Posted by: MC | March 11, 2013

Ready to Learn

Pacific Crest Community School 3-11-2012  mmcToday I was a peripheral part of a discussion on schools – specifically that now familiar notion applied to preschool and kindergarten aged children, “readiness to learn.”  Hmmm.

Ever since G.W. Bush announced the launch of “No Child Left Behind,” with its guarantee of advancing the fiscal security of the standardized test industry nationwide – ever since he said as part of that initiative that “every child will come to school ready to learn,” I’ve thought the same thing – Hmmm.

So today I listened as a brand new PhD educational researcher, another PhD cultural psychologist and professor and a third quite senior professor of critical psychology sat together.  The first two docs are women of two different generations; the younger is white, the older is Colombian.  The senior professor is a white man.

Needless to say, all of these people have experienced LOTS of education.  The two older scholars share in common their application of academic investigation as well as teaching to addressing enormous questions of oppression.  Both of them have spent careers focused on using research and publication to support real-life action to correct unfair social circumstances of all kinds.  Both of them use the language of social justice in their writing, research, teaching, and community work.  The younger woman would also claim to support socially just policies and actions.  Her main focus, however is on this idea of “readiness for school.”

The conversation went this way.  Enthusiastic young researcher accustomed to being impressive to her professors and fellow educational researchers speaks at length about developing an assessment strategy to screen kindergartners for their readiness for school.  The two senior scholars listened, brows furrowed, readying their questions. The young woman went on to describe the school’s migrant and middle class white populations.  She told of how two and four years later, the same assessment had been used to see whether the kindergartners who were measured as ready were in fact successful and whether those who not ready (that is, according to the test) had “closed the gap” or, sadly, remained unready and unsuccessful.  Notice how in this line of investigation, it’s all up to the learners to get with the program the schools are running.

And this is where what comes to mind is … Hmmm.

Here’s the thing, this young woman really believes she’s studying something important.  She’s SUPER sophisticated in her research design and statistical skills.  She has sincere emotional and social feeling for the educational success of young children.  She’s smart and she’s learned well what her professors have taught.

Then there are the questions that came forward from her senior colleagues.  Questions like, “how well did you get to know the families of the children in this study?  How much time did you spend in the migrant communities to learn of the culture, the interests, the priorities of these learners’ parents?  And what do you know about working with these populations by reviewing the literature?”

Both of the senior scholars are well published with years of work spending time building relationships and listening to economically and otherwise socially marginalized groups.  Their questions – like the research focus of the younger scholar – were from their worldviews.  Thanks to the willingness of all parties to stay curious instead of judgmental or defensive, everyone was pretty amazed by the differences in the way they formed and approached thinking about readiness to learn.   Even the new scholar was struck with how little actual engagement she had with the people and communities most likely to be on the slighted side of the educational gap.  She wondered out loud about how anything she learned from test data could be useful without listening to the people themselves.  With that wonder, this young scholar is onto something.

My hmmm response in discussions of school readiness arises from the very same circumstances that made for this conversation today. I am lucky to have spent lots of time with preschoolers and their families from all walks of life.  What I’ve seen is that even in cases of severe congenital disability, ALL CHILDREN are completely ready to learn.  They are learning personified. Pure learning – joyous and totally self-motivated.  Given that, my question about readiness has always been focused in the other direction.  Are schools ready for these naturally energetic and READY learners?

To continue measuring children’s readiness to learn according to abstracted measures based in the current worldviews of schools and schooling (or, more often of test authors, publishers and consumers) is to miss a lot of true readiness.  One of the main things the institutionalized idea of readiness communicates to learners and their families is that they are invisible and unimportant which is not only cruel, it’s a giant waste of creativity, potential and dignity.

Many practitioners and some scholars have seen clearly that the ways and things children from migrant families know upon entry into formal schooling are as vast as the ways and things children from white professional families know.  But here’s the thing — The learning environment all of these children enter matches pretty much exactly with the things the white kids know and almost not at all with all the things children from all other backgrounds come into school knowing.

And that’s a stacked deck.

The conversation I heard today was about this systematic disabling of the natural readiness of all of the children who soon end up on the bottom rungs of the achievement gap – and stay there.  People with power and access have the ability to see this and to correct it.  Correction will take listening.  It will take understanding that there are many, many ways to learn and to know.

I didn’t get to hear the end of the conversation I’m describing here, but if it continued with all three of these scholars listening to one another – particularly if the senior faculty were able to stay out of cynical and dismissing judgment of the young scholar’s work, then the obvious opposition of their ways of seeing learning might allow real communication and insight on all parts.  The young scholar’s skills and the older scholars’ direct experiences with people and social change could make for a great partnership.  Especially if the natural readiness of all children for learning becomes way more important than aggregate scores on any and all achievement measures.


  1. You are brilliant MC. Perhaps those that academically publish studies should turn it’s attention around and study itself… Colleen, a Montessori teacher, adapted it to the public school system in it’s academic virtues… She now finds herself teaching in a Montessori school where social content is the virtue. If we move out of a competitive mode and into what the children build as they naturally collaborate to create what is mentored… A bigger dream.

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