Special Editorial: Does Early Enrichment Still Let a Kid Be a Kid?

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

The New York Times recently published an article about Junior Kumon, a Japanese developed tutoring program brought to the U.S.  The author sets the scene with a three year-old that is practicing writing double-digit numbers for which she gets a sticker when completed correctly.  Most students attend the program a couple of times a week for up to an hour each time and they have nightly homework to be completed with their parents.  It is easy for me to respect the program’s goal: cultivate globally competitive students who can then become globally competitive professionals.  Here is where I started having difficulty: the Junior Kumon program enrolls students from two to five years of age and primarily utilizes a drill and kill methodology designed to provide early reading and math enrichment.  The primary problem that I saw was that the author could find no evidence that this method actually leads to these little people growing into big people with greater chances for professional success.  In fact, the research overall seems to be lacking.  For example, the US Department of Education explored several studies of Kumon Math and could not draw any conclusions on the effectiveness of the program due to both a limited number of studies and research flaws.  The Kumon approach also makes me wonder about the potential impact that these methods may have on the development of other important skills, such as creativity and reasoning.

The author reported information from the fields of psychology and child development.  The consensus?  True, Junior Kumon can help children learn math facts and literacy skills.  The rest of the feedback from the experts suggests that the Kumon approach misses the beauty of early childhood learning.  Okay, so those are my words, but there really wasn’t support for the program’s approach while there was a lot of support for good old experiential learning.  You know, the kind that happens when junior is stacking blocks, making a castle in the sand, sorting objects by color, or working with a friend on building a fort out of the sofa cushions.  The creativity, critical thinking, and interpersonal skills that go into these types of early experiences pave the way for future academic and social development, which lies at the heart of why play has been so valued for so long.  A 2008 article by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) reviewed research on play and found that social interaction during play enhanced vocabulary and social skills, exposure to print in play fostered early literacy, and the use of materials such as blocks helped with spatial relationships and logical thinking.

Programs like Junior Kumon remind me of the predicament that public schools have faced since the onslaught of standardized tests designed to leave no child behind.  Teaching to the test at the expense of rich learning experiences, reduced participation in the arts and other subjects deemed to be not academic enough, and less time spent outside going bonkers in the fresh air are some of the side effects of this shift in public education.  Good intentions?  Yes!  The best we can do for our children to help them flourish into smart, critical thinkers capable of working on teams to generate ideas that propel our world to a better place?  Not so sure…but probably not.

Source: Zernike, K (2011, May 13).  Fast-tracking to Kindergarten? The New York Times. Retrieved May 15, 2011 from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/15/fashion/with-kumon-fast-tracking-to-kindergarten.html#