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The illusion of schooling

By Phil Cullen - posted Monday, 27 February 2012

If one wanted to start an education system for a one-language, socially and financially stable, smallish country (Say 23 million inhabitants – about the same size as some world cities) what do you think should be the shape of its schooling system? Before active learning centres called classrooms can be established, there is a number of organisational requirements to ensure that these classrooms operate with as little turbulence as possible.... right? And...children need to develop their learning habits from birth as seamlessly as possible. Right? The natural inquisitive joy of learning that very young children show, needs to be nurtured, fostered, expanded and developed for their entire school life and beyond. Right?

What happens in class each day is so crucial. Who, then, would be better to arrange a design for an efficient and effective schooling system than ordinary, everyday classroom teachers? Okay? Why not?

A wise government asks itself: Who are the most capable, most experienced, most needs-sensitive to design a world-class system of schooling? Ordinary, practicing classroom teachers? Practicing academics ? A group of any Ph.Ds who are smart? A group of elected and politically chosen Ministers of Education? Officials with a background in public service and, maybe a bit of school experience? A group of politicians...Senators perhaps? Rich corporate business men (e.g. Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates, Koch Brothers)? Lawyers (e.g. Joel Klein, Julia Gillard)? Bankers?


To date, countries, seemingly keen on impregnating classrooms with mediocrity leading to backwardness, have tried all of the above groups..... except the first ....those in charge of our children’s future every day of every school year. Their turn?

Starting Age

The age to start ‘formal’ (as it is called) schooling needs to be consistent for every child. Of course. How to start the school-learning life of each individual is so important. Each child is different, but a common starting age makes administrative sense, and to have a small population start from a variety of ages is plain crazy. That’s if the rituals of ‘formal’ schooling have any meaning. Right? Extremely silly. So some high-octane thinking about starting age is needed before any thing else gets off the ground. It would be pretty silly, wouldn’t it, to have a common curriculum with prescriptive overtones for schools before you knew their exact shape?

Contemporary and earlier research as well as school experience show that the best age for a child to begin experiences that classrooms provide is at about age 7. All educationally advanced countries start at this age. Starting earlier than this curbs childhood curiosity, problem-solving capacity, ability to play (non-work) and starting too early can have a life-time effect on confidence, curiosity, attitude to occupational interests, social/ cultural competencies, general expectations and other serious developmental attitudes.

Many busy Mums don’t like the idea of helping, guiding, tolerating kids at home for a few more years, however.

Developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld suggests that four, five, six year olds are not ready to learn (as schools expect them to do) because the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that control feelings, is still under construction. ’It only gets wired at between five and seven years of age.” He reckons that monkeys and elephants can be taught to perform if that’s what you think your child should do. Is that the reason for starting school earlier than necessary? It seems so.



School-based child development, as an responsibility of the state, can (and should) be divided into three phases 1. Early Childhood (Ages 0-7). 2. Middle Childhood (Ages 8-14). 3. Late Childhood (Ages 14+). Of course, the middle and late childhood ages are usually called Primary and Secondary schooling. It’s the pupils of these legislated levels of schooling for which governments take most responsibility through law. Only a government that sponsors fairness, likes children, has faith in their potential and wants them to develop their learning potential, considers what it does with its children very, very seriously (e.g. Finland). Other governments tinker. Australia has a variety of starting ages, most of them around the 4-5 years with different names for the first year...Prep., Kindergarten, Reception, Transition. Pure gimmickry. Surely. Can’t the first year of ‘formal’ schooling be called Year 1 with a non-prescriptive curriculum to match?

The pre-school early ages (aka Early Childhood) in an advanced society concentrate on happiness, get-along-ability, developing curiosity and inquisitiveness, enjoying childhood for seven years under the control of parents. The first of these, happiness, deserves more consideration than it is given. Pre-school agencies that offer help to Mums and Grand-mums would be as diverse as possible. Parents make the choices and decide the pattern of learning to best suit their little ones. Children can then move to ‘formal’ public schooling with confidence and a true sense of inquiry. A progressive country then ensures that a network of well supervised, experience-based public schools set a standard for all other kinds of schooling.

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About the Author

Phil Cullen is a teacher. His website is here: Primary Schooling.

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