For a long time now, one of my interests has been educational philosophies. Obviously this isn’t terribly interesting to most people, and there are probably some who feel that time could be better spent learning about eyebrow shaping or penguin wrangling (my eyebrows are awful and Sea World keeps a close eye on their penguins whenever I’m nearby), but it’s something that really fascinates me – especially how we can create the best learning experiences for children.
Obviously this was useful to me when I was a teacher. I was able to implement changes in the way my classroom was set up, the way I worked with students, the types of lessons we had, even some of the topics we approached, thanks to the reading I did. But since Squirm’s birth, I’ve become more and more interested in Early Childhood learning and learning environments. I worked, primarily, with middle and upper primary, then lower secondary students, so learning about early childhood is a totally new ball game for me. I have been fortunate, though, that I have some brilliant early childhood/lower primary school teachers as very good friends, who have shown me just how good early childhood teaching can be.
One thing which deeply worries me is the pressure for younger students to be doing more academically. There are schools in my area who won’t take students into Prep unless they can write their full names – not nicknames, which might be easier for 4 or 5 year olds to write, but their full names. There’s an awful lot of pressure on children to be reading and writing by the end of Prep, so they don’t ‘fall behind’, so they’re ready for Year Three when the NAPLAN testing begins.
As this pressure moves further down – from Prep to Kindergartens which now have to incorporate phonics lessons into their program – it’s not hard to see the pressure moving further down again. If Kindergarten aged children (4 and 5 year olds) need to be able to sit still and learn sounds, then we’d better make sure that 3 and 4 year olds know what the alphabet looks like. And if 3 and 4 year olds need to know what the alphabet looks like, we’d better make sure that 2 and 3 year olds can sing the alphabet song. Suddenly early childhood learning becomes less about about discovery and invention, and more about making sure we tick all the academic boxes. And I don’t think this is coming from the educators – it’s hard to miss the pressure being applied from politicians and ‘experts’ who believe that atandardised testing is the cure-all for all educational woes (or the companies making money from them).
The focus and pressure on Standardised testing has worried me for a long time now. This is actually the first year I haven’t ‘done’ NAPLAN since it began – I’ve always had Year 5 or Year 7 classes, so I’ve had a lot of experience with it. I must admit, I’ve been able to use class results to highlight areas where I could improve my teaching, though I’m sure a low-stakes test would have given me the same information. But instead of low stakes and low pressure testing, we’ve continued to push our students through testing which has left them in tears (the break between maths tests for Year 7s was almost always guaranteed to have tears), left them physically ill, left them not wanting to come to school, made them feel cynical and tired of learning (in 2011, my students started to refer to NAPLAN as ‘That which must not be named’ to avoid the NAPLAN saturation which had overtaken the school) and then, given parents almost no information about how their child has actually performed. The tests are heavily bell curved, meaning that only so many students can achieve the top levels, and parents are left with little more than a dot on a line.
So how do we prevent this NAPLAN mania, this drive for ‘academic achievement’ from moving further and further down to our youngest children? Should we just ‘suck it up’ and join the conveyor belt, buying NAPLAN materials for our toddlers to ensure that they aren’t ‘left behind’? Or is there a different way to approach early childhood education, or a different way to approach education altogether?
Or most importantly for me – how can I make sure that learning is a joy for my child? How can I make sure that he wants to learn all his life? How can I make sure that he’ll be curious about the world, that he’ll question what he sees, that he’ll participate?
That’s why I continue to read about Educational Philosophies. That’s why I’ll continue to debate the use and methods associated with NAPLAN and other standardised testing. That’s why I’ll continue to share my thoughts on education here.