The Harm We Can Do in Early Years Education

A few years ago, I read a pretty alarming study that had come from Germany. A situation arose there, in a particularl area, where early years approaches to education were being changed from quite an academic’ approach to a much more play-based approach. However, as this process was going along there were political changes and the process stopped. it stayed stopped for some time whilst people figured out where to go next.

This created a unique situation – otherwise consistent for demographics and other background, about half the local children were experiencing a play approach in early years, the other half a much more academically oriented approach. Researchers latched on to the opportunity this represented and started a longitudinal study that tracked these children right through in to their adult years. Incidentally, after those differing early years experiences they were randomly educated through the same experiences in later years.

So, what did they find out?

a) Firstly, the children experiencing the more academic early years approach experiences academic benefits over their peers UNTIL CLASS 4. After that, the positions were reversed and there was an ever-widening gap with the children who had the play-based experiences outperforming their peers.

b) Maybe most alarming, in adult life, the children with the more academically oriented early years showed higher levels of alcohol and substance abuse, trouble with criminality, involvement in domestic abuse, psychological illness, obesity and poor health.

These are really quite alarming outcomes, especially as the research really didn’t flag up any long term positive benefits from the more academic approach to early years learning. Even more alarming when we see the pressures that come to bear throughout the world to make early years education more content driven, more teaching-centric and more focused on ‘getting an early start’ on the ‘stuff’ of school learning.

If all that wasn’t enough, here’s some further, new research from Stanford University, working with colleagues in Denmark about the difference between early and late starts for kindergarten. It showed those starting earlier had much higher levels of inattention and hyperactivity much later in their schooling. These are known factors that can be major negatives for academic outcome achievements

Quartz – Stanford Researchers Show We’re Sending Many Children To School Way Too Early

I don’t believe for a minute that we’re going to be changing the ages at which children start school. Therefore, it becomes critically important that we work to ensure that the experience they have is a low pressure, high-play one. We also need to invest considerable energy to educate parents, to share knowledge and expertise with them, so that they understand why the lay logic of a hasty start and early academic pressure are dangerous and counter-productive for their children.

Advertisements

Let Them Play – Update

Long time readers of this blog know that I’m not a big fan of pushing academic goals and pursuits on very young children. I’ve always believed that the weight of evidence was already so significant that it couldn’t be ignored.

Here are a number of my previous blog posts around this topic;

Let Them Play
Younger Children and Play
Sad State of American Kindergarten
Long Life Changes Everything

It’s my firm belief that forcing our youngest children on to a heavy diet of academic learning is like playing a form of Russian roulette with their futures. There might be a few who excel, some who do OK – but there will be too many losers in this game and it cannot be acceptable.

Neurology is teaching us more and more about the developing brain. In order to be able to learn a new skill requires that the child must have a neural network that is ‘ready’ for that learning. If you have some children in a room who are reading and some who are not, this is no measure of long term reading potential, but merely a matter of the readiness of their neural networks. However, at both the conscious and unconscious level the child doesn’t know this. Instead, they are put in to a situation where they seem to be a failure, a cause of disappointment to the adults who matter most in their lives. To me, this is a recipe for children with a fixed mindset and a set of beliefs that they are not good at school learning, never will be and are destined to underachieve. Then, they will go through their entire schooling producing the kinds of results they expect of themselves. In short – we are setting up too many children for failure and under-achievement.

If anybody still had doubts on these issues, here’s a recent article from the US that shares some fascinating recent research from Denmark. It carries strong evidence of mental health benefits of delaying the start of school (by which i take it to mean serious, school-type learning, curriculum etc.) which in turn are exactly the kinds of factors that contribute to higher and better academic achievements. The article brought to mind other research that I read recently that said that whilst many children introduced to academic learning early showed some academic benefits in terms of performance these were all wiped out by the end of Class 4 and after that these students slid further and further behind their peers.

Washington Post – Delaying kindergarten until age 7 offers key benefits to kids — study

Here, I want to stress. I believe very firmly that high quality, calibrated pre-school programmes for children up to age 5-6 have a beneficial impact on their later learning, school readiness and academic achievements. However, we must see that the key is that these programmes should focus very much on building pre-school skills, such as prosocial behaviour ability rather than seeking to get an early ‘head start’ on the academic learning that comes later. This also doesn’t mean holding any child back from doing things for which their neural network is ready. However, the fact that they’re ready early doesn’t make them heroes, child prodigies or even praise-worthy. it just is.

We don’t hand out awards for being an early walker, and we don’t put late walkers in remediation – and they all walk!

Younger Children and Play

Regular readers of my blog know that I’m a firm advocate of letting younger children play and not burdening them with academics too young or too early.

Well, here’s further evidence for why this matters. This research goes even further to highlight the importance not only of play, but the type of play and the types of toys used to facilitate that play;

Jama Pediatrics – Type of Toy Used – Research Findings

I have had concerns for a long time, that even when children are left and allowed to play, everything becomes way too literal. Each thing is exactly what it is, and nothing else, especially in the realm of online play or games which are electronically based. Earlier, an empty box or some blocks could perform multiple functions, depending on the child’s own creativity. Further, multiple chilren playing together, or a child playing with an adult bought in to common ideas of what each item represents (at least in that moment for that period of play).

This transcript from research suggests that not only does creativity suffer, but also communication skills. The expansion and ‘ownership’ of a varied vocabulary is a critical part of any child’s development in the early years.

More reasons to get out of their way, stop trying to make everything in their lives educational and just let them play!

Sprinters or Marathon Runners?

If you want to prepare the world’s best marathon runners, you don’t train them incessantly to run the 100 metres like Usain Bolt ……………….. and then ask them to simply do that 420 times in succession!

So, why are we so foolish as to treat children’s preparation for life beyond school and college as a series of sprints from one test or examination to the next, from one textbook chapter to the next, from one ‘portion’ of learning (facts) to the next? Part of the blame can be placed firmly on the ‘data obsessed’ who believe if they can just garner enough data about the learning progress of an individual child, cohort or population, then they can devise the perfect learning.

But perfect learning of what? For what?

So, if the child develops obedience, subservience and the willingness to memorise large amounts of facts and reproduce them in exams….. what kind of a preparation for life is that?

As educators, when we are confronted with such weight of evidence about the harm done, why do we continue?

Parents, as lay people with a lot of apprehension, misunderstandings and relying on past ways (and instinct) can be excused when they get things wrong. Now, I’m sure there are masses of educators who would protest and just simply claim that they’re giving people what they want. I say shame on them. They are to education what junk food pedlars are to child nutrition.

One particular area of note is the idea that if you want to get better results from education and teaching – start it earlier. Do more of the same stuff at ever earlier ages and ‘force feed’ the children earlier. Ironically, they don’t know to fight back at that age and so we see massive inappropriate attempts to force the wrong learning at the wrong times. Let’s not forget, we’re operating in environments where kindergarten starts at age 3 years 8 months (much to the annoyance of some parents who wish it had stayed at 3 years) Well, here’s an article to make them think:

Washington Post Article – Delaying Kindergarten to Age 7

Just, wow! here is evidence that challenges the American practice of starting these children at age 6 and here we are rushing to do reading and writing at age 4 or earlier. Now, cynics will come up with other arguments;

a) Our children are different to children in Western developed countries. (Proof, please)
b) Look at the success stories who have come out of the Indian education system and now head prominent US and Silicon Valley companies. (You know the one about ‘one swallow doesn’t a summer make’? This is not proof of anything, other than the fact that a few, very few happen to have brains and dispositions that enable them to come out of this situation positively. The fact that the crushing of rocks over millions of years produces a few diamonds shouldn’t mask the fact that it also produces billions of tonnes of worthless rock.
c) The problem isn’t related to the timing of when Early years education commences, but what they’re doing with it. We squeeze more benefit out of an early start!

Well, in answer to the third point – here’s a short piece in which an educator trained in American approaches experiences the contrast of how early years education is approached in Finland:

KQED – Mindshift – Play based Learning

You can’t really measure play. You certainly can’t quantify Joy’. And that troubles those who would choose to take the most inappropriate aspects of the corporate world and strait-jacket the education of children in to inappropriate rigidity. For another day, and another post, i happen to believe that there’s a lot that the education arena should take from the corporate world (e.g. pursuit of excellence, alignment to a common vision and mission, consistency and congruence of standard operating procedures in the administrative arena, sensitivity to the needs of stakeholders, servant leadership).

But, when it comes to the children and their learning we have to start from them, and their needs as young individuals growing in to citizens of the Twenty First Century. We must also acknowledge that when we do this, every one of them, as an individual, deserves to get the best possible learning, growth and development experience from school that meets their needs, where they are and acknowledges that every one of them is a unique individual. We do that through more humanness, better training, skills and motivation levels of educators – not through more data.

When to Start School

Whatever profession we work in, from time to time we all get one of those “I told you so” moments – a moment when we come across some evidence that so overwhelmingly backs up and supports a viewpoint that we hold dear.

I confess that when reading this article i had just such a moment.

New Scientist – Too Much, Too Young

I get startled when i read articles from the UK and American media advocating for earlier ‘schoolifying’ of young children. Obviously, working for many years in Asian cultures I’ve been very used to the impact of parental aspirations as the demands for early academic activity are sometimes almost overpowering. Lay people can’t seem to resist the idea that if they can just get a ‘head start’ for their child on reading, writing etc. then they can stack the odds in their child’s favour for a life of success and beating out the competition.

As the experts cited in this article attest, scientific evidence doesn’t back these ideas at all. Instead, it represents a form of ‘Russian roulette’ as the parent crosses their fingers that their child is an early neurological developer who will fair well in this academic hothouse climate.

Instead, our duty is to provide a high quality genuinely play-based environment where children can build their interpersonal and other skills whilst engaging in creative forms of play.

Did anyone ever put their child in remedial class for being a late walker??? !!

%d bloggers like this: