Preschool As a Model for Higher Education?

There are some who claim that preschool is more like daycare than elementary school, but those of us who work in the trenches with those marvelous little minds know better. I have written before about why the lessons we teach and the patience we preach aim right at the sweet spot of the so-called “soft skills” which have proven far more predictive of future success than any grade or degree. Now a new article has appeared suggesting that some of our colleagues in college are taking notice.

In a recent dispatch from the “Inside Higher Ed” newsletter, David L. Kirp, the James D. Marver Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, reports that he spent some time watching what preschool teachers do, and came away dazzled:

The time I’ve recently spent crouching in classrooms, watching how 3- and 4-year-olds explore their universe with the aid of an inspiring guide, convinces me that these teachers are the best in the business. They’re changing the arc of children’s lives — and they have a lot to teach the rest of us.

Well, shucks. I can’t argue that the work we do takes great energy and inspiration, but some credit must be given as well to the kids whose natural inclination is to explore, engage and gobble up every last thing they find fascinating. As Kirp points out, “Every teacher relishes the teachable moments, the occasions when you can almost see the lightbulbs of dawning comprehension, because for many students after their early years they’re so rare and special. Each day in a preschool classroom brings a meteor shower of these moments.”

A meteor shower is exactly right: preschool teachers often bear witness to these gathering storms of heat and light that can blaze through the classroom in a sudden shrieking fanfare. We live for such moments; many students never forget them.

Ultimately what we do that’s different from educators in later life is a kind of jujitsu: we try and harness all the energy and excitement from within and without the classroom to help turn our students’ passions into projects, and those projects, ultimately, into the building blocks of personhood. Here’s Kirp again:

Cognitive and noncognitive, thinking and feeling, Descartes’ mind-body dualism — in a good preschool classroom these distinctions vanish. The teacher is always on the lookout for both kinds of lessons, aiming to reach both head and heart.

Amen: a great preschool builds more than great kindergarteners; it can build great adults too.

I’m thrilled to run a great Los Angeles preschool for child-directed learning, and gratified to see my brilliant teachers and their ilk gaining some respect from the denizens of higher education. But for us, the real joy is in the doing.

Want to come see the fireworks in person? I warmly invite you to visit our Los Angeles preschool any weekday.