Thought Leader Interview: PreK Learner Dispositions Over Pre-Academics?


On the Value of Play, School Readiness, Learner Dispositions & More

Educa Interviews Hilltop Master Teacher, Sarah Bien

[On School Readiness] “Learner dispositions …  can be far more valuable than, say, a thorough understanding of upper case and lower case letters.”

This interview with Sarah Bien from Hilltop Children’s Center in Seattle, WA was a compelling and free-flowing conversation on the value of play, learner dispositions, defining school readiness, tracking success using the Reggio approach, and more. And so we have formatted it using subject headlines rather than questions.

Sarah has been with Hilltop Children’s Center for 3 years, with a 20+ year career in early childhood and elementary education,all in the Seattle, WA area.

About Hilltop

Hilltop focuses on emergent, Reggio inspired play-based curriculum and professional development through their institute for early learning professionals.

Hilltop started out as more traditional early learning service based in a church, with teacher-driven curriculum. However, in the last 15 years it has transitioned completely to a Reggio inspired, emergent curriculum – thanks to the work of a few creative Hilltop individuals.

Hilltop teachers have several hours of planning time a week, but most of their time is spent in the classroom. Teachers are either working with the whole classroom, 15 children at a time, or working with children in small groups on more in-depth study of things they have a particular interest in.

No Prescribed Direct Instruction

Each educator has a great deal of independence to work as he or she might.  However, Hilltop does not do any direct instruction, no pre-academics, pre-literacy or pre numeracy in any kind of prescribed fashion.  Everything they set out for the children is play-based and exploratory.

While there is no prescribed academic instruction, teachers may do that from time to time, more likely in response to a child’s request for information relating to a content-based project they are working on.

Parents Need To Be Educated on a Play Based Approach

“Parents need more help understanding the building blocks that come before academic learning.”

Hilltop works hard to help parents understand child development and the components of play that support academic thinking, higher order thinking, and creativity.  Parents need more help understanding the building blocks that come before academic learning.

And so Hilltop sees that parents are very much onboard and excited about play based learning.

However, as their children get closer to 4, 4 and a half, parents start to get a little more anxious and start to wonder if their children will be ready for Kindergarten.

And that’s when Hilltop needs to up its parent education piece.  Hilltop does a great deal of written observation and documentation of children’s work.  They take photos and videos of children’s work and interpret that for parents, and help them see the pre-literacy, the pre-mathematics and higher order thinking skills.

Learner Dispositions Are Lasting

[Educa. Learner dispositions are frequent and voluntary habits of thinking and doing, some desirable, others not. The positive learner dispositions can be developed and nurtured.]

Hilltop is working to help parents understand the importance of dispositions for learning.

Learner dispositions such as creativity, curiosity, resilience are nurtured. Hilltop helps parents understand how much more lasting that is than any academic memorization or content learning.

What is School Ready?

“Hilltop has a school readiness definition that focuses on … learner dispositions.”

Sarah asks teachers “what does a school-ready kid look like to you?” Some teachers say just give me someone who is excited to learn.  And some teachers say give me a kid who knows how to write.

The latter is what the child should learn once she is in Kindergarten.  Some teachers want the kid to show up with these skills already, which makes their job easier, but that’s not necessarily developmentally appropriate.

However, these days, teachers are more and more aware of the non-academic skill sets that best serve children.

How Hilltop Defines School Readiness

Hilltop has a school readiness definition that focuses on these dispositions.

It emphasizes looking forward without pushing forward, wanting children to be embedded in emotional regulation and self-regulation, have the ability to work with others. These things we see as far more valuable than, say, a thorough understanding of upper case and lower case letters. That can all come later.

If you’ve got a kid who can read, but punches someone because they took the green crayon, that’s going to take far more instruction time for the Kindergarten teacher than working with kids who are self-regulated and who can ask for what they need and identify their emotions.

Learner Dispositions in a Common Core World

The standards and assessment craze is in full swing.  We do need to measure growth or lack of growth.  But that can be done through play-based activities.

When teachers spend more time playing with children and observing their play, then they can better assess the children.  You don’t need to measure growth 3-4 times a year with a check list.

Parents appreciate that the insights of a teacher that spends time reflecting on what they see and hear from the kids has real value.  Teachers help the parents sort through all that data to map out where their child is against developmental benchmarks.

When we focus on developmental benchmarks rather than academic standards we are promoting the disposition skills of learning, thinking and being a creative learner.

Measuring Outcomes Using State Developmental Standards

Hilltop works with the Washington State Department of Early Learning Developmental Standards.  It’s a pretty broad document that encompasses a lot of different ethnicities, economic backgrounds, learning styles and cultural differences. Children who come from different cultures who may not be English speakers are able to be assessed without being pathologized, i.e., treated as abnormal.  That’s one of the strengths of the Washington document.  Sarah was one of the authors of that document, working on the Community Engagement workgroup.

The document paints a broad picture and doesn’t pigeon hole kids too tightly around whether they are on par academically or not.  This compared to other assessment tools that are restrictive and that are pathologizing kids that are not mainstream, not middle class, provides a more equitable view of children.

Using Reflective Practice To Replace Check Boxes

Hilltop is all about reflective practice, observing the children, writing documents, asking questions – what is this kid learning, what is this kid wondering?  And we compare that data, which is all qualitative, observational, to the developmental standards at the Washington State Department of Early Learning. This is done twice a year.

Hilltop is able to map out where each kid is, and point out where kids might be lagging in some developmental areas, and provides some guidance and direction when that’s the case.

Managing Parent Expectations From the Start

When parents come in they are aware of what they are going to see.  They are not going to see work-sheets, they are not going to see evidence of practicing letters.

They might see a lot of writing, in fact most often they will see a large amount of writing, but it’s going to be on the child’s terms, on subjects that interest them and the literacy development is going to unfold in an appropriate way.

Most of Hilltop kids go on to Kindergarten pretty literate.  Most of them learn to read in Kindergarten due to a combination of work at Hilltop and at home.

America’s Achievement Gap

America needs to address the achievement gap. White kids do well, and kids of color and kids in poverty are not doing as well.  And the response to that has been to cram in early literacy interventions so that they are reading by third grade.  And so their early educational experience is very different from children in a play based program.

For instance, imagine the mother of an African-American boy who wants her son reading in 1st grade because she knows the statistic.  She knows what society looks like for her kid.  And so she wants that edge. And so there is no room for developing learner dispositions; the focus for them is on literacy interventions.

Play Based Is A Privilege?

At this point, play based curriculum is a privilege. Higher income families can afford to be a little bit loose about when their child is a fluent reader, whereas in other parts of society kids do not have that kind of time.

Many of these children also do not have the benefit of hearing as many spoken words at home, which impacts literacy growth.  There’s a program called the 30 Million Word Initiative that has more information on this.

Hilltop believes that play based learning is a right for all children. The fact that less privileged kids don’t get this opportunity doesn’t sit well with the Hilltop team, which is why they work, through the Institute, to make sure that what is a privilege today will eventually be seen as every child’s right.

The Early Achievers QRIS Program in WA

Hilltop is not part of Early Achievers, the Washington State QRIS program.  However, Hilltop has partnerships with the City of Seattle and other organizations to provide professional development.

This helps educators get some footing in objective assessment, reflective practice, and other ways of gathering a picture of what is happening with the child.

Then they are in a position to assess children, beyond and in addition to the check box tools, standards assessment, and expectations sometimes tied to funding.

Managing A Play Based Class in Standards World Requires Experience

The requirements of QRIS and programs that offer funding but require accountability do challenge teachers and play-based approaches. Teachers with experience and who are creative can make it work.

But early education has a low standard for what you have to do to be an early educator in the state of Washington.  And so not everyone has the training, ambition or determination to make this happen.

The early childhood education system in America system has such low rates of pay and such low educational expectations, that for many participants it is a real challenge to transpose a play based curriculum and meet Early Achievers standards.

The P3 Trend Is Helpful

P3, preschool to 3rd grade, is a new trend around leadership at school. Mainly run by elementary teachers, it’s about bridging the gap and creating a continuum between preschool and elementary school.

Early education is through to 8 years of age, second grade.  But the system is not organized that way.

As it stands right now, early education is for kids until they are about 5 and then they go to elementary school and then they get an elementary school education.

The idea of primary school education has been lost in the US education system.  We are seeing a trend in Washington to return to that, where, pre-K, K, 1st and 2nd grade are more consistently aligned. And the first and second grade education is more developmentally appropriate; not just elementary school tactics rolled back from what works for a 5th grader for 1st grade.

The P3 trend has been very successful for elementary school principals, because they have been able to get a better understanding of developmentally appropriate practice and it is better for their kids because they are seeing a more consistent approach.

Staying With What Works

Hilltop is committed to its emergent, Reggio inspired curriculum.  Two staff members from Hilltop are in New Zealand right now at a conference exploring the Learning Stories phenomenon.

Hilltop is successful because we have done this work at the grass-roots level. It now has a leadership position in the community, locally, nationally and internationally.  They are able to show their learning to other educators who come from all over the country and other countries.

And because it is happening at the ground level, in the classroom, it is very strong, keeping Hilltop on this course.

The New Generation of Parents Think Differently

“25 to 35 year old parents … have an alignment with play based, experiential, relationship-based curriculum.”

Parents get anxious as Kindergarten approaches because the American culture makes academic learning at school seem intimidating.

Hilltop parents for the most part though are on board with a play based approach, even with these concerns.

Parents today are further along with their understanding of the value of play.  20 years ago when Sarah started, she worked with a completely different generation of parents.

There is a big difference in this generation of 25 to 35-year old parents.  They have different familial expectations, different values and have an alignment with play based, experiential, relationship based curriculum.

Thank You Sarah & Hilltop

Thank you Sarah for your time and your valuable insights.  Hilltop is playing a valuable role in early education in America.  It’s great to have organization like Hilltop professionally executing the play based approach.

You can learn more about Hilltop at their website here or by calling (206) 283-3100.  Sarah can be reached on LinkedIn here.