During Chanukah, I asked my 5-year-old how many candles we needed for two chanukiot on the fourth night. While he calculated, my 3-year-old daughter told me she would get the box of candles. I watched, mouth agape, as she walked to the china cabinet, nimbly operated the child lock, reached over my great-grandmother’s pink antique martini glasses and removed the box of candles. Noah told Lila we needed 10 candles, and she counted them for him.
What was most impressive? Was it a kindergartner using his Jewish knowledge to include a shamash for each chanukiah or that he used repeated addition multiplying five times two? Was it that a 3-year-old counted 10 candles or that she operated a child lock more deftly than my husband could without any instruction?
Is academic achievement the hallmark for intelligence? We measure scores across schools, states and countries. The focus on reading and math skills for standardized tests debilitates us. We are failing against Finland and Japan and even (gasp) China on various academic measures. Somehow though, we produce more patents.
Yong Zhao, in his book “World Class Learners,” describes this as America’s entrepreneurial advantage. We create ideas and solve new problems at a superior rate, yet measure ourselves on content standards, not on innovative thinking.
His concern is that we will lose our edge if we move to a skill-and-standard-centric system like Thailand and other “academic powers” whose visions of success and progress differ from ours. We are undermining our strengths by acquiescing to the assessment solely on other societies’ values. As a result, we reshape education to mirror test scores rather than testing what we value: flexible thinking and new ideas. Parents are asking for more academics at school to increase the competitive advantage. In turn we reduce play time and hinder creative growth.
Without time for play, our children aren’t engaged in the kind of exploration that helps them develop as competent creators, solvers and engineers of new ideas. We are making computers of our children and stifling their instincts.
For the under-5 set, we know that children learn self-regulation, executive function and cultivate higher-order thinking skills earlier and with greater competence when child-directed, teacher- facilitated play-based activity is the academic approach. We need to appreciate that this type of learning continues to be valuable in primary grades and beyond.
Noah is correct when he says the best part of the day is free play. The boys gather around a box of Magna-Tiles. They barter and negotiate for the pieces they need. They collaborate to build structures. They develop elaborate stories to accompany their creations. This is the work of entrepreneurs and inventors and leaders. Play is the other great school subject area. The teacher, like me on Chanukah, can observe her students’ math, language and problem-solving skills in action. This method, far more than a standardized test, demonstrates the students’ acquisition and application of vital skills for a successful future.
Autumn Sadovnik is the director of professional development at the Macks Center for Jewish