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Developmentally Appropriate Practice


Q. Several of the other parents were as disappointed and offended as I was when our children's second-grade teacher brought an old, claw-foot bathtub into the classroom, put pillows inside it, and told the kids that any time they felt like it, they could climb in there and read a book and relax. The kids are free to get in there and mess around, chat with friends, waste time, and make a mockery out of the school day. This is a young, new teacher, and the other teachers think she's great. She's big on "DAP," and uses that jargon with us parents to make us feel "out of it" while SHE's the one who knows best. What is "DAP" and what should we do about this?


Let me take a guess: she thought it would make reading "fun." Right? She doesn't believe in teaching them the rules of spelling, making them diagram sentences, or write book reports showing that they've comprehended what they've read. If they have "fun," it's a good lesson. Right?


You've given us a perfect example of why DAP is sooooo wrong. Developmentally Appropriate Practice is a good idea in preschool but has unfortunately spread into grade school through the third grade in most public schools, with no hope of getting rid of it any time soon. Younger teachers are more indoctrinated with it, since it has been spread through the nation's colleges of education. If you haven't taught with a traditional, content-rich, instructionally-sound method before, you don't have much of a chance of realizing how deficient DAP is.


Ask if your school uses DAP techniques. If they do, you honestly might consider transferring your child to a private school that does not.


DAP is a process-oriented, content-minimizing philosophy which is dumbing down grade school more than anything else.


And that's tragic, since it is in the grade-school years that children most need to be adding content to their knowledge bases. DAP has been called an insult to children's intelligence in the way that it promotes some fuzzy notion of "self-esteem" instead of providing substantive learning experiences and practice to children. Schoolwork that is too easy mires disadvantaged children in a simplistic mindset, while boring the pants off advantaged children. And boy, do those two things show in our schools today.


But with DAP, there's no whisper of a thought about getting results from the academic dollar spent and hour invested. It's all about HOW to teach - the focus is on the activity, not the knowledge - the teaching, not the learning.


DAP is based on a misinterpretation of the work of child development expert Jean Piaget, who pointed out that children like to do concrete things - hands-on activities. Yes, he said that - but he ALSO said the POINT of those hands-on activities was to help kids bridge over into the more sophisticated abstractions, such as reading, writing and thinking. If Piaget were alive today, he would approve of DAP in preschool, and stride through grade-school classrooms smashing "reading bathtubs" and pushing over "hands-on science centers" the way Jesus upended the moneychangers' tables in the Bible.


The reason: DAP is also known as "child-centered education." Instead of delivering a pre-set curriculum for each grade level to the children, they are put in charge and flit from center to center, topic to topic, like butterflies, gathering the nectar of knowledge from wherever and however they'd like. In later grade school, instead of writing a book report, they can paste pictures onto a posterboard on the same topic.


Of course, the fact is, as you point out, that doesn't work because when offered a chance to mess around and waste time, kids will take it.


Another term for DAP is "constructivism" - the idea that children "construct" their own knowledge base out of their own experiences, and that instructing them is wrong.


It's also paired with "thematic instruction" - the teacher no longer teaches math separately from history separately from science. They're all smeared together, and breadth, depth and clarity are all casualties. This comes from the DAP idea - which is true in the preschool years - that you can't separate physical development from social development from cognitive development. Once again, DAP makes sense and is helpful for one age group, but is disastrous when forced to apply to another.


There's nothing about it that really matches the teaching style to individual child development, either. It's a "teach to the norm" strategy, or more accurately, "teach to BELOW the norm so that no one's self-esteem is damaged." If that means treating 8-year-olds like 4-year-olds, so be it. THAT'S what educators who are entrenched in DAP believe is "appropriate" - whatever they and the educational opinion-makers they follow BELIEVE is appropriate. Here's a typical scenario: a second-grade girl is reading on the seventh-grade level, but in p.e. her gym skills are below average. DAP practitioners would make her read books written on the second-grade level instead of the seventh-grade level, so the area in which she SHOULD be developing high self-esteem is quashed, and then meanwhile, they will alert her parents to her "deficiencies" in p.e. and get everybody all upset that she is not developing "appropriately" in that area.


Do you see how damaging this is? It's the way schools were ruined in the former Soviet Union - the individual is lost in the group, and unique gifts must be suppressed for the "good" of the whole.


DAP came out of early childhood education and special education, so it is geared toward young children and those who have learning problems. Somehow along the way, educators decided that older children and those who don't have learning problems would ALSO enjoy DAP. Not gain from it - enjoy it. That's the name of the game. If a mischievous 4-year-old will sit still in a bathtub for 10 minutes and look at picture books, to a DAP educator, that means a bathtub is a great idea in a second-grade classroom, if it will get kids "engaged with books." Too bad they're too busy messing around in there to read and comprehend!


DAP is especially entrenched in Head Start and other preschool programs for low-income children. So long as the DAP crowd remains in charge of the early childhood arena, efforts to close the achievement gap and otherwise extricate children from poverty through education will remain ineffective.


Homework: For a good understanding of what DAP is and why it is a good idea for use in preschools, see this article from the National Association for the Education of Young Children:


For strong criticism of DAP, google "Developmentally Appropriate Practice" with these three educators - J.E. Stone, E.D. Hirsch and Martin Kozloff - who oppose it in K-12 education. Or see this article from the Illinois Loop, concerned citizens interested in education reform:


By Susan Darst Williams Ages & Stages 132 2008


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