Monday, March 20, 2017

Too much, too soon, too young?

School starting age: The evidence for and against starting academics too early. Why Starting Formal Academics Later May be Best?

Is the Finnish Education Model Better at Building a Love of Learning?

Between four and six, children may be intellectually interested and developmentally ready for reading,
“Play is the work of the child.” – Maria Montessori
writing letters, words, numbers and symbols, and traditional school activities, yet they aren't required to attend “formal kindergarten” at this age in Finland. WHY? At this early developmental stage, Finnish 
children enjoy Friluftsliv, literally means "free air life", their job is to play, and develop into happy well adjusted kids. Despite decades of research and data on early childhood education and the benefits of delaying formal learning, we choose to push even harder and faster today! The social emotional benefits of starting academics later has shown greatly reduced occurrences of ADD/ADHA, less stress, more intrinsically motivated learners, and very happy students that thrive academically. Today, our students are pushed into the rigorous Common Core system and expected to thrive and survive academically in usually a packed all-day kindergarten. What really changed at the age of 4, 5 or 6? How or why is a 5 year old suddenly ready to sit through a full day of Core Curriculum, learning that now includes a push for more rigorous academic subject matter? What is the benefit if any? 
Lucy Ward | The Guardian  "Children should learn mainly through play until age of eight, says Lego
"According to Rasmussen, the evidence for play-based learning has built enormously over the last decade, but parents don’t know about it. “Both in the formal education system and in the homes of children, the focus on the value of play is rather limited. That’s really something we want to work on – to improve the understanding of the value of play and what play really can do, where more and more it is squeezed by a desire both from the formal system and from parents that children should learn specific literacy and numeracy quite early.” 

What students may miss out on in a Common "Hard" Core Kindergarten!!
  1. Building Strong Relationships with Students and Teachers
  2. Learning to Make Friends and Develop Empathy
  3. Learning to Get Along with Others and Taking Turns 
  4. Learning to Work with Others as a Team Member
  5. Learning to Get Organized and Keep Things Organized 
  6. Learning to Take Care of Themselves and their Belongings


From the very first week, the new Common Core kindergartners have to spend three and a half hours on literacy instruction every single day. After this, they spend an hour and a half on math and just twenty minutes on what is now called ‘physical activity time’ (recess). Shockingly, just four weeks into their school career many will have two standards based tests- one in literacy and one in math. Each test has 56 questions - on the FOURTH week of school! This is more about profit and less about catching struggling or at risk students. 

“curriculum and standards must first connect with the lives and spirits of our children if we’re to have any lasting success. Unless we reach into our students’ hearts, we have no entry into their minds. We can get students to pass tests and complete assignments. But there is a price to pay. We will never inspire our students to learn for their own sake and to love coming to school.” Regie Routman 

As we move through time, kindergarten is changing and becoming more rigorous, some are saying that kindergarten is the new 1st grade. We see more and more stories of Kinder teachers that are fighting back, trying to keep toys, imaginative play, recess and fun child centered activities alive and at the forefront. A child centered kindergarten that develops happy well adjusted children should be the goal. A recent article about the push back by Kinder teachers was in a district that wanted to remove dolls, toy food, and even developmental stations like my favorite the play kitchen. Essentially, we are saying that there is no more time for playing in kindergarten which means that our children are being introduced to the academic world earlier and earlier. NO TIME FOR PLAY IN KINDERGARTEN? 


One secret to Finland's and Scandinavia's huge academic success is parents talk, read, sing, play and engage with children. All parents have a minimum of two years of parental leave. Early play and Imaginative engagement with children helps develop advanced language skills and language helps children build strong imaginations and I.Q. Imagination is fundamental to becoming someone who love reading and school   Scandinavian parents use rich complex languages, communicating in two or three languages even with their babies.  The Danish phrase "leg godt", which means "play well", the Norwegian phrase "Friluftsliv", literally means "free air life", or outdoor play, the Finnish phrase "käsityön ystävät" which means, friends crafts, or handicraft! Wow, we don't really give "play" much value in today's test, punish, and blame culture. We need to develop a play mindset and educate parents and teachers on the importance and value of engaging with their children using imaginative play. We all need to start limiting TV time and or using Smart Phones around children and go outside and play!
Looking deeper into this change, there was even a study not so long ago from the University of Virginia. Ultimately, the study was put in place to assess the views of kindergarten teachers between 1998 and 2010. Over this 12-year period, the shift towards a more academic level of teaching was clear to see. Within this, there was a particular shift towards literacy at a more advanced level than had ever been seen. In 1998, just 30% of the teachers in kindergarten agreed that children should learn to read at this age. By 2010, this had completely changed and it is now thought to sit at around 80%.

Asking questions is what brains were born to do, at least when we were young children. For young children, quite literally, seeking explanations is as deeply rooted a drive as seeking food or water. Alison Gopnik

What effect has this had? As you would expect, increased academic studies means that the amount of time spent on arts, play kitchen time, and music has decreased. Instead, children at this age are now used to dealing with worksheets, textbooks, and even many assessments. Before we judge whether this is right or wrong, we need something with which we can compare. Luckily, the education system in Finland is vastly different.

I was never a good student. I had to be dragged into kindergarten. It was hard to sit and listen to somebody talk. I wanted to be out, educated by experience and adventure, and I didn't know how to express that. Robert Redford

Finnish Education - Compared to the US, Finland is very different in their education system and it is highlighted at the very beginning of a student’s learning career. In Finland, the compulsory kindergarten (called ‘preschool’) starts at the age of 6. Even at this age, they still aren't introduced to worksheets and textbooks but instead play with tools, paints, musical instruments, and spend most of the day outdoors. Of course, this isn't the first time the Finnish education system has reached the news because they were recently praised for the fantastic performance of 15-year olds. As well as achieving strong grades, these grades were consistent each year.

"The connection between child development and the outdoors can be seen clearly in Scandinavian educational systems. The cultural heritage of Scandinavia venerates nature experience. There’s even a word in Norwegian for it – friluftsliv (frí-loofts-live). The literal translation is “free air life.”'
 "Friluftsliv promotes direct experience in the natural world — picture a three year old gamboling about in the woods, picking up leaves and peering into hollow logs: that’s friluftsliv." by Erik Shonstrom | May 19, 2014   
 http://www.childrenandnature.org 

Inside Kindergarten - Recently, a US teacher went to see the Finnish public preschool and initially found that the school day was just four hours long and they focused outdoor discovery and free play. After an hour on outside with the boys scooping shovels of mud and playing in the snow, the morning started at 9.30 am with ‘Morning Circle', "a communal time of songs, sharing, dancing and chants" for the boys whilst the girls were playing board games inside. At this point, they had already enjoyed an hour outside with their friends. According to one of the teachers, they were still learning through play. In fact, she was sure that the learning was more effective because the children are having fun and they don’t even realize that they are learning. 

"We cannot choose fidelity to a program, curriculum or test over fidelity to a child.” Debbie Miller, author of Reading with Meaning

In support of the teachers, a recent study actually proves her point. When children play, they develop important social, physical, cognitive, and emotional skills. Assuming that the fun has been designed for children, the study suggests that the children develop a thirst for learning and their motivation for learning increases at the same time. As you talk to more and more teachers across Finland, the passion for this type of learning remains the same. Let’s face it, these same children were running around with freedom just a few weeks ago. Finland has decided that it isn't a normal way to learn with textbooks, worksheets, and having to sit still for prolonged periods of time.


Before we continue, we should say that it isn't all fun and games because the children still take part in handwriting lessons. However, they are far less strict and they will only occur around once a week. With less of a curriculum in place, there isn't necessarily a ‘typical’ preschool day that the whole city or country follows. For example, one school has field trips on a Monday, ballgames and exercises during the middle of the week, and then musical days on Friday. Despite this general layout, it could change from one week to the next and between schools.



As we said earlier, Morning Circle is a particularly popular session in Finnish schools and it sees the students spend time together sharing, singing, dancing and chanting. At the end, they are allowed to choose a learning station of their choice whether it is arts and handicrafts, pretending to run a bakery, or building forts from sheets. Regardless of what option the child chooses, there is still learning but in a more natural holistic way. For example, the ‘pretend to run a bakery’ game has them dealing with pretend money, organizing, backing,  taking orders, asking questions, and counting. If the teacher needs to step in and help with calculating change, they can do so. Suddenly, they have worked out how to give change from a particular bull which improves their math skills. In their minds, they have just sold one of their classmates a bunch of cupcakes. 


Two Variants of Learning - In Finland, all kindergarten teachers are expected to offer two different types of learning - free form and guided. In examples we have given, you have seen them both because the children playing in the mud was more free whilst the running of the shop was guided and directly contributed to learning. Immediately, it is clear to see that the teachers want their students to have fun while learning and there is actually an old saying in Finland that suggests learning without fun is knowledge forgotten down the line.



Moving Forward - By no means is the Finnish curriculum a finished article, each year they are making changes and finding what works best for their students. For example, teachers weren't allowed to teach reading in years gone by but this has now changed. If a child shows an interest in reading, they will sit down with students and help them to learn. However, the child remains in control and they are more likely to retain the knowledge because they aren't being forced to focus when they aren't ready. Sadly, many children are being left behind in the US and many other countries with a strict curriculum because children aren't ready at a young age. Then, the curriculum moves on without them and they struggle from that moment forward for over a decade.



Just like in the US, parents meet with teachers every so often but this is to discuss the child’s interests and whether they are ready to learn reading and other key skills. In the US, children of the same age are forced to learn complex rules of the written language just because the curriculum says so. Whether these 5/6 year olds are ready or not, they have to adapt at such a young age and get on with it. Currently, over 40 states are obliged to follow the Common Core State Standards or the  College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards. Within these Standards, there are numerous expectations for children of this age. 

Despite the strict regulations and expectations we have for the nation’s five year olds, there is no evidence whatsoever that they benefit in the long-term from this type of rigorous system. In New Zealand, we recently saw a study that compared 11 year olds in their ability to read. In one group, the children started to learn at the age of five whereas the other started at seven. By the time each group had reached the age of 11, they were at the same level and the later starters had caught up.



Although we can’t see the advantages to starting at such a young age, could there be disadvantages that exist? Above all else, the late starters are certainly getting to enjoy their childhood for a longer period of time and there are a few key developments occurring when this is allowed to happen;



Relationships - Rather than being thrown into the classroom and starting formal education, starting later enables relationships to develop between students and teachers as well as the students themselves. As they play together, they appreciate how the group atmosphere operates and this is important considering they would have been the center of attention for such a long time. Suddenly, the friendships become stronger, they learn how to appreciate the opinions of others, and they still build skills from the foundation level.



Thirst for Knowledge - For many years, there has been a overwhelming feeling towards education that it isn't enjoyable. If you ask a group of teenagers whether or not they enjoy their school experience, the majority will say that they don’t because they feel as though it is forced upon them - who can blame them when they have been adhering to a curriculum and completing tests since the age of five?


However, starting later allows the children to develop the thirst for knowledge and then they crave learning and develop their skill set. Considering everyone catches up by the age of eleven, should the two years between five and seven be spent in a different way (just as we have seen in Finland)? Rather than pushing them into a classroom and hoping that they excel, we can set them up for learning in a better way so that they become more efficient as they grow older.





Summary - Ultimately, this is an extremely interesting topic and one that could spark debates all around the world. Do we start children off with worksheets too early? We have certainly seen the emotional and various other skills that can be learned through play, arts, music, etc. According to many studies and the research we have seen, we might just see greater results by starting formal academics later and Finland continues to be the cornerstone of this change!

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