Suffer the Little Children

“What happened to my childhood?”

“OFSTED stole it!”

It’s said that persistence is a good thing, a very good quality that can contribute a lot to success. However, this comes with a caveat – it’s not persistence but foolishness to keep taking the same actions over and over in the hope that eventually, at some point in time, the world around you will change and make your actions the right ones to succeed. There’s are two other aspects to this kind of foolishness – going back to old ways of doing things when they’ve already been revealed to be positively harmful (and lacking in positive merit) and ignoring fundamental changes in the world around you that necessitate new and revised perceptions about the best way to move forward.

In relation to the education of young children in the first, early years of schooling there are those in the world who are currently guilty on both these counts. It might be OK if their guilt only harmed them, but sadly it means harm to untold numbers of children.

In a number of countries, but particularly in England, we’re seeing a big swing back towards discredited ideas of the past about emphasising heavier amounts of academic content in early years education. The most recent evidence of this has emerged in a report published by the Office for Standards in Education (sic) OFSTED. It’s entitled “Bold beginnings: The Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools.” Focusing on the Reception Year means that it relates directly to the educational experience of children in the age range 4-5.

The OFSTED report says many things, but the tone comes through loud and clear in the following key recommendation;

“All primary schools should:
■make sure that the teaching of reading, including
systematic synthetic phonics, is the core purpose
of the Reception Year

So, teaching reading is the core purpose of going to school for children aged 4 to 5. This is then backed up with further recommendations that suggest strongly that these children are in a race and the aim is to get as much as possible of a head start to be ahead of the game in terms of what has to be learned in Class 1. Also, there’s lots of talk about learning how to sit up straight, how to hold the pencil exactly right and how to obey orders.

Here’s the full report:

28933_Ofsted_-_Early_Years_Curriculum_Report_-_Accessible (1)

And here’s some commentary on it:
Huffingtom Post – Third of Kids ‘Failed’ In Reception

It all sounds like something out of the dark ages. Does it sound like we are creating an environment in which future leaders flourish? Or, are we perpetuating the education of the masses which was about developing obedient disciplined grunts – and maybe more important, making them economically productive as early as possible!

A cynic might look for the source of all this hurry up and haste in the political inconvenience and embarrassment of the PISA and TIMMS exams – tests that suggest that English 15 year old children don’t hold up very effectively compared to their peers in other countries. But then comes the massive error – a chronically misguided belief that if we can just give children a faster start, all the problems would be addressed and our children would go shooting up the world charts. Of course, the big inconvenience in all that is that Finland sits right at the top of the tables for these comparative examinations with children who barely start school before age seven, certainly in terms of heavy duty academic learning.

And a real cynic might look simply for sheer ignorance and myopia of ignorant politicians wedded to old orthodoxies like, “Well, it never did me any harm,” and who desperately base their political ideologies on a perception that if Britain could just get back to some mythical good old days, then everything in the world would be perfect.

However, as educators we have to be futurists, not regressionists. Our major task is to prepare young people for the world likely to exist tomorrow, not to hanker after bygone familiar days that will never come again.

Anyone who tells you that they know what children will need to know even ten years from now, let alone beyond that, is delusional. However, we can make some reasonable predictions about their lives. Firstly, advances in medical science mean that the majority of them will live to the age of 100 or beyond. That alone is massive. Barring bad lifestyle choices, more than 50% of these children will live to 100. In those circumstances, how long will a working life be? If we think of those who reach 100 today we think about the massive changes they’ve seen in the world, especially in technology.

These young people will need to be the most versatile, flexible and adaptable generation that has ever lived. They will have long working lives (you can’t retire at 60 if you’ve got another 40 years of life ahead!). They had better find meaning in the work they do and be ready for the likelihood of multiple careers, not just many jobs. In such circumstances they can’t be like today’s employees – where surveys consistently reveal engagement levels in the workplace well below 20%. These will need to be people who get a big buzz out of the work they do. When they stop getting a buzz they will have the skills, competencies and the flexibility to move on to do something new that does appeal to them.

To prepare young people for such a life what we don’t need is to be in a tearing hurry to shove all the knowledge we think appropriate in to them as quickly and early as possible. In these circumstances we need to lose the conventional ideas of certain mileposts being based entirely on the age of the child. Instead, we need models of learning based on competency, passion and interest. When the child is ready to pursue particular learning, educators support them until they can achieve and prove consistent mastery. Then, the educators help them to make choices about where to go next in their learning journey.

So, that’s the first reason I have issues with the Ofsted focus and direction reflected through their report. Worse, what Ofsted dictates, most teachers do, either because they want to get positive affirmation through Ofsted school inspections (or, at least, their Principals and Heads do). This kind of rushing like a bull at a gate is shown up in so many places. We only need to see this headline and article from The guardian some days ago:

The Guardian – Education – Children as Young as Two Grouped By Ability

This acts as a convenient lead to the second major reason why this approach angers me and why I believe it’s doing a massive disservice to children and blighting their lives in the future. At this point it’s useful to remind ourselves that, despite relatively rich budgets for spending on education for every child, Britain has at least 10% functional illiteracy. There are vast numbers of people who have gone through the UK schools education system and yet do not have adequate literacy ability to be able to achieve the levels necessary to carry out basic and common life functions. Clearly, the methods used in the country until now have been failing some people. Yet, this Ofsted approach and the trend of rushing to do more and more at an earlier age is going to make this worse, not better.

To understand why, we need to take on board the new knowledge that’s become available to us over the last 10-20 years through the field of Neurology. techniques such as functional MRI scanning have enabled scientists to build up new knowledge (and to jettison some old ideas) about how people learn, and particularly about the maturation and development of the infant brain.

On this, I share here the link to an excellent recent webinar that charts out in reasonably simple terms the latest understanding from neurology as it pertains to the acquisition of skills and competence in reading:

Neuron Learning – New Science of Learning for Struggling Readers
(You might need to open an account in order to see the video of this webinar, but there’s no cost and it’s worthwhile)

For particular types of learning to happen naturally, a given level or complexity of neural network needs to exist for the child that is ‘ready’ for the acquisition of that skill. This applies to everything from holding a spoon, to self-feeding, to crawling then walking, to reading and writing and basic concepts of number. Each child doesn’t reach the point of having a suitable network at exactly the same time. However, when we take the example of walking, except where there’s some significant mental impairment, every child walks. However, what we don’t see is late-walking children put in remedial classes for walking, given extra homework and subjected to the experience of hearing their peers praised for diligent walking (by implication condemning them as failures and let-downs for not making the walking teacher happy!)

However, when schools start pushing three and four year olds with reading that’s exactly what is happening. in those circumstances it’s inevitable that some will take longer than others. And in return for taking longer they will receive all sorts of subliminal messages that condemn them to low expectations – of themselves and on the part of parents and other care-givers. In those circumstances, some children will take on board certain negative beliefs about themselves. “I’m a slow learner,” “I’m never going to be good at this school stuff,” “Others are more intelligent than me,” “I can’t learn well.”

When education was seen as a massive filtering mechanism, children were seen as distributed across a standard bell curve. While some would flourish, some would inevitably be the floundering ones at the wrong end of the curve. Educators didn’t stop to consider that their own actions might be what was condemning those children to languish at that end of the curve. Nobody was willing to contemplate that their practices actually caused failure.

An education system for the Twenty First Century has to be built on principles of enabling each and every child to fulfill their potential. To achieve this, aspects of implied competition with each other or that learning and getting schooled is some sort of race are completely counter-productive. It also needs to be built on the principles that learning is fun, exciting and something that anyone would want to do for themselves – not something that others force us to do against our will.

Here’s further evidence that the priorities have to change and a plea from the World Economic Forum to apply the right priorities for education today, to enable tomorrow’s society;

World Economic Forum on Twitter

Here’s the link to the fuller article from the World Economic Forum that takes on this issue in more detail:

World Economic Forum – All Work and No Play Needs to Change for Kindergarteners – and Here’s Why

To conclude – in a changed world, there’s really no need for haste or rush for young people starting out on a long life, especially when all our new knowledge of brain sciences tells us that the rushing causes great harm and hurt to some children, thereby undermining their potential for the rest of their lives.

 

 

 

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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.

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??? !!

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