How children learn best

I have one distinct memory of my early education and that was tyres. This had nothing to do with the curriculum I was taught, but related to the fact that all of us that wanted it had a tyre which we played with in the playground. Mine was wide and chubby whereas my brother’s was slim and fast. If memory serves me correctly, my tyre never won any races, a fact that didn’t seem to bother me as I adored my rather plump toy.

This rather strange memory of primary education in Middlesbrough rests alongside the fact that I couldn’t really read till I was 8 years old. I know my parents where deeply worried about my late reading age, and used to spend a great deal of time trying to cajole me into reading. In part their worry, I suspect, was because they thought I would be left behind.

The threat of tests

The age of 8 was the time I moved to boarding school. My subsequent memory of education up to the age 18 was a catalogue of failures, missed opportunities and constant focus on tests, some of which in the early years were weekly. This fear of failure haunts me to this day, despite the fact that since the age of 18 I have not failed another exam – although on a couple of occasions I have had a near miss.

The latest Interim Report from the University of Cambridge’s Primary Review highlights the fact that children in the United Kingdom start school earlier than many other countries and are over-assessed. What I have noticed over the last ten years, in particular, is that pressures on children have started earlier and earlier, with preschools now being considered part of the formal education system.

The language of curriculum development, performance and inspection has entered the lexicon of early years together with pressures to achieve. Sometimes I wonder, however, if this pressure to succeed is stifling out creativity and imagination, two skills that are now seen as vital for the success of a knowledge economy.

The constant pressure to succeed can be very destructive, and can ultimately lead to anxiety and stress, issues that organisations like Childline have highlighted as a major problem for many of our young people. If I return to my early experiences with a tyre, I was obviously not following any recognised national curriculum but I was using all my senses to learn, about hand to eye co-ordination, for instance.

Learning how to learn

If we think back to a time before we went to school, we were not constrained by lessons or lectures or the restrictions of assessment criteria. We learnt through our senses, by exploring the environment, testing things out and at times taking risks. Often the educational ‘system’ can be constraining and restrictive.

As one of the Interim Reports from the Primary Review points out, there should be more emphasis on “…individual capacities and a more significant focus on the affective”, going on to say:

“Skills in literacy and numeracy and the ability to use available technologies to support those skills are likely to remain at the centre of the primary school curriculum for the foreseeable future. But the context within which those skills are developed may increasingly be one where the conventional organisation of knowledge is less important than ensuring that children become confident and independent learners”.1

Unless we take heed of the last sentence and recognise that education is not just about examinations, we will not be providing many of our young people with the skills to survive in the modern world. Perhaps we need young people to be rewarded for creativity and imagination and not just memory.
1 Conroy J., Hulme, M., and Menter I (2008) ‘Primary Curriculum Futures’

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