The debate is pretty much over now. Judgments are in. Three-year-olds like learning all kinds of stuff - not just social skills, but, yes, what words are useful to describe the colours of a sunrise, and how to count the number of ants running across a picnic table. They like singing, and reciting as well as throwing a ball and riding a tricycle.
They also delight in being able to read road signs and find out how that sound-symbol code called the alphabet is used. So academically useful learning is now to be included in the pre-kinder years. And when you are three and your brain is in overdrive, it turns out that there is actually no downside. Provided everything is done at an appropriate pace and level, the littlies absorb an amazing amount of information and digest it extremely competently.
Furthermore, it is highly desirable that they should do so. A child who fails to access a wide range of intellectually stimulating experiences, or to acquire a reasonable vocabulary, and number skills, as well as an idea of shapes, colours and other useful categories, is seriously disadvantaged. Because it is used as a euphemism for “get them out from under my feet” the injunction to “let the children play” is now recognised as a recipe for brain starvation.
Those who have done well in any area of life, including school, over the past several decades have most likely had parents or other involved adults who made it their business to enjoy the child’s company and introduce them as fully as possible into life’s rich panoply of ideas and experiences in the early years.
Up until recently early childhood professionals, whether education faculty specialists at universities or workers in child care centres, have predominantly allocated the highest priority to social skills. While social skills are important they are no longer seen as the be-all and end-all. Those days are past. The realisation that intellectual development needs to have foundations solidly in place before the fifth birthday is now not only widespread, but dominant.
Much of the initiative for expanding educational options for three to five-year-olds has come from the private sector. The Los Angeles Times recently reported (September 24, 2006) that the demand for tutoring three to five-year-olds has increased dramatically in the last two to three years, and is now a major component of a national private tutoring education industry sector currently worth $US 2.2 billion.
The No Child Left Behind Act passed by the US Congress in January 2002 has been a major stimulation to this development. In consequence “many states have adopted benchmarks for every grade level, including pre-kindergarten”. (Bench-marks, of course, are a minimum level of expectations. Most children, given data in an accessible way, can exceed the bench-marks with ease.)
In Australia the Rowe Report submitted to the Federal Parliament in November 2005 did not directly address the pre-kindergarten years, but echoed many of the major lines of argument that led to the passage of the US legislation - and although Brendan Nelson who commissioned the report has now been shifted to Defence, Julie Bishop the current Federal Minister for Education, looks every bit as interested in promoting academic excellence as Minister Nelson and his immediate predecessor, David Kemp.
In Australia it is likely that the private sector will also be a prime mover in providing curriculum and curriculum delivery for the under-fives, simply because institutional inertia will prevent rapid change in government provided educational services, despite their newly acquired best intentions.
But change is inevitable, one way or another.
First, there are ethnic and cultural factors at work. The normal employment aspirations of the generality of Anglo and Irish background Aussie kids in a globalised economy already means competing with Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Jewish, Italian and Greek graduates in all areas of professional employment. The observed over-representation of Asian-Australian students in the annual Year 12 credit list is a clear sign of things to come. Average Aussie kids will need to improve their game just to stay as players.
The broad Australian public needs to take seriously the fact that some cultures do much better than others in promoting academic excellence, and that everyone else should learn from them. Almost all Asian cultures produce academic high achievers as standard. Jewish intellectual attainments are already one of the mainsprings of western democratic societies. Both Asian and Jewish families have in common the value they attach to children, the manner in which they actively engage their under-fives and the way the children respond positively to the high expectations held out for them.
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