I think one of the issues is that the role of kindergarten has evolved. We started having longer days (because parents either thought their child should be learning more and/or wanted to have someplace for them to be while the parents were at work). But I'm not sure that evolution had a huge discussion following it.
Another issue, that I vividly remember from my own experience with putting my sons into kindergarten is the wide range of abilities coming in the door. You had kids who could already read and you had kids that couldn't name colors. For a kindergarten teacher, that's a huge range of ability that he or she is supposed to bridge. Some of the kids have been in daycare/pre-school where it may have been babysitting or it may have gone from child care to introduction of ideas/concepts.
So along comes this opinion piece in the NY Times on Tuesday called Playing to Learn by Susan Engel, a senior lecturer in psychology and director of the teaching program at Williams College. Here's her premise:
"Our current educational approach — and the testing that is driving it — is completely at odds with what scientists understand about how children develop during the elementary school years and has led to a curriculum that is strangling children and teachers alike.
In order to design a curriculum that teaches what truly matters, educators should remember a basic precept of modern developmental science: developmental precursors don’t always resemble the skill to which they are leading. For example, saying the alphabet does not particularly help children learn to read. But having extended and complex conversations during toddlerhood does. Simply put, what children need to do in elementary school is not to cram for high school or college, but to develop ways of thinking and behaving that will lead to valuable knowledge and skills later on."
I totally agree. I think a lot of parents dislike the idea that their child will be "taught" anything in kindergarten (although we are way past the days when kindergarten was just socialization and an introduction to the school day). I think it's more nuanced than that and I get this from my sons going to Montessori. It's much more of exposing them to many kinds of interests, talking about those interests and then allowing the kids to explore them. The talking is focus and the key is having a conversation.
"Along the way, teachers should spend time each day having sustained conversations with small groups of children. Such conversations give children a chance to support their views with evidence, change their minds and use questions as a way to learn more."
"So what should children be able to do by age 12, or the time they leave elementary school? They should be able to read a chapter book, write a story and a compelling essay; know how to add, subtract, divide and multiply numbers; detect patterns in complex phenomena; use evidence to support an opinion; be part of a group of people who are not their family; and engage in an exchange of ideas in conversation. If all elementary school students mastered these abilities, they would be prepared to learn almost anything in high school and college."
What I see kindergarten as is what Ms. Engel puts forth as a best way of learning:
"Research has shown unequivocally that children learn best when they are interested in the material or activity they are learning. Play — from building contraptions to enacting stories to inventing games — can allow children to satisfy their curiosity about the things that interest them in their own way."
"A classroom like this would provide lots of time for children to learn to collaborate with one another, a skill easily as important as math or reading. It takes time and guidance to learn how to get along, to listen to one another and to cooperate. These skills cannot be picked up casually at the corners of the day."