Tag Archives: academics

A Designed Life

A nugget from the Challenge Success lectures at Stanford University last weekend. The event was called, “Success By Design: Is It Possible?”

Dave Evans, ex-tech leader and professor in Stanford’s design school, where students are learning how to design their lives, not just products, answers the question in the title of the event counter-intuitively. Note that the wisdom-message at this conference was that too much anxiety about crafting a path to success (which equals admission to a top college) does no good, and that 90% of the time we take a highly circuitous path to our bliss, not the direct and carefully curated path that most people think leads to, and follows from, a degree from Stanford (or whatever).

Evans says, we can design our lives. But, he says, what we usually mean when we use that language is that we hope to be able to engineer our lives. Design, he says, is far less specific and rigid than engineering. Design, among other things, involves lots of failure. By the time a project is ready to be engineered, one hopes the failures have all been played out. Engineering is rule-bound and inflexible. Design is messy and has to come first.

The design process includes such soft and sketchy elements as Empathy (feeling the realities of the ‘user’, who might be yourself); Definition (naming the problems well); ideation (throwing lots of ideas at the wall, seeing what sticks); prototyping (this is where failure comes in … and lots of it); testing (ok, now, try it!).

Evans says, “Fail often to succeed sooner.” Embrace the years before college as chances for a student to try lots of different things, fail at many of them, and try some more. Rename, reframe, and rethink a lot. Don’t make the mistake of assuming every effort has to be an “A” effort, because that creates a fear of failure, which makes for lousy design.

We loved the message of Challenge Success, a research-fueled, humane and encouraging perspective on raising awesome and joyful kids, and recommend a browse of their offerings in the area. Preschool parents can start with this page of video responses to frequently asked questions that leaders hear over and over again at their conferences:

Preschool FAQs

Do you worry about how well you are preparing your child for success?


[This post originally appeared on The Parenting on The Peninsula Blog]

Legislating early childhood education: good intentions

A little political reflection from a parent and preschool director.

Two senate bills that will affect early childhood education are in the news these days. These bills include some good innovation, but also threaten to weaken the good that already exists for our youngest students. SB 837 and SB 1123 each lower the age of publicly-funded education, and are good in many ways, yet could chip away at the strength of existing preschools and the expertise and community experience they provide.

I’d like to look at this from four perspectives: early childhood education, parenting, elementary education, and just me.

From the standpoint of an early childhood educator, the bills are good. They advocate for early childhood education. They take into account all the data showing that early childhood education raises better learners and stronger members of the community. Children who participate in preschools do better in the long term, academically and socially. It is the stuff educators have been saying and defending for years. The state of California has a good track record in this regard. In the 1950s the state began to establish a network of parent education cooperative schools (with education standards and curriculum guidelines) which were funded through public adult education schools. Many of these (such as those in the Sequoia Union high School District, and Santa Clara Unified) are still in operation, even though public funding has been recently eliminated. These bills add to the state’s long support of the need for early childhood education.

From the standpoint of parents, these bills are good. The intent of the legislature is to provide a stable and comprehensive early-learning and educational support system for children from birth to five years of age that promotes access to safe, high-quality, part-day and full-day services that support the development of the whole child, especially for those children who need it most… this means free preschool for 3 and 4 year olds. What can be better than that for parents?

From the standpoint of elementary schools, they might be good. If funding is provided, schools will be able to develop environments, add equipment, and plan for other upgrades to prepare for incoming preschoolers. Curriculum will be designed, staff will get special training, and the transition between preschool and elementary curricula could be seamless.

I recognize the good intentions behind the bills, and the potential good if they are implemented. However, as a preschool director, parent, and member of the community, I wonder what will happen to all the wonderful existing preschools in our neighborhoods?

The government might spend millions building the new system from the ground up … when the infrastructure to support young children at the beginning of their school careers already exists around the corner, down the street, in the neighborhood preschool. Could it be possible to legislate preschool for all without ignoring the resources that already exist? Existing, well-established, quality programs should be taken full advantage of: it’s hard to imagine, even at the end of what would likely be a difficult transition, that the level of specialized expertise available in established preschools can be replicated any time soon.

The developmental needs (social, physical, cognitive, spiritual, emotional) of 3 and even 4 year olds are very different than those of elementary school children. They need to be in environments designed to meet these needs. Environment includes classroom, materials, play yard, curriculum, and staff. Staff must have strong backgrounds in age-appropriate child development. These schools must also attend to the unique needs of parents at the beginning of their journey: they must be able to support families, involve parents in their child’s education, teach parenting skills, and work to bridge the home/school gap.

High quality programs which meet these needs already exist, but their existence will inevitably be threatened by low-quality, free alternatives. If funding were given to existing preschools, more children from lower-income families would benefit from the enrichment which leads to elementary school success.

What you can learn from reading the bills is that legislators are looking into what they call a mixed delivery system, which means that all kinds of infrastructure can be a part of delivering on the promise of preschool for all. This could mean that the state could start with existing infrastructure, endorsing and funding your local preschools. You can read about it in the literature, it’s a bullet point somewhere in the mix, but I fear that it might be practically lost in the rush to turn funding into an excuse to develop new programs at the expense of what already exists. I think using existing schools should be the primary way early childhood legislation is implemented. I say, start with what is already in place, get 3 and 4 year olds into existing preschools, and let elementary schools stick to what they do well—they have enough on their plate.

Many preschools are already suffering since Transitional Kindergarten is luring kids of a certain age away from Pre K classes. Public schools will take on more and more students (of earlier and earlier ages—ages outside of their training and expertise) while local preschools lose more and more students. I say fund existing preschools that meet key criteria and make preschool affordable for all who choose it. Just let’s keep our wonderful preschools and their well-trained early childhood educators in business … they already exist … for the good of every preschooler.

The Preschool’s Secret Weapon

There is a prejudice about learning that preschool teachers face, especially in our hard-driving academic culture.

This prejudice is the belief that an environment designed around play and exploration is not academically stimulating enough to prepare children for later school success. Couple this belief with the slippery slope of always wanting to start “preparing” our children at earlier and earlier ages so that they will never be behind, so that they will always be ahead of the game, and preschools come under a great deal of pressure to introduce more and more conventional academics.

But the secret weapon of the preschool is that early childhood education is a holistic deal—learning happens in a social/emotional/intellectual landscape. Young children learn (find meaning) through their senses, relationships, perceptions, and emotions. There is no way at this age to isolate an academic subject from this contextual field and present it as symbols on a piece of paper (as is common in later education).

Take language: when many children first encounter preschool at around age two, they have a vocabulary of roughly 350 words. As they enter the ‘school’ world, they find themselves in new environments, they face new problems, and they experience a sudden increase in the number of relationships, all of which leads to an explosion of language. By the time this two-year old reaches 1st grade, they will have multiplied their vocabulary by 4 or 5 times.

But it makes no sense to say that academics don’t start until elementary school, or that preschools don’t focus on cognitive development. The foundations of later cognitive success are laid in the holistic learning environment of the preschool. In fact some of a person’s most important cognitive growth is happening during these early years. Language itself is the basis for communication, and communication is the basis for learning. Communication skills are first learned in relationships, because relationships require young children to make sense of competing agendas, and language is the essential skill here, because the way that children negotiate emotional and social complexity is with words. Language won’t be mastered unless it is first mastered in the context of developing relationships and social interaction, which are the first and best curricula of the preschool classroom.

Even solo fantasy play is critical to the development of these social/emotional/intellectual skills … because it provides the social and relational contexts denied to a child by reality, enabling them to practice at things that are not possible in the ‘real world’. Where else, after all, can a child practice being a hero, a warrior, part of the royal court, or that most challenging role … a parent. In fantasy play, the child is learning the basic languages (social, emotional, and yes, academic) of roles they will not be qualified to fill for decades. Talk about being ahead of the game!

So, as the debate on academics continues, look on the giant playroom of the preschool as a laboratory for the scientific advancement of foundational cognitive skills. You can see the beginning of a great education here. You just need to know what to look for.


This post originally appeared on the Parenting On The Peninsula blog

What Education

We find that it’s hard to advocate for any single kind of education, because we have encountered a multitude. We’ve experienced it all: home school, co-ops, charter schools, and private prep-schools; public high schools, tiny liberal-arts colleges, city colleges, and universities. We’ve taught and learned in all contexts.

Dave grew up on the Peninsula, starting his local education with Montessori and public elementary school, finishing at a 6-12th grade prep school. In Athens, Greece, Anghelika attended an international/bilingual preschool, and continued in international schools throughout her education (finishing with High School at TASIS Hellenic) before coming to the U.S.. 30 years ago, we met at a college of 600 in Bennington, Vermont, where we designed our own education. Dave went on to get a Masters of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary, while Anghelika began working for preschools and studying early childhood education at Pasadena City College.

Our children joined Redwood Parents Preschool in Redwood City after we settled back in the area, Anghelika began a lifelong relationship with parent-participation schools, and Dave began to teach and work with adults in churches. Today, Dave continues to work with adults, but is also a student again, in Santa Clara University’s clinical psychology program, and teaches homeschool enrichment classes for kids aged 6-18.

During the elementary years, our kids went to alternative/charter schools. Then we moved to Los Altos, and our 2nd- and 6th-graders began a march through the public system again with a real focus on testing and academic success. By the time our kids got to high school, we didn’t know it, but there were four choices. The only choice we could see was the one ten feet from our back door: our back gate opens up to the fields of Los Altos High. Our daughter spent two years there before transferring to the alternative arts- and project-based program in the district called Freestyle … a no-brainer for our brilliantly talented artist who would go on to art college. Our son, who we always thought would benefit from Freestyle’s alternative style, would claim “I’m not an artist” and end the conversation.

But after years of struggling with the academic culture of LAHS, he (with our support) finally took the advice of his advisors, and moved to Alta Vista, the continuation High School in our district, for his last year-and-a-half of high school. It seems like the independent-study model at Alta Vista will be perfect for him, as we have a suspicion that he will do part of his college education via independent study, while testing for credit though the college board’s CLEP tests. He’s also working with a tutor.

Is there a kind of education that we haven’t come in contact with? We’ve seen a lot of models, and it would make little sense for us to tell anyone they should learn anything from the way we did it. Our own education and that of our kids’ has been eclectic, to say the least.

But having tasted from just about the whole buffet, we can say how important it feels (with our son, for example), not to settle into a rut and do only what’s in front of you. Our guy is beginning to get a lot more traction right now, and we kind of wish we’d made some changes earlier in his high school career. If we could go back, we would tell our less wrinkly selves to never believe that one school can provide all that a child needs.

We are fortunate that within our district there are a variety of options, and we really see them as options now. We might have thought that we were at the ‘best’ school in the district and that there were ‘other’ schools where you might end up if you can’t handle the ‘best’. This makes little sense to us now. The best school is where you have success in learning. Our son seems to have found that. For now.

[This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula blog]

Why We Love Co-ops

We love the cooperative preschools we’ve been a part of—from the first, where Dave and 2 year-old Zoe played and learned together, to the schools where Anghelika works today, 18 years later. Co-ops are preschools where parents participate in their child’s education and share in the running of things. While there are greater commitments in co-ops than in drop-off schools, we believe it’s a gift for parents to be able to be a part of this great transition, as kids are just beginning to socialize and take on greater and greater tasks in a progressively more structured setting. The benefits of partnering with trained educators and other parents during this season are huge: as children explore, dig into things that interest them, and work things out technically, socially, physically, in their own way and in their own time, we get to learn about how they learn. Cooperative preschools encourage parents while teaching loads of skills in the context of child-directed, play-based learning while providing a supportive environment for the parenting journey, as kids become more and more independent. Awesome right?

But cooperative preschools in the Bay Area seem to be suffering. They struggle with low enrollment, a shrinking pool of teachers willing to work alongside of parents, and a loss of clout among new moms and dads. Why the loss of clout? Co-ops have a reputation for being a lot of work, and possibly also for being a bit old-school, with their earthy, slow-paced, child-directed environment that appears to favor stay-at-home parents. How could such a thing fit into our modern, double-income, high-pressure, prepare-your-child-for-a-career-in-high-tech-Stanford-here-we-come culture? Of course, your child is headed for great things, and you want them to be prepared. No arguments there. But we’d argue that parents should not distance themselves from their child’s education so early, or so suddenly. The argument isn’t about whether or not we need a better education for our kids to help them compete in a rapidly changing economic culture—it’s merely about the best way to begin.

In an any ideal preschool environment, the guiding principles are drawn from the natural curiosities and passions of the children. Young kids grow at a natural, organic pace, and do not need to be told to be inquisitive, interested explorers. Besides providing a varied and stimulating environment for these natural-born scientists and adventurers, what co-ops do in addition is leverage this transition from home to school by engaging parents for the benefit of all. Parents know their children best, teachers know what’s next in development and how little minds work, and the children … benefit from a gradual hand-off from a life at home to a life in community.

For parents, the benefits to be gained by investing in these early years of school outweigh the work involved at co-ops—which is still considerably less work than being alone with your child at home. Busy parents who choose co-ops will have a slower transition to complete independence, but gain so much more in the form of community support, insights into their child’s development, and opportunities for shared moments that will never be repeated in their parenting careers.

What do you think? What are you arguments for or against parents remaining involved in their kid’s education? How long should that involvement last? When is the best time to leave the education to the pros?

[This post originally appeared on The Parenting on The Peninsula Blog]

Math & Music

Science education can happen by attraction; it doesn’t always have to be instruction. On Monday, some lucky preschoolers will find these on the table.

Mason jars, water, food-coloring … Light, color, sound, music.


The colors of the rainbow are both pretty and a pattern. The varying quantities of liquid are a pattern and produce different sounds.


Academic Anxiety

We parents want the best for our kids, right? When we put them in school we want the experience to be positive, and we want our child to excel. The good news is that the simple experience of moving through the school year almost always prepares a child for what comes next: they get smarter and find social situations easier.

The bad news is that our anxiety about our children’s success always defaults to academics. We worry about giving them an advantage for future academic challenges, and that leads to our desire to have more academics now. This is a erosive trend. If we always press to get our children ahead of the curve in anticipation of next year’s challenges, we will have to do more and more academic prep earlier and earlier. The logical conclusion of this trend is flash cards for infants, or beaming lessons into the womb with strap-on speakers, or maybe a little something at the genetic level. Junior should have every advantage.

What’s the rush? How about instead of worrying so much about getting our children ahead before the lessons even start, we simply help them to arrive ready?