xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: Too much, too soon.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Too much, too soon.

In 2009, the standardised testing of literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 was made mandatory in all Australian schools by the Rudd Labor government. NAPLAN was a refinement of earlier national testing programmes introduced by the then Federal Ministers for Education, Dr David Kemp and Dr Brendon Nelson, in the Howard Government. The Gillard Labor government subsequently established the Myschool website so that parents, and others, could check on a school’s NAPLAN performance and compare it with other schools.

The fact that all schools were able to be compared and judged on their NAPLAN results caused principals and teachers to focus on improving their NAPLAN scores. Media attention also brought pressure on schools to lift their NAPLAN scores. As a result, many schools instructed teachers to concentrate almost exclusively on literacy and numeracy in term one each year in preparation for the NAPLAN tests in May.

Many parents began enrolling their children in after school and weekend pre NAPLAN classes to improve their chances in the tests. At the same time “distractions” like in-term swimming, interschool sports fixtures, cultural and educational excursions were postponed until after NAPLAN. The focus on NAPLAN also caused formal education down into the early years of childhood.

The dangers of inflicting formal education on very young children was highlighted by Professor David Elkind in 1989, when he published his bestselling book, “The Hurried Child, The Power of Play and Miseducation.”

Elkind, born in 1931, is now Professor Emeritus at Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts. He was formerly Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Education at Rochester University, New York. He spent many years studying “The Hurried Child” and the many problems that arise from getting young children involved in formal education too soon. He stressed that “Education is not a race.” He believed that children’s education activities should be “developmentally appropriate.” Unlike our politicians, Elkind has spent a lifetime researching the subject.

In 2001, Elkind published a paper entitled, “Much Too Early”. He again warned of the dangers of forcing formal education on minds not yet ready.  He warned of the “Growing call for early-childhood educators to engage in the academic training of young children. The movement's beginnings lay in the fears sparked by the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik in 1957.”

Elkind says that in the United States the civil rights movement highlighted educational inequality and led to the creation of Head Start, a program aimed at preparing young disadvantaged children for school. He says though Head Start was an important and valuable program, it gave rise to the belief “that education is a race - and that the earlier you start, the earlier you finish.” Unfortunately, Australia, although it had arguably better and more equitable education programmes than the USA, was encouraged to follow America’s example of providing formal instructions to children in Kindergarten and Pre-Primary classes.

 Elkind went on to point out that “Those calling for academic instruction of the young don't seem to appreciate that maths and reading are complex skills acquired in stages related to age. Children will acquire these skills more easily and more soundly if their lessons accord with the developmental sequence that parallels their cognitive development.”

He says much research over many years shows that children benefit most from learning activities that are developmentally appropriate for their age. He poses the question, “Why, when we know what is good for young children, do we persist in miseducating them, in putting them at risk for no purpose?

"The short answer is that the movement toward academic training of the young is not about education. It is about parents anxious to give their children an edge in what they regard as an increasingly competitive and global economy. It is about the simplistic notion that giving disadvantaged young children academic training will provide them with the skills and motivation to continue their education and break the cycle of poverty. It is about politicians who push accountability, standards, and testing in order to win votes as much as or more than to improve the schools.” (Emphasis added, NB)

Elkind wrote these words in 2001. They are even truer today than they were then. Even though Elkind clearly identified the problem seventeen years ago, politicians have continued to push for policies that win votes but do not necessarily improve schooling.

National and international standardised testing regimes such as PISA have highlighted differences in achievement levels in schools and between countries. Unlike the USA and the UK, Australia is generally placed in the top twelve in PISA tests and compares very favourably against countries that do not have an indigenous population or a large multi-cultural society in which significant numbers only speak English as a second language.

Unfortunately, some parents and most politicians, do see education as a race. Despite the research evidence of educators like Elkind, who have spent years studying the effects of “Too much Too Soon”, they believe that they can give children a head start in “The Race” by starting them earlier and earlier.

To those politicians who are intent on seeing Australia at the top of the PISA Premiership race, Professor Elkind has warned, “The deployment of unsupported, potentially harmful pedagogies is particularly pernicious at the early-childhood level. It is during the early years, ages four to seven, when children's basic attitudes toward themselves as students and toward learning and school are established. Children who come through this period feeling good about themselves, who enjoy learning and who like school, will have a lasting appetite for the acquisition of skills and knowledge. Children whose academic self-esteem is all but destroyed during these formative years, who develop an antipathy toward learning, and a dislike of school, will never fully realize their latent abilities and talents.” (Emphasis added, NB)

That last sentence is chilling. Elkind is talking about a generation who had their childhood taken from them. It is society that will reap the whirlwind of these disinterested, antagonistic and unmotivated students.

Elkind concludes by saying, “If we want all of our children to be the best that they can be, we must recognize that education is about them, not us. If we do what is best for children, we will give them and their parents the developmentally appropriate, high-quality, affordable, and accessible early-childhood education they both need and deserve.’’ (Emphasis added,NB) These words should be written in bronze on the walls of every politicians’ office. The problem would be getting them to read them and understand them.

Many Australian educators agree with Elkind. Like him, they believe, especially in K to 6 primary classrooms, that children should progress developmentally and that their natural curiosity should be fostered so that they will feel good about themselves, enjoy learning and develop a lasting, life-long appetite for the acquisition of skills and knowledge. Their fear is that standardised testing and formal learning, especially in the very early years, will destroy self-esteem and develop as Elkind warns, “an antipathy to learning and a dislike of school.” This will create an enormous educational and social debt that we will have to face up to and pay, at great cost, sometime in the future. (Emphasis added, NB)

Of course literacy and numeracy are very important, but the pressures caused by NAPLAN  are having deleterious effects.  School principals know very well that their school, hence their own performance, will be judged by the parents, the Education Department and the media on their school’s NAPLAN results. As a consequence, in many Australian schools, pressure is being firmly applied by school administrators on early child hood teachers for them to deliver a more formal approach in developing literacy and numeracy skills in Kindergarten and Pre-Primary children.

About three years ago I was supervising a student teacher in a Pre-Primary class. The children were asked to retell a story the student teacher had read to them. As they finished their stories they took them to the student teacher to receive a tick or a stamp of some kind. One little girl, on her way back to her desk, proudly showed me her work. It was a wonderful effort. Her work was neatly printed, her spelling was good, her sentences well-constructed, correctly punctuated and with interesting word usage. I could not believe she was in Pre-Primary. To me it looked like the work of a good Year Two child.

I subsequently observed work of a similar standard by the other Pre-Primary children. Later on I complimented the class teacher on the high standard of written work in her class. However, in this particular case, the Pre-Primary teacher was unhappy that her strong focus on language development, at the principal’s direction, had been to the detriment of many other worthwhile creative and interesting learning activities. She wasn’t as happy in her job as she should have been and she felt that her children were missing out on the “fun and creativity” that used to epitomise pre-primary learning.

These stresses on early childhood teachers are exacerbated in schools that previously had strong child centred, activity based learning programmes that followed the Montessori and Regio Emilia philosophies of learning. Over time, in my mentoring roll with student teachers, it became increasingly clear that, as far as number and language development were concerned, Kindergarten was the New Year One and Pre- Primary was the New Year Two.  A clear case of too much, too soon.
A few years ago, I attended a huge school assembly to farewell the school’s Pre-Primary teacher. She was not retiring because of age or ill health; she had in fact resigned because, for her, early childhood education had become far too formal. I listened, teary eyed, as her students, ex-students, fellow teachers, the principal, parents and community members sincerely thanked her for the wonderful impact that she had had on them and the lives of all of the children in her care.
Teenagers, some of whom she had taught twelve years ago, turned up from the nearby high school to express their gratitude and to recall with great pleasure, not only what this wonderful teacher had taught them, but, more importantly, how “special” she had made them all feel.

Like me, everyone present was affected by these emotional outpourings, but I was also saddened to think that such a brilliant teacher, a pre-primary teacher Par Excellence, was lost to future generations of young Australians because of the system’s pressure to push formal literacy and numeracy learning into the lives of our very young children. She now works for less pay, but very happily, in a childcare centre where she nurtures very young children with love and with interesting, challenging and stimulating activities well suited to their developmental levels. The children all love her, they love school and they love learning. Above all, they feel very good about themselves.

Sadly, we are hearing more and more stories of good early childhood teachers who are resigning because the job they are being asked to do is not the job they signed up for and loved. A very sad and unintended outcome of universal standardised testing.

Universal standardised testing has had a great many unfortunate unintended outcomes. It is so unnecessary.  In 2009, as NAPLAN was being introduced in Australia, The Cambridge University Review of Primary Education was published. It strongly criticised the way in which standardised testing was taking the focus, and important teaching time, off other worthwhile subjects.

In that same year, in the USA, Dr Diane Ravitch published her bestselling book, “The Death and Life of the Great American Public School System”. The book’s subtitle was “How testing and choice are undermining education”. Cambridge University pointed out that education systems could gain valid and reliable accountability information about literacy and numeracy and other subjects by doing away with costly universal testing and making use of random sampling. After all, that is what PISA does and our politicians are transfixed by the results obtained.

Unfortunately, in Australia, teachers are not politically powerful. Our education system is controlled by politicians who, as Professor Elkind observed over twenty five years ago, generally make decisions based on what gets the most votes, not on what is in the best interests of our children...and ultimately, our country. The late Dr David Mossenson, a highly esteemed and very effective Director General of Education in Western Australia in the 1970s and early 1980s, was once heard to say, “I spent the first half of my career trying to get politicians interested in education and the second half trying to get them out of it.”

We can only hope that more and more Australian educators will acquaint themselves with the evidence presented by the Cambridge University Review of Primary Education and Dr Ravich’s “The Death and Life of the Great American Public School System”. We can only hope that they continue to try to influence our politicians, before our primary children are completely deprived of the wider curriculum they previously enjoyed and before our kindergarten and pre-primary children are further burdened down with the pressures of formal education.

Many readers would have seen and possibly been shocked by the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent programme aired on June, 16, 2015, highlighting education in South Korea, a leading PISA country. What they saw was a “Battery Hen” approach to education. Students spent all day in school and then went to a “cram school” for further instruction and tutorials or to study centres to continue their school work. Most students did not return home until 11-00pm at night. The video showed students asleep at their desks and designated staff walking around to rouse them back to their studies.

After the Korean War, South Korea was a poor country with a weak education system. It saw education as a means to economic improvement. Today South Korea is among the world’s largest and most robust economies. It also has the highest suicide rate in the world and the suicide rate for 10 to 19 year olds is increasing alarmingly. This is understandable, considering the enormous physical, mental and emotional pressures that it puts on its school children.

In our primary schools and especially in our Kindergartens and Pre-Primaries “enjoyment” should be the operative word. We should all be praying that one day we can have someone with real life teaching experiences making the important decisions that will impact on children in our primary schools and kindergartens. It is to be hoped that more and more Australian educators will speak out strongly against speeding up children’s formal development. That more and more Australian educators will stress the benefits of letting our children enjoy their childhood, learning in developmental, incremental stage, not being force fed as early and unwilling participants in some educational race. Finland provides a good example. No formal instruction until children are aged seven and no standardised tesing in schools at any level.

In the meantime, we can only wait and see what troubles lie ahead as those children who are now in their early childhood years and who are being robbed of their childhood today, grow into their mature tomorrows. Many of them will become The Lost Childhood Generation.

I wonder if they will look back fondly and thank us for the way we made them feel?


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