Bernard Spodek

BERNARD SPODEK

Spelled Spodek.  Uh, I’m a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois (unintelligible), so I’m sort of retired from the – the institutions, which means I don’t get paid by them, but I continue to do work in early childhood education.  We’re publishing books.  Olivia Saracho and I have just started a series of books on contemporary influences in early childhood education.  I’m also currently a professor – president of the Pacific Early Childhood Education Research Association and we’re doing a lot of things, uh, in support of research and, uh – in Asian – specific Asian countries especially (unintelligible) Australia and New Zealand.  So these are some of things that I’m doing now.

Um, you talk about consistencies and contradictions.  I think what you’re finding is, uh, they are really some very different approaches to the teaching of reading, uh, that you find in the field and this has been true historically.  Uh, uh, when I started teaching, you know, in the last century, uh, there was a book that came out “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” and the arguments was that, uh, most schools were teaching by the whole word method, uh, and they felt that the phonics, you know, was the way to teach.  So these sorts of arguments, you know, have continued through the years.  And the reality is and the research says that, uh, there’s probably more difference, uh, amongst teachers then there are across programs.  So the good teacher seems to be able to get kids to read, uh, no matter what the program is.  And as a teacher you may be teaching kids to read one way when in reality they’re learning a completely way, uh, and you may not be aware of it unless you really monitor the way in which the children make sense of what they read.  Uh, I think the – the – the more contemporary views, uh, uh, are sort of reflective of – of – of sort of a whole language approach, which is not the same as whole word, but that use diverse ways of, uh, of gaining – gaining meaning from the printed word.  Phonics becomes important, as well as various word attack skills, but it’s not sounding out the word that’s a key, but rather the meaning behind the word.  That’s the key.

Okay.  Again, we talked about the different approaches to literacy.  You find that, uh, uh – well, especially like in an early literacy we went historically from a sort of a, uh, erogenous mold which suggests that you don’t do anything until the child “is ready,” and “ready” was defined maturationally.  And that went back to sort of maturational theory of development, uh, which goes back to the theories of G. Stanley Hall on Gazell, uh, and so what you did is nothing until the child was about 6 years and 6 months, and then you introduced them to reading.  Uh, today – and then they went from that to sort of readiness in terms of readiness skills and you taught pre-reading skills.  And now I think the more modern approach is, uh, is what they call emergent literacy, and you look at a whole range of – of ways in which children gain language skills and then translate from the written word – from the spoken word to the written word.  Uh, and that’s done not only in schools with teachers but importantly with parents, within families, uh, using their entire environment.  And the – and kids pick up all sorts of cues in terms of how do you get meaning from things.  Uh, and it’s as important to read science as – you know, symbols, as it is to read words, and it’s a – it’s an emergent process rather then we wait and then we start teaching them directly.

Right.  Uh, I think the key there – and (unintelligible) can talk more to that because she’s been doing projects in family literacy and using, uh, uh, families where English is not necessarily spoken at home.  But the key is to use the home language first and to get the kid, you know, able to use those skills and then to translate into the English language.  Uh, and that way, uh, they already come to know some of the processes of reading, uh, you know, as they – so as they begin to use – to learn English they can use the processes that they already know, uh, and apply them to the second language.

Okay, I think rather then – from the point of the teacher, rather then focusing on the sort of formal theory, uh, because – and we can talk about this later, but I think there’s tenuousness in the relationship between development theories and educational practices.  Uh, and in early childhood education we don’t often address the – the sort of gap that’s in there.  Uh, but it’s a matter of being sensitive to what a child is capable of knowing.  And if anything in terms of theories of child development to get to understand the, uh, uh, the process of – of change that a child goes through in development.  So you can begin to anticipate sort of the next steps.  You know, know where they are and you know where they are by observing them, by listening to them, by sensing them.  Uh, and being in a class you can put what the kid is capable of doing in a context of what the other kids are capable of doing, uh, as well.  So that – you know, that helps to makes sense of that from the teachers point of view.  But if you know sort of where he’s going then what you try to do is teach as little bit beyond where he is now, uh, and – and give him the kind of support so he can move on to the next steps and the next steps.

Okay, first if we talk about – you know – uh, one of the problems that I see in, uh, this whole notion of development appropriate practices is that while, uh, uh, it’s coached in terms of constructivist theory that it’s kids creating their own development, uh it’s also, uh – it’s translated in terms of a maturational approach.  That is you’re suppose to match what you teach the child to his particular level of development.  Okay?  Uh, if you teach beyond that then you’re not developmentally appropriate.  One of the things they don’t talk about is what about if you teach below that, which is also not developmentally appropriate.  Well, years ago there was a psychologist named J. McGregor Hunt, Joe Hunt, who used to talk about the problem of the match.  You know, and that’s the whole DAP thing.  Is how do you match activities to the child?  And if the – if the child is at that level then he already knows it.  And so what you always have to do is go beyond the child’s level, what he’s capable of doing.  And we talk about scaffolding now and that is providing supports, uh, for the child so he can do things with the help of a teacher, with the help of prostheses, you know, prosthetic devices, books, whatever, uh, hints, cues, just beyond what he could do independently.  And then once he can do that with help the – the need for help sort of drops away and moves onto a different level.  And I think that’s what teachers need to, uh, to sense in their kids.  Are the kids capable of doing that on their own, and then what might they be capable of doing with some help, and what kind of help would be appropriate for them?  And then move there.  Yeah.  So (unintelligible) going beyond their “developmental level” and they’re able to incorporate what they learn into their level of development.

Okay, uh, one thing you often find is teachers of young children particularly tend to be very kind, uh, and often because they’re kind they don’t want to frustrate children.  So they want to present children with challenges beyond what they might be capable of meeting.  Uh, and in doing that, uh, they often, uh, lower their expectations and create what’s been called over the years “Self-Fulfilling Processes,” and we go back 20 or 30 years ago with the Pygmalion principle, and that is that kids function in terms of, uh, the level which they’re expected to function.  You keep the expectations low and the – the levels of functioning is low.  Uh, so – so tied to that the teacher will say, “Well, he’s not quite ready (unintelligible) let’s wait.”  And for years schools would sort of hold kids back and that whole principle sort of got turned on its head with the beginning of Head Start in 1965.  And with Head Start we came up with the idea that if the kids are not yet ready let’s help them become ready, and we helped them become ready rather – not by withholding learning opportunities, but by providing appropriate learning opportunities at an earlier and earlier level.  Uh, middle class families often do it on their own intuitively.  I mean I watch my – my daughter and my son and their families, their kids, grow up and, you know, there is teaching.  You know, not – not formally, but there are always teaching, their providing enrichment, etc., etc.  So these kids, uh, will probably be successful without formal schooling, but if you have a home where the parents aren’t doing those things either because they don’t know what to do or they don’t have the resources available then I think it becomes the responsibility of society and schools are a tool of society, uh, to provide those kinds of, uh, expectations.  Uh, the new bill, you know, let’s leave no child behind kind of thing.  It’s talking about let’s do some more in, uh, in early childhood education and then the – uh, in the news in the last couple of days they are talking about Head Start Initiatives to improve literacy learning for kids, the integration of Head Start with other early childhood programs.  In some states, uh, uh, they’ve been trying to, uh, improve, uh, the educational potential of day care teachers who are usually relatively poorly trained, uh, and even family day care, uh, providers so that, uh, they can provide a more enriched educational environment for these kids.  And I think you have to, uh, you have to use early resources that you have and these kids are in, you know, very different kinds of programs often.   

Well, uh, there’s a – there’s a real sensitivity teachers need to have in relating played education, uh, because if the teacher takes over the control of the activity it stops being played.  Uh, I remember – you know, kindergarten kids learn very quickly as play – as what you want to do and work is what the teacher wants you to do.  Uh, so teachers need to be, uh, very careful in, uh, in providing opportunities for play and then enriching and extending that play.  Uh, and there are lots of different alternative, lots of different approaches that teachers have, uh, to play.  In – in Iceland, for example, the preschools in Icelandic are called “Play Schools,” uh and the original philosophy was that kids needed chance to play, and play should be the child’s domain and the teachers should keep totally hands off.  And in some of the buildings they actually have like separate rooms where – that the kids go into play.  The teachers will set these up, but then the kids go in and the doors close.  The teacher is on the outside, and the – the children own the activity.  Okay?  That won’t go well in America.  There’s no way we would do that and I have serious questions about whether it is appropriate.  Okay?  Because I think what you have to do is not simply let children play.  They want to play, but you want to guide their play to increase the educational opportunities that are provided, and you do that by enriching them in a number of different ways.  Uh, uh, one, by suggesting play themes, uh, by – by enriching the uh – the play, uh – the play environment with different kinds of things reflecting those themes, by providing children with information.  So if they are going to be playing supermarket you go to a supermarket, uh, you see what –  what’s work – how it works, what things are there and all that, uh you bring in books, you bring in specialists in the classroom, and this sort of enriches the play.  It becomes part of a – of a larger learning activity.  Okay?  Uh, the teacher can sometimes actually enter into play.  Uh, not taking it over necessarily, but uh – but take them on a role where more often then not – by asking questions you can move the play in sort of positive directions.  So in those ways teachers can enhance children’s play, make them more educational while still keeping the children controlled of their activity so it remains play.  Dramatic play, especially by itself, is symbolic activity so that – and – and literacy is a symbolic act.  So just as a toy stands for something, a word stands for something, and there’s some research that shows the children who are good at playing, a dramatic play.  They become better readers then those who are not.  Uh, there’s – there’s, uh, uh, some situations where – where teachers actually do play tutoring, helping kids learn how to play, uh, who – who for – for various reasons they might have – may not have learned how to use the kind of play situations.  So, uh –  and then the other thing you do is create literacy events within the play so that setting up a housekeeping unit where there is a telephone, where there is paper and pencil, where there are books, uh, uh, a phone book, you know, all sorts of things that children engage in.  Uh, play – uh, play – well, I guess literacy warranted play activities is how we could put it.

Okay.  Uh, I guess there are lots of definitions of curriculum and, uh, uh, and – and it seems to me in early childhood education, especially, curriculum reflects, uh, not only the formal kind of educational activities, but the entire experience that the child is having in school so that, uh, eating things like snack time or getting dressed, uh, you know, putting on clothes, taking off clothes, provide opportunities for learning.  Uh, when you go into an educational situation you, uh – you provide children opportunities to learn things that they might not be learning outside of school and we do it in several ways.  First when you – uh, in order to create a school the first thing you do is build walls, uh, and that allows you to do a couple of things.  One, you keep out the rest of the world and then you bring in the things that you want, that you think are important for the kids to do.  Uh, some of the, uh, curriculum elements relate to the children’s personal social knowledge.  Uh, how do you get along with others?  How do you interact?  Uh, how do you influence others?  Uh, how do you learn to cooperate, you know?  How do you deal with conflict?  All those kinds of things?  But there’s also a content area to it, uh, and somebody – you know, and, uh – and this is cultural content.  You know, if – you go into a lot of kindergartens and you find that a lot of the curriculum is tied to holidays.  You know, so – so, you know, you start with, you know, fall is here, and Columbus Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and on, and on, and on.  Uh, these can be just, uh, uh, any kinds of activities where teachers will have, uh, cutouts that the kids will make.  You know, you make turkeys with – from your fingers and stuff like that or they can be used to help children understand cultural knowledge.  Uh, uh, you give them some understanding of what the beginnings of our country were –  was, uh, the way in which we settled by Europeans, uh the different kinds of highs that might be, uh, um, might be celebrated by different cultural groups.  So it’s not just Christmas, but its Kwanza, its (unintelligible), and its Hanukkah, and all that.  You know, and it all related to light and the seasons of lights.  You know, even though they are very different from one another, so some of that cultural knowledge which is tied also in our – in America to multiculturism.  There’s also, uh, the –  the knowledge of subject, and that is that cultures, Western cultures, have created knowledge system and these knowledge systems are important in helping us understand the world, uh, and to the extent that we can help children access these in an intellectually honest way, but children can be helped to understand the world too.  So it’s not just literacy, but numerously, you know, quantity, shape, forms.  Uh, science – we go from social studies to science.  Uh, to social studies, you know, understanding social relationships, understanding things like history and geography, uh, music art.  All – all of these are knowledge systems that are there and they all can – they all have a legitimate place in the early childhood curriculum from the – from the preschool on and it has to be done in such a way that kids can make sense of the world and the world they know from these subject areas, the better sense they can make of the world.  You don’t teach these didactically, but they help the teacher, uh, develop criteria for what kinds of activities, uh, they’ll provide in the classroom and how they’ll engage in these activities.  So it teaches to do sink and float, for example, activities where you put different objects in a bowl of water and the kids can observe, you know, what things go down, what things stay on the surface.  And then, uh, to begin to hypothesize, uh, “Why do you think things – you know, things sink?  Why do you think things float?  And often the kids will say, “Well, heavy things will sink and light things will float.”  And so you bring a needle in, which is very light and it flunks down to the bottom or you bring a toy boat – you know, metal boat, which is fairly heavy and it floats, and they have to come up with – with alternative hypotheses that way.  And they work on this over a long period of time.  Uh, and – and as long as the hypothesis seems to make sense and is consistent with what they observe, uh, you know, it’s okay.  That’s what scientists do.  And then when there are inconstancies you have to change your theory.  It all sounds pretty sophisticated for little kids, but essentially that’s what they’re doing and that’s what – how I think teachers need to uh – need – need to approach the (unintelligible) of curriculum of kids.

Well I think you have to look at it in general.  You know, that uh – you know, one, parents are the kids first teachers (unintelligible) and two, the schools just have the kids for a small part of the day, and what happens to children at home is educative in one way or another and may be consistent or inconsistent with the schools.  If it’s a rural partnership then not only is the school influencing the home – you know, we do a lot of, uh, parent education techniques and alike, but the home is also influencing the schools and, uh, one of the key elements in Head Start when it was created in 1965 was that they had to have a parent advisory board in each program so that parents had a voice in not only what the kids would be learning but even who would be teaching their children, and that’s a real partnership.  Uh, I think those kinds of partnerships are hard to create in schools, especially in public schools, which are fairly bureaucratic.  But the extent that we can do it, uh, I think it’s important and that parents and teachers share uh – that they usually share the goals and they need to understand that, uh, that they’re not approaching those goals in the same way.  Uh, you know, what are the differences?  And here you find, uh, in culturally diverse communities that families will have different views of education, uh different views of what kids should learn and how – how they should be taught.  There’s some research, for example, that suggests that, uh, low SES parents are more supportive of direct instruction in literacy in reading while middle class parents are more, uh, supportive of sort of whole language approaches, so emergent literacy approaches.  So parents have to understand what the teachers want for their kids.  Teachers have to understand what the parents want for their kids, and where there are differences they try to negotiate those differences.

Okay, uh, that’s – that’s a really complicated issue.  I think you see this, uh, as you move internationally.  You know, cross culturing and such.  You get to see, uh, how – how schools and early childhood schools, especially, are organized, and even how these schools change, uh when the culture changes, when the country changes.  Uh, I – I’ve visited kindergartens in Poland, uh, and they went through major changes, uh, when they sort of de-Sovietized the, uh, you know, the Polish, uh, uh, uh, community.  And they went from fairly didactic to kindergarten education, which came from the Soviet Union, and they tried to sort of American kindergartens.  And it was interesting in that, uh, they wouldn’t quite get it right, uh, because what they saw was sort of the surface structure, okay, and they didn’t see the sort of deep structure in there.  So if you look at a preschool class in the U.S., the teacher isn’t telling every child exactly what to do.  Okay?  And – but – and – but the kids aren’t free either to do whatever they want, and there are a lot of Southern ways in which teachers will influence what kids are doing, bringing them into the sorts of activities we want.  And, uh, if you’re not part of the culture you don’t understand that.  Uh, so it looks like sometimes free education, do whatever you want, even though it really isn’t.  Uh, so you know, in that way you begin to see, uh, in countries as a country itself changes – undergoes cultural change and political change the schools undergo these same changes and, uh, in the process, uh, there’s some discontinuities that happen because, uh, they’re not quite where they want to be and they don’t quite understand what they want to be.  Uh, in – in China, for example, you know, in ’89 you have the democracy movement going, uh, and you had (unintelligence) the Chinese, uh, had a sense of what democracy really – really is – really was, uh, and the kindergartens there were very didactic.  There were lessons, you know, and there were activities related to the lessons of the kids and now you see kindergartens changing.  They are a great diversity now in kindergartens in China, uh, and you see – you can see some Montessori kindergartens, uh you can see some almost progressive kindergartens, progressive philosophies and different ways.  Uh, so as the culture changes it’s important.

Okay, that’s a hard one and I’m not sure how to answer, uh, what key – no, what are the key concepts?  Uh, it seems to me that, uh…

I think – I guess to me the key would be, uh, variety.  Uh, that there is no one way, uh, that – that just teaching kids phonic is going to teach them to read.  By just giving them a literacy – literacy rich environment is not teaching – going to teach them to read.  Uh, to me what’s important is get the kid enjade – engaged in reading as – almost as a form of conversation, uh, uh, and use whatever tools they have so that, uh – in picture – story books, you know, uh, uh, they look for clues in the pictures as well as in the words.  Uh, when they look at the words they – they uh – they look for hints, you know, initial letters, you know, endings, stuff like that, and then listening to themselves.  And uh, I – I was very curious of my oldest grandson when he started going into kindergarten and they had like a, uh, you know – you know, every week there was a different letter of the alphabet that they were studying and he would have to cut out things and bring them in and all that.  Uh, and he was doing it and he seemed to enjoy it, but what intrigued me most is that he suddenly exploded into reading.  Uh, and so like Montessori said, you know, that everything just sort of clicked in there and, uh, he would pick up everything, I mean – you know, and read no matter (unintelligible) children.  And what I liked in how he was reading was that, you know he would read and listen to what he was saying and, uh, he would read and suddenly would say, “Hey, that doesn’t make any sense,” and we’d go back.  You know, so he’d be making errors but they were some good errors.  And he had developed this system of self monitoring so that when things didn’t make sense he was able to – he was aware of that and he would just then continue to sound out words.  Uh, and it seems to me that that’s one of the keys, that kids becoming aware of what they’re doing.  They’re developing a self monitoring system and using whatever strategies that they can to – to – to get the keys to what the words are and then the search for meaning, and – and meaning becomes the – the key, and if its meaningless there’s something wrong and you’ve got to figure out what’s wrong.

Okay.  Uh, first I – I – I have this intuitive sense that, uh, we also have to look at what language the kids come from.  You know, uh, if you’re talking about kids from a Spanish background, or a German background, or a French background, uh there’s some similarities in vocabulary, but more important, there’s similarities in (unintelligence) and similarities in uh – in the structure of the language.  Okay?  If you get kids from Southeast Asia or China, uh, you know, it’s different.  You know, uh, if you watch how meaning is taught to kids in China – you know, they have to learn characters.  Okay?  (unintelligible) character like a picture.  You know, there are different parts of it and some of the parts are related to, uh, you know, a phonetic stuff and part of it is meaning stuff.  Okay?  And the – the structure – the grammar is completely different.  I tried to study, uh, uh, Chinese at one time and by the third week I through my hands up in despair and said, “I’m too old for this or something like that.”  But it’s so different.  Uh, so I – I – you know, I think the teachers need to be aware not necessarily to speak the language, but they need to be aware of the characteristics of the language the kids are coming from and to see what is it that can transfer, okay, and what is it that uh – that – that has – you have to start, uh – start all over again.  You know, I have a feeling from Chinese students I have that, for example, they’re much more sensitive to music because of the tonality of a language.  We don’t think of tonality except in terms of a question or a statement, uh, and we also to the shape of – of things.  I have a – I have a sweatshirt at home that my daughter gave me when she was a student at – at Indiana University.  Well, Indiana University is IU.  The University of Illinois is U of I and the sweatshirts, you know, from IU and U of I both have an I and a U in it and this Chinese student that I have is (unintelligible) said, “That’s not a University – sweatshirt because of the configuration,” and I think again, because she reads characters that she was much more sensitive to that configuration part. 

We’ve done some research in the past on uh – on uh teachers thought processes and on teacher belief systems and alike, uh implicit (unintelligible), explicit theories that teaches themselves to develop theories – of teaching theories of education that are different from the theories we teach them, you know, in the (unintelligible) course and the early childhood course.  Uh, and they often don’t know.  That’s why their impli – they don’t know what these theories are, but if you observe them over time you see the regularity of what they do and over time that regularity remains consistent even if they go from class to class or school to school, and you begin to isolate the – the elements of that, uh, and – and read it back to them and they’ll either agree or disagree.  They’ll say, “Yeah, I hadn’t thought of it, but that’s right,” you know.  Or they’ll say, “I don’t think that – you know, that’s right.”  I think as teachers, uh, become more experience, uh, they develop this – this set of theories.  Uh, at first I think what you find with student teachers and novice teachers – it’s a – it’s almost like they – they try on different ideas like you try on a set of clothes that doesn’t fit, it doesn’t make sense, and they’ll uh – they’ll keep (unintelligible) until they develop their own style, their own sense of teaching, their own way of teaching.  Uh, it becomes very personal, uh, and yet it’s within a – within a context of education so that it’s – it’s within a framework of what’s acceptable, right?  I think it’s a process that happens over time, uh, and uh as teachers mature.  It’s not just getting through the day, you know, living through the day, but it’s of – of how I – what do I have within myself and what are the resources that I have available to help kids learn and then beyond my resources where can I go for other resources.  I get them from other teachers, I get them from books, I get them from head conferences and workshops, and uh – you know, and – and how do I assimilate – how do I make some of these my own, modifying them to fit what I’m doing?  Uh, and teachers will pick them up – you know, they’re very – they tend to be very, very eclectic, but there’s also some consistency in what they do.

First of all, I think teaching is a very difficult profession, uh, and teachers often don’t get the kind of help, the kind of support either from above, below, from outside that they need.  Uh, teachers often feel isolated.  Uh, and the – the – I think what we need to do is look for ways to help teachers grow, uh, to help teachers dialog with other teachers, to help teachers become more resourceful.  And they can do it on a personal level.  They can use technology today in ways that weren’t available before.  Uh, I think memberships in organization, either formal or informal, where – where networking becomes important to them.  I think uh – I think teachers uh they know a lot, they know – they know more then often we give them credit for.  Uh, I – I think they uh – they – they uh – they don’t get the respect they deserve in America.  Uh, in Japan when you’re sensei, when you’re a teacher it’s a biggie.  Here a teacher is a teacher, and unfortunately, uh, the younger the kids are that you teach the less respect you get, and I think – and it’s actually wrong.  I think you’re more of a teacher with young children.  The nice thing about being a college professor is that the students not dependent on you for their education.  You can get away with a lot of stuff, and you get a lot more credit for what you are doing.

I think uh – I think it’s an important concept that essentially, uh, education is a moral activity.  It’s a moral act being a good teacher.  What you’re doing if you’re good, especially, is that the kids will become something that they would not have become without – you know, without you.  Uh, and the key of Barbara Byber many years ago who wrote in one of her books that, uh, the key to early childhood education is, uh, sort of what you want your children to be and to become.  And I think it’s a very profound statement really.