Sunday, August 30, 2015

What doesn't work when trying to "fix" early childhood education

 I want to start this post by saying that I have very limited experience in Early Childhood education.  I have taught Upper Elementary, Middle and High School, but have only worked with very young children as a specialist teacher, mainly integrating technology into the learning engagements that the homeroom teachers were planning.  So while I don't claim to be an expert in this age range, for personal reasons I am interested in some of John Hattie's findings in his recent publication The Politics of Distraction (which can be downloaded at this link).

In many countries children don't start school until the age of 5, or even later in the case of countries such as Sweden and Finland where the starting age is 7, yet policy makers often believe that if the children get off to a good/early start then formal schooling will be easier.  In recent years huge amounts of money have been funnelled into pre-school education.  Hattie's research shows, however, that by the age of eight it is hard to detect who did and did not have pre-school education.  An early start, it seems, does not lead to accelerated learning or greater success in school.  Hattie suggests this might be because while pre-schools believe in learning through play, it is mostly only social and emotional development that is emphasised at this age, not play for cognitive development.  He writes:
Before pouring in more money, we need a robust discussion about what learning means in the 0-5 age range - and especially 0-3 - when the most critical bases are set for language, communication, listening and thinking.  Many cognitive skills that develop in these early years are pre-cursors to later reading and numeracy.
 Sadly it seems that early education can lead to early labelling of children before they even start elementary school.  Hattie quotes increases of children coming into school already labelled as ADHD, autistic or with Asperger's (in the USA the increase is 650% in the past 10 years) which means many schools now have around 15% of their children coming into school pre-labelled.  Some of this increase is coming from the demands of parents, some from teachers and some from the marketing strategies of pharmaceutical companies - however it is also true that children who are labelled often quality the school for extra funding - so for schools there is a vested interest in having these diagnoses.  Hattie writes:
Students are being diagnoses and labelled primarily for financial and accountability reasons rather than for the enactment of appropriate educational interventions.
Hattie is particularly scathing about "calming" medication for students coming to school with behavioural issues - many parents and teachers assume that if a child is calm then s/he will learn. Hattie points out that while drugs do calm children there is no corollary that this leads to learning.  In fact there are learning interventions that are much more effective in educating children with behavioural issues than medication.  Even more dangerous is the evidence that once labelled there is often a decrease in achievement gains, compared with other similar children who have not been labelled.  Hattie argues that a learning intervention is often much more expensive and requires much higher levels of teacher expertise/training than drugs or medical attention which the parents pay for, and which could be why schools are advocating for children to be medicated.

(Perhaps at this point I should mention that our son underwent tests as a 3rd Grader and received a diagnosis of ADD when he was in 4th Grade.  This later turned out to be a wrong diagnosis - in fact he was suffering from a writing disability which meant he could think so much faster than write and the physical process of handwriting was getting in the way of his thoughts, which was causing him a lot of frustration.  He was on the 99.8th percentile for intelligence, but on the 3rd percentile for his writing.  We chose not to go the medical route, instead gave him a laptop so that he could capture his thoughts without having to handwrite them.  Our son went on to do well at school and university and now works for a large banking organisation in London.  He has several times mentioned to us how grateful he is that we did not medicate him.)

Photo Credit: University of the Fraser Valley via Compfight cc

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