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Words of Wisdom from Dr. Lilian Katz

“We are doing earlier and earlier to children what we shouldn’t do later.” These words of wisdom were offered by Lilian Katz – in reference to the current trend of aligning curriculum and programs in an effort to prepare children for the next step in their education. I had to applaud. In that one sentence, Dr. Katz summed up a good deal about how early childhood education (and education in general) in this country has gotten off track.

Dr. Katz is an international leader in early childhood education who, for decades, has lectured and taught all over the world.  She shared her ideas through an inspiring keynote address to hundreds of early childhood professionals gathered in Providence, RI last Sunday for NAEYC’s Professional Development Institute. Her words of wisdom, delivered with honesty, humility and humor, help preserve what is good for young children – in the face of all that is now working against young children. I can’t hope to capture all her pearls of wisdom from that morning, but I hope to paint a picture of some of the themes.

“Curriculum,” Dr. Katz explained, “should help children make deeper and fuller understanding of their own experience.” Going outside the classroom – and observing what is right there – that is where meaningful learning happens.  From maple leaves to industrial parks, Dr. Katz gave examples of early childhood experiences that tapped into children’s natural capacity for interest, and provided opportunities for children to draw from observation – to look closely and represent on paper what is really there – as in the Reggio Emilia approach.

She cautioned, “please do not confuse excitement with learning,” adding, “You can be addicted to excitement and that is a dangerous thing.” These words rang true, and conjured up for me images of children excited by electronic gadgets that promise to teach. There is often excitement about the latest gadget/website/app, but the excitement quickly wanes and the child is left looking for the next exciting gadget…looking for something outside himself to stimulate something inside – rather than pondering his own questions, and investigating the real world around him.

Dr. Katz also shared her concerns about television, and worries about its impact on young children.  She cited the practice of other countries’ aim to protect children from developmentally inappropriate images and news stories, by saving adult content until after 10:00 p.m. She wonders why haven’t we taken similar steps in the United States.

She urged teachers of young children to have “continuous contingent interactions” with young children, explaining that recent brain research has shown how neurological connections happen when children engage in extended, meaningful conversations – back and forth exchanges where one person’s response is contingent on what the other has to say.

She also offered some of her ideas about experiences that children should often have – and encouraged those of us in the audience to go back and talk with colleagues to make our own list. Some (but not all) of her experiences for children included:

  • being intellectually engaged and challenged
  • applying developing skills in meaningful ways
  • confidence in their own intellectual powers and questions
  • extended conversations and interactions with adults and peers
  • asking questions, making predictions and hypotheses
  • sustained involvement with worthwhile topics (projects children come back to for days and weeks)
  • feeling of belonging to community and school

I loved her list and could feel that others in the room agreed with her. My hope is that all of us in that room find ways to share her wisdom and keep her ideas alive for current and future generations of children and teachers, who are being told over and over again, that a Race to the Top is what is best for children. These experiences that Dr. Katz is talking about can not be found in scripted curricula that rushes from one disconnected topic to the next. They can be found in authentic experiences, emergent curriculum. These experiences take time and allow for investigations and conversations.

I end with one more of her wonderful nuggets: “Curriculum is not delivered. Milk is delivered.” Nice! Thanks to NAEYC for the opportunity to hear Dr. Katz’s words of wisdom.

 

 

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