Putting Parental Fear in Perspective

band-aid-on-knee

When I was around eight years of age i lived in a relatively small village in England. At weekends and during the vacations it was common for me to head off around a mile away from home to go to play at the homes of two of my best friends – ALONE! Part of the route was by a small path that ran between fields, another part through a wood and another part beside the main road through the village that had no pavements. Once I’d met up with my friends we would sometimes play in fields, sometimes head in to the woods. There was a fluctuating group of boys and girls. We climbed trees, skidded down hills, skinned our knees and bashed our elbows. We got in to scrapes and solved our own issues. Inevitably, sometimes people fell out with each other and had disagreements. When those times happened it was deeply important to us, but we figured out between ourselves how to solve those conflicts and repair friendships.

Often our play entailed creating fantasy worlds of our own, our vivid imaginations blending to concoct amazing scenarios. One day we might be spies, another day city planners creating a new nirvana. At such times, we’d often lose all track of time. We were all tasked with responsibilities to reach home in time for meals (with consequences if we failed). Of course, we had no phones and most of the time no money (so, no phoning home with excuses for why we would come late). So, if you were tight on time, you ran – simple.

Young people tend to roll their eyes when people like me talk about our childhoods and our experiences or the vast differences between our childhoods and theirs. However, I tell this little tale with some very genuine concerns that what today’s young are missing out on were the learning environment for the very skills, competencies and character traits considered to be most important in the Industry 4.0 environment; emotional intelligence, resilience, problem solving, communication, interpersonal skills and creativity.

The shift, across the world, to helicopter parenting and wrapping children in cotton wool is a response to very real and driving fear for parents. This is terribly sad and ironic when we consider that the world in which children are growing up is actually safer when considering data on crime etc. Worse, as it has always been, children are more at risk statistically from people they know within their homes than they are from strangers in the outside environment.

If children are given freedom, will they get in to scrapes and problems? Yes, almost certainly – we did. But, solving those problems, working through the implications of our own actions was a very big part of our learning and development. And, almost always the implications are really not so terrible.

Data today about how little time children get to spend outside is deeply worrying. To me, it’s inevitable to find direct correlations between these changes in the process of growing up, exposure to nature, levels of independent activity and the increasing levels of compulsive behaviours, depression and mental illness as well as the challenges that flow from over-sensitivity to setbacks, disappointments and life challenges.

Ironically, with hours of computer games and social networking exposure, I would hazard that in some ways children today are at greater risk in the very state their parents are keeping them to ensure their safety. With growing pollution (and in Asian cities summer heat) the temptation to use these as justifications for the children being in for many hours, staring at screens is obvious.

Lenore Skenazy became famous, or rather infamous, in the US a few years ago when she let her child ride on the subway unaccompanied. The media went in to a frenzy as she was labeled ‘the worst mother in the world.’ To her credit, she didn’t roll over, but rather has spent the time since expanding on her approach as a philosophy she calls ‘free-range parenting.’

Here’s a video of an interview she gave last year, sharing her views.

Lenore and others have created an organisation in the US that seeks to work with schools and parents to provide help and to encourage loosening of the reins:
Let Grow

Can we bring these ideas in to other parts of the world effectively?

To help with some of this, researchers have identified four types of parenting style:

  • Authoritarian.
  • Authoritative.
  • Permissive.
  • Uninvolved.

A detailed discussion of the four styles I’ll save for another post, but there are some good summaries available through searches online.

As educators, we have to meet children and parents where they are and not where we wish they might be. This means that if children have been used to sheltered, helicopter parenting, then we have to understand that’s the starting position. However, if we are serious about a responsibility to educate and develop the “whole child” then we need to pay close and careful attention to;

a) What we can do to educate and support parents to be realistic and support their children in the most responsible ways (and this includes making sure that teachers are informed and playing their part, including sharing a consistent message)
b) What we can do to expand the horizons of children, to help them to develop the characteristics of independence and interdependence, as well as creating an engaging environment in the school that enables children to develop and practice character, real problem solving.

Childhood has the potential to be such a special time in a person’s life. When we deny children a natural childhood we don’t only deny them all that’s good, but we deny them so much of the growth and learning that will enable them to be their best and to grow up living effective lives. Free the children!

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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.

 

 

 

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.

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?

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.

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