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When less is more

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Making learning a joy again…Photo: T. Singaravelou

As another academic year begins, education still remains a race against others as well as against time in a spiralling frenzy to learn more things faster, earlier. We need to slow down and let children learn at their own pace so that their understanding of themselves and the world becomes richer and more nuanced…

As I accompanied my three-year-old daughter for her LKG admission ‘interview’, the little ‘ candidates’ were doodling on a blackboard while they waited for their turn. Most kids were content drawing unrecognisable squiggles when one parent edged her son towards the board. “Write ABC,” his mother suggested as the little child wrote letters in a shaky hand. “After H, then I, then what?” the mother kept goading the compliant child as other parents exchanged nervous glances. Thankfully, the interview was benign and my daughter, who can just about hold a pencil, was not made to either recite or write the alphabet.

The “earlier the better” and “faster equals smarter” ethos is deeply embedded in our cultural psyches that it influences both parenting styles and school curricula. As we push children to achieve more and more, earlier and earlier, we don’t realise that our children may pay a high price. Not only does early drilling and cramming steal the joy from learning but also creates emotional angst in the child. Moreover, the practice of introducing higher level concepts at younger ages also undermines children’s cognitive foundations and thereby defeats its very purpose. Right from pre- to high school, our children are not only expected to race against each other but also against time. Developmental principles of stages of learning and cognitive preparedness are given scant regard as we are out to prove that our kid is the smartest and fastest on the block.

In Mumbai, overwrought parents feel compelled to send their toddlers for “interview classes” so that their kids get into prestigious schools. When I asked my friend what her two-and-a-half-year-old was being taught, I was horrified to hear that little Nayana was being made to state the differences between living and nonliving things. The fact that Nayana was being denied the opportunity to construct her own theories of the world and then refine them based on confirming and disconfirming evidence did not seem to matter to her parents. Innate propensities to learn were shelved aside for entry into a ‘top’ school.

Furious pace

Today, we live in an age of information overload. As there is so much to learn, many parents and educators try to give children a head start by introducing them to advanced concepts early on. Worksheets, textbooks and test papers seem to reflect this belief. When I was in school, I remember being introduced to decimal numbers in Grade VI. But now children as young as Grade IV are given problems in decimal numbers. Whether the content is age-appropriate or whether children in Grade IV have the requisite foundation upon which the concept can be developed is not questioned. Children with shaky division skills and fragmented knowledge of fractions perform operations on decimal numbers diffidently.

A Grade I math worksheet at a school included the following instruction, followed by a series of figures with arrows marked on them: “Colour the parallel lines in red, convergent lines in blue, divergent lines in green, perpendicular lines in brown and intersecting lines in pink.” Yes, this earful of instructions was given to children as young as six years old! Do the children have the requisite reading skills to decode the instructions? If the teacher reads it aloud, do they have a short-term store to retain them? What is the point of introducing perpendicular lines when children do not have a concept of angle? Unless, angles were covered in UKG at this fast-track school!

A science paper for first-graders required children to indicate true or false for the following:

Star fish are echinoderms.

Chameleons are mammals.

Of course, the vast majority of kids in class would have answered the questions perfectly after being coached at home by high-strung parents. While children may rightly state that chameleons are not mammals but reptiles, do they appreciate the significance of these terms? Do they realise that humans are mammals? Do they understand how animals are classified? Mere memorisation and regurgitation of disconnected facts will not enhance the web of conceptual links in their minds.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is conducted by the U.S. Dept of Education every four years to see how children compare worldwide. Singapore is one of the top rankers in mathematics. A study undertaken by the American Institutes of Research compared curricula in the U.S. and Singapore. In contrast to most U.S. states, Singapore covers fewer topics per grade. Topics are also taught more comprehensively when they are introduced; so the need for repetition in later grades is reduced. In the U.S., depth seems to be sacrificed for breadth. Contrary to what one might expect, more advanced topics are introduced earlier in the U.S. compared to Singapore. For example, in the state of Florida odd and even numbers are introduced in Grade 1; whereas, in Singapore this topic is not introduced until Grade 3. Thus, instead of exposing children to advanced topics early on, it is more prudent to spend time strengthening fundamentals.

Disadvantaged

A study in the U.S. revealed that children in ‘academic’ preschools where the three R’s were introduced did no better than children in traditional preschools that emphasised free play. In fact, children in the academic schools were more anxious and less willing to take risks. As psychologists Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff write, “When we perceive the world as ripe with social and learning opportunities, we will help our children grow. To do more — to use flashcards with infants, to insist on Mozart for the “pre-infant”— is like putting a videocassette on fast-forward instead of play. To put children on fast-forward is to risk turning them off to their natural desire to learn, and instead increases their risk of becoming anxious, depressed and unhappy.”

As schools exert pressure through high-powered curricula, parents feel the need to keep children running, lest they fall off the treadmill. The educational toy industry in the U.S. alone is worth around a billion dollars per year. Parents feel compelled to purchase flashcards for infants and educational DVDs, lest 11-month-old Anuj falls behind. Anuj, soon tires of the laminated flashcards and much prefers tearing and playing with the box. Most educational toys are convergent in nature as they can be played in only one way. Divergent toys, typically things that are mutable like old cartons and newspaper, are more likely to engage a child’s creative instincts.

We have to remember that we, parents, are not the architects of our children’s minds. By overstimulating a child, we cannot necessarily push his developmental window. As neurologist, Prof. Huttenlocher says, “One has to consider the possibility that very ambitious early enrichment and teaching programmes may lead to crowding effects and to an early decrease in the size and number of brain regions that are largely unspecified and that may be necessary for creativity in the adolescent and adult.” Thus, schools should evaluate their curricula for developmental appropriateness and parents may take a backseat instead of rushing to buy the latest set of encyclopaedias.

The author is the director of PRAYATNA, Centre for Educational Assessment & Intervention. She may be reached at arunasankara@gmail.com.

Courtesy: http://www.thehindu.com/education/school/article452712.ece

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