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.

Not Happy to be Right

In Western countries educators can benefit from an enormous array of high quality research published every year by the education and psychology faculty of the very top universities to shape, guide and mould their teaching practice. In both India and now UAE my experience has been that such research is not really available in the local environment.

Once upon a time that would have been a significant issue and would have severely undermined the opportunity for developing education of truly international standards. However, in today’s ‘global’ environment, the issue goes away – or it should do! However, we then have to contend in large dose with the dreaded ‘NIH’ = Not Invented Here. This plagues every industry, every country, certainly I’ve seen evidence all over. It comes along with chronic “Yes, but …….” syndrome.

This is one of the principle reasons why as an educator motivated at least partially by a sense that education today (as much as when I was a child) fails to make the grade – most particularly, fails to equip young people with the skills and competencies they need to fulfil their potential in the world in to which they will emerge as young adults, I have always endeavoured to expose myself and the educators around me to the very best of international research and thinking, regardless of where it may come from. I have always sought to encourage colleagues (and parents) to question their NIH and ‘yes, but…..’ tendencies.

Of all the aspects and areas of education that we are exposed to, maybe the one where I have taken ‘most heat’ is the issue of academics for Kindergarten classes and children. My view has always been that the evidence was more than strong enough that driving an academic agenda with the youngest children in our schools is like playing Russian roulette with their futures. For good measure, I also believe it is cruel and mind-numbing. Incidentally, this has also meant challenging primary school teachers who work with children in classes 1-3 when they bemoan how little ‘stuff’ children may have learned/ been taught before they arrived in their classes.

To all those educators who ever challenged me on these issues, to all the parents who treated me as though I was a cavalier and dangerous fool who wanted to jeopardise their child’s future, I urge you, please, to read this article:

Psychology Today – Early Academic Training Produces Long-Term Harm

In reading the article and seeing the weight of scientifically verifiable evidence stacked up I couldn’t find any joy in being proved right, no great desire to run up and down school corridors shouting “I told you so!” Rather, I found myself deeply saddened as I think of all the millions of children who are being tortured with heavy academics in their earliest formative years, who are literally being harmed in vast numbers and almost certainly denied the right to fulfil their learning potential.

The article makes very clear – vast numbers of these children gain no academic advantage over those given the freedom to play and be free of academic rigour at an early age, in fact in enormous proportions they do worse later. To me, of even more serious consequences are the findings that suggest lower emotional intelligence, social skills, self-regulation, interpersonal skills. As educators, how can we take any pride or consider ourselves worthy of respect when we deliberately and consciously do things that permanently harm and undermine children’s self esteem?

I’m sure there will be those of my fellow educators who will respond that they’re “simply giving the parents what they want.” I say here and now, this is a weak and untenable response. We wish to call ourselves professionals and to be respected in society. In my opinion, one of the things that marks out the true professional (educator, doctor, lawyer) is the courage to educate the client (in our case parents) what they need, not to simply give them what they ask for out of a layperson’s position of antiquated and false ideas and notions.

If a doctor wrote out regular prescriptions for a patient, knowing that what he was doing was killing the patient, would any of us consider that acceptable? Our ‘killing’ when we do the wrong things in education is less transparent or obvious – we may kill the soul, while the body still walks.

Not good enough. This article inspires me to stand up with even more courage for what is right for our youngest children.

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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