To Infinity and Beyond: Understanding Your Child’s Universe of Learning

Parents who know the school curriculum can improve academic odds

It’s a new school year. Amidst the anticipation and flurry of back-to-school shopping for clothes, boots, backpacks and school supplies, there might be a question lingering in the back of your mind:

I wonder, what will my child learn this year?

 With the increased focus on the Common Core State Standards (a consistent set of learning standards in math and English language arts/literacy, currently implemented in 43 states, including Washington) and the Next Generation Science Standards (adopted by Washington in 2013), what kids learn has come under greater scrutiny. Many of us send our kids to school with blind faith that they will learn what they are supposed to, when they are supposed to. Many parents, however, don’t necessarily understand the whys and hows of learning. The changing standards — and the conflicting reactions to them — certainly don’t make it any easier.

Why are reading comprehension and multiplication tables so important in third grade? Why has there been a push for students to study algebra in eighth grade? Should kids be taught to read, add and subtract in preschool?

Really, we all want the answer to one simple, elusive question:

How do kids learn best?

Learning snapshot

As part of your family’s back-to-school preparation, it’s worth moving beyond the school-supply check list and medical forms to take a look at the learning guides designed to give you a curriculum preview of the year ahead.

Did you know that children begin developing key self-management skills, also known as executive function, at birth?  Noticing how your child goes about trying something new, how she responds to new situations and challenges, can give you insights into her learning style. Once he enters elementary school, you can expect your child to learn specific concepts in specific years: Your kindergartner will learn that writing can be used for different purposes; your second-grader will focus on punctuation; your sixth-grader will learn about the water cycle; and your 10th-grader will connect algebraic formulas to geometric concepts.

The Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) publishes learning benchmarks from birth through grade 12 and beyond.

One of the most valuable resources for families is a brochure called Your Child’s Progress, which includes learning highlights by grade level, along with information about the standardized tests your child will be expected to take.  This year’s new digital version, at the OSPI website (, is interactive and contains links to the complete set of Washington State Learning Standards; The Early Learning and Development Guidelines for children from birth to third grade, developed by the Washington State Department of Early Learning (DEL), in partnership with OSPI and Thrive by Five Washington; the Graduation in Washington toolkit, which lays out specific high school graduation requirements for each year’s graduating class (during the 2014 legislative session, some changes were made, impacting students in the class of 2015 and beyond); and postgraduation guidelines for technical education to work in different industries.

The National PTA publishes The Parents’ Guides to Student Success. These Common Core–aligned guides explain what students should be learning in K–8 language arts/literacy and math.

Finally, the Council of the Great City Schools publishes Parent Roadmaps to the Common Core Standards in English language arts/literacy and mathematics for grades K–8. These grade-level guides also provide three-year snapshots showing how selected standards build on each other.

Your child’s brain in school

Understanding more about the overlap between cognitive development and grade-level expectations can help us, as parents, support and build our kids’ excitement about learning, as well as understand why they have trouble when they do and intuit how to help them over learning humps.

But one expert says that expecting a child’s brain development to perfectly dovetail with grade-level learning standards puts too much faith in developmental psychology. A better guiding star is the experience of teachers, who are privy to a broad range of learning styles and paces.

Daniel T. Willingham, Ph.D., is a psychologist at the University of Virginia who researches the applicability of cognitive psychology and neuroscience to K–16 education. He is the author of, among other books, Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom and the forthcoming Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do.

“The relationship between learning science and practice is complicated and non-straightforward,” says Willingham, who also writes the “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” column for American Educator, in which he has tackled topics such as math anxiety, and blogs at

“Learning science at its best describes things that are true about what kids learn.” But teachers may choose to use the information in different ways, he says.

For example, if a student excels at math or writing, some teachers might build on this strength. Others might see value in focusing the student on things he struggles with.

How cognitive development works

Jean Piaget, the Swiss developmental psychologist and pioneer in the field of cognitive development, popularized the idea that young children should be creators and that they develop best in a classroom based on interaction.

Piaget believed that cognitive development happened in concrete stages, a belief that Willingham says is considered suspect now.

“Now, we think development is much more likely to be gradual across kids and within a kid. Development seems to happen in fits and starts. One week, a student will understand a task, and the next week, she won’t. You can give a student two similar problems and he will understand one, but not the other.”

Based on this refined understanding of cognitive development, educators are focusing their efforts on seizing on the natural curiosity of young children, building upon concepts and integrating information across subject bands.

“When we were developing the Common Core and Next Generation Science standards, our guiding principle was that children are born investigators,” says Jessica Vavrus, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at OSPI.

“Children are born ready to learn,” she says. “How do we capture that?”

Civics in preschool? Darwin in kindergarten?

Willingham and other experts believe that a child is never too young to be introduced to a broad array of subjects, so that he or she can begin building a knowledge base that will become critical in later years.

“I think we underestimate what kids are capable of,” says Willingham. “I don’t advocate earlier reading, but introducing kids to science, civics and drama is important. There can be more of that, starting in pre-K.”

The Washington State Early Learning Development Guidelines are explicit about the importance of knowledge acquisition and alignment of learning from birth to grade 3: “Young children learn best when new learning builds on what they already know and it relates to their lives.” 

Knowledge is the key to reading

We often talk about “teaching” kids to read, starting with learning letters and their corresponding sounds, which children then string together into words.  But building true literacy skills — the work that is happening in early grades and later, as children progress and mature — actually requires exposure to information and ideas so that children have the context to comprehend unfamiliar texts.

“If you’re not building knowledge, you are not teaching reading,” says Robert Pondiscio, vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit education-policy think tank. Pondiscio is also a teacher and a reading curriculum expert.

“We have to stop thinking of reading as a skill to be taught, but as a condition to be created.”

Inspired by E.D. Hirsch Jr., who pioneered the theory of “cultural literacy” — the idea that reading comprehension requires not just decoding skills, but also wide-ranging background knowledge — Pondiscio is a proponent of a knowledge-rich, integrated curriculum starting in the early years.

“Kids can be interested in any subject at any age,” he says. “It depends on the context.” For example, a preschooler can study ancient Egypt and make mummies from Barbie dolls, while a fifth-grader might investigate Egyptian mythology.

Along with exposing kids to ideas so that they can accumulate knowledge, which will aid reading comprehension, Pondiscio also advocates teaching kids the mechanics of writing. In How Self-Expression Damaged My Students, a 2012 essay published in The Atlantic, Pondiscio describes his own failure, as a fifth-grade teacher in a low-performing New York City school, to adequately teach his students grammar, sentence structure and other mechanics of writing — tools they would need to succeed in later grades and later in life.

Good writers, he writes, “have knowledge of the world that enlivens their prose and provides the ability to create examples and analogies. They have big vocabularies and solid command of the conventions of language and grammar. And if this is not explicitly taught, it will rarely develop by osmosis among children who do not grow up in language-rich homes.”

“Knowledge and skills go together,” says Willingham. “They can’t be torn apart.”

How math fits into the equation

Elham Kazemi, Ph.D., a professor of mathematics education and associate dean of professional learning at the University of Washington, College of Education, believes that students need time to learn and fully understand math concepts, building on this knowledge as they grow.

“When you are beginning to learn a concept, to move from understanding to fluency takes a couple of years,” she says.

Kazemi recommends that preschoolers do as much counting as possible to develop a sense of number sequence and “one to one” counting. They don’t need to work with symbols, but should be encouraged to do lots of object counting and building, so that they think of things spatially. She cites board games in which objects are moved a certain number of spaces as particularly valuable learning tools.

“The most important thing in elementary school is to understand the meaning of operations, working with whole numbers, decimals and fractions,” says Kazemi. “If you don’t have that understanding, you don’t have a foundation, and new ideas are not resting on something solid. Then it becomes hard to know why you are doing what you are doing, and the effort it takes to do things correctly becomes that much more difficult.”

If a student falls behind, Kazemi advises parents and teachers to determine what the child can do, what makes sense to him or her, and at what point he or she has lost the ability to understand a concept or apply a procedure.

Most important, says Kazemi, is to nurture a child’s interest in math.

“Ask your child what he or she is learning that is interesting and worth talking about,” she says. “Focus the conversation on what is interesting, not what is easy or hard. Math is fundamentally about problem solving. You should learn something that is interesting to you and makes sense to you.”

Kazemi appreciates that the Common Core math standards put fewer concepts into each grade, giving students more time to explore and fully understand them.

OSPI’s Vavrus agrees that this is a step in the right direction. “We know it is developmentally inappropriate to rush through a sequence that doesn’t give kids enough time to learn concepts.”

In the future, she adds, we will see high school math books that are two-thirds smaller than the ones we see today.

To infinity and beyond

Though there are standards to guide teachers, students and parents, in the end, learning is an individual process. The three most important components of a successful learning experience are the accumulation of knowledge, excitement and interest in new ideas, and perseverance when the going gets tough.

If, as has been said, teachers are guides to the universe, think of learning standards as tools to understanding different galaxies. 

Get to know what your child will be learning this year and be excited right along with him or her. Supplement what he or she is learning in school with family excursions and discussions that reinforce and broaden this new knowledge.

Attend your school’s curriculum night, which typically occurs a few weeks into the new school year. This is the teacher’s opportunity to tell you not only what your child will be learning, but how he or she plans to teach these new concepts.

If you invest the time up front to understand what your child will learn and how she will learn it, you can make the most of your parent-teacher conferences, ensure your child is staying on track, and gain invaluable insights into her learning style, strengths and weaknesses.

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