Monday, December 21, 2009

The Early Years

The point of impact for Project Coach is adolescence. We are designed to work intensively with teenagers. While our teenagers work with elementary-aged youth in the sports program, the focus of our efforts are on supporting and teaching our teenaged youth.

While I'm clear about why we work with teens, when I read an article such as "Brain Power: Studying Young Minds, and How to Teach Them," which profiles a math-based preschool program that focuses on explicit teaching of math concepts, I think that while teen programs are crucial, these early intervention programs are more than crucial.

Programs like Building Blocks emerge from relatively new findings and insights from the realm of cognitive neuroscience. The premise of these programs aims to accelerate the development of young students’ frontal lobes, improving self-control in class and it appears turning on the brain's ability to engage in more sophisticated academic work than many believed young minds were capable of handling.

After reading the article, several thoughts:

a.  Brain research is changing the way educators understand learning. Kurt Fischer, director of the Mind, Brain and Education program at Harvard had a wonderful quote in the article, “Teaching is an ancient craft, and yet we really have had no idea how it affected the developing brain, Well, that is beginning to change, and for the first time we are seeing the fields of brain science and education work together.”

b.  Early intervention programs focused on poor children can preempt achievement gaps. The data reported in the NY Times article is formidable.  
In math, there is no faking it. Children either know that five is more than three, or they do not. Either they can put number symbols in exactly the right order, or they cannot. In their studies, Dr. Clements and Dr. Sarama test children one on one and videotape the results for comparisons.

Over the past four years, the couple has tested Building Blocks in more than 400 classrooms in Buffalo, Boston and Nashville, comparing the progress of children in the program with that of peers in classes offering another math curriculum or none at all. On tests of addition, subtraction and number recognition after one school year, children who had the program scored in the 76th percentile on average, and those who did not scored in the 50th percentile.
What happens after students participate in these programs? Do they enter into school systems where they experience conventional curriculum that does not build on their math ability? Are these early cognitive gains enduring and result in better capacity, performance, and ability later on?

Project Coach focuses on youth development-- and while there is equally convincing and fascinating brain research focusing on the adolescent brain-- I read an article like "Brain Power" and I'm convinced that the most effective way to address the achievement gap is to preempt it. Programs such as Building Blocks engage and absorb preschoolers in thinking that literally 'lights up their brain' through stimulating literacy and numeracy activities. I suspect that many of these types of activities are replicated through the natural processes of middle class parenting.

The NY Times provides a glimpse of the program in action and while the activity was interesting, it felt like the type of interaction that you see so many middle class parents having with their children:
On a recent Wednesday afternoon at the Makowski center, Buffalo’s Public School 99, Pat Andzel asked her preschool class a question:
“How many did you count?”
She had drilled them on the number seven. She held up a sign with “7” and asked her students what number they saw (“seven!”); had the group jump seven times, counting; then had them touch their nose seven times. As the class finished counting seven objects on a poster, she asked again:
“How many?”

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