Monthly Archives: October 2014

Raising Bébé Part 1

It is easy to acquire the illusion that how you think and do things is how others think and do things. Things that are done in one country as a matter of course sometimes appear strange or undoable from the perspective of people in other countries.

So when I saw a book called Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, I was curious. After all there is a renewed interest in the importance of early childhood education in relationship to later school success. What does it look like in France?

The author, Pamela Druckerman, by profession a reporter and a New Yorker, moved to Paris as a consequence of marrying Simon, a Briton and also a reporter (speciality: Dutch football). So far in their French life, they have had three children, a girl, “Bean[1]” and twins, Joel and Leo, all born and so far brought up in France.

Pamela is a reporter of the investigative type. When she sees a mystery, she must investigate. “What is going on here?” is her reflex response.

What is the puzzle? When she and Simon went on a holiday to the shore why were the French children in sharp contrast to their child “sitting contentedly in their high chairs, waiting for their food, or eating fish, and even vegetables. There’s no shrieking or whining. Everyone is having one course at a time. And there’s no debris around the table.” (Druckerman, p. 2)

Her book is does not offer a new theory of child rearing; instead, it is her attempt to resolve a question about children and education.

”I haven’t got a theory. What I do have, spread out in front of me, is a fully functioning society of good little sleepers, gourmet eaters, and reasonably relaxed parents. I’m starting with that outcome and working backward to figure out how the French got there.” (Druckerman, pp. 7-8)

I will leave you to read the book if you choose to see what you think about her conclusions.[2]

The section of the book I was most interested in was how the French approach 4K type programs.

When Simon and Pamela’s daughter turned 3 she entered the local école maternelle, a four day, thirty-six week school for children aged 3 to 6. Participation in l’école maternelle is optional but most parents send their children.

The école maternelle is usually housed in a building purpose-built to be an infant school instead of being located in a handed down elementary school or a church basement since the institution of the école maternelle has been functioning in France since 1881.

There are two interesting comparisons between the French approach to the 4K education and ours.

First, the programs in South Carolina have a variety of providers: school districts, private contractors, and faith based groups and also a variety of supervisors. The SC Department of Education oversees the programs conducted by the school districts while FirstSteps oversees the contractors and faith-based programs. There are also a variety of curriculums: High/Scope, Montessori, Creative Curriculum, and an option for another program.

The design of the program in the école maternelle is much more specific. ”The objective of the école maternelle is to help each child become autonomous and to gain for itself knowledge and competence.” The focus of the knowledge and competence is the acquisition of “oral language, rich, organized, and understandable by others.”

The implementation of the program is up to the individual school, the director and the école’s teachers. And the teachers show the other comparison. Candidates for a teaching position an école maternelle must have the French equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in a specific subject. The candidate then must compete for a seat in university based Institut Universitaire de Formation des Maîtres, leading to the equivalent of a master’s degree in early childhood and elementary education. The teachers have the same wages and benefits as teachers in French elementary and secondary schools, in stark contrast to their Americans cousins who work in early childhood programs where qualifications and pay are low.

In Part 2 we will look at what goes on inside the école maternelle.


Druckerman, Pamela (2012). Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting (New York: Penguin)

Shanny Peer, and Burbank, John (2004). Early Education: Lessons from French Écoles Maternelles. Seattle, Washington.

French Ministry of Education (2014). Guide practique pour parents: Mon Enfant à l’école maternelle.

French Ministry of Education (2014). La présentation des programmes à l’école maternelle

[1]Immediately after her birth, a beanie was put on her head; hence the nickname. Her name is Leyla.

[2] Sort of a spoiler alert: What she found was that you don’t need a different theory of parenting. “You need a very different view of what a child actually is.”

Fail Forward: The Power of Failing a Test

In a new book by Benjamin Carey called How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, he describes the paradox of why doing poorly on a test can actually help our learning.

It doesn’t take long in one’s school career to come to dread the test. Who has not cringed at the “Our unit test will be this Friday. Be sure to study your notes on chapters 4-6?”

So Thursday night you take a last look at your notes and feel pretty comfortable that you know them cold. Friday morning comes and you feel pretty good until you look at the first question. D! Final tests are even more frightening.

But what if on the first day of the class, Carey asks, you got a copy of the final exam itself. No answers. Just the questions. How would that help you learn while you took the class?

Carey describes how it would help you study more effectively:

You would read the questions carefully. You would know exactly what to focus on in your notes. Your ears would perk up anytime the teacher mentioned something relevant to a specific question. You would search the textbook for his discussion of each question. If you were thorough, you would have memorized the answer to every item before the course ended. (Carey, NYTimes, September 4, 2014)

But what if instead of getting a copy of the final exam, your teacher created a pre-test version of the final that you took on the first day of the class. You of course would do poorly on the test but you would have nearly the same benefits as having a copy of the final.

The pre-test becomes a way to make our learning active in the sense that a wrong answer to a question on the pre-test “wakes us up.” The question about the relationship between X and Y that you got wrong, sets your mind up to carefully follow the teacher’s explanation of that relationship during the class. It makes you ready to learn about it.

What makes you blank out when given questions about material you felt confident about has been described by learning scientists as the illusion of fluency. Just because you recognize a name or a topic doesn’t mean you are fluent; that is, able to express oneself easily and articulately about the name or topic.

Your experience on the pre-test has given you clues about what fluency in the topic will include and you will study so that you are actually fluent.

Mr. Carey cites the research of a psychology professor who gives her students in an introductory psychology course a comprehensive pre-test on the first day of class. Over several semesters, using a control group that does not do the pre-test, she found that the students who had the pre-test score about 10% better than the control group.

What prompted me to blog about the article was how the potential power of the pre-test makes us think about the general relationship between testing and learning.

Unfortunately, testing is thought of only as an end point in instruction: “what did you get on the test?” Not “what do you now understand that you didn’t before?” But what if we used testing more to help kids improve their learning, the “hour by hour” kind of formative testing advocated by Black and Wiliam?[1]

We already know how to use assessment to support learning: pre-tests, formative feedback, detailed written feedback on writing, calling on all kids for answers instead of calling on volunteers, and so forth. But we need to use what we know about assessment if we are truly serious about better instruction.


“Why Flunking Exams Is Actually a Good Thing” –, September 6, 2014

Black, Paul and Dylan Wiliam (1998). Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment.

[1] Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment.

Part 2 The École Maternelle

In this blog we pick up where we left off and go into a more detail about the école maternelle, which is the French society’s approach to helping children prepare for formal education.

In contrast to the American strategy which is to focus early childhood education on at-risk children, the école maternelle is an option for all children, and because it is a French institution of long-standing (since 1881) and highly regarded, nearly all French three to six year olds attend their local école maternelle. In high-needs areas (designated as zones d’éducation prioritaire or priority educational area), the local écoles maternelles receive additional and compensatory resources.

Where we use the word “education” to cover both the parenting (socialization, development of personality) and schooling (learning to read, do math) aspects of growing up; the French use two different words. What parents do is la éducation while schools are about scolarisation (schooling).

During the three years of the école maternelle the program moves in a continuum from where la éducation is primary with the younger children to scolarisation is emphasized with the older children as the foundations are built for a successful transition to the first year of compulsory education, l’école primaire, primary school; that is the French version of first grade.

In the parental guide (Mon enfant à la école maternelle, My child in the école maternelle), the approach to learning is described: “During the day, children are placed in a variety of activities aimed at specific learning in various fields. These activities at first are primarily in the form of games, especially with the small children; with fewer and fewer games and more directed activities with the older children.”

The children are organized into groups called workshops (ateliers) and they are frequently regrouped. The teacher bases the planning of the activities on the “cycle maternelle.” The cycle begins with playful and active exploration to more structured interactions. Click for an example.

In addition to the cycle maternelle, the teacher also attends to the “rhythms of childhood.” This is French “best practice” to “respect an equilibrium between times of activity and those of calm and repose for children.” Among the other rhythms is the need to “adapt activities to the needs of young children,” and “carefully organize the transitions between the schooling ,” and “help the children find their way around the school and to identify the adults in the school.”

All of the activities are focused on the learning of language (growing vocabulary, linking letters and sounds, listening, explaining individual understandings, listening to the understandings of others. Becoming proficient in oral language is exercised in the five specific domains of: beginning to connect oral with written language (découvrir l’écrit), living with others in a community governed by rules while being an independent individual (devinir élève); physical activity and expression (agir et s’exprimir avec son corps ; discovery of the world, which involves learning new points of view and confronting logical discourse, to give the child a taste for reasoning; (découvrir le monde), and artistic expression (percevoir, sentir, imaginer, et créer).

The French logic seems to be if children can speak clearly, they can also think clearly. ..

Formal reading instruction begins in the école primaire, although in the école maternelle, children learn their letters, the alphabetic principle, and letter sound correspondence, to form letters and write their names in cursive, they are not expected to learn to read.

The information in this blog began with the Bringing Up Bébé book and was supplemented by reading the information about the écoles maternelles on the French Ministry of Education website. Particularly interesting is the Practical Guide for Parents, My Child in the École Maternelles.


I suggest that two aspects of the école maternelle are worthy of emulation or at least consideration as South Carolina further develops its system of early childhood education. First, would it not be beneficial to include all children in the system? All children would benefit, even children from families in the middle class. According to recent data it would cost a family $15,000 dollars to put two children in a child care center. That is greater than the cost of housing the same family is already paying. Second, the commitment should be supported by a well-prepared teaching staff. Early childhood educators in the U.S. are at the bottom of the income range. The teachers in the écoles maternelles have a high level of training (French version of a master’s degree in early childhood and elementary education) as well as pay and benefits to elementary and secondary teachers in the French system.


Druckerman, Pamela. Bringing Up BéBé. New York, 2012.

French Ministry of Education Website

Guide for Parents: Mon Enfant à l’école maternelle.

Pictures 1 and 2, and 4 are from the Guide for Parents. The picture of the little girl is from the French Ministry of Education Website

Learning to Code leads to Coding to Learn

It seems that everyone wants to code. They are in luck because there are lots of places to learn. Type in “learn to code” in your search engine and you’ll get literally millions of hits.


The obvious answer is that learning to code is a doorway to computer science and perhaps a career in one of the many, many fields that computer science leads to.

But there is another reason to learn to code.

Dr. Michael Resnick of the Media Lab at MIT uses the analogy with reading. First you learn to read, then you can use reading to learn. So you learn how to code and then you code to learn. And as he explains, it’s not just that you learn about computers. You learn about how to take a germ of an idea and turn it into a fully developed game. ((

The Media Lab has been around since the 1960s, even before there were “personal computers,” and it has been at the forefront of thinking about how computers can be used to learn. What they found was that the computer is a more powerful learning tool when the child programs the computer than when the computer programs the child.

It was at the Media Lab that the programming environment called LOGO was developed in 1968 under the guidance of Dr. Seymour Papert, a mathematician with a keen interest in how children learn.

He saw the child as a builder. How else could it be that children learn so much before they even go to school? They learn to speak, they learn the intuitive geometry that enables them to catch and chase thrown balls. They learn the rules of games and even make up their own games. But of course, a builder needs materials from the environment. A child learns to speak by drawing on the oral language it hears all around him or her from birth. But our culture is often lacking materials for building particular kinds of knowledge. Our culture is quite math- and science-phobic for example. You often hear people saying, “I am no good in math,” or “I am not a scientist,” but you never hear anyone admitting to being poor at reading.

Papert saw the computer as a way to create an environment that was rich with models and metaphors that children could use to build their own understandings and not just in math and science.

In school the child is told that this is the way that you solve a certain kind of problem and then is give some problems of that kind to solve. The next day the problems are graded and the student finds he has missed half of them. His work is wrong. “Try harder the next time.” Since he doesn’t know what he did to get the wrong answer, it will be difficult to act on the advice, “Try harder.”

In the computer environment in contrast, the child begins to work on the problem. Something doesn’t work. But it’s not “wrong;” it’s something for him to fix. When the child is fixing the problem he is also learning what he hadn’t understood which had led to the misstep. The computer environment allows the student to work at learning while he is doing the work.

One of the exhibitors at the SCCMS 2014 STEM Summit in Spartanburg on September 28-29, was Google CS First ( Google CS First provides an opportunity for schools in South Carolina to set up coding clubs that can be conducted in school, after school and/or during summers for students in grades four through eight. The programming language is Scratch that was developed at the MIT Media Lab by Michael Resnick and his colleagues.

The school does not need to have a Scratch expert to run the club since Google CS First provides scripted lesson plans, especially designed in Charleston for South Carolina schools and students. The school or individual teacher simply needs to contact Google CS First and establish a club. The clubs don’t need to be full year clubs. The materials the lesson plans provide about four weeks of materials so that students could complete a full project in that time. Of course, the clubs can be longer.

The curriculum materials help students design video games, computer music and sound. You can view 6,500,000 examples of the kinds of projects that can be done with Scratch at!

You can find more information about setting up a Google CS First Club at your school by visiting the Website at You can get your questions asked at

You can also email JamieSue Goodman, the Technical Program Manager of CS First at

STEM Learning Ecosystem

No matter how good the teachers in a school are, they operate under two constraints that limit their ability to provide an excellent STEM education to all students.

First, the school is designed to provide instruction in seven or eight subjects including lunch, and all in six and a half hours. There is little time for anything other than a series of classroom experiences. Field trips are of necessity rare. This is a problem for learning any subject because more learning time is better, and even better is more time in a variety different settings so that the learner can see it as something more than information in a textbook. Immersion programs for learning languages provide an excellent example. Students who have classroom instruction in a new language and then are able to practice it extensively in a variety of contexts will likely become better speakers and writers in the language than the students who had classroom only with home work instruction.

Second, the formal school years begin at age five. It is well known that what has or has not happened between birth and entry into school matters very much. We also know that children from economically disadvantaged families are behind their economically advantaged peers in measurable ways. In a study (The 6,000 hour gap), by age 12 children from poor families are likely to have 6,000 fewer instructional hours than their more affluent peers who have had summer camps, family vacations to different states and even countries.

So addressing these issues requires finding ways to expand the variety of contexts for learning and adding to the time; that is, giving children additional experience with the content and processes of STEM.

Well, much of that work has already been done. There are museums, science centers, summer science programs, and after school programs.

What is missing is a way to put those resources; that, is home, formal, and informal educational contexts, into a form that will enhance a child or youth’s opportunities to learn.

What might such a solution look like?

In their study( Working Paper: How Cross-Sector Collaborations are Advancing STEM Learning) Kathleen Traphagan and Saskia Traill, identified 15 such programs across the country. The authors describe them as “learning ecosystems.”

While the 15 models differ in a variety of ways, they share a common structure. Each includes the child’s home, the school, an after school or summer programs, and a lead “STEM-expert organization like a museum, science center, or university.

For example, the AfterZone Summer Scholars program in Providence, Rhode Island, the Providence Afterschool Alliance and the Providence Public Schools along with environmental, botanic garden, arts, engineering, sailing, and museum community groups, runs a four week STEM summer program for 500 middle school students. The programming happens in the field and promotes the building of STEM skills in the participants.

The experiences are led by teaching teams that consist of a community based STEM educator, a teacher from the Providence Schools, a Providence After School Alliance youth development specialist. The team co-develops the curriculum that connects math learning in the students’ schools to the field research projects the students conduct during the summer.

According to the Noyce study, there are three elements that each of the 15 programs possessed: the school district leadership appreciates the value of collaboration with other learning organizations, a robust network of informal educational organizations, like after school programs, museums, and science centers, and highly competent STEM-expert organization that can provide provide resources such as professional development to those providing the instruction and facilitation of a the activities.

As the working paper makes clear, the creation of a STEM learning ecosystem is a solution but one that requires a great deal of skill and the creation of a robust system with a number of crucial parts. Building capacity in all of the educators, finding a way to ensure that there is a strong planning component so that the work that is done in the school classrooms are supported by the field investigations. It is not enough to have units of study; these units need to be built on the foundation of learning progressions that deepen a child’s interaction with STEM content over time. The activities need to be sharply focused on authentic inquiry, project- and problem-based learning that is connected to the world. All of this will require that the broader community is knowledgeable and understanding of the demands of such a system and that there is broad support for its workings.


Kathleen Traphagan & Saskia Traill. How Cross-Sector Collaborations are Advancing STEM Learning, Noyce Foundation, February 2014