Offering Dynamic Learning Experiences to Young Children at the Border
Texans on EducationBy: Jennifer Keys Adair, University of Texas at Austin
My work is deeply concerned with how discrimination (from policy and practice) impacts what we offer young children in terms of learning experiences. Latinx immigrant children on the US border or on the marginalized border of cities and towns often receive a more narrow, strict, isolated educational experience than their white, wealthy peers in urban and suburban areas, even in pre-K and kindergarten. There are extreme pressures on teachers and children to perform for benchmark assessments and teacher evaluative modules. This pressure is disproportionate for children of Latinx immigrants. But it does not have to be this way if we understand young children’s learning and if we can look clearly at how discrimination often works to make us think that some children are capable of less than they really are. This knowledge can motivate us to make any small or large changes we can in our classrooms and schools.
All young children observe, ask questions, and seek out new knowledge with deep interest and enthusiasm. This is recognizable to most teachers and parents of young children. Children are curious and persistent and often continue in their quest for understanding much past an adult’s desire to stay engaged. This curiosity and a desire to understand the world around them drives much development in the early years. Children learn to walk, speak, form relationships, and participate in daily life through observation, experimentation, and curiosity. During the ages of three to eight, children are also learning who they are in relation to those around them. They are forming a sense of connection to the larger society. They start to formulate what society expects of them. And they form ideas about being a learner and what the learning process is like. In this critical timeframe, children start school. They begin to engage without their parents, grandparents, or familiar caretakers in an institution that starts influencing how they think about themselves. When we do not see young children actively wondering about the world or engaged for long periods of concentration and interest at school, it is most likely about us, not the child.
The problem is that children in the United States are not having the same types of experience. Some children get to share their ideas, create projects, involve their peers, collaborate, receive constructive and ongoing feedback from caring adults, observe the work of their peers and adults, experiment, persist through failure, see their families and communities’ ideas in the curriculum, participate in multiple ways, initiate activities, design and construct physical structures, create models, present publicly, choose topics of interest, make decisions about how to learn something, form relationships with and within the natural environment, and engage across generations and communities. And some children sit for inappropriate amounts of time, repeat words on flashcards, follow directions hurriedly, move only with permission, complete worksheets regularly, do the same exact learning tasks every day, study topics they did not choose, and work on their own without peer help or collaboration. There is little conversation, creation, or decision-making in these classrooms.
These differences are not based on capabilities or potential. They are based on entrenched views about which children are capable of powerful, sophisticated lives and which children should be destined for simplistic tasks. The children who usually get rich, complex, active learning experiences—whose voices are heard in collective and individual ways and whose strengths are emboldened and expanded in schooling institutions—are almost always white and almost always financially secure. The reasons for this are, of course, complicated. We do know that when educators believe in young children and allow them to be curious, share their stories, work together, and solve problems as a community on their own terms, they are countering racist discourses that children of Latinx immigrants cannot handle such dynamic learning experiences.
In our study of young children of Latinx immigrants that included sites at the US/Mexico border, young children told us that learning requires they be still, quiet, and obedient. In fact, learning had more to do with compliance than inquiry, hard work, or curiosity. Even when superintendents, principals, and teachers understood learning to be a creative, complicated process that requires a range of skills and knowledge, children did not receive this message (see Adair, Colegrove, & McManus, 2018). Instead, children insisted that “learning is quiet” and “if you talk, your thoughts will leave your brain.” They told us that they could not help their friends because you can’t move from your seat without asking. They told us that their teachers chose their books, where they sat, and who they worked with, even at lunchtime. They saw learning as a rote, simplistic process of listening to adult direction and taking in that knowledge. This way of seeing learning is at odds with how learning typically works within Latinx US immigrant and indigenous Mexican and Latin American communities where learning often happens through observation, participation, contribution, and shared endeavors (Rogoff, Mejía-Arauz, & Correa-Chávez, 2015). Urrieta’s (2015) work skillfully details how indigenous children from Mexico, as an example, learn by observing and then participating with their families. Knowledges “are learned through participation in ongoing family and community activities, with minimal intervention or direct instruction” (p. 359).
One big obstacle we found was that many educators felt that children’s low vocabulary or economically disadvantaged families were good reasons to give children worksheets, flashcards, and highly controlled learning spaces instead of project learning or other opportunities to influence how or what they learned. If we want young children to grow up to be thoughtful community members, smart college students, and leaders who advocate for themselves and their communities, we will need to change what we offer young children in school. Allowing children to use their agency—or the ability to influence and make decisions about their learning—is a way we have found to fight against low expectations and stereotypes and instead re-position children of Latinx immigrants as capable and smart in their classrooms and schools (Adair, 2014). Inquiry-based learning, supporting children to follow their interests, and helping children to make decisions about how they learn something—even if just for 30–60 minutes a day—can impact how children see themselves as learners and improve their connection with school, learning, and content. Young children are ready for and can handle dynamic learning experiences!
Adair, J. K., Colegrove, K. S. S., & McManus, M. E. (2017). How the Word Gap Argument Negatively Impacts Young Children of Latinx Immigrants' Conceptualizations of Learning. Harvard Educational Review, 87(3), 309-334.
Adair, J. K., Colegrove, K. S. S., & McManus, M. (2018). Troubling Messages: Agency and Learning in the Early Schooling Experiences of Children of Latina/o Immigrants. Teachers College Record, 120(6), n6.
González, N., Moll, L. C., & Amanti, C. (Eds.). (2006). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. Routledge.
Rogoff, B., Mejía-Arauz, R., & Correa-Chávez, M. (2015). A cultural paradigm—Learning by Observing and Pitching In. In Advances in child development and behavior (Vol. 49, pp. 1-22). JAI.
Urrieta Jr, L. (2015). Learning by Observing and Pitching In and the Connections to Native and Indigenous Knowledge Systems. In Advances in child development and behavior (Vol. 49, pp. 357-379). JAI.
Jennifer Keys Adair, PhD, is associate professor of early childhood education at The University of Texas at Austin. As a young scholar fellow with the Foundation of Child Development and a major grant recipient of the Spencer Foundation, she has focused on the connection between agency and discrimination in the early learning experiences of children of immigrants. Currently, Dr. Adair is the director of the Dynamic Innovation for Young Children professional development program to re-design early childhood education in the San Antonio Independent School District. Dr. Adair has published in a wide range of journals including Harvard Educational Review, Teachers College Record, Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood Education, Young Children, and Race, Ethnicity and Education. She has conducted research projects in the United States, India, New Zealand and Australia as well as throughout Europe. Jennifer’s work and expertise can be found in a variety of news outlets, including The Conversation, Washington Post, Time, CNN, and National Public Radio.
Note: The Agency and Young Children study was funded by the Foundation for Child Development’s Young Scholars program and was a large, multi-sited study of immigrant communities throughout Texas (see Adair, Colegrove & McManus, 2017; 2018; Adair, 2014; Adair & Colegrove, 2014).