understand some very, very abstract things,” said Deb Kelemen, a researcher and professor of psychology at Boston University.
Her opinion is based on a study she and her team conducted to find out whether elementary school kids can learn complex high school level biology concepts — like natural selection — if taught through stories.
“What we were teaching 5- to 8-year-old kids was a simplified version of an explanation that is currently slated for grades 8 to 12,” she said. “What many 5- to 6-year-olds and almost all 7- to 8-year-olds were able to understand generally does not happen until early adolescence.”
Another study out of the University of Chicago found that when kindergarteners are taught more complex math and reading, they do better throughout elementary school.
Public policy professor Amy Claessens, who lead that research, said 5-year-olds are capable of learning fractions if taught through real world examples, such as cooking measurements or slices of a pie. She's baffled that most kindergarten teachers spend months teaching basic numbers when most kids come into class knowing them.
Claessens' study was controversial. Some thought she was suggesting that children spend more time on academics. Experts have long acknowledged the need for free play, in which children use their imaginations and self-organize with peers, as a critical component of a young child’s learning and development.
But Claessens says that's not what she's advocating.
“What our study doesn’t say is spend more time on academics," she said. "What our study is saying is shift the content of the academic time.”
But not everyone agrees with that, either.
Silvia Bunge, an early brain development expert from UC Berkeley, agrees the 5-year-old brain is probably capable of more than standards currently call for, but she asks whether it is “necessarily desirable” to push children like this.
“I think that there is no need to push children to learn more complex concepts in pre-K than they're already asked to learn,” she told KPCC in an email. “The most important skills to be developed at this young age are related to socio-emotional functioning and early executive function skills — and a zest for playful learning.”
Lopez Tyus, George Brown Elementary's principal, said that, in her school, kindergarteners learn in groups. Making academics fun can help her students develop critical social-emotional skills while they're learning math or spelling, she said.
“They socialize, and they talk about the content,” she said.
In her Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King lesson, Enciso screened a music video by Los Tigres Del Norte about Cesar Chavez, a two-minute dance break that also brought the concepts home.
This is Enciso's first year teaching kindergarten — she's been teaching fourth grade for years — and in these months she's gone from being surprised at how much was expected of them to surprised at how much more they could do.
"You have to guide a lot, support a lot," she said. But the gains have been remarkable. "Now we're spelling."
Want to teach your 5-year-old fractions or addition? Claessens suggests teachers use these methods:
- Cooking: Teach basic fractions by using measuring cups. How many quarter cups or half cups make up a whole cup?
- Eating: Every kid has eaten pizza or pie, so teachers could use real world examples to demonstrate the parts-of-a-whole concept.
- Daily attendance: Turn the morning head count into a quick math moment and teach 5-year-olds addition and subtraction. It can also plant seeds for future, more complex fraction work by determining how many are absent from the whole class.