Thursday, 12 June 2008

Effects of starting school on young children

I always assumed that the teenage years were the worst at school - forced to study dull, uninteresting topics day after day, taught by the same teachers year in year out; forced to sit exams and be graded and measured for your ability to remember and recite things back; very little choice in what those subjects are; and the monotony of it all, day after day at the same school buildings, just to get a piece of paper with a grade on it at the end.

But the other day it struck me that there is a much larger impact on a child when they first start school and full time education at around 5 years old. And that this probably has a more immediate impact on them overall than what happens later on. Later on the child / teenager has become adjusted one way or another to the education system. But when they first start school it is a total change in emphasis from the nurturing environment of their home (assuming good parents).

The key thing that struck me is that this initial impact of sending your child to full time education - a legal requirement in the UK - is probably the complete opposite of and undoes the effects of the previous 5 years development and growth by the parents of trying to raise an independently minded, able child. This is a full 180 degree u-turn in the emphasis of the child's development.

In the first 5 years of a child's life the emphasis is on development in many forms - physical, mental, language, social. Generally parents encourage their developing children to do and achieve more all the time. This is not a forced development, but a natural one. And it takes many forms:
  • Physical movement, hand eye co-ordination, dexterity
  • Language - sounds, words, sentences
  • Crawling, walking, running, riding a bike
  • Reading and writing
  • Personal social interaction
  • Memory
You could characterise this kind of development with descriptive words like 'growth', 'explore', 'interact' and 'independence'. The focus of the parents is normally on getting the child to the point where they can do most things themselves - dress, speak, toilet, feed. When young children ask for things we often say "You can do it yourself. You don't need me to do it for you.". And if the child says that they cannot we often say "Try it. You can do it.".

We want the child to become an independently able and independently minded person.

Then at age 5 we send them off to school and the education system, and all of this independence is systematically suppressed and quashed by it. From day one - like turning off a tap. Now the children can only do what the teacher says, when the teacher says they can do it. No other activity is allowed at that moment. Suddenly each day is not full of new things, but full of the same things with the same people. The same classroom, the same other pupils, the same teacher, the same few topics (repetition seems to be the key to successful teaching). Day after day, week after week, year after year. Yet more conditioning to be a mindless employee sitting in an office in a cubicle somewhere.

Instead of 30 independently minded and capable children, the education system ensures they become 30 identical, dependent, mindless children, all sitting quietly and all doing the same thing when told. Any individuality or deviation from the norm is quashed.

The goal - the child stops thinking and doing for themselves and waits to be told what to do. Perfect future employees. No original unique thoughts themselves, always waiting to be told what to do next.

When they are young we encourage them to be independent and proactive and to try new things and push their boundaries and experiences - "Go on, try it.", "What do you want to do now?".

But the education system changes the child from being proactive to being reactive. Passively waiting for the teacher to tell them what to do. Not bothering to think for themselves. Everything provided for them. In real terms the education system encourages them to switch off rather than be actively engaged.

Once I realised this of course, it then struck me how tragic this whole thing is. These are children who have only lived on this earth for 5 years and we are shipping them off wholesale to an education system that drains them of any individuality and originality they had.

Of course all of this is hidden by the system, and we are presented with school as somewhere to send your young child to gain all the basic knowledge they need - reading, writing and arithmetic as they say. School is presented as an advantage rather than a disadvantage. And not sending your child might mean that they do not learn as fast as the other children, and so fall behind. We blindly assume that sending them to primary school with all the other children is the best thing we can do for them.

But the reality is probably the opposite of what we imagined. We have expended all this effort to help our babies grow up into independent, capable, self minded young children, ready to face up to and explore all of the world and its wonders. But when they get to school most of this is undone. Right from the very beginning of the school system. Five years of personal attention by the parents is nothing compared to the next eleven or more years from the education system. And it all starts immediately, right from day one.

I truly believe the impact of this schooling system must be incredible on these young minds. All originality is suppressed, until they all become mindless zombies, just sitting in class, waiting and following orders. Up to 5 years old the message from the parents is one of "everything is possible", but after that the message from the education system is "don't do that, sit down, you can't do that, be quiet".

Scary. And all the more so because I just never realised that was the reality of it all. I just assumed that at least primary education was good, because it got the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic across, which are universal things to know. Just proves how wrong you can be about anything in this system we call civilisation.

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