Barrett mentions William Dement’s 1972 study. I took part in an earlier effort by Dement while working on my dissertation at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dement called with a problem-solving experiment he wanted to try: “Tell your subject, ‘The letters ‘O T T F F’ are the first letters in a well-known series. Once you add the next two letters correctly, you can add an infinite number of letters.’” (The next two are “S S” for “six” and “seven.”) I gave the problem to a subject in my sleep lab before she went to bed, and in the morning she said she had dreamt a lot.
“I was in Bloomingdale’s,” she said. “I was looking at a list of things I needed to buy, and at the end of the list was written ‘Silk Stockings’—the point is, on my list, it wasn’t written out, just the letters ‘S S.’ Isn’t that silly?”
I was dumbfounded. After she left I called Dement from a pay phone in the hospital. “I think it means she was trying—she came awfully close,” he exclaimed. “What an incredible coincidence!” Nice, huh?
Judith S. Antrobus
New York City
IN DEFENSE OF PRESCHOOL
As a longtime reader of your magazine, I was quite surprised to open this month’s issue and find the preschool I send my children to savaged in “The Death of Preschool,” by Paul Tullis.
Although Tullis quoted many fine scientific studies about the importance of play, I believe that his own research was shoddy at best. Yes, Montessori Shir Hashirim does include direct instruction, but the children also have a great deal of playtime. His ultimate conceit that sending a child to a school where she gets to learn about all sorts of whales might lead to “toxic stress” and hippocampus damage is specious at best.
Tullis’s most egregious error is that he seems to have missed the possibility that there are many ways to make education fun. Certainly there is not an expert out there who would recommend no education for preschool children: After all, what are we doing when we read to them at night? We are teaching them the basic fundamentals of reading—albeit in a way that is enjoyable for them.
Montessori Shir Hashirim strives to instill a lifelong love of learning in our children. I believe they do that very well. Basically, this school creates future readers of Scientific American Mind.
Your poorly argued, offensive article, however, has created an ex-reader of Scientific American Mind.
The debate over direct teaching versus discovery learning through play is not new. Though not always confined to preschool education, this debate is usually centered on the problem of constructing a discovery learning program in which learning can be observed and assessed. The difficulty stems from the demands of managing a classroom with 12 to 20 children while at the same time trying to assess individual learning. Although it can be done, the variability associated with play-based learning is much greater than that associated with direct instruction. Teachers have often not been adequately prepared to administer and justify play- and activity-based programs and thus have been vulnerable to criticisms of them.
William James Wagner