Monday, May 16, 2011

Cradles of Eminence?

“But if they’re out of a diaper and can sit still with a Kumon instructor for 15 minutes, we will take them.” - Joseph Nativo, CFO Kumon North America

"In homes that cradle eminence, there are strong tendencies to build directly on personal strengths, talents and aims, rather than to assume that there is a large, specific body of knowledge that everyone should possess. A family, or some member of the family, is likely to take off wholeheartedly on a course of investigation or action that differs from one's contemporaries." - Victor and Mildred Goertzel, Cradles of Eminence

In Fast Tracking Kindergarten, we hear of the burgeoning trend of preschoolers attending Junior Kumon or Junior Kumon-like classes, doing reading and math drills.  What's wrong with this picture? 

One can think of the short term advantages that Kumon preparation might have - faster retrieval of math facts, quicker decoding of pages, and better admissions prospects to exclusive private schools, but, but...

If you really learn more about the childhoods of men and women who would late  become eminent, the common factors were more that they were allowed to do what they wanted to do and immerse themselves in whatever interesting subject or idea struck them at the time. It looks very different from this scheduled routine of Junior Kumon, karate classes, and after preschool tutoring all before the age of 7. 

From Deidre Lovecky:

"Many exceptionally gifted children learn in a non-linear manner in which they take in large amounts of information and integrate it into an underlying big picture. Zachery, for example, at age 7, was interested in Egyptian hieroglyphics and computers; he attempted to use computer language to study other types of language... Feldman (1986) described the learning style of Adam as both nonlinear and omnivorous in his desire for knowledge. His style is further described as being "non-Western" and untraditional so that a regular school program did not work for him. Adam grasped concepts holistically and intuitively. Once he acquired the basic framework, he filled in the particulars. His parents thought he first developed theory, then learned basic facts and skills. Later, he questioned basic assumptions about theory. Adam had a number of ongoing interests which he explored at increasing levels of complexity including symbol systems (cartography and languages), music, science and mathematics."

You don't have time to do all this if all your free time is spent in sequential and rote activities. 

In fact, many research studies into the early lives of gifted individuals show that growing up on a farm or long periods of time with unstructured play were part-and-parcel of their childhoods. Children who haven't yet learned how to add and subtract or even read, can learn by asking questions of their parents or anyone more knowledgeable, and by experiencing and testing out new ideas or phenomena directly.

From Goertzel and Hansen, 

"The freedom to follow paths that are non-traditional is important if one is to learn to be independent in thought and action. Parents and educators can perhaps help best by encouraging young people to explore their options and make the most of available resources as they follow their own muse wherever it leads them."

There are many pressures confronting today's parents to conform and adopt a heavily systematized advanced education, but also something irreplaceable about some of simple pleasures of under-schedulization and time for self-discovery in childhood.


  1. I'm sorry, but I just think pushing kids in academics at such a young age is ridiculous -- and probably harmful. First, what really is the point? So, little Timmy can read and add numbers before Kindergarten. Does this mean he'll be any "smarter"? No. He just learned something before the other kids. Does this mean he has gleaned some sort of advantage? No. There's no prize, economically or socially for reading early. Has Timmy gained an advantage over the other kids? No. They'll learn to read and add numbers soon enough.

    On the other hand, while all the other kids are socializing -- a truly useful endeavor -- and playing outside -- also a truly useful endeavor in that it will keep them healthy and strong, and help them properly develop their sensory integration systems as the Eides rightly suggest -- little Timmy will be sitting in Kumon. . . .

    One last note -- As noted in "The Learning Gap," overseas schools -- schools that consistently outscore US schools -- emphasize free play and socialization when a child is young and only focus on academics once the child is in first grade. The same also holds true for the Waldorf School model.

  2. I shared this post today on my blog --

  3. Thanks, Melissa! Looks like a lot of great links and articles on your site.