What Preschool Can Teach Us About Choice and Opportunity

There is a pantheon of sitcom cliches that, no matter how many times they’ve been done before, always turn up in new ones. Among the repeat offenders: outrageously stressful wedding planning, pregnancy and baby delivery hi-jinks, new parents shopping for the “perfect” preschool, arguments over dolls vs footballs, and how these early childhood influences will determine the baby’s entire future from school choice to occupation and social status.

The sad reality is that the last two of these absurd situations have a kernel of truth. Does getting into the right preschool really determine whether a given child will go to the best university? Probably not; but when everything from friend groups to hobbies can factor into college admissions — and attending college can determine future career opportunities and professional networks — it is easy to see how major decisions can blur into the web of minor decisions surrounding a child’s future.

Early Childhood Competition

Everything concerning kids in America has gotten more competitive, starting early in their lives. Competition for better-paying (and future-proof) careers leads to more intense competition for any professional advantage at school. Getting into the best schools (by any of a number of definitions of “best”) heaps more pressure on kids while they are still in high school. From participating in sports to getting into AP classes, high school today eschews recreation in favor of workaholism and manicured student resumes.

Altogether, life for modern kids looks less like a series of choices and opportunities, and more like a long line of dominoes, set up and and sent cascading over within weeks of their birth, if not before. How can parents possibly hope to line them up just right for success and happiness?

But the problem isn’t just the hyper-competitive atmosphere surrounding the university system, and all the inputs considered in admitting or rejecting students; it is the preoccupation with the importance of college education in the first place.

When it comes to preparing children for the challenges and opportunities of adulthood, part of the messaging we need to fix — and soon — is the idea of ”college above all others”. Tuition prices have exploded in part because demand has exploded. Even historically mid-range schools face a demand beyond their capacity. For-profit schools have had lucrative success in taking advantage of this gold-rush mentality toward degrees, even as their students fail to graduate and default on their student loans in droves. More than a third of all defaults can be attributed to students from for-profit schools, even though they are just 26 percent of borrowers.

Trading School for Something That Works

The most common jobs in America today are retailers, cashiers, and fast-food workers. None of these requires any advanced education. Even filtering opportunity in terms of careers which require some minimum of post-secondary schooling and licensure, there are nearly as many truck drivers as there are nurses. If that comparison seems inappropriate, consider that trucking can be as essential to providing healthcare as nursing: nurses can hardly hope to treat a patient if they lack the necessary supplies and equipment on which they rely.

Trucking actually exemplifies the disconnect we, as a nation, have between the pressure we put on our youth to get educated, and the limitations we construct around how they “contribute” to our collective wealth and well-being. Without truck drivers, there is no clean water, no medicine, no food, and no consumer goods for a vast majority of Americans. But the career path into trucking — as with most skilled trades — takes people somewhere outside the world of universities and degrees.

The same impact trucking has, collectively, can be attributed to electricians, plumbers, and other skilled trades on which the modern world relies, yet bestows no particular social capital. Without electricians, all the gizmos and apps of Apple and Google, two of the world’s wealthiest corporations, would be useless. Without plumbing, our entire healthcare industry would be less preoccupied with inventing the next miracle pill or pushing the boundaries of surgical medicine than it would be with mitigating disease spread by poor sanitation. We are not so insulated from these alternatives as the popular imagination would assume; just ask the folks in Flint, Michigan whether plumbing is a worthwhile vocation.

The Value of Education

None of this disputes the intrinsic value of education, or the importance of giving students opportunity by expanding their access to learning. Rather, it points out how we’ve undermined our own drive to provide kids with the best chance in life by undervaluing the careers, and educational pathways, they might well follow to find their own form of success.

Trade school isn’t just a viable option, it can be downright lucrative, as well as rewarding, secure, and meaningful. But, as with all other things, planting that idea means having the conversation earlier, and undoing the damage of generations of parents and professionals marginalizing the trades that keep America running. Universities aren’t a solution to any of America’s challenges. They are merely one of a spectrum of options people face in deciding where they want to make their mark on the world, contribute to the maintenance and advancement of society, and find both purpose and acceptance among their peers.

The more parents encourage their kids to see the alternatives to college as equally worthy, the more the national conversation will pivot away from how we can give kids a leg up on the competition. At a time when our nation’s youth could feasibly have more options to learn, create, and work than at any time in history, it is absurd that they should be under such extreme pressure to conform to the parameters of a few selective universities.

The old sitcom trope of shopping for a prestigious preschool needs to die — not just for the sake of television comedy, but to reflect a society that celebrates the diversity it already possesses.

The Cautionary Tale of Story


Teachers have been telling stories for as long as teachers have taught others. Students are still learning from the stories of our greatest teachers thousands of years later like Plato, Confucius, and Jesus, as examples. But that makes story sound like a classic “old school” pedagogical method, and that is not the characterization I think we should promote.

Narrative is our primary tool for understanding the world around us, and it is a fundamental tool in our ability to processes information.

Yet despite our cultural belief in the importance of story as a teaching tool we really don’t use it much anymore. We all have our students read stories, and most of us still carve out time to read aloud to our students, but few of us use stories as a tool to explain or highlight concepts outside of those to platforms.

I spend a great deal of my research time looking for ways to integrate lessons. I do this because I believe – one, that the real world is integrated and education should follow suit, and two, that it is the only way to meet the growing list of demands on teaching time.

I have come to believe that one of the strongest threads tying all our curricula together is story.

Our focus on data, the science of pedagogy and the hard Common Core push into nonfiction, have left us with sharp, versatile tools, and little desire to use them. Those things do make a difference but they are not the difference.  The difference is our ability to add to our student’s story. I think we have forgotten the importance of story.

Wait, DON’T STOP READING…. NOT yet, give me at least one maybe even two more paragraphs before you drop this as a rambling rant.

An example: A couple of years ago a fifth grade science class I was working with was struggling with the concept of mass.

We expected some of them to get stuck on this as mass is tricky. Weight is easy enough, but the difference between mass and weight is still shaky in most of student’s heads. To be honest most teachers gloss over it because it’s shaky for them as well. So I shared the story of Archimedes and the King’s crown.

Archimedes, brings the concept of mass alive with a “Eureka” moment and a naked street dance that no 5th grader will easily forget.

Another example: Using my new idea to teach with a story I prepared and then set a trap in math class.  And when the complaints and questions about the practicality of our lesson came up, I shared the story of Abraham Wald, who saved hundreds of American pilots in WW2 and explained math is about interrogating the questions asked and the information available to get answers.

Just one more: Oxygen and the elements in general are not truly abstract, but for most if not all of our students they can be. Asking, or even expecting them to jump into STEM classes without seeding their curiosity with story can be a tough sell.

But having them listen to how and why Joseph Priestly discovered oxygen offers insight, understanding and examples of how difficult and how important understanding the unseen can be.

Great teaching has always been centered on giving the student a reason to be curious and teaching them how to explore. I’m convinced stories are where the best seeds of curiosity come from.




Time to Reboot the Safety Lecture

When we play the perennial favorite game of Blaming Other Generations, we tend to focus on relative merits and deficiencies: which generation is more or less polite, hard-working, civic-minded, etc. One thing we don’t always talk about is what different generations are afraid of.

In terms of everyday fears and how we manage them, current and future generations have some reasonable fears that no previous generation is equipped to allay.

Digital Bogeymen

Just a few years ago, cyber threats barely made the list of the biggest concerns industry experts had about the biggest risks faced by corporations. Now, in 2017, the new Trump administration has already been dogged by accusations and ambiguity on issues of cyber security both on a personal and a national level. The nation and world are hyper-conscious of the risks–and opportunities–associated with cyber security. This has the appearances of being the new normal.

In the past we’ve had “stranger danger” to warn us about trusting unfamiliar faces; then there was the (mostly apocryphal) threat of razor blades or poisons lurking in Halloween candy; the 1980s brought schools the Just Say No program to handle the epidemic of drug abuse. Sad as it may seem, generations always have their touchstone public safety issues. Yet when it comes to cyber threats faced by kids today, there isn’t quite as snappy a name for what the problem is or what to do about it. And unlike Trick-or-Treating, it isn’t something likely to dissipate as they age–quite the opposite.

It is harder to teach stranger danger to kids for whom both the strangers, and the dangers they create, are invisible, blurred away by friendly user interfaces and the anonymity of the internet. Now that all our devices are smart and internet connected, it isn’t even just online behavior that needs monitoring, since all interaction with a device stands a decent chance of being recorded and shared online without any active indication of doing so. Social media is the new playground, and simply being present is enough to generate troves of personal data and an omnipresent virtual profile that is part public-facing, and part proprietary deposit box.

Responsibility Isn’t Just Personal

We know age and judgement don’t always go together–historically, that led to things like legal drinking ages, guardianship laws, mandatory schooling. Putting age restrictions on the use of internet-capable devices is obviously a non-starter. The risks associated with careless behavior online or around computers can put everyone online in peril. One unsecured user can compromise an entire system; that could be a family computer, a shared phone, a public library, or even an airport or hospital.

Good judgement is even harder to teach online than in driver’s education. Every year, more and more taxpayers are defrauded by simple scams leveraging technology to impersonate authorities. Stranger danger has gone digital, with all the associated risks taken to a global scale.

Equipping kids today with the skills and understanding they need to stay safe online is no longer a matter of personal security or individual responsibility. The threats are just too complex for that. Cyber security and online behavior is now a matter of civic duty, community service, and good citizenship all rolled into one.

Learning to Survive

None of this is to say that we should be teaching kids to fear their phones, computers, or technology. Technology is as powerful a learning tool as it is a liability.

Kids benefit from early exposure to modern tech devices. Blending tech with teaching scales our ability to personalize learning, to reach both at-risk and high-performing students at their level, and get them where they need to be. Teaching modern youths how to do their own research and learn about the world they live in virtually demands the use of computers and phones. Gamification promises to make lessons relevant, engaging, and improve retention, and increasingly relies on technology to work its magic.

And whether it happens at home or in the classroom, modern kids are growing up impressively familiar with their digital devices. But it is a mistake to think that the younger generations, by virtue of being more inherently tech-savvy, are also more conscious of risk, security, and privacy. Very likely the opposite is true, given just how much technology has done to erode not just our privacy, but our expectations of privacy. It is a quick jump from privacy to security online.

Life Lessons

The first thing we need is to stop looking at cyber security out of self-interest, and teach it as a matter of collective importance. The odd employer, university, or public library may set standards to bolster security, but kids would be better served learning to think about cyber security the same way they do about showering. It is good for you, and for everyone around you, and it shouldn’t be up to someone else to remind you to do it.

We might also consider the limitations of the fear-driven approach to education that underpinned everything from stranger-danger to Just Say No. Fear has its limits, especially when the threat is abstract or hidden. Teaching kids to take pride in being vigilant about cyber security early on primes them for a lifetime of awareness and purposeful behavior.

Whatever we do, we owe it to our kids as well as ourselves to teach cyber security as a core subject in school–and at home. It has finally become that important. And unlike the odd literature project or bit of historical trivia, there won’t be anyone asking, “When will I ever use this?”