School starting age: when is too soon?

July 3, 2014

in Concentration, Early Learning, Future of Education, Home schooling, preschool education, research

There is a big debate in British society at the moment about the right age to start formal schooling, and how formal education may be detrimental to young children. The camps in the debate are primarily the UK Department of Education that advocates the extension of formal preschool programmes to 2 year olds on one side and education researchers and the “Too much too soon” campaign on the other side, who see the expansion of formal education as a threat to free play and creativity in young children. Cambridge researcher David Whitebread, from the Faculty of Education, thinks children may need more time to develop before their formal education begins in earnest.

But does research really show that delaying formal education is optimal? It is interesting to note that the defense of free play and child-led education tends to come from progressive researchers working in education and teaching departments  as well as practitioners. If you start looking at fact based research led by departments in developmental and cognitive psychology – the field where I come from – the story is actually very different. Modern developmental psychologists have found that many skills that were previously attributed to certain stages of development that occur at particular ages (as advocated by Piaget, whose ideas are still taught widely in faculties of Education but have been more and more discredited by neurodevelopmental research), are actually knowledge dependent and can be accelerated if particular knowledge is taught. There is also plenty of research into the field of expertise, where it has been shown that acquisition of knowledge in a particular field will lead children to higher problem solving abilities in that field than older children who lack that knowledge (an example of this is expertise in the game of Chess). So again, hard research actually shows that early learning and knowledge acquisition give children the prerequisite for higher order performance and make these children outperform older children who lack this knowledge. I remember the shock among students when our developmental psychology professor who had researched early child development for decades assured us that early learning worked and that many skills that people thought babies couldn’t acquire, they could acquire easily and to a much higher level than older children who hadn’t been taught. Raised in a liberal progressive ideology, we just didn’t want to believe it, even though the research results were clear.

But that is not to say, of course, that on a human level, this is a desirable outcome. You might recognise that teaching a child astrophysics at 5 is possible, but is it desirable? What is the emotional and social cost? According to David Whitebread, in order to accelerate formal academic learning, free play and emotional development are sacrificed, and this is a price is not worth paying (and if this was the case, I would agree with him). This is a very valid point and a debate worth having, but I think it is important everyone involved in the debate is first honest about actual research results, as it is not accurate to say that free play necessarily leads to higher educational outcomes later on. The best example of this would be to take educational performance of development countries that tend to be at the very bottom of the league tables  and where children spend all their childhood on free play and exploring nature. And how about those countries where children never enter school at all, how well do they perform intellectually and academically later on? Obviously, not very well.

You may found this comparison far fetched, but it is just as far fetched to cite Scandinavia, where you find the richest countries in the world with a large very educated middle class and pretend that they do so well in league tables BECAUSE they delay formal schooling until 7. What happens is that many children in Scandinavia and also in Germany learn a lot at home, read books and go to museums and parks with their parents, and this is why they learn so much while they are not in formal schooling. It is not so much what they do in play-based preschool but what they do OUTSIDE of preschool that determines their educational outcome. This is all very well for children who are lucky enough to have educated and dedicated parents, but what happens to children whose parents have to work full-time or who would rather put their child in front of the TV all day than to take them out and engage with them? They get left behind and they might be far better of in a formal school environment than in their home. It is not a coincidence that educational performance in Germany is determined by the parents’ socioeconomic background far more than in almost any country in the world. It is because children don’t learn much IN school until they are 10, and unless they learn a lot at home (which happens in many homes), they will simply learn very little and get left behind when education suddenly gets serious.

Who is the real enemy of free play? I would argue it is not early learning or even formal schooling, but TV and the lack of time parents who struggle economically have to spend with their children. In real life, the alternative to formal schooling is not picking berries with your grandparents “Scandinavia-style”, but it is watching Teletubbies and Tom and Jerry all day (at best!). Based on these considerations, I am a proponent of early preschool education, as long as it is optional, high quality and leaves sufficient room for free play and social interaction (and in my experience, most preschool programmes do this). The solution is not to delay formal learning till later which usually results in children who do not learn enough at home getting left behind.

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