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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Sad State of American Kindergarten

When supposedly rational, trained professionals do things which are increasingly bizarre and showing ample evidence that they are actually harming children in the longer term, you have to wonder what’s driving the whole process.

Edweek – Kindergarten Today, Less Play, More Academics

This article shares, very visually and starkly how much has changed in the US approach to Kindergarten between 1998 and 2010. The two big issues are, firstly, the inclination of KG teachers to expect that children should already have mastered many academic skills before starting school and secondly, how much more time they allocate to academics once those children are in school.

And, let’s not forget, this is a 12 year period during which the US has shown little progress on international comparative standardised assessments like PISA – indicating that it hasn’t even worked to raise academic standards and performance compared to other countries.

However, in my opinion, the damage of this strategy will show through in many ways other than failure to progress in PISA. I fear a generation of children who avoid learning except when it’s ‘done to them’. I also fear that this will be a generation of children within which the winners and losers in life will be determined by the chance factor of whether they happened to be a lucky or an unlucky one in terms of whether their brains’ neural networks were ready for this early onslaught of academics. Further, if evidence from research is right I fear this will be a generation that experiences higher levels of criminality, drug and alcohol addictions, marital discord and rates of failure in the softer aspects of living a successful life.

Overall, unacceptable prices for these children to pay for skewed logic and foolish treatment.

Getting Kindergarten Education Right

http://www.npr.org/player/embed/462279629/462412695
(Click on the link above to hear the podcast)

People in many countries, including the UK and America are fond of pointing to countries like Finland and other Scandinavian countries as great examples for where they should be heading with education, if they wish to ensure the highest quality learning for the most children, preparing them to live the best possible lives. So, we then have to really wonder when we see that the reality of what is done pays so little attention to the lessons available from those countries.

I’ve written in the past about how we finished up with education systems that start children in school so very early. Of course, it all goes back to the industrial revolution and the desire to turn out interchangeable widgets (workers) who would be economically contributing with a principle of ‘sooner in, sooner out to get them working at an early age.

Today, most of our KG and Primary level children are being prepared for a life that will last 100 years – where’s the rush? Where’s the hurry?

This article from NPR is really worrying. Even though the data used is up to 5 years old, it shows a trend that suggests little has been learned, and in fact that things have been getting worse, not better. I believe what’s needed is a KG experience that provides abundant opportunity for play – both free and semi-structured, natural development of pro-social skills, physically active and energetic, with a rich variety of materials available to stimulate the children’s creativity.

NPR – Why Kindergarten is the New First Grade

I fear that what we’re seeing is continuing to act as an artificial form of filter, often at the expense of children coming from poorer backgrounds (I’ll be writing about this in another post quite soon), but also filtering those children whose neural networks take a little longer to get in shape to receive and be receptive to a programme of academics and emphasis on alphabet, reading and even basic writing skills. We may be sayingthat we want an education system that is holistic and wants to support every child to fulfill their potential – but do the actions reflect this?

Dads Still Matter

This week we’ve seen some interesting things going on in our Kindergarten classes. Our children in the lower classes have their learning in school based around themes. Most of the time, a theme goes on for about a month. We wanted that children get to ‘wind up’ a theme, to draw it to a conclusion and to reflect on the learning journey they have taken. This also offers a wonderful opportunity to open up the learning process for parents – for the children themselves to share what they’ve been learning and what it means to them.

We wanted this to start last month, but with no road outside the school things were too messy. However, now we have a beautiful smooth road surface outside the school, so the opportunity had arrived. The class teachers engaged the children in discussions about how they wanted to show their learning from the latest theme (the seasons). Out of all the discussions one interesting theme that emerged was their keenness to share their learning with their dads.

So, it was just the dads who were invited to join the children in their classrooms this week. The children showed them their learning at various work stations and put on small performances associated with specific seasons in their classrooms (such occasions will now be a regular part of wrapping up the themes, so Mums won’t get left out!).

Whilst happy, some of the dads were surprised that it was them who had been invited. This reminded me of an article i wrote over 5 years ago. That article was entitled “Dads Matter Too!”. So, I couldn’t resist sharing that article again here. In the ‘driven’ economic environment of UAE I think that the issue assumes even greater significance and the reminder even more important.

Here it is – and feedback, please from both Mums and Dads!

In a recent survey of school children, when they were asked what they wanted from their fathers the answers didn’t include; a new bicycle, a Play Station 3 or even the keys to the Mercedes! Instead, overwhelmingly and with equal vigour both the boys and the girls responded that they wanted their dads to spend time with them, to really communicate with them and to be available for them.

Wearing both my hats, as Director of the school and as a dad I know this is a really tough one. There’s something about the pace and drive of 21st century urban life that encourages the hunter- gatherer in us – we go out, interact with the world outside, do battle and bring home the goods. However, there’s growing evidence that our youngsters are growing up with increasing problems and that some of what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working. As the adage goes; if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.

I was recently really struck by an excellent short documentary I saw from UK about an inner city school with some discipline problems and other challenges. One of the ways they addressed the issues was to form a Dads group that met regularly (in a pub!). It was understandable to see how hesitantly some of the fathers approached the whole idea of joining such a group. However, as time went on they found more and more value in discussing parenting issues from a Dad’s perspective, exchanging ideas, building confidence in their abilities to take an active share of the parenting load.

One of the most interesting tests I ever came across for this was – can you name 10 of your child’s close personal friends, playmates or class mates? If you can without making mistakes then you’re doing pretty well.

Sadly, like it or not, our schools in India are populated almost entirely by women. Especially in Primary School, where there are men they are usually not involved with the ‘serious’ curricular subjects, but with sports or the arts. Whilst this has an effect on the boys, the girls do not go unaffected. Children grow up with an impression that this learning business is best done by/ with women and this gets reinforced if Mum is the go-to person for all homework queries, the person who checks the school bag and writes all the notes to the teacher.
It’s all too easy to fall in to the trap of Dad getting delegated the ‘troubleshooter’ role in the family. It starts out with those repetitive little acts of discipline which eventually prompt a “Wait till your dad gets home.” So, when you do get home you have to jump straight in to disciplinarian mode with the aim being to deal with the issue as swiftly as possible so that you can unwind after a hard day slaying wild beasts in the urban jungle. Another day goes by when any real opportunity to interact with your child, to really get to know their emerging qualities as a person goes by unfulfilled.

So, what are the chances of more Dads active in school, attending parent workshops? Getting actively engaged with school and actively engaged with your child could be the first step on an exciting and rewarding new journey. Come on Dads – we matter too!

Not Such a Baby Any More

The day is fast approaching. Many parents will have lost track of how soon will be the day when their ‘little baby’ gets dressed up in their first school uniform, turns and waves as they head off to start school. It’s one of those momentous landmarks in the child’s growth and development and comes with many emotions for both parent and child.
For the child, nobody can predict how they will react. Some take this event naturally and calmly in their stride whilst some others may struggle in the early stages. Some are excited by the novelty for a couple of days, but then their reaction changes when they discover this isn’t a novel interlude but a new way of life with some limits on choice and freedom.
Let’s be honest – it’s not just all the issues about whether starting school is going to be stressful for the child – there are implications for the whole family. Many mothers, particularly, choose to stay at home until it’s time for the child to go to school. The arrival of that milestone means major upheaval and change for everyone. For a mother who has stayed home to be with her child it’s going to mean a return to work. For the whole household it’s going to entail new routines and attempts to establish new habits.
And those are just the practical issues – there are all the emotional issues as well attached to what this moment signifies – the beginning of an independent, non-dependent existence for the child and the beginning of a diminishing sense of being needed or essential for the parent.
So, those are the challenges and the reasons why this can be a difficult time. However, there’s another way to look at it. It can be seen from the perspective of wonderful opportunities; new friends, new learning, new experiences, passing through a gateway to an exciting future on the road towards growing up.
Different children react in different ways – they are truly all unique. Some are emotional and upset for a day or two, but then find their feet in the new environment quickly, find interesting things and people and start to enjoy the experience. Some others take a bit longer whilst others may be fine to start, but then start to get emotional when they learn that the first novelty wears off (but you still have to go!) and that school comes with a whole set of rules, codes and obligations which are non-negotiable. At such times it can be good to remind ourselves – “This too shall pass”.
So, what are some useful things that we can do to smooth this process and help our child have a positive and enriching start to school life?
• Make sure the child’s comfortable with the place, physically. Take the opportunity for a tour of the school if it’s available. It can even be a good idea to drive past the school a few times, pointing it out and anticipating that it’s ‘your school’. Driving the bus route can also help to make that familiar for the child.

• We may have good or bad memories ourselves when it comes to our experiences as a child going to school. Whatever the memories, it can be important for your child to emphasise the positive aspects and to avoid talking about negative memories around the child. Focus on things like making friends, building friendships, caring and nurturing teachers, the joy of learning (on this point, it’s good if your child comes to realise that learning is still a fundamental and natural part of your life today).

• If there are older siblings and other relatives who play a prominent role in the child’s life they can also be enlisted to support with their ‘good news’ positive stories about school and learning (or at least to keep their negative feelings to themselves for a while),

• Don’t make assumptions about how much your child understands the principles of why they go to school. Instead, use gentle questioning to explore their feelings, their emotions and their understanding of what’s happening. The more they talk and express the better equipped we can be as adults to respond appropriately.

• As the child opens up they may well reveal anxieties and apprehension. Far better than dismissing these fears, it’s good to let the child know that it’s OK and understandable to have those feelings and how we deal with similar types of feelings in our own lives.

• When sorting out admission there are lots of issues for parents, choosing the school you want, securing the admission (just ask parents of young children in Delhi this year!!), then all the administrative issues, fee payments, books, stationery, uniforms. It’s understandable if you get a little frazzled at times. However, it’s a good idea to just limit how much frustration you express about your child’s new school in front of them – you don’t want them starting with negative feelings.

• Routines are a vitally important way of reducing stress and anxiety in a busy day. Don’t wait until term starts to begin the school routines. Adjust bed times, getting up times, breakfast routines etc. some days before the school starts, so that the child makes those adjustments easily. Getting adequate sleep is critically important to the learning process.

In addition, a child who has had insufficient sleep will tend to be more emotional, sensitive and worrying. School starts early and children who take buses to school start even earlier. So, we need to plan for this before the term starts. Make sure as much as possible is done the night before; tiffin, water bottle, uniform, bag etc. so that things can be calm and orderly in the morning. Right from an early stage, involve the child in this process as your helper – in time you can begin to give them their own responsibilities.

• Many schools serve food as part of taking a holistic approach to child development and as part of bringing the children together to learn, bond and grow together. It’s not going to do your child any favours if they have extremely narrow or picky food habits, or worse a heavy inclination towards sweet and salty snacks etc.. Start the process of being ‘unfussy’ within the context of a healthy diet as early as possible so that the child can adapt easily to the diet in school.

• Let your child know that you and their teachers are now going to be in a positive partnership for their good.

• The first days of separation are going to feel hard for parents, especially mothers. Find some things to ‘get busy’ with during those hours. However, plan to make sure you are where you’re supposed to be (school gate, reception, bus stop) well before time so that there can’t be any hiccups that cause the child stress.

• At the end of a school day your knowledge of your child will stand you in good stead. Some will be an instant chatter box, wanting to tell you every little detail of what they did, who else did what, said what …. etc. Others will want and need some quiet processing time before they are ready to open up and share their feelings about the day. Go with what’s right for your child. It’s important at times like this, though, that we make sure we give our child real quality time and quality listening. They shouldn’t feel they have to compete with our mobile phone!

As already said, starting school has the potential to be a wonderful and memorable time in the life of the child and the family. With a bit of careful thought and attention we can increase the likelihood.

Happy school life and great learning wishes for all the children starting school for the first time this year!!

Younger Learners

The weight of evidence now in the public domain about brain and mental development should be more than enough to put to bed once and for all debates about ‘academics’ and kindergarten children. There is now enough that we know that tells us that to push reading, writing and other such skills early is to take enormous risks with children who may not yet have the neural network ready and in place to be ready for this kind of learning.

As early years education has turned away from ‘syllabus’ and bodies of content to be taught/ learned (x number of vegetable names, y number of colour names, z number of fruit names etc.) it has inevitably brought more and more questions – ‘Well, if not for that stuff, then what is the purpose of early years education?’

This is a relatively short piece written by a practicing early years teacher in the US that nicely gives her perspective on the aims and objectives of her early years classroom;

http://www.wholechildeducation.org/blog/the-tools-for-a-successful-young-learner

I found the teacher’s perspective refreshing, realistic and rooted in complete faith and belief in each child’s ability to acquire some level of competence in these key skills, given the right climate, atmosphere and activities to engage in.

I also couldn’t help noticing the coincidental strong correlation between her four listed skills for development and our own school’s four declared values:

Independence – learning is a lifelong process
Collaboration – Diversity
Ownership – Character forms the basis of a fulfilled life
Persistence – Self-determination/ Success Lies in the individual’s own hands

Red Shirting – Pros and Cons

This relatively short article is well written and gives a nice balanced overview of the positive and negative aspects of Red Shirting.

Red Shirting Article

What struck me as the key point not brought out in the article is, if the educational experiences in schools for children in later years are adequately differentiated, then most of the negative points highlighted disappear. They are only really danger issues if classrooms stay stuck in the ‘one size fits all’ groove in terms of the learning offered (in which case student boredom is a strong possibility).

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