Saturday, 5 November 2016

I have a dream

It feels like young children are being pushed, prodded and even punished based on their preschool experiences.

I didn't stand out as a brilliant student. I was above average but I always thought my sisters were smarter than me. I went through public schools all the way. I didn't always have the best teachers. I was never pushed or prodded. I spent most of my time outside of school hours doing whatever I wanted. I was asked to do my best and I did, because it came naturally to me to want to please people by doing as I was told. I averaged about fifteen minutes of homework per night during high-school.

I talked early because my parents talked to me and sang to me. Reading came easily because my parents read to me. The motivation to learn to read came from seeing my parents reading. Relationships and travel took priority over financial security. Through osmosis I learned how to think, rather than what to think.

Knowing that I could make decisions about my learning gave me the motivation to persist with the things that I felt were valuable. Nobody told me to continue to do piano exams to grade eight level, to do a Bachelor of Education in three and a half years instead of four, to do my masters while working full-time, my research project while working two jobs, or to spend the last two years working at being the best classical singer I could be. This comes from experiencing the value of learning, having confidence in yourself as a learner, understanding your own strengths and way of working, and realizing that persistence is more important than being perfect.

Language and literacy are the foundation of children's school-based education. Typically-developing children are capable of acquiring all the skills that they need as long as what we expect from them is in line with their developmental level. All the research is there and we know why children are struggling. This is not a judgement on families, but is a fact often spoken of by teachers and academics. There are parents who don't talk to their babies enough. That crucial first five years is when language develops. Children need to hear adults talk, and as much as possible. There are parents who don't read to their children. Children don't see their parents reading so they don't understand the value of reading, and so their motivation to learn to read suffers.

So what do we do with these children? We put them into prep and sit them beside children like, We give them group instruction and worksheets so that they can learn phonics and sight words. They fall behind, they get lost, and they lose their confidence in themselves as learners. My Dad works one-on-one with children who are still struggling with reading at ten years old. They never got it (like me with algebra). We failed to address the gap that came before. We rushed them rather than trusting that they were born learners. You only have to trawl through the early childhood forums to see that this is breaking the hearts of teachers and educators all over the country.

This is my dream. I dream that we will welcome children into prep without any expectations whatsoever. I dream that every bit of time that we expect children to focus and concentrate during prep will be used for reading. I dream that we will come together as a community to support our children, that schools will recruit all the parents, grandparents and volunteers that they can find so that children in prep can have the most one-on-one attention possible. I would have classrooms full of books that children could borrow and bring home to share with their families. I would have volunteers reading to children in small groups, on couches, on the floor, in the library, under trees, wherever they were happiest.

English is not a particularly phonetic language so children learn to recognize words mostly through memorizing them, as they do with spoken language. I would have the volunteers pointing to the words as they read and emphasising the sounds, as we do in kindergarten. I would not ask any child to read and I would not test any child on any aspect of literacy for the entire year. The aim would be to bridge the gap, build children's confidence, and develop in them the joy of escaping into the known and imaginary worlds that books can provide. I would aim to have all children hooked on books before they begin formal learning.

I would have the rest of the day consist of free and guided play. Children need this for well-being. Without physical, emotional, social and spiritual well-being, children won't be able to successfully learn. I would have teachers available to answer questions, make suggestions, and act as examples of how to solve problems, make calculated decisions, how to wonder, how to hypothesise, how to think, and how to express their thinking (as we do in kindergarten).

Children are learning that education is difficult, a chore, something really hard that they look forward to escaping from. It doesn't have to be. This belief is likely to stand in their way of pursuing higher education. They will fear failure, they will fear being compared. Learning shouldn't be about fear. Learning is natural, it is part of why we are here on earth, it is the motivation that keeps us going throughout life. Most of it happens outside of the classroom, it is lifelong, it is an internally-driven process, it is a source of joy. Imagine how it would feel knowing that our children could experience this for themselves, with joy and without fear.

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