Sunday, November 8, 2020

What is professional development?

Exploring the concept of professional development, and how we can harness its power to score pay raises, promotions, business and consulting opportunities, better starting pay at your next job, industry recognition, and a lot more. 

Aaron S. Robertson

For this post, I'd like to spend some time, using a variety of concrete examples as a guide, discussing how you can stand out from the rest of your co-workers and other job applicants with a simple concept: professional development. Take advantage of professional development to win pay raises, promotions, business and consulting opportunities, better starting pay at your next job, industry recognition, and more. Let's dive in and explore.

For starters, this Wikipedia article defines professional development as,

...learning to earn or maintain professional credentials such as academic degrees to formal coursework, attending conferences, and informal learning opportunities situated in practice. It has been described as intensive and collaborative, ideally incorporating an evaluative stage. There is a variety of approaches to professional development, including consultation, coaching, communities of practice, lesson study, mentoring, reflective supervision and technical assistance.

Now, let's back up for a moment. In all employment situations, you and your co-workers are all equal in skill level and dispositions, but only in the very limited, very superficial sense that you've all met, and continue to meet, certain qualifications and standards that your employer wants, at a minimum, for all of you to meet. If you and your co-workers fail to meet this minimum threshold, you wouldn't have been hired, and/or you wouldn't be there now.

But that equality in skill level and dispositions ends right there, with you and your co-workers all meeting and retaining that employer-mandated minimum set of standards. You're all the same, on paper, in this limited regard. Other than that, you are totally unique. You are truly one-of-a-kind, with an irreplaceable combination of skills, dispositions, experiences, hobbies and interests, education, and more. And this is where you have the opportunity to stand out from the rest of the pack and rise to the top. This is where professional development can come in to make your resume truly shine and get employers to take a closer look at who you are and what you have to offer.

Here are some of those concrete examples I was talking about:

Bilingual abilities - The ability to communicate in another language, like Spanish or one of the Hmong languages, for example, is a highly-desirable, and hence marketable, skill to have. So let's say you're an attorney, doctor or nurse, teacher, call center or 911 operator, law enforcement professional, or really any kind of small business owner, to name just a handful of examples here. As I stated earlier, you and your co-workers are all equal in the very limited sense that you're performing at a minimum set of standards that your employer has laid out for all of you. But you also happen to be fluent in a second language. With this skill, some additional doors are open to you. How many of your co-workers also happen to be bilingual? I'm guessing not very many. In the case of being a bilingual small business owner, you can utilize this talent to tap into new markets for your product or service, markets that may otherwise be under-served by your industry or profession. In short, what an impressive skill to have on your resume.

Professional development in the hospitality industry - Let's say you're currently working as a server at a restaurant. Plenty of high school and college students have jobs waiting tables, so this should be a great example to easily relate to. So you're currently waiting tables, and you're starting to have thoughts that you may really like this broader industry of hospitality and food service. You're thinking that you may want to stick with this business long-term and learn different aspects of it. You're wondering then, "How can I stand apart from my co-workers and other job applicants? How can I make myself more marketable and valuable to my current or future employers?" There are plenty of ways to do this. Some examples: When you're old enough to do so, assuming you're currently in high school, you may want to consider training to become a bartender and getting licensed by your state or local authorities to be able to do so. As a server, there are classes and workshops you can take that help you identify what foods pair well with one another, or what drinks (wines, beers, cocktails) pair well with certain foods and meals. Having this knowledge can equip you with the ability and confidence to upsell or cross-sell  items to your customers, which benefits both you and your employer. Your employer is going to like your ability to generate more revenue by increasing sales, and you're going to like the higher tips! If you're interested in learning the kitchen and working hands-on with foods, you may want to consider a culinary arts degree from your local technical college, which will not only help you develop your skills in the kitchen, but also provide you with a basic, introductory-level business education tailored to the culinary/hospitality industry. And don't forget - we're not just talking restaurants here. There's a whole world out there where you can learn/apply these skills and move up the ladder. This world includes hotels, cruise ships, banquet halls and catering businesses, and resorts.

Are you working in, or just starting to learn, a skilled trade? Consider adding a business degree to your resume down the road. Here's why - As I explained in a previous post, "Manufacturing and the trades in schools,": 

Want the best of both worlds? I typically advise students these days to take a serious look at a technical college or vocational school education. Learn a provable hard skill or trade first, something that you're really going to enjoy. Enter the workforce with those skills and gain some practical on-the-job experience for a while. And then consider going for the bachelor's and perhaps even beyond, if that's something you'd like to do. Maybe get a bachelor's in a business/management/leadership program. Now, you have two good things going for you - first, you have that concrete, verifiable skill set. And you'll also have that bigger-picture education that can help you set the stage for a promotion into management or even off on your own as a business owner yourself some day.

Certainly, this example also pertains to what we just discussed with the hospitality industry, as well. That big-picture business/management/leadership education can really complement and enhance all of the great hands-on expertise you're acquiring on the job, and can open many additional doors in your profession or industry.

Building true specialization in one or more areas - If you're an auto mechanic or auto body repair technician, or interested in becoming one, specializing in a particular make or model of car, either modern/current or vintage/classic, can be very beneficial for you. If you know that certain make/model inside and out, you're a true expert, and you can perhaps dominate an entire market, either locally, regionally, or yes - even nationally. Ditto if you're a computer/software programmer, or wanting to get into this line of work. Some months back, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States and state unemployment systems instantly found themselves slapped with a massive surge of claims, a computer programming language called COBOL unexpectedly found itself in the spotlight making news headlines. COBOL is a 60+ year-old programming language that many state governments still use for systems like - you guessed it - unemployment. This Fast Company article from April 2020 explains the high demand and pay for those who can still work with this language, which the vast majority of universities and computer science programs stopped teaching in the 1980s! Certainly, many doctors, lawyers, educators, and investment professionals have specialties, as well. They've become the go-to experts for advice, news interviews and stories, and more.

Professional development can be formal or informal in nature, and it doesn't need to be time-consuming.

So far, we've discussed some instances where formal education via academic degrees can make for great professional development. But formal education is not always necessary, and it's not for everyone. In fact, some of the best ways to expand and build on your professional capabilities are very informal in nature and can either be free of monetary cost or very inexpensive. They also do not need to be very time-consuming or take up any additional time beyond your typical day, either. 

In fact, you can build professional development activities into your current work schedule. If there are additional skills you'd like to learn or continue to strengthen in your workplace, explain your interests to your manager(s). Perhaps they can work with you to build some time into your work schedule to focus on these goals. Perhaps it's a hard skill, like learning how to use a particular machine, tool, software program, or process that's applicable to your current work environment. Or maybe you'd like to focus more on building your soft skills, like the ability to communicate more effectively and collaboratively with co-workers and customers.

Sometimes, professional development may mean having to learn on-the-fly...

With the world of education (both K-12 and college-level) having gone virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many educators, myself included, all of a sudden found themselves having to learn all about Google Meet, Zoom, and a variety of other online learning tools and resources on a whim. But that's certainly okay. There's the old adage that goes, "With crisis comes opportunity." I'm now proficient in these virtual assets. Before the pandemic, I didn't really have to think about any of this stuff, simply because there was no need for me to do so. But the pandemic has forced me to add to my skills and hence broaden my horizons in this regard.

In closing, here are some more examples and ideas of informal ways to grow professionally:

Self-education through intense reading or project-based learning on a particular subject

Take courses through Udemy.com for as low as $11-12 each. I love Udemy and find it to be of great value. Read my recent review of Udemy.

Work on building your network of trusted experts and professionals

Seek out a mentor

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Udemy review

As promised in a previous post, "My summer 2020," here is my detailed post about an online learning Web site I discovered over the summer called Udemy.

As I explained in that prior post about my summer, I recently decided to change course for my Ph.D. dissertation. Rather than studying and writing about organizational culture, I decided to return to my political science roots (political science was my major for my bachelor's degree) by exploring China in the context of international relations (IR). More specifically, I'm interested in China's artificial intelligence (AI) initiatives, and how China's quest for dominance in this realm, among others, may lead to a significant shift in IR, including the possibility of a cold war that some experts predict. This change of course happened as the result of a couple in-depth, thought-provoking conversations I had in recent months with a former professor of mine from my political science studies as an undergrad.

Anyway, a couple months ago, back in August, as a part of my dive into international relations (IR), I discovered Udemy.com. Now, I had seen quite a few ads and mentions about this site across the Internet in the past, but I suppose I never gave it much thought. Finally, one day in August, I caved in and decided to take a closer look to find out what this site is all about and what it has to offer. I'm really glad I did that. What a really neat site. 

So, what is Udemy?

In a nutshell, Udemy is an online learning platform that brings teachers and learners together from all around the world through video lectures, discussions, and downloadable resources like selected readings, notes, slides, and even e-books. Now, when I say "teachers," I use that term broadly here. I'm not talking specifically about licensed K-12 educators or university professors, although some of them certainly are. Many of those who are teaching on Udemy are professionals working in a particular field or industry. They possess expertise in a subject, and they're simply passionate about teaching that subject to others. They may be engineers, filmmakers, lawyers, photographers, Web developers and computer programmers, investment bankers and financial professionals, intelligence analysts, artists, architects, business executives, negotiators, Microsoft Excel pros, etc., etc., etc.

Even you can teach on Udemy, and earn income doing it. Here's how. 

How much do these courses cost? 

The vast majority of courses on Udemy have a cost. Some are free. The paid courses will get you a certificate of completion at the end, among other perks that we'll get to shortly. The free courses do not offer a certificate.

Now, if you browse through the site, you're going to see that many of these courses carry a price tag of $90-$100 or more. Don't be alarmed. The site often runs days-long sales at deep discounts. All the courses I've purchased so far were at these sale prices, ranging from $11.99-$13.99. 

What are the perks that come with the paid courses?

  • Online video content
  • Certificate of completion
  • Instructor Q&A 
  • Instructor direct message
  • 30-day money-back guarantee
  • Free access to the course for life, including any updates made, and no matter if you paid full price or a sale price
The free courses only come with the online video content.

My experience with Udemy so far

Since August, I've taken several courses, most of them taught by Ph.D. professors, on various aspects of international relations. So far, I've brushed up on U.S.-Russia relations, various IR theories, and NATO, all while continuing to explore China's rise. I've even taken a couple courses on intelligence analysis, taught by a retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col.

I'm really impressed so far with Udemy's platform, and I highly recommend the site for anyone looking to build new skills or strengthen existing ones. The site's interface is clean and crisp, and everything is easy to find and navigate through. I can tell that the teachers I've had so far have really put forth a lot of time and effort into their courses. I've even connected with a couple of them on LinkedIn and Twitter. It's money well-spent, and all courses are backed by a guarantee.

There's so much to explore here. When I find some additional time one of these days, I have several other courses waiting for me to start. I purchased them all in another big sale recently. They include, among others, the art of negotiating, an intro to international security, the fundamentals of submarine engineering, and even a course designed by a business professor who promises the equivalent of a complete MBA degree's worth of education all in his one course. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Back to school 2020-2021

Well, it's that time of year again - back to school. For me, that means a return to work as a special education assistant at the middle / high school I've been at since last year. We returned yesterday. We have one of the later starts in the area. Many schools, including colleges, have already been back in session for anywhere between 1-3 weeks or so.

I look forward to getting back in the swing of things after enjoying a nice summer (you can read about my summer here). I hope you enjoyed the summer, as well, and I'd like to hear all about it!

Well, here's to a successful and enjoyable 2020-21 school year! I wish you all the best. Stay safe and healthy, learn a lot, and take advantage of all the wonderful academic and co-curricular opportunities your school has to offer! Talk again soon.

Mr. Robertson

My summer 2020

I hope you enjoyed your summer. I enjoyed mine. I spent a large portion of the summer learning about China and artificial intelligence (AI), and advancing my understanding of international relations (IR).

Originally, I wanted to research the subject of organizational culture for my Ph.D. dissertation. However, after a couple of thought-provoking, insightful conversations with a former professor of mine during my undergrad years, I've decided to change course. I want to get back to my roots in political science, which was my major for my bachelor's degree. And so I'm now researching China and its artificial intelligence (AI) initiatives, and how China's quest for dominance in this realm, among others, may lead to a significant shift in international relations (IR), including a possible cold war that some experts predict.

In August, as a part of my studies in IR, I discovered the online learning Web site Udemy.com. What a cool site! I had seen quite a few ads and mentions about this site across the Internet in the past, but never gave it much thought, I guess. Finally, I caved in and decided to take a look. I'm glad I did. I'll be writing a separate post all about Udemy soon, but in a nutshell here, I'm really impressed with its platform. I took several courses, most of them taught by Ph.D. professors, on various aspects of international politics.

So that was my summer, briefly. A lot of reading, writing, thinking, documentaries, and these Udemy.com courses. But all subjects I'm excited and passionate about. That's what makes it all fun and worthwhile.

How was your summer? Take any trips? Learn any new skills? I'd love to hear all about your summer. Share in the comments section below.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Free online learning resources from Varsity Tutors

Following are a number of great programs and resources that Varsity Tutors has put together to help support students and families with their virtual learning needs during these challenging and uncertain times. All of these services are free of charge, and students of all ages can benefit.

Happy Learning!

Mr. Robertson 


Virtual School Day: Nearly 200 free, live K-12 classes available all day long intended to help parents fill their children's day with enriched learning. Some popular classes are "Intro to Spanish for Kids", "Coolest Women in History", "Java Programming Basics", and "The Story of Your Favorite Fairy Tales". We have received exceptional ratings from thousands of parents and students.

Virtual Summer Camps: Free half-day summer camps are a week long, with enrichment-based classes in subjects like foreign languages, chess, theater, coding, Minecraft, how to be a detective, photography and more. These live, interactive camps will be taught by expert instructors vetted through Varsity Tutors' platform. We already have 300+ camps scheduled for the summer and 2,000 families per day signing up.

Adaptive Diagnostic Assessments: Measure a student's proficiency and identify strengths and weaknesses in hundreds of subjects. Get an effective learning plan along with free tools to improve.

Varsity Learning Tools: More than 250,000 free practice problems in over 200 subjects. Also available as mobile applications.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Substitute teaching in COVID-19 pandemic

Are you a substitute teacher here in the United States? Are you wondering what your work as a substitute teacher will look like when school resumes in fall 2020 with the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic?

I'm a member of a Facebook group for substitute teachers. Recently, one of our members was looking for guidance for fall 2020, wondering if there was any word yet on rules, guidelines, and expectations. Following is my response, for whatever it's worth. In short, there are still too many unknowns at the moment, and, most likely, school is going to look a little different in each community across your state and the country due to local pandemic conditions and the needs and goals of local families and community leaders.
I would reach out to, or just wait to hear from, your school/district or staffing agency (TOC, EDUStaff, etc.) directly. They're ultimately the ones that are going to put rules and procedures in place. Right now, there are still too many unknown variables, so I'd imagine there's bound to be a lot of misinformation, potential scams, etc. floating around out there at the moment. I work as a direct-hire special ed aide at a high school, and I also work for TOC when it doesn't conflict with my direct-hire school's/district's calendar. My district still hasn't announced yet whether or not we'll be meeting in-person in the fall, but it has already put a number of procedures in place if we need to be on premises. They include wearing a mask, social distancing, and filling out a Google Form questionnaire regarding symptoms before we enter the building. Haven't heard anything from TOC yet. Like I said, simply too many unknown variables right now. But that would be my best advice - reach out to, or just wait to hear from, your school/district or staffing agency directly. Hope this helps.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Reading comprehension skills

A look at the failed promises of overemphasizing reading comprehension skills in today's elementary school environment. 

A version of the classic chicken or egg question here - which comes first? Do reading comprehension skills need to come first so that students know what to look for as they decipher and work their way through a piece of literature (in whatever form that may take on - a book, an article, a brochure, an advertisement, etc.), or must exposure to general knowledge and vocabulary come first in order to lay a decent foundation, set some context, and pique interest and curiosity to want to then go out and learn more about something? I'm placing all my chips on the table and betting on the latter.

Aaron S. Robertson

Introduction

It's a fascinating question that's held a good amount of my focus for a little over a week now, all caused by having recently stumbled on an article whose headline really grabbed my attention and piqued my curiosity. It's entitled, "Why American Students Haven’t Gotten Better at Reading in 20 Years," and it's written by Natalie Wexler. It was originally published on The Atlantic in April 2018, but I came across it on GetPocket.com. You can read the full article here. According to the author's byline, Wexler is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., and she authored a book on this very issue, The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System - And How to Fix It. I just purchased it, based on how fascinating I found her article to be. I can't wait to dive in.

My credentials

Now, I'm certainly not a reading specialist. I'm not even a certified teacher. At the age of 37, I'm about to wrap up my second school year working as a substitute teacher and special education paraprofessional at the high school level. Prior to my short time in K-12 education, I held various roles in private sector business and industry, and still maintain ties to business. And though I'm a Ph.D. student, my degree and dissertation focus are not in education. Nonetheless, as I continue my journey in education, working with, and monitoring the progress of, students from the front lines, I'm naturally intrigued by these subjects and policy debates, and this article really made me think back and reflect on both the what and how I learned in elementary school in the 1980s and 90s.

The problem

Wexler, citing a number of education researchers, argues that a major shift in focus, or rather, what I would contend in my layman's understanding is simply a return to the way things once were, needs to take place at the elementary school level. For quite a few years now, she points out, subjects like history, science, the arts, and literature have been kicked down the road to higher grade levels so that reading comprehension skills (along with math) can take center stage during the first several years of schooling. As Wexler explains in the article, "After all, the argument goes, if kids haven’t learned to read - a task that is theoretically accomplished by third grade - how will they be able to gain knowledge about those subjects through their own reading?" (para. 5)

It was essentially that argument, that mindset, that served as a main justification for the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, which would ultimately be replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) some 14 years later, in 2015. As Wexler explains in her article, NCLB required that standardized tests be given each school year to students from third through eighth grades, followed by one more test in high school. NCLB imposed big consequences on schools that failed to raise test scores. While NCLB's successor law, ESSA, has reduced the sting of these consequences, it has retained a strong focus on testing.

Along with all this standardized testing comes the phenomenon of "teaching to the test," whereby teachers are increasingly pressured to focus on the skills that will be, or likely be, utilized on these tests, all in a vain attempt to raise test scores, or at least keep them from taking a dip. The problem with this strategy is that there's often a big misalignment, as Wexler explains, between the content (not the skills, but the content) covered on these tests and where the actual knowledge base of students is at.

When it comes to reading comprehension, for example, the passages that students must read and analyze on these tests may discuss subjects and incorporate vocabulary that they have no real understanding of. They lack repetitive exposure to, and hence true context mastery of, these subjects and words. Teaching the comprehension skills, alone, is not enough. We're clearly seeing it reflected in the test results. It can be difficult to answer questions like, "What’s the main idea of the passage?" and "What inferences can you make?" (Wexler, 2018, para. 9), when there are gaping holes in your knowledge base.

How to fix the problem

The solution? Wexler, along with a growing chorus of education researchers, is saying that exposure to subjects like history, science, the arts, and literature in those early years is absolutely critical for building general knowledge about the world, and hence, gaining vocabulary and context, which they say must come before we get to the mechanics of reading comprehension. I concur. Again, I'm certainly no expert. But I can understand and appreciate the debate as an educated layperson, and I can contribute anecdotal evidence from my era growing up in elementary school, the 1980s and 90s. You see, elementary school for me was exactly what Wexler and these other experts are calling for now.

My memories of elementary school in the 1980s and 90s

During my time in elementary school, kindergarten was largely what Leonard Sax, MD, Ph.D., recalls in his 2016 book, The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups - we spent a lot of time learning and practicing Fulghum's Rules, so named after the author of the famous book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. In other words, we learned social skills. We learned how to get along, how to play nice, how to clean up our own messes, how to be patient and wait our turn, and how to take responsibility for our actions.

Along with Fulghum's Rules, we learned about ourselves and the world around us through story time, little art and science projects, history lessons appropriate for our grade level, music, gym, field trips, and a good amount of unstructured play time. We learned our alphabet, numbers, colors, money, and how to tell time. We had the classic show-and-tell time, where we in the audience got to absorb all sorts of fun knowledge and interesting insights from our classmates, while the presenter received the chance to hone his or her speaking skills and gain confidence. Top that all off with a little math, vocabulary, spelling, reading, and writing for good measure, and we received a well-rounded, largely low-pressure education that would help lay a solid foundation for life. And, as I recently argued in another post, inspired in turn by arguments and observations made by Dr. Sax, that's exactly what the real purpose of K-12 education is, or should be, all about - laying a foundation for life, not college.

In first grade, one of the major highlights I recall is that we learned how to write in cursive. That was certainly a big thing. And along with it, we added a little more math, vocabulary, spelling, reading, and writing to the mix, all while reviewing what we learned the year before in kindergarten, so that we were reinforcing that foundation as we were starting to build on it. We continued to learn about ourselves and the world around us through story time, art, science, history, music, gym, field trips, show-and-tell, and unstructured free time.

The remainder of elementary school operated out of the same playbook: continue to add a little more with each passing year while reinforcing what we were already taught. And while I don't remember the exact moment I realized I could read, I also don't recall there being a lot of time and special focus set aside by my teachers solely dedicated to reading. I don't recall there being any real pressure. The reading, along with the comprehension skills, just seemed to naturally grow and evolve over time with a great degree of ease.

Wexler goes on to state in her article that,
The implication is clear. The best way to boost students’ reading comprehension is to expand their knowledge and vocabulary by teaching them history, science, literature, and the arts, using curricula that guide kids through a logical sequence from one year to the next: for example, Native Americans and Columbus in kindergarten; the colonial era and the American Revolution in first grade; the War of 1812 and the Civil War in second grade, and so on. That approach enables children to make sense of what they’re learning, and the repetition of concepts and vocabulary in different contexts makes it more likely they’ll retain information. Not to mention that learning content like this can be a lot more engaging for both students and teachers than the endless practice of illusory skills (para. 15).
This is exactly how I remember elementary school, no kidding. By second grade, I easily recall knowing about Native Americans, Christopher Columbus, colonial times, the Revolution and the founding of the United States, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. I remember my third grade teacher, a young African-American woman, educating us on the lessons of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s at every opportunity. I realized at an early age that I loved history and social studies subjects. I recall both buying books and borrowing books from the school and local libraries on various history/social studies subjects all throughout grade school. I remember taking my social studies textbooks home on the weekends for the heck of it, even though I may not have had any homework in that subject. I would read ahead, bounce around, look at pictures and illustrations and read their captions. And when I think about it all these years later, at the age of 37 - the reason why I did all this reading was because I was given a small taste of these subjects in school. The lessons in school piqued my interest and curiosity, and I just naturally wanted to learn more.
"We had the classic show-and-tell time, where we in the audience got to absorb all sorts of fun knowledge and interesting insights from our classmates, while the presenter received the chance to hone his or her speaking skills and gain confidence."
It also helped that we had regular interactions and bonds with adults in our lives outside of school, something that is largely missing in today's society, where kids are teaching kids how to be adults. And while we certainly had video games - and believe me, we spent countless hours on them - we didn't have cell phones and technology addiction to worry about, distractions that are literally robbing today's 20-some-year-olds of social skills.

As I explained in another post that I just published, Building intergenerational connections, we kids had a large circle of adults - parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, other relatives, friends of family, family of friends, coaches, neighbors, etc. - that we learned from outside of school. We learned social skills, manners and etiquette, and how to get along with others from them, all things reinforced in the kindergarten classroom and vice-versa. We heard stories handed down and sometimes even first-hand accounts about immigrating to the United States, living during the Great Depression, World War II, etc. We were exposed to a wide variety of music, film, games, hobbies & interests, sports, and ethnic & cultural traditions by these adults. There were plenty of company picnics and tours where we got to learn about the kinds of work the adults in our lives did for a living. We learned where we came from. We learned about the history of our neighborhood and city. In short, a lot of general knowledge and vocabulary came our way from these adults, and if something came along that really caught my interest, just as the history/social studies lessons from my teachers did, I simply went out and read more about the topic. I wanted to learn more.

Let's really get philosophical here for a moment

Even as an adult now, I can verify anecdotally that I still require exposure to general knowledge and vocabulary about a subject first, in order to learn about it through reading or other forms of media. If I don't learn of the existence of something first, then I can't go out and learn about it, because I don't possess any prior knowledge to know that it exists. It's through conversations with others; or through stumbling across new information while reading something else; or through watching a movie, documentary, or the nightly news; etc., that I acquire general knowledge about something. If that something catches my interest, or if I find it useful in some way to know more about, I'll dive deeper and research it further.

Placing such a strong emphasis on teaching reading comprehension skills in those early elementary school years first, on the premise that, "...if kids haven’t learned to read...how will they be able to gain knowledge about those subjects through their own reading?" (Wexler, 2018, para. 5), does not guarantee that students will, in turn, use those skills to initiate reading on their own accord, either for practical or leisure purposes. It may even turn many of them off to reading. However, exposing kids in those early elementary school years to history, science, the arts, and literature (and, I might add, Fulghum's Rules) at least guarantees that they were given basic exposure to these subjects. The students are now aware that these things exist. They now know that there's an entire world out there to explore, and if they want - or need - to take a closer look at something in it, they can - and will - do so through reading on their own accord. The reading and the comprehension will naturally follow and flow from this exposure to general knowledge and vocabulary about the world around us.        

Concluding with a look at kindergarten in Finland

A little while back, I came across another article, also from The Atlantic, about kindergarten in Finland. It was written by Timothy D. Walker and published in October 2015. Entitled, "The Joyful, Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland," you can read it here.

In short, play time - and lots of it - is still the main order of the day for kindergarten students there, and the students usually have the choice in regard to how they spend that time. The day is just four hours long. Reading usually starts in first grade, unless teachers get a sense that individual students may be ready and willing to start learning in kindergarten. There's no pressure. Each student is at his or her own pace, with learning fully tailored to where the student is at and wants to go. In fact, as Walker notes in his article, "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" (para. 26).

And yet, this approach, this philosophy, which may appear lax or even outright irresponsible by modern-day American standards, doesn't seem to hinder the intellectual growth and capabilities of Finnish students years down the road. As Walker points out, "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" (para. 9).

I'll end here with this passage from Walker, which I believe does a tremendous job of summarizing our side of the debate. Here, he is quoting two experts:
“...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?” (para. 30-32)
Reference

Sax, L. (2016). The collapse of parenting: How we hurt our kids when we treat them like grown-ups. New York: Basic Books.

Walker, T.D. (2015, October 1). The joyful, illiterate kindergarteners of Finland. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/10/the-joyful-illiterate-kindergartners-of-finland/408325

Wexler, N. (2018, April 13). Why American students haven’t gotten better at reading in 20 years. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://getpocket.com/explore/item/why-american-students-haven-t-gotten-better-at-reading-in-20-years