Online preschool: another bad education idea that is so American

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My daughter on a kita field trip with friends–a preschool experience not found online .

We want our kids to be competitive in America, and to do that we keep turning to technology. It was one of the biggest differences I noticed between American and German education systems. Despite persistent budget problems and the constant pressure to fundraise to make ends meet, American schools have a ton of technology: Chromebooks, interactive boards, and many video games with dubious educational value. (My son’s “technology” class in elementary school seems to be a course entirely in Minecraft.)

Now, there is a state senator in North Carolina who just won’t give up on the idea of creating online preschool to help address his state’s early education problems. His intentions are good. He’s worried about kids developing pre-literacy and math skills.  Yet, this misses the main benefit of the preschool experience: playing with other kids.

Online preschool is another example of the American obsession with early “cognitive skills.” We’re obsessed with what can be tested. Can the kids learn something and spit it back? The problem with this approach is that there’s little evidence it works. As Paul Tough describes in his book How Children Succeed, research shows that kids do better when they develop qualities such persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, and self-confidence. These are hard to put on a test, and you definitely can’t learn them by sitting in front of a computer.

Children can learn these skills through play. The importance of play for young kids is backed by research, and I’ve seen it in action at my kids German “Kita” – as I describe in Achtung Baby. “Kita” is short for a word that translates into day care, but Kita is essentially preschool and kindergarten all rolled together. In Kita, the kids pretty much play all day. At Kita the learning emphasis is on social and emotional skills—these are important for school readiness, according to my kids’ Kita teacher, Annika.

“It’s not really learning ABC’s or numbers or things like that,” she said. “It’s knowing how to communicate, knowing their strengths and weaknesses, knowing how to get help, how to solve problems and conflicts. These are the basics they’ll need for when they start school.”

If you doubt it works, check how the US compares against Germany on the PISA test. Finland kids rank even higher and their preschools are all play too.

So why do we keep pushing screens on kids at very young ages? We know too much time in front of a screen can have negative effects, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends very limited screen time for kids in the under 4 crowd.

I could be cynical and say that we push computers in schools because it feeds our consumer culture: we are prepping future screen addicts and high-tech worker-bees (does your 6-year-old code?)

I suspect the real reason we turn to screens for kids’ education because it sounds good: it’s modern, forward thinking! It’s also easier and cheaper than investing in real preschools with buildings, teachers and playgrounds. In the end though, online preschool is neither cheap nor easy because it doesn’t give children the experiences they need.

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