As I got closer to the end of my first year of college, I got more and more anxious about the fact that I had no plans for what to do that summer. I hadn’t declared my major, but given my steadfast diet of Scandal, Veep, and House of Cards, I was fairly confident it would be Political Science, but I had no idea of how or where to channel that passion into a job experience.
During the school year, I had been part of a Barnard community service program and in one of their newsletters, they shared a fellowship opportunity from the Columbia Business School where they would be giving out literally thousands of dollars to students from the university doing work at a social enterprise over the summer. Suddenly, I knew what I wanted to do. I started emailing with an edtech start-up in Tanzania, where I would be going home for the summer, and they let me know I could come on as an intern. I immediately applied for the Columbia fellowship, miraculously got it, and I was good to go.
Until I got home and my internship ghosted me a few days before I was meant to start. At lunch with my dad and his friend that I spent sulking, his friend told me about someone he knew who had also started an edtech start-up creating an animated television program for kids. He gave me her contact and after I interviewed with her, she told me I was welcome to join them. I told the fellowship about the switch, they approved, and by the end of the weekend, I was at Ubongo.
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Only recently has some consensus begun to appear around the salience of the early years. School is legally mandated from the age of five, but there is an ambivalence around what happens before then. At best, this ambivalence reflects a respect of how families choose to spend the first few years with their child. At worst, it reflects a sentiment that beyond general health and well-being of young children, the early years don’t really matter, and whatever corrections need to be made will be done so when the child becomes a student.
Early childhood education, even just as an idea, is revolutionary for disrupting that notion. ECE, as it is also known, posits that actually, not only do those first five years matter tremendously, but that the social, cultural, and political good that is an education can be extended to infants and toddlers. What happens in the early years should be of importance, not just to parents, but to all of us too, as the education that young children receive — or don’t receive — has an impact not only on their lives but society as a whole. An early childhood education matters.
Heads nod and voices respond in the affirmative when the value of an early childhood education is discussed, but what should that education even look like? How do we deem what the littlest humans need to learn? Should it be based on the experiences they are having in their childhood or should it be built around the future knowledge they will require in school? Should it be mandatory or not, available for all or not, centrally organized or not? Does early childhood education really matter that much, and if it does, how do we get others to care about the subset of the population least capable of advocating for themselves?
Ubongo Learning was founded with two flagship television programs — Ubongo Kids which was created for elementary students and Akili and Me that targets the under-five audience. Both shows are animated, utilize songs in every episode, and are recorded in Kiswahili. I joined Ubongo and was immediately struck by the operation they were running, almost entirely staffed by a Tanzanian team producing, animating, and conducting research for programming.
One of my duties was to support the research being done to gauge the effectiveness of Akili and Me episodes that were in development. Children from the surrounding neighborhood would come to the office, answer questions about certain academic topics, watch an episode about those topics, and then be asked the initial questions again. Most of the time, my work involved joining the lead researcher in picking up and dropping off the kids and entertaining them in the time in-between, drawing pictures and singing songs to pass the time.
The kids ranged from three to six year-old and every single one of them was chatty, energetic, and unbelievably cute. None of them were in any kind of school, with the exception of one or two who occasionally went for madrasa, Islamic studies. In spending time with them, I realized more and more that none of them knew their colors or shapes. I taught one of them the word “triangle,” in English and in Kiswahili, and they said it back to me like it was a completely foreign concept. Almost everything being taught in Akili and Me, from counting to the alphabet, was completely new to them. And some would be starting school in a few months.
One way to think about early childhood education is as preparation. A formal K-12 education is supposed to, at the bare minimum, provide students with the skills to help them survive and participate in society. Most simplistically, the purpose of education is to teach us how to read road signs when we walk in the streets and ballots for when we vote in elections. But to be taught all these things, concepts upon concepts need to be built on. Before we can blend letter sounds to read, we need to know letter sounds, and we need to know letter names, and we need to know that those markings made in those ways are letters. There are so many steps that precede the knowledge that we deem as basic and essential, and one argument in defense of early childhood education posits that those early years should be spent priming children with the information and skills that will make learning a more seamless endeavor. This argument is often appropriated for political use, like policy proposals in favor of universal childcare or to support and increase the presence of programs such as Head Start. Proponents intuit that children with strong academic foundations will make better scholars and workers, and consequently, a more competitive nation and state.
Another way to think about early childhood education is to see it as a means of equitable amelioration. Some children know about triangles, others don’t. Some children grow up around books, others don’t. Some children grow up being taught to count, others don’t. Some children grow up learning everything they will need to learn in school before they even start, and others don’t. An early childhood education can correct for this. When done by trained and loving teachers with curriculums that are child-centered and developmentally appropriate, ECE can be a way to narrow the gaps between the privileged few and those who are not, the former of which tend to be whiter, wealthier, and closer to the Western world. Accessible, organized ECE, when done right, can be a means of achieving equity.
But perhaps there is a third way to think about early childhood education and why it matters. There is an opportunity through ECE to work with families to shape the first five years as a half-decade filled with real learning, beyond academics and readiness, but a learning that exposes and introduces the world to children through experiences that sharpen their understanding their surroundings and their place inside of it, setting them up for successful inner lives and not just outer ones. An early childhood that seeks not just to teach children about triangles, but teaches them to find the shapes in the world, find numbers, and appreciate words, and language, where they can learn about what matters to them and who they are. Early childhood education could be a way to approach school where the focus is not only what is being taught, but who is being taught. A new and thoughtful approach to ECE would place infants and toddlers and their families in community with other children and adults, not to deny families the privacy and closeness they get by staying at home with their children or having them in the care of loved ones, but to try to eliminate the isolation and siloing that some families with young children experience by instead, creating environments of co-care and co-learning that all are excited to opt into. This, along with the other visions for early childhood education, stress the importance of the early years, and make the case for better policy and even just creativity when it comes to raising the future generations who will be responsible for the world we live in.
I spent the summer at Ubongo stressing out about the gaps in educational quality and achievement and how those gaps start in the early ages due to race, class, nationality, and more. I used my growing PoliSci brain to analyze these issues as political ones, theorizing that if the absence of quality, accessible early childhood undermines the literacy of a society and limits the social and economic development required to move said society forward, then it is in the political interests of governments to invest in quality, accessible early childhood programs to strengthen the literacy of their society in order to further their development.
But as I watched governments worldwide implode during the summer of 2016 by moving closer to fascism and abandoning democracy, I became more and more cynical of top-down approaches as means of creating change. And as I spent more time at Ubongo, watching one episode at a time change one child at a time by teaching them at least one new thing everyday, I became more and more intrigued by bottom-up attempts at the socio-political problems I was constantly thinking about. I wondered if maybe incremental change was the way to go, or at least the way to start.
At the end of the internship, I wrote up my experiences for the fellowship and went back to Barnard for my sophomore year. Having spent the last two months working, I decided that I wanted to continue getting work experience (and getting paid), and only briefly did I wonder what work I wanted to do. Days after returning to New York, I asked my friend if we could get lunch and so I could ask her about her job at the campus daycare. I told her I was thinking about working with kids.
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This reminds me of the Aspen Institute's Ascend, which has this idea about "two-generation solutions." I'm a sucker for any and all things intergenerational and I love how you point the way towards a multi-generational conception of early childhood education here. YES! It can be so isolating to be a parent of a young kid, especially in American culture.