In exploring persistent debates about the purposes and structures of early learning in KnowledgeWorks and Capita’s forecast, Foundations for Flourishing Futures: A Look Ahead for Young Children and Families, the team asked, “How might stakeholders create dignified and self-affirming early learning experiences for all children?” What we found might concern or uplift educators.
The forecast’s “Learning in Flux” domain examined how social and economic uncertainty and new research into the importance of relationships are influencing approaches to early learning. It highlighted how some new approaches are aiming to optimize children’s learning experiences with a focus on work and life preparation, while others are seeking to organize early learning programs around concepts of relational health.
This spectrum of approaches presents a range of possibilities for what early learning offerings might look like in ten years’ time. The forecast depicted three of them using artifacts of the future, which are things or services that could exist in the future based on how trends are unfolding today.
LearnTogether: Digital preschool on the rise
Among them, the forecast imagined that many states might require four-year-olds to spend 20 minutes a day engaging with a free, online preschool curriculum called LearnTogether. This literacy-focused curriculum would aim to make preschool more accessible to everyone. It would be required of all four-year-olds not enrolled in an approved, in-person program. The forecast described how LearnTogether would show gains in literacy and early learning access even as its detractors questioned its quality compared to many in-person learning experiences.
When we were writing the forecast, we spent quite some time debating how a universal, digital preschool curriculum would work. I felt skeptical about relying on device usage for such young children. Nonetheless, given today’s emphasis on extending access to high-quality early learning experiences, it is easy to imagine the impulse to develop a universal solution. With smart devices becoming increasingly affordable and ubiquitous, it seems feasible that a digital option would seem relatively inexpensive and accessible. It might be easier to build public will for this kind of solution than for more extensive, higher-touch options. But—as the forecast highlights—creating flexible, responsive and inclusive structures is probably more important than creating a single solution, whatever its structure. As stakeholders consider how to create dignified and life-affirming early experiences for all children, a key consideration will be how to enable a range of high-quality options versus simply extending access to the range of options available today and perpetuating the disparities that they reflect.
Code4Tots: Optimized play
Bringing insights from neuroscience into tech-mediated learn-play centers could also optimize early learning experiences. The forecast imagined that Code4Tots centers would personalize learning for four-year-old children through playful weekly one-hour experiences that were customized by neuroeducators with the goal of maximizing children’s chances of long-term economic success. Each child would play alone in a monitored room that recorded their cognitive development. Critics would emphasize the centers’ lack of focus on social-emotional skills and relational health, as well as the service providers’ claims to expertise.
Apart from my persistent skepticism about many early learning experiences requiring a caregiver who can provide transportation for their brief time periods, this artifact of the future feels sinister to me. The image of a small child playing alone in a highly monitored room goes against much of what I value for early learning. But there might be a place for such experiences amid other early learning and caregiving approaches that would counterbalance these centers’ focus on skill optimization. Regardless, reflecting on the seemingly positive and negative aspects of a wide range of early learning approaches seems critical to extending our imaginations about what high-quality early learning experiences might look like. We will not identify fresh solutions for a changing world if we color only within the existing lines.
Flexible Early Learning Systems: Relationships in context
A third possible approach to early learning could emphasize the importance of relationships for early literacy, numeracy and other academic and life skills. The forecast projected that a center belonging to a regional consortium might receive daily suggested schedules and resources helping its early learning providers focus their efforts on healthy relationship building. It imagined that this center would be one of many kinds of recognized, high-quality early learning environments. Funding, policy and professional supports would reflect flexibility to design programs in the context of children’s and communities’ needs. Given the wide range of providers, accountability measures would be streamlined, leading to some concerns about the quality and consistency of implementation.
Today, early learning environments that emphasize relationships and allow plenty of room for child-directed play are widely considered to be of the highest quality. As a parent, I have sought out such environments for my daughter. Yet persistent achievement gaps and anxiety about the future of learning and work can shift the focus to more directly academic and outcome-focused approaches to learning, and not all children have access to developmentally appropriate early learning experiences. My ability to access child-directed, play-based learning environments reflects my privilege in being able to pay the tuition, which tends to be relatively high. This artifact of the future invites questions about how stakeholders can ensure that they do, whether children are enrolled in early learning centers or are engaging in other kinds of learning experiences. It also raises questions about what kinds of supports early learning providers would benefit from, how extensive those supports might be and how much freedom early learning providers should have to determine the schedule and focus of their days.
A Range of High-Quality Options
As these artifacts of the future suggest, our already diverse approaches to early learning are likely to diversify even more over the next decade. New uses of technology, new structures and fresh insights into what children need could open new avenues toward creating dignified and self-affirming early learning experiences for all children. They could also deepen the challenge of ensuring that young children learn how to build connections across boundaries such as race, income and worldviews. Stakeholders’ interpretation of the focus and purpose of early learning experiences will be foundational in determining what we imagine and what we enact, and policy and regulation will play an important role in influencing what approaches are possible and how we evaluate their quality.