It was recently announced that UK schools minister, Nick Gibb, was taking over responsibility for early childhood education. I welcomed this with a tweet:
For those who don’t know, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an 18th Century philosopher. His main contribution to education was his work of fiction, Emile, that recounts the education of the eponymous young man by a tutor named Jean-Jacques (which is somewhat ironic because Rousseau gave his own children up to a foundling hospital). Emile is educated with the aim of becoming a ‘natural man’. This education involves no formal teaching. Instead, it follows Emile’s interests and passions, with Emile learning key ideas as he encounters them. Jean-Jacques is a puppet master who carefully contrives situations to push the learning in a certain direction and this is something of a tension in the book: while Jean-Jacques is ostensibly following Emile’s interests, he is working away behind the scenes to manipulate those interests. This is the central tension in all of what later became familiar as educational progressivism.
Very few educators would trace their own philosophy back to Rousseau. Many are likely to have never heard of him. Yet he is influential nonetheless. Early years education is particularly Rousseauian in that teachers are often required by guidelines and regulations to largely avoid formal teaching and follow the child’s interests. For instance, although the guidelines in my own state of Victoria allow for the need for some ‘adult-led’ learning, they suggest this requires that, “Children have some control and input when adults lead the learning… Adult-led learning encompasses those play experiences and other opportunities that are deliberate and planned by the adult as a response to their knowledge of the child.”
Other authorities go further down the Rousseauian path. Early Childhood Australia suggest that, “As early childhood educators, we should resist the temptation to provide… ‘formal’ learning experiences…” Others suggest that formal learning is less effective than learning through play or even harmful. When you examine such claims, they are usually built on questionable foundations. If anything, the evidence points to the effectiveness of formal teaching methods when it comes to developing the foundations of academic skills.
I do not think anyone is advocating the removal of play from the early years setting. If we accept Geary’s theory of biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge then play is absolutely essential to the development of primary knowledge – oral language, social skills and so on. However, it is likely to be far less effective than formal teaching for the development of reading, writing and mathematics. We could argue that these domains can wait. However, this seems like a recipe for magnifying the disadvantage of students who are not receiving this kind of input at home. Much is made of the fact that children in Finland do not start school until the age of seven, but we need to bear in mind that the Finnish language is far more regular than English and around a third of Finnish children can already read when they start school.
In my view, a lot of play with a little formal teaching would strike the right balance.
Interestingly, many people on Twitter don’t think I should have a view. Although my tweet was a criticism of ideas rather than people, many responses to it were of a personal nature.
The main theme of these comments is that I am not entitled to an opinion because I am not an early years teacher*. It even seems as if my opinion is offensive to some.
This is an interesting point and brings to mind two pieces by the essayist, Paul Graham. The first is one I have referred to in the past – How to Disagree. Here, Graham suggests:
“Saying that an author lacks the authority to write about a topic is a variant of ad hominem—and a particularly useless sort, because good ideas often come from outsiders. The question is whether the author is correct or not. If his lack of authority caused him to make mistakes, point those out. And if it didn’t, it’s not a problem.”
In this spirit, I would invite anyone to share their opinions on secondary maths teaching. In many cases, you are probably going to be more right than some of our supposed maths teaching experts. If you’re wrong, I will happily point out why you are wrong. Deal?
The other Graham essay is a discussion about how, in every society, there are some things that are true but that it is not acceptable to say. I think this may apply here.
Finally, this is not a new phenomenon. I started blogging and tweeting in 2012 and, at that time, anyone who criticised the progressivist-inspired orthodoxy in the bureaucracies that ran secondary schools or trained teachers would be told that they were attacking teachers, even though teachers were often the ones most unhappy with the orthodoxy. The outrage has subsided over time as people have tried out new ideas. I suspect the same will happen with early education.
*The tweet about what to put in my PhD is from an academic who is, according to his Twitter bio, ‘researching responsible leadership, values-led school development, theory and practice of dialogue’. Comments about my status as a PhD student happen surprisingly often and I can only read them as an attempt at invoking the academic hierarchy in order to put me back in my box.