How Early Academic Training Retards Intellectual Development

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Academic skills are best learned when a person wants them and needs them.

by Peter Gray

In my last post I summarized research indicating that early academic training produces long-term harm. Now, in this post, I will delve a bit into the question of how that might happen. 

It's useful here to distinguish betweenacademic skills and intellectual skills—a distinction nicely made in a recent article(link is external) by Lillian Katz published by the child advocacy organization Defending the Early Years(link is external).

Distinction between academic and intellectual skills, and why the latter should precede the former

Academic skills are, in general, tried and true means of organizing, manipulating, or responding to specific categories of information to achieve certain ends. Pertaining to reading, for example, academic skills include the abilities to name the letters of the alphabet, to produce the sounds that each letter typically stands for, and to read words aloud, including new ones, based on the relationship of letters to sounds.  Pertaining to mathematics, academic skills include the ability to recite the times tables and the abilities to add, subtract, multiply, or divide numbers using learned, step-by-step procedures, or algorithms.  Academic skills can be and are taught directly in schools, through methods involving demonstration, recitation, memorization, and repeated practice.  Such skills lend themselves to objective tests, in which each question has one right answer.

Intellectual skills, in contrast, have to do with a person’s ways of reasoning, hypothesizing, exploring, understanding, and, in general, making sense of the world.  Every child is, by nature, an intellectual being–a curious, sense-making person, who is continuously seeking to understand his or her physical and social environments.  Each child is born with such skills and develops them further, in his or her own ways, through observing, exploring, playing, and questioning.  Attempts to teach intellectual skills directly inevitably fail, because each child must develop them in his or her own way, through his or her own self-initiated activities.  But adults can influence that development through the environments they provide.  Children growing up in a literate and numerateenvironment, for example—such as an environment in which they are often read to and see others read, in which they play games that involve numbers, in which things are measured and measures have meaning—will acquire, in their own ways, understandings of the purposes of reading and the basic meaning and purposes of numbers.

Now, here’s the point to which I’m leading.  It is generally a waste of time, and often harmful, to teach academic skills to children who have not yet developed the requisite motivational and intellectual foundations.  Children who haven’t acquired a reason to read or a sense of its value will have little motivation to learn the academic skills associated with reading and little understanding of those skills.  Similarly, children who haven’t acquired an understanding of numbers and how they are useful may learn the procedure for, say, addition, but that procedure will have little or no meaning to them.

The learning of academic skills without the appropriate intellectual foundation is necessarily shallow. When the drill stops—maybe for summer vacation—the skills are quickly forgotten. (That’s the famous “summer slide” in academic ability that some educators want to reduce by keeping children in school all year long!)  Our brains are designed to hold onto what we understand and to discard nonsense.  Moreover, when the procedures are learned by rote, especially if the learning is slow, painful, andshame-inducing, as it often is when forced, such learning may interfere with the intellectual development needed for real reading or real math. 

Rote-trained, pained children may lose all desire to play with and explore literary and numerical worlds on their own and thereby fail to develop the intellectual foundations for real reading or math.  This explains why researchers repeatedly find that academic training in preschool and kindergarten results in worse, not better, performance on academic tests in later grades (see here).  This is also why children’s advocacy groups—such as Defending the Early Years(link is external) and the Alliance for Childhood(link is external)—are so strongly opposed to the current trend of teaching academic skills to ever-younger children.  The early years, especially, should be spent playing, exploring, and developing the intellectual foundations that will allow children to acquire academic skills relatively easily later on.

In the remainder of this post, I review some findings, discussed in earlier essays in this blog, that illustrate the idea that early academic training can be harmful and that academic learning comes easily once a person has acquired the requisite intellectual foundation and wants to learn the academic skills.

Example 1—Benezet’s experiment showing the harm of math training in grades 1 – 5

A remarkable experiment (previously described here) that has been completely ignored by the educational world was performed in the 1930s, in Manchester, New Hampshire, under the direction of the then-superintendent of Manchester schools, L. P. Benezet.[1]  In the introduction to his report on the study, he wrote, “For some years I had noted that the effect of the early introduction of arithmetic had been to dull and almost chloroform the child’s reasoning facilities.”  All that drill, he claimed, had divorced the whole realm of numbers and arithmetic, in the children’s minds, from common sense, with the result that they could do the calculations as taught to them, but didn’t understand what they were doing and couldn’t apply the calculations to real life problems.  Using the terminology I’ve introduced in this essay, we could say that the children learned the academic skills, by rote, without relating them to an intellectual understanding of numbers and their purposes.

As a result of this observation, Benezet proposed an experiment that even in the 1930s seemed outrageous.  He asked the principals and teachers in some of the schools located in the poorest parts of Manchester to drop arithmetic from the curriculum of grades 1 through 5.  The children in those classrooms would not be given any of the usual lessons in adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing until they reached sixth grade. He chose schools in the poorest neighborhoods because he knew that if he tried to do this in wealthier neighborhoods, where the parents were high school or college graduates, the parents would rebel. 

As part of the plan, he asked the teachers to devote the time that they would normally spend on arithmetic to class discussions, in which the students would be encouraged to talk about any topics that interested them—anything that would lead to genuine, lively communication.  This, he thought, would improve their abilities to reason and communicate logically and would also be enjoyable.  He also asked the teachers to give their pupils some practice in measuring and counting things, to assure that they would have some practical experience with numbers. 

In order to evaluate the experiment, Benezet arranged for a graduate student from Boston University to come up and test the Manchester children at various times in the sixth grade. The results were remarkable. At the beginning of their sixth grade year, the children in the experimental classes, who had not been taught any arithmetic, performed much better than those in the traditional classes on story problems that could be solved by common sense and a general understanding of numbers and measurement. Of course, at the beginning of sixth grade, those in the experimental classes performed worse on the standard school arithmetic tests, where the problems were set up in the usual school manner and could be solved simply by applying the rote-learned algorithms. But by the end of sixth grade those in the experimental classes had completely caught up on this and were still way ahead of the others on story problems.

In sum, Benezet showed that children who received just one year of arithmetic, in sixth grade, performed at least as well on standard school calculations and much better on math story problems than kids who had received six years of arithmetic training. This was all the more remarkable because of the fact that those who received just one year of training were from the poorest neighborhoods–the neighborhoods that had previously produced the poorest test results. 

What a finding!  Benezet showed that five years of tedious (and for some, painful) drill could simply be dropped, and by dropping it the children did better, in sixth grade, than did those who had endured the drill for five previous years.  This is the kind of finding that educators regularly choose to ignore.  If they paid attention to such findings they would do themselves out of their jobs, because the truth is, what Benezet found for math can occur for every subject.  Young people learn amazingly rapidly, and require little help, when they learn what they want to learn, in their own ways, on their own time.

Today educators who want to reduce the gap between rich and poor in academic learning are pushing for earlier and earlier academic training, especially for the poor.  But Benezet's study, and other studies too, suggest that the better way to reduce the gap, and to improve learning overall, would be to start academic training later, not earlier–maybe much later.

Example 2:  Preparing for the math SAT, at Sudbury Valley School, after no previous study of math

Here’s an observation that tops even Benezet’s, though it is not the result of a formal experiment.  In previous posts (here and here) I have described the Sudbury Valley School, located in Framingham, Massachusetts.  It is a school that accepts students from age 4 on through high school age, does not separate students by age, does not offer a curriculum, does not evaluate students in any formal way, and allows students to take full charge of their own education.  Each student pursues his or her own interests in his or her own ways.  Follow-up studies of the graduates show that they do very well in life.  Here’s the story about math at SVS that I told in a previous post:

“To find out more about how kids with no formal math training deal with college admissions math, I interviewed Mikel Matisoo, the Sudbury Valley staff member who is most often sought out by students who want help in preparing for the math SAT. He told me that the students who come to him are usually those who have relatively little long-term interest in math; they just want to do well enough on the SAT to get into the college of their choice. He said, "The way the SAT is structured it is relatively easy to prepare directly for it; there are certain tricks for doing well." Typically, Matisoo meets with the students for about 1 to 1 ½ hours per week for about six to ten weeks and the students may do another 1 to 1 ½ hours per week on their own. That amounts to a range of about 12 to 30 hours, total, of math work for students who may never before have done any formal math. The typical result, according to Matisoo, is a math SAT score that is good enough for admission to at least a moderately competitive college. Matisoo explained that the kids who are really into math, and who get the top SAT scores, generally don't seek him out because they can prepare on their own.”

By the time the students come to Matisoo for help with the SAT they have been living for roughly 16 to 18 years in a world of numbers.  They have picked up, in the course of life, the “survival math” that we all use in daily life, the kind that you and I remember because we use it regularly.  Given that foundation, and the fact that they have done many things on their own that involve abstract thinking, with our without numbers, and the fact that they are motivated to do well on the SAT, they can easily learn what they must for the goal they have in mind. All that drill, not just in grades 1-5 as Benezet found, but in grades 1-12, is unnecessary. When young people are intellectually well prepared to learn the math skills and have a reason to do it, the skills come remarkably easily.

Example 3:  How unschooled and Sudbury-schooled children learn to read


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