Are we teaching our children when they’re ready to learn?


“Education is the single most important job of the human race.” —George Lucas

Our education system demands that children have to start school in a certain window of time.  The law states that a South African child may start school at the age of five-and-a-half, provided she turns six by June 30 of her Grade One year.  A child must start school by the year in which she turns seven.   If children seem ready before the prescribed age, they may be denied entrance to school. Others may be forced to begin formal schooling because they meet the age requirements.

How wise is this approach?  Are all children exactly the same in terms of learning readiness or interest in learning?   Added to this is the fact that in many instances, children are being expected to begin formal learning before Grade 1.  Government schools are now teaching reading skills to pre-schoolers even though there is neurodevelopmental evidence to show that its more efficient to teach them to read at an older age.  It seems that any advantage from learning to read earlier is cancelled out in later years.

An overly crowded curriculum means that young children might struggle to keep up with work that once was designed for higher grade levels.  Failure to cope is seen to be the learner’s problem rather a deficiency of the curriculum. The result is that some children are feeling stressed, anxious and inadequate.  This is wrong because they don’t have a problem. The problem is that they are not ready to learn what they are being taught.

There are very fundamental skills that need to be in place for a child to meet the demands of Grade 1 and beyond. For example, a child needs to be able to see and reproduce the oblique line in a triangle to recognise and write letters like K and R.  They need to have an understanding of numbers to really understand adding and subtracting.

What pre-schoolers need is the freedom to play, albeit it in carefully designed environments.  This allows them to develop the basics for those key skills. They don’t need to become proficient in reading and writing.

Brain development makes it easier to learn virtually everything (except foreign languages) as we get older.  As adults, perhaps you have looked at your child’s schoolwork and wondered how you, at the same age, found such seemingly simple work as being challenging.   Rushing academic teaching may neglect ensuring that basic skills are well embedded in children’s neural networks.

In their book, Stixrud and Johnson (see reference below) relate that one of the ‘most obvious problems we see from rushed academic training is poor pencil grip. Holding a pencil properly is actually pretty difficult. You need to have the fine motor skills to hold the pencil lightly between the tips of the first two fingers and the thumb, to stabilize it, and to move it both horizontally and vertically using only your fingertips. In a preschool class of 20 we know of in which the kids were encouraged to write much too early, 17 needed occupational therapy to correct the workarounds they’d internalized in order to hold a pencil.’

There are always exceptions.  Some children are ready to learn and manage school-based tasks at a younger age than others.  Some of them go on to starting post-school studies in their early or middle teens. We are, however, concerned with all children and many, especially from our disadvantaged communities, are simply not equipped to deal with accelerated learning practices.  Replacing fundamentals with academics won’t help our failing education system.

Reference: The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Child More Control Over Their Lives by William Stixrud, Ph.D., and Ned Johnson, published on February 13, 2018, by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.


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