I invite you to notice what is missing. The list of outcomes is not academic — full of numbers, letters and readiness; the list is not developmentally described — where a step in age is an improvement over being infantile; the list is not privileging a few white people like me who might be fearful of losing that privilege; and the list does not view children as individuals apart from their communities — they remain included in many interdependent communities of care. I think, however, the list is specific enough to draw attention to how we think about the children we love and hopefully, over time, engender ever widening agreement about what people around the world desire for every child, for the experience of childhood, and the continuing evolution of children’s spaces.
When children leave early childhood to enter common school they can:
- Participate as a member of an interdependent community
- Care for themselves, the others, and the community
- Treat others with love and compassion
- Cooperate with other children to accomplish group goals
- Celebrate group accomplishment
- Laugh and play with a tangible sense of joy
- Express many human emotions in language and art
- Be inquisitive
- Initiate new ideas and invent solutions to problems
- Stick at difficult tasks or come back to them later in order to succeed
- Run, hit, catch, throw, kick and tumble
- Sing and dance with exuberance
- Paint, draw, sculpt, and construct objects of beauty
- Care for common spaces and materials toward cleanliness and order
- Greet guests with courtesy and charm
- Act in stewardship for the environment and one’s own health and well-being.
These 16 Capabilities could define the common intentions we have for provisions for spaces for children to grow in a community of parents, extended families, educators and staff — no matter what setting, at home or school. A listing this brief challenges us to evolve spaces toward the common possibility providing resources for the creation of spaces where a spectrum of capabilities grow in diverse places with diverse participants within unforeseen diverse cultures.
All 16 Capabilities are more than lofty aspirations: they are observable. Each can be photographed, videotaped, or described. Each record of an event that illustrates a capability could reside in a portfolio gathered from ages 1 to 6, where everyone can come to understand how humans grow from infancy onward — uniquely emerging into who they are. With these as a guide schools could focus their intention on capturing instances where a child was inquisitive, capturing acts of stewardship, or capturing instances of tumbling or of graciousness. Such a collection would not only be heart-warming information for parents to see and celebrate their child but also proof of accomplishment, an acknowledgement of public resources well invested.
Assessment and Evaluation
That collection would be called an assessment. Although assessment is often touted as the must-have necessity to achieve unspecified “quality,” assessment is not complex. It is simply the gathering of information that informs learning and teaching. What matters is how you do it and for whom is it done. Unfortunately, today in the USA the neoliberal discourse, under the perverse requirement for externally mandated assessment, forces educators to waste their planning time filling out forms that few read or care about. That same dominant discourse distorts the aims of early education as “readiness” for common school, a readiness narrowly defined by the privileged as precursors to acquiescence in authoritarian schools. That is just plain wacky.
If we really want to justify assessment as necessary, let us first answer one question: Who is the audience for any form of assessment? Whom are we addressing with the results of testing or the setting of standards? The needs of legislators? The desires of the parent-student-teacher association? The golf club? And further, who is making meaning of whatever results can be found? What does this result say? Is it good? Is that quality? We can’t make decisions about forms and methods of assessment without first deciding who cares, who makes meaning, and who corrects where necessary. That is reality.
So, who really cares about any kind of information we can gather on the outcomes we desire in young children?
The answer is simple The people who care, who can make meaning of the information, and can do something about it are the child, the family, and the educators. The child cares about himself or herself, obviously. The child’s family cares, too. The educators care, and the staff and administration care. Therefore, all assessment of provisions for children and childhood must be directed to these audiences and presented in a form these audiences understand. These are internal audiences. These audiences are the only people who can evaluate the worthiness of the information and the only people who can alter and improve those provisions.
When we speak of outcomes or goals for early education, I invite you to speak out about these Sixteen Capabilities and frame a new discourse, a discourse that speaks of children, families, and society.
- We must keep the focus clearly on the child through the eyes of the audiences who care.
- We must enable participation from all who care.
- We must establish methods that are logical, transparent, and somewhat indefinite.
- We must invest in the opportunities we decide are best right now, based on an evolving understanding of the common good.
The Political Discourse Must Change
In trying to define and practice a more centered way of thinking about pedagogy and provisions for our littlest humans, I have always felt like I am speaking into darkness. There appears to be a mysterious disconnect between so many people who love and care for children and those who are put in charge of deciding and administering public resources for early education. I understand that all public education funding is political, and surely, provisions for social justice for children and families is political, but all my colleagues and students complain to me of a stone wall of a distorted discourse that hides what most people actually believe is humane, compassionate, just, and beneficial for all. It feels like a dark force is present that no one addresses; something is blocking out the stars we know are there.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of the economic, social, and happiness benefits we commonly hear that accrue from an investment early childhood education with predicted 13-fold returns, investment rarely happens, and when it does, it comes with tight controls. Educators and families must comply rather than generate. In general, the discourse portrays teachers as deficient who need “training,” as if pedagogy consisted of standard procedures. Families are portrayed as poor, helpless, and ignorant. Corporate foundations are beneficent, but only offer models or demonstrations, at best, that somehow magically need to be “scaled up.” News and special features pluck at our hearts with stories of volunteerism and foundation beneficence, while the disaster for most children and underemployed families goes on. Why? Why are educators and care-givers, who know the children and dedicate themselves to this work, not supported for doing what they care about and know about? They live in poverty, denied their right to create, decide, and act by the dark force’s dangling morsels of support.
The Vision of 16 Capabilities
I can imagine we all agreed we want all children to demonstrate these 16 Capabilities, and we took action to evolve spaces and opportunities for each to emerge. We could then watch the children we love grow in the unpredictable way they do. Of course, days are not smooth; days are filled with tears and disappointment as well as joy. School is a place for mistakes to happen and get worked through. Eventually, after years of practice, those children move into common school with all 16 Capabilities well underway. What then would life be like?
Can you imagine being a Kindergarten educator and having all of your September children enter with these 16 Capabilities? You would have a dream class. There would be no behavior problems. These children would be responsive to adult leadership, have a disposition to care for each other, and expect to learn. You could get right to work, listening to the children’s interests and finding out what aspect of the world they wanted to explore. If the interest were spiders, rocks or a broken bone, children would be eager to examine, write about, read about, draw, create poetry, music, scientific displays, research, count, and mathematically represent. The community of the classroom would expect to share a love of learning and being together and would far exceed all the academic standards and core curriculum prescriptions anyone could imagine. The experience of full participation in a culture of a learning community is true “readiness” for school, because all the children view themselves as capable and competent and members of a community.
The 16 Capabilities are durable. Next year the 1st grade teacher would inherit those same children, eager and happy to be at school. It is up to everyone who considers himself or herself a contributor to the early experience of children to examine and demand what we really want. We mush have a common, clear aim, so we can come together with one powerful voice when talking with politicians, leaders, and our friends.
I invite you to consider the 16 Capabilities as a stimulus to conversation on what we want from early childhood experiences at home and at school. I invite you to send friends the link to this page, take a copy with you to meetings, and maybe even post a copy on the wall. If the 16 Capabilities were a common understanding, educators could reflect upon the qualities of life they lived each day as they cared for each child and the child’s family over time. Everyone could look at children around the world as ours, with these intentions in sight. Over time people would see the children in a new light and could tweak the list or their actions to be more aligned.
All children can achieve these 16 Capabilities. If they do, they can transform our society, reduce poverty, and make our towns, forests, cities, homes and climate better for life.