The 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

World Economic Forum

Image: REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
Written by
Alex Gray, Senior Writer, Formative Content
Tuesday 19 January 2016

Five years from now, over one-third of skills (35%) that are considered important in today’s workforce will have changed.

 

By 2020, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will have brought us advanced robotics and autonomous transport, artificial intelligence and machine learning, advanced materials, biotechnology and genomics.

 

These developments will transform the way we live, and the way we work. Some jobs will disappear, others will grow and jobs that don’t even exist today will become commonplace. What is certain is that the future workforce will need to align its skillset to keep pace.

 

A new Forum report, The Future of Jobs, looks at the employment, skills and workforce strategy for the future.

 

The report asked chief human resources and strategy officers from leading global employers what the current shifts mean, specifically for employment, skills and recruitment across industries and geographies.


What skills will change most?

Creativity will become one of the top three skills workers will need. With the avalanche of new products, new technologies and new ways of working, workers are going to have to become more creative in order to benefit from these changes.

 

Robots may help us get to where we want to be faster, but they can’t be as creative as humans (yet).

 

Whereas negotiation and flexibility are high on the list of skills for 2015, in 2020 they will begin to drop from the top 10 as machines, using masses of data, begin to make our decisions for us.

 

A survey done by the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Software and Society shows people expect artificial intelligence machines to be part of a company’s board of directors by 2026.

 

Similarly, active listening, considered a core skill today, will disappear completely from the top 10. Emotional intelligence, which doesn’t feature in the top 10 today, will become one of the top skills needed by all.

 

Disruption in industry

The nature of the change will depend very much on the industry itself. Global media and entertainment, for example, has already seen a great deal of change in the past five years.

The financial services and investment sector, however, has yet to be radically transformed. Those working in sales and manufacturing will need new skills, such as technological literacy.

 

Some advances are ahead of others. Mobile internet and cloud technology are already impacting the way we work. Artificial intelligence, 3D printing and advanced materials are still in their early stages of use, but the pace of change will be fast.

 

Change won’t wait for us: business leaders, educators and governments all need to be proactive in up-skilling and retraining people so everyone can benefit from the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

 

The Annual Meeting is taking place in Davos from 20 to 23 January, under the theme “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution”.

Exit Tickets: Checking for Understanding

Edutopia

Whether it’s an app or a piece of paper, exit tickets are quick, ungraded assessments of how you’re teaching and what students need from you next.

Exit Tickets: Checking for Understanding (Transcript)

Erin: There’s been a wonderful real-time change in the way we’re able to adapt to student needs.

Marguerite: What formative assessment am I using daily, so that I can measure whether or not in that class period, kids are learning the material? A good Exit Ticket can tell whether or not a kid has a superficial understanding of the information, or has some depth of understanding. And then the next day the teacher can differentiate their lesson based on student needs. An Exit Ticket is a formative assessment linked to the objective of the lessons.

Shannon: Typically they’re short, just a few questions and they’re focused on one particular skill. And we design them ourselves. They’re just what I want to know if the students mastered that day in the classroom. It can also be used to kind of anticipate something that you might be working on for the next day’s lesson. Do they already know it, or do they know parts of it? Where can you kind of start your lesson?

Marguerite: Some teachers use Poll Anywhere. Some teachers utilize a Google form where kids can enter in their information. Then that Google form will then organize the data for the teacher into an Excel spreadsheet. And some teachers just use paper and pencil.

Shannon: First thing, what’s our number one Exit Ticket? I just want to know, key points. What are the best things that your group came up with? Your Connections, so historically, a current events connection. A connection you made to–

Shannon: I just wanted to see where each group kind of really got to in their discussion in terms of depth. It lets me see which group, if they’re not reaching that level, for example, that I should spend a lot more time talking with them and helping them to develop that, and which groups are working really well independently.

Erin: We use the digital Exit Tickets, weekly or daily depending on the unit.

Shannon: And we purposefully use one, so every ninth grade student, we have that data.

Erin: We teach the same course, and we co-plan every single day’s lesson together. And that gives us a real opportunity to discuss what our data is showing, and what do we need to change? We can use Exit Tickets to focus in on just understanding one small concept. For instance, today’s Exit Ticket asked them to identify what elements were in Persuasion, what elements were in Argument. And then we gave them examples of Pathos, Ethos and Logos. They had to identify which of those elements were the most prominent. So that gave us an idea of whether or not they could differentiate between the three.

Shannon: So let’s talk through our unit, first let’s do Persuasion first.

Erin: A lot of them understand that Logos belongs with Argument, but they’re also lumping in additional elements. And I’m definitely seeing that the entire group needs to review differences between Argument and Persuasion.

Erin: Argument has Logos only. Today, you’re going to be using Logos, Pathos and Ethos for Persuasion. And it’s important just so you know there’s a different between them.

Erin: About Persuasion, I think that’s where we’re going to be able to pull out the students that need just a little bit more reteaching.

Shannon: So clearly like the text isn’t working for them, so let’s do that same visual thing.

Erin: I think advertisements that they’re already familiar with, so that they have a place of prior knowledge and context.

Erin: Logos, Pathos or Ethos? We’re looking at this beautiful advertisement of Superman. What is the most prominent persuasive element you see here?

Shannon: Let’s have our higher level groups, since they’ve demonstrated through this Exit Ticket that they can definitely identify those three things in what they’re reading. Let’s move them up to Author’s Purpose.

Erin: People on the computers in the back, you’ll be watching a video, and writing a one-paragraph response. You’ll turn it in at the end of the class.

Marguerite: When you look around the room, you would think they’re all working on the same activity, but in actuality, it’s at different levels.

Trace: They’ll sit down with you, they’ll help you learn the material, to make sure you get the full grasp of what we’re learning in that class.

Shannon: Using data driven instruction in the classroom in the form of Exit Ticket, really allows a teacher to identify each student’s strengths and weaknesses as they’re walking into your classroom every day. There’s no one who’s falling through the cracks.

Overview

Exit Tickets: Checking for Understanding

Exit tickets are a formative assessment tool that give teachers a way to assess how well students understand the material they are learning in class. This tool can be used daily or weekly, depending on the unit being taught. A good exit ticket can tell whether students have a superficial or in-depth understanding of the material. Teachers can then use this data for adapting instruction to meet students’ needs the very next day.

How It’s Done

Teachers typically use exit tickets to assess what students have understood from the day’s lesson. Exit tickets are not a test, but a way to understand students’ comprehension of a particular topic. With this information, teachers can adjust instruction and plan how to best meet student needs by modifying and differentiating instruction. Exit tickets allow teachers to see where the gaps in knowledge are, what they need to fix, what students have mastered, and what can be enriched in the classroom.

Designing An Exit Ticket

Teachers design their own exit tickets. A good exit ticket is linked to the objective of the lesson, focusing on one particular skill or concept that students should have understood that day. Exit tickets can pose questions that are multiple choice, short answer, or even a couple of sentences in response to a question. Three to five questions make for a good exit ticket, and students should be able to complete the whole thing in just a few minutes at the end of a class period.

Exit tickets are only as good as how they are designed. It may take a little practice to get your questions precise enough for students to give you the information you need. General questions (“Do you understand?”, “Yes or no?”, etc.) don’t really give the information that will help you work with your students. Exit tickets with questions that assess understanding, apply the concept, or demonstrate the concept work best.

Technology offers an easy way to work with exit tickets, using Poll Everywhere or Google Forms. Students can easily use their tablet, smart phone, or computer to fill out exit tickets, and these apps can immediately compile the information for teachers. The first time you organize your class roster into these apps will require a bit of set-up, but once completed, you’ll have an easy recourse to manage your data. Paper and pencil are a great option, too. This requires more teacher effort to compile responses, but still gives you the benefit of knowing where you students stand in relation to the material.

Spend some time designing an exit ticket the day before you teach. Upload the form and set it up in Google Drive for students to access, or print out the copies if it’s pencil and paper.

How Often and When?

Some teachers use exit tickets daily, while others use them only once or twice a week, depending on the unit. Exit tickets are given at the end of a class period, and should only take a few minutes for students to complete. Remember to set up an exit ticket by letting students know it’s not graded and not a test or a quiz, just a reflection of what they understood that day.

Compiling Data

After students submit their exit tickets, a teacher will have to compile and “read” the data results. If you’ve used a Google form, the information can be uploaded to Google Drive to automatically create an Excel spreadsheet. If you’ve used pencil and paper, it will take a few minutes to organize and compile your data in a way that gives you an overall picture of your classroom.

Using Data to Differentiate Instruction

Exit ticket results help teachers differentiate instruction:

  • How did the group of students do overall?
  • How many kids really understand the purpose of what you’re doing in class and can move forward with it?
  • For those who can’t, how will you change your lesson plans that night so that you can meet your students’ needs the next day?

Exit tickets allow you to use your data to identify student strengths and weaknesses, and then plan for the next day’s instruction. Perhaps one group will get more direct instruction around the basic concept, while another group will work independently. Perhaps only one or two students need some additional help, and you’ll plan accordingly. The key to differentiation is that you have high expectations for all students and a clear objective. If you know what you want students to master, differentiation allows you to use different strategies to help all the students get there.

Other Uses for Exit Tickets

Exit tickets could also be used to preview what students know about topics that the class hasn’t even discussed yet. It can give a teacher some information about where to start his or her lesson on a new topic the next day.

Sometimes teachers also use entrance tickets, which are given at the beginning of a class period. You start off with two questions assessing what students know from the previous day’s lesson. And right away, you understand from these questions how you need to start today’s lesson. Entrance tickets help you answer this question: “What do I need to do differently right now in order to meet the needs of my kids?”

Resources

11-Year-Old ‘Sick of Reading About White Boys and Dogs’ Launches #1000BlackGirlBooks

11-Year-Old 'Sick of Reading About White Boys and Dogs' Launches #1000BlackGirlBooks12

Marley Dias is an 11-year-old New Jersey resident who’s spent more time giving back to her community in her brief time on this planet than most of us will spend in a lifetime. She’s received a grant from Disney, traveled to Ghana to help feed orphans, and now—in her latest act of altruism—she’s rounding up children’s books that feature black female leads so that she and her peers have more fictional characters to look up to.

The project, titled #1000BlackGirlBooks, started when Marley complained to her mother about reading too many books about white male protagonists in school.

From the Philly Voice:

“I told her I was sick of reading about white boys and dogs,” Dias said, pointing specifically to “Where the Red Fern Grows” and the “Shiloh” series. “‘What are you going to do about it?’ [my mom] asked. And I told her I was going to start a book drive, and a specific book drive, where black girls are the main characters in the book and not background characters or minor characters.”

Marley is looking to collect 1000 books featuring black female protagonists by February 1. She is nearly halfway to her goal.

“I’m hoping to show that other girls can do this as well,” Marley says. “I used the resources I was given, and I want people to pass that down and use the things they’re given to create more social action projects—and do it just for fun, and not make it feel like a chore.”

“For young black girls in the U.S., context is really important for them—to see themselves and have stories that reflect experiences that are closer to what they have or their friends have,” Marley’s mother, Janice Johnson Dias, tells thePhilly Voice.

Marley, who hopes to one day edit her own magazine and “continue social action” for the rest of her life, will catalog the donated books and transport them to a children’s book drive in Jamaica. She and her mother are also trying to start a small library in Philadelphia.

A fundraising website describes Marley’s project thusly:

Frustrated by the lack of books about black girls in her school curriculum, Marley Dias launched this campaign to collect 1000 books where black girls are the main characters. The #1000blackgirlbooks project is her BAM social action project for 2016. Books will be donated to Retreat Primary and Junior School and Library in the parish of St. Mary, Jamaica where her mother and GrassROOTS’ President, Dr. Johnson Dias, was raised as a child.

She is currently taking both cash and book donations. Books can be sent to the following address:

GrassROOTS Community Foundation
59 Main Street, Suite 323, West Orange, NJ 07052

Keep up the good work, young shero.

Teaching Math With Modular Origami

Scholastic.com

By Alycia Zimmerman on January 22, 2016

  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

Several years ago, I had the good fortune to attend a workshop by Rachel McAnallen (aka Ms. Math) about teaching geometry with a fun and tactile method: origami! Since then, introducing my students to modular geometric origami is one of my favorite teaching moments each year. Origami math gives my tactile and spatially gifted students a chance to shine, it helps students with sequencing and direction following, and it’s a fun way to introduce a wide range of geometry terms and concepts.

I had NEVER created origami before the abovementioned two-hour workshop. You absolutely do not need to be a talented origami artist to pull off these lessons with your students. With the straight-forward tips below and a few minutes of practice, you’ll be ready to guide your students through an origami math experience that will have them clamoring for more. (That’s when you can hand them an origami book and challenge them to figure it out!)

 

I was bursting with pride upon making my first “skeletal octahedron.” Students feel a similar sense of accomplishment when completing their origami structures.

 

What is Modular Origami?

Modular origami is the fancy name for geometric origami that is made up of many repeating “units” that are then assembled to create a more complex geometric form. Unlike traditional origami that uses a single sheet of paper to fold a figure, modular origami uses many sheets of paper that are folded into basic modules or units. Once you learn how to make the basic unit for a design, you repeat the process to make enough copies of the unit to assemble your final form. (For a look at some modular origami projects, check out my Pinterest board.)

Although the process of making the units is repetitive, I find that many students enjoy it as a calming, almost meditative process. I often introduce this activity right before standardized tests, because the repetitive folding soothes some students and gives them a purposeful active for jittery hands. I always have a few students who find folding the units to be a chore. I team these students up to divide and conquer the unit folding work and then assemble a joint final product. I’ve had so many students become nearly obsessed with folding units — they bring origami paper to lunch and recess (especially on rainy days) to get in extra folding time.

A student shows off his first modular origami creations: sonobe cubes. (See the video tutorial below to make these simple cubes.)

 

What Supplies Will We Need?

I buy very inexpensive origami paper for my students since we go through a fair amount of it, like this 500-sheet pack of 6”x6” paper. I keep a pack or two of fancier paper on hand for special projects that individual students tackle. Colored copier paper cut into squares also works well.

The only other supplies you’ll need are a Popsicle stick and a Ziploc bag for each student. The students use the Popsicle sticks to press “crispy creases” into the paper, and the bag to hold all of their units before they assemble the modules into the final design.

 

How Do I Incorporate Math Into Origami?

The math comes entirely through the discussion as you guide the students through making a module/unit. I sit all of my students down and VERY slowly go through the stepwise process of making the first module for a design. I model the process using the document camera, and I have a couple of student experts circulate to help other students who get stuck. (I pre-teach the folding process to these student experts so they are available to be my assistants.)

Before, during and after each fold, we discuss the shapes that we are pressing into the paper, we classify the angles, and I invite the students to name each step to help them remember the sequence of paper folding. This way, students can remember that “the large trapezoid comes after the double horizontal rectangle step.” By folding while discussing geometry, students are also more likely to memorize vocabulary-heavy geometry; they create kinesthetic associations to go along with the geometry terms.

Two of my student experts show off their icosahedrons. Empowering these guys to assist their peers not only helps to build their confidence, it also means that struggling students get timely hands-on support.

 

How Do I Get Started With Modular Origami?

The sonobe cube uses a very simple modular origami unit: the aptly named Sonobe unit. As a cube with six faces, this design requires six units. That makes for a pretty short project. Students can get the feel for modular origami without having to create dozens of units for a single project. And Sonobe cubes are so much fun to assemble! You can find plenty of online tutorials about the Sonobe cube, or follow along with my video below. Plus, once your students have mastered the Sonobe cube, they can use the same units to make octahedrons and icosahedrons.

 

What Do We Do After Our First Project?

After you teach your students how to make the Sonobe cube (and possibly the other Sonobe shapes), you might like to help them through one other project. An octagon-star is another favorite because it is a transforming shape — the final design transforms from a star to an octagon and back. For the second project, I provide written directions, but I still walk them through the process step by step. I have the students refer to the written directions (and diagrams) so they can learn to follow origami directions independently.

Students who caught the modular origami bug will be so motivated after learning the first two projects, that they will likely want to figure out other origami designs. I provide a basket of modular origami books and printouts that they can peruse to choose other projects. At that point I step back and let my students become the expert origami crafters — their skills soon surpass my basic ones, and I am very happy to take on the role of appreciative spectator.

  

The Growth Mindset – “Nice Try!” Is Not Enough

NY Times Motherlode
By KJ DELL’ANTONIA JANUARY 21, 2016

Among the most-uttered phrases of my generation of parents have to be these: “Great effort!” “Nice try!” “I can tell you worked so hard!”

Many of us have sipped from the well of research suggesting that children praised for effort rather than ability stick to their work longer, pursue more creative solutions and enjoy the whole process more. Those kids, we want to believe, get what Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, calls the “growth mind-set:” the belief that their abilities can be developed, as opposed to a “fixed mind-set” in which innate aptitude limits the ability to learn.

The growth mind-set has joined “grit” in the pantheon of desirable qualities we long to bestow upon our children, while secretly suspecting that those particular gifts aren’t ours for the giving. We have collectively seized on the idea that a growth mind-set leads to success, while a fixed mind-set produces the child on the floor sobbing “I can’t. I’m bad at this. I’ll never get it.”

And so we sing the effort song again and again, even when the result of that effort is perhaps not all that we would wish, and even when we know that their effort was strongly boosted by our behind-the-scenes help in varying forms. In doing so, we take a big idea — that the ability to keep trying matters more than immediate success — and drag it down to a small scale. While we’re at it, we risk teaching our children to expect that any effort, no matter how puny or how enabled, should be enough to earn them the results they desire.

That’s far from the real message of the research surrounding the growth mind-set. The exclusive focus on effort has been misplaced, says Dr. Dweck, whose book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” delivered the phrase into popular culture. The emphasis should be on learning as an active process, not a goal. “We’re not just saying ‘effort’ anymore,” she says. “We also talk about using good strategies and getting help from others.” Part of a growth mind-set is being willing to learn how best to learn. “Parents may be familiar with the growth mind-set, but they may be using it toward the goal of the next test grade or school application. That’s not what it is. It’s about learning and improving and loving the process. Those other things come about as a byproduct.”

Just as effort alone can’t deliver results, praising effort isn’t enough to help a child develop a love for the challenge of learning. Both parents and teachers should follow that “great effort” message with something more. Dr. Dweck provides a list of suggestions in an article for Education Week. When a child is trying but not succeeding, she writes, appreciate the effort, then add “Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next.” When a child is discouraged, avoid the “you can do it if you try” trap. Instead, acknowledge the challenge. “That feeling of math being hard is the feeling of your brain growing.”

As children get older, parents can also talk with them about the ways their successes haven’t been entirely dependent on their own efforts, no matter how great those have been. “They should recognize that not everyone has the opportunities to develop their abilities in the same way,” says Dr. Dweck. “Other kids may be working hard, but not have people teaching them the right strategies, or giving them the help they need to flourish.”

Children growing up with parents and teachers who care about helping them develop a “growth mind-set” are already ahead of the game. As parents, we can encourage them to use the strategies and skills they develop in both smaller and larger ways.

“I worry that kids aren’t being taught to dream big any more,” says Dr. Dweck. “It’s so grade-focused. I feel like parents should be focusing on what contribution children can make. What’s the purpose of growing up and having an education and developing skills? What kind of impact are you going to have on the world?” A growth mind-set, she says, should help a child feel fortunate to have the opportunity to make a difference.

It’s a somewhat complex lesson we hope to convey: It’s not enough just to try, you have to eventually find a way to learn, and yet it’s not all about immediate or even long-term success. As temptingly simple as the whole “praise effort, not ability” concept seemed, there are no shortcuts to the growth mind-set, not for our children — or for ourselves.

Ironically, it’s easy for adults to fall victim to a “fixed mind-set” about our own children. We need to remember that an appreciation for challenge, and a belief that we can find a way to change, learn and grow, can’t itself be fixed in place. Instead, we all struggle with fear and discouragement at times. Sometimes we run toward new experiences. Sometimes we have to find a way to learn something we really did not want to learn. Sometimes, some part of us is always on the floor, sobbing: “I can’t. I’m bad at this. I’ll never get it.”

So how do you raise a child with a growth mind-set, along with a nice healthy appreciation for where it came from and the will to keep it strong? By applying the encouraging messages of the growth mind-set to yourself. I’ll borrow, out of context, another phrase from Dr. Dweck: “The point isn’t to get it all right away. The point is to grow your understanding step by step. What can you try next?”

That’s a great thing to say to our children, and just as important a thing to say to ourselves.

Doing History Instead of Reading About It

Student centered learning!

CAIS Commission on Professional Development

At some point in our teaching career, we wake up one day and realize that education is about the kids, not about us. That was the genesis of redesigning a World History course that had been tweaked, adjusted, modified, and aligned for eighteen years. While the workshop title indicates a history course saga, the transformation that is occurring in World History at Choate could occur in any course in any department. Join a conversation about teaching and learning that aims to adjust pedagogy and curriculum to meet the needs of our students.

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THE JOYFUL, ILLITERATE KINDERGARTNERS OF FINLAND

Taught By Finland

“The changes to kindergarten make me sick,” a veteran teacher in Arkansas recently admitted to me. “Think about what you did in first grade—that’s what my 5-year-old babies are expected to do.”

The difference between first grade and kindergarten may not seem like much, but what I remember about my first-grade experience in the mid-90s doesn’t match the kindergarten she described in her email: three and a half hours of daily literacy instruction, an hour and a half of daily math instruction, 20 minutes of daily “physical activity time” (officially banned from being called “recess”) and two 56-question standardized tests in literacy and math—on the fourth week of school.

That American friend—who teaches 20 students without an aide—has fought to integrate 30 minutes of “station time” into the literacy block, which includes  “blocks, science, magnetic letters, play dough with letter stamps to practice words, books, and storytelling.” But the most controversial area of her classroom isn’t the blocks nor the stamps: Rather, it’s the “house station with dolls and toy food”—items her district tried to remove last year. The implication was clear: There’s no time for play in kindergarten anymore.

A working paper, “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?,” confirms what many experts have suspected for years: The American kindergarten experience has become much more academic—and at the expense of play. The late psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, even raised the concern in an article for The Atlantic in 1987.

Researchers at the University of Virginia, led by the education-policy researcher Daphna Bassok, analyzed survey responses from American kindergarten teachers between 1998 and 2010. “Almost every dimension that we examined,” noted Bassok, “had major shifts over this period towards a heightened focus on academics, and particularly a heightened focus on literacy, and within literacy, a focus on more advanced skills than what had been taught before.”

In the study, the percentage of kindergarten teachers who reported that they agreed (or strongly agreed) that children should learn to read in kindergarten greatly increased from 30 percent in 1998 to 80 percent in 2010.

Bassok and her colleagues found that while time spent on literacy in American kindergarten classrooms went up, time spent on arts, music, and child-selected activities (like station time) significantly dropped. Teacher-directed instruction also increased, revealing what Bassok described as “striking increases in the use of textbooks and worksheets… and very large increases in the use of assessments.”

But Finland—a Nordic nation of 5.5 million people, where I’ve lived and taught fifth and sixth graders over the last two years—appears to be on the other end of the kindergarten spectrum. Before moving to Helsinki, I had heard that most Finnish children start compulsory, government-paid kindergarten—or what Finns call “preschool”—at age 6. And not only that, but I learned through my Finnish mother-in-law—a preschool teacher—that Finland’s kindergartners spend a sizable chunk of each day playing, not filling out worksheets.

Finnish schools have received substantial media attention for years now—largely because of the consistently strong performance of its 15-year-olds on international tests like the PISA. But I haven’t seen much coverage on Finland’s youngest students.

So, a month ago, I scheduled a visit to a Finnish public kindergarten—where a typical school day is just four hours long.

* **

Approaching the school’s playground that morning, I watched as an army of 5- and 6-year-old boys patrolled a zigzagging stream behind Niirala Preschool in the city of Kuopio, unfazed by the warm August drizzle. When I clumsily unhinged the steel gate to the school’s playground, the young children didn’t even lift their eyes from the ground; they  just kept dragging and pushing their tiny shovels through the mud.

At 9:30 a.m., the boys were called to line up for a daily activity called Morning Circle. (The girls were already inside—having chosen to play boardgames indoors.) They trudged across the yard in their rubber boots, pleading with their teachers to play longer—even though they had already been outside for an hour. As they stood in file, I asked them to describe what they’d been doing on the playground.

“Making dams,” sang a chorus of three boys.

“Nothing else?” one of their teachers prodded.

“Nothing else,” they confirmed.

“[Children] learn so well through play,” Anni-Kaisa Osei Ntiamoah, one of the preschool’s “kindergarten” teachers, who’s in her seventh year in the classroom, told me. “They don’t even realize that they are learning because they’re so interested [in what they’re doing].”

When children play, Osei Ntiamoah continued, they’re developing their language, math, and social-interaction skills. A recent research summary “The Power of Play” supports her findings: “In the short and long term, play benefits cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development…When play is fun and child-directed, children are motivated to engage in opportunities to learn,” the researcher concluded.

Osei Ntiamoah’s colleagues all seemed to share her enthusiasm for play-based learning, as did the school’s director, Maarit Reinikka: “It’s not a natural way for a child to learn when the teacher says, ‘Take this pencil and sit still.’” The school’s kindergarten educators have their students engage in desk work—like handwriting—just one day a week. Reinikka, who directs several preschools in Kuopio, assured me that kindergartners throughout Finland—like the ones at Niirala Preschool—are rarely sitting down to complete traditional paper-and-pencil exercises.

And there’s no such thing as a typical day of kindergarten at the preschool, the teachers said. Instead of a daily itinerary, two of them showed me a weekly schedule with no more than several major activities per day: Mondays, for example, are dedicated to field trips, ballgames, and running, while Fridays—the day I visited—are for songs and stations.

Once Morning Circle—a communal time of songs and chants—wrapped up, the children disbanded and flocked to the station of their choice: There was one involving fort-making with bed sheets, one for arts and crafts, and one where kids could run a pretend ice-cream shop. “I’ll take two scoops of pear and two scoops of strawberry—in a waffle cone,” I told the two kindergarten girls who had positioned themselves at the ice-cream table; I had a (fake) 10€ bill to spend, courtesy of one of the teachers. As one of the girls served me—using blue tack to stick laminated cutouts of scoops together—I handed the money to her classmate.

With a determined expression reminiscent of the boys in the mud with their shovels, the young cashier stared at the price list. After a long pause, one of her teachers—perhaps sensing a good opportunity to step in—helped her calculate the difference between the price of my order and the 10€. Once I received my change (a few plastic coins), the girls giggled as I pretended to lick my ice cream.

Throughout the morning I noticed that the kindergartners played in two different ways: One was spontaneous and free form (like the boys building dams), while the other was more guided and pedagogical (like the girls selling ice cream).

In fact, Finland requires its kindergarten teachers to offer playful learning opportunities—including both kinds of play—to every kindergartner on a regular basis, according to Arja-Sisko Holappa, a counselor for the Finnish National Board of Education. What’s more, Holappa, who also leads the development of the country’s pre-primary core curriculum, said that play is being emphasized more than ever in latest version of that curriculum, which goes into effect in kindergartens next fall.

“Play is a very efficient way of learning for children,” she told me. “And we can use it in a way that children will learn with joy.”

The word “joy” caught me off guard—I’m certainly not used to hearing the word in conversations about education in America, where I received my training and taught for several years. But Holappa, detecting my surprise, reiterated that the country’s early-childhood education program indeed places a heavy emphasis on “joy,” which along with play is explicitly written into the curriculum as a learning concept. “There’s an old Finnish saying,” Holappa said. “Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.”

* * *

After two hours of visiting a Finnish kindergarten, I still hadn’t seen children reading. I was, however, hearing a lot of pre-literacy instruction sprinkled throughout the morning—clapping out syllables and rhyming in Morning Circle, for example. I recalled learning in my master’s degree courses in education that building phonemic awareness—an ability to recognize sounds without involving written language—was viewed as the groundwork of literacy development.

Just before lunch, a kindergarten teacher took out a basket brimming with children’s books. But for these 5- and 6-year-olds, “reading” looked just like how my two toddlers approach their books: The kindergartners, sitting in different corners of the room, flipped through pages, savoring the pictures but, for the most part, not actually deciphering the words. Osei Ntiamoah told me that just one of the 15 students in her class can currently read syllable by syllable. Many of them, she added, will read by the end of the year. “We don’t push them but they learn just because they are ready for it. If the child is willing and interested, we will help the child.”

There was a time in Finland—in the not so distant past—when kindergarten teachers weren’t even allowed to teach reading. This was viewed as the job of the first-grade teacher. But, as with America, things have changed: Nowadays, Finnish teachers are free to teach reading if they determine a child is—just as Osei Ntiamoah put it—“willing and interested” to learn.

Throughout Finland, kindergarten teachers and parents meet during the fall to make an individualized learning plan, shaped by each child’s interests and levels of readiness, which could include the goal of learning how to read. For Finnish kindergartners who seem primed for reading instruction, Holappa told me it’s still possible to teach them in a playful manner. She recommended the work of the Norwegian researcher Arne Trageton—a pioneer in the area of play-based literacy instruction.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, kindergarten students like that of the Arkansas teacher are generally expected—by the end of the year—to master literacy skills that are far more complex, like reading books with two to three sentences of unpredictable text per page. “These are 5- to 6-year-olds!” the Arkansas teacher wrote in disbelief.

More than 40 states—including Arkansas—have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which contain dozens of reading expectations for kindergartners. In the United States—where 22 percent of the nation’s children live in poverty (more than 16 million in total)—the Common Core’s emphasis on rigorous language-learning in kindergarten could be viewed as a strategy for closing the alarming “Thirty Million Word Gap” between America’s rich and poor—holding schools accountable for having high expectations for their youngest students.

Furthermore, unlike the reality of teaching kindergarten in Finland where the poverty rate is 10 percent and the student-teacher ratio is typically 14:1 (based on national guidelines), most American kindergarten teachers don’t have a choice whether or not they teach reading. Under the Common Core, children should be able to “read emergent-texts with purpose and understanding” by the end of kindergarten. Ultimately, they’re expected to, at the very least, be able to decode basic texts without the support of a teacher.

“But there isn’t any solid evidence that shows that children who are taught to read in kindergarten have any long-term benefit from it,” Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emeritus of early childhood education at Lesley University, explained in a video published by the advocacy group Defending the Early Years.

Research by Sebastian Suggate, a former Ph.D. candidate at New Zealand’s University of Otago studying educational psychology, confirms Carlsson-Paige’s findings. One of Suggate’s studies compared children from Rudolf Steiner schools—who typically begin to read at the age of seven—with children at state-run schools in New Zealand, who start reading at the age of five. By age 11, students from the former group caught up with their peers in the latter, demonstrating equivalent reading skills.

“This research then raises the question,” he said in an interview published by the University of Otago. “If there aren’t advantages to learning to read from the age of five, could there be disadvantages to starting teaching children to read earlier?”

* * *

At the end of my visit to the Finnish kindergarten, I joined the 22 children and their two teachers for a Friday event that only happens on weeks when children are celebrating their birthdays. The birthday child that week sat at the front of the classroom in a chair facing his peers and teachers, all of whom sat in a semicircle, and a table with a candleholder to his left.

I expected the celebration to end after the lighting of candles and “Happy Birthday” song, but it didn’t. One of the boy’s classmates, donning a hat that looked like a beret and wearing a mail carrier’s sling over his shoulder, took him by the hand, and the two proceeded to dance as we sang the Finnish children’s song, “Little Boy Postman.”

Once the song was complete, the little postman took out a card and handed it to his classmate. “Would you like me to help you read this?” one of the birthday boy’s teachers asked. “You help,” he responded, a hint that hadn’t quite mastered the skill yet. I watched his face carefully, searching for any hint of shame. I found none—but then again, why should he have felt embarrassed?

The flickering six candles reminded me he’s only a little kid.

***

Tim Walker is an American teacher and writer based in Finland. He writes about education and culture at Taught by Finland and parenting at Papa on the Playground.