Deccan Herald: Finding a school fit enough

July 5, 2012 : THINKING AHEAD

The average child today is academically faster and brighter than his or her predecessors. In such a scenario, how can we ensure children have a challenging academic environment that gives them the space to grow to their full potential? Chetana Keni provides solutions.

Three-year-old J is a happy child. She keeps herself occupied interacting with her mother who works from home. Her mother has bought her several books to read, workbooks, digital learning materials and several educational toys. J is very quick to learn and can already read and write like a six-year-old. When the family visited renowned schools with this “bright kid”, they were disappointed to know that their child would spend the next three years getting ‘bored’ in preschool!

Five-year-old V has picked up a lot when her mother is teaching her older sibling. She is currently doing Math, reading, writing and spelling at Grade 3 levels. Her mother understands that her child is gifted. She is trying to find a school for her child but is not able to find one that will accommodate her special needs.

C, a School Principal is increasingly seeing these children and has parents asking her to push their children up to higher grades. They bring in the child’s entire work to ‘prove’ their point. She understands what they say, but she is not sure if that is the right thing to do. First, the current educational system has set some standards with regard to age for entry into various grade levels. Second, though there is a lot of pressure on young children to learn to read early, write sooner, and be “more academic” younger, there is no substantial research that supports this pressured exposure as having any long-term benefits. Third, child development has several facets to it, not only academic. So should she assume that if a child is academically ready for an ‘Up Grade’ that she is really ready socially, emotionally and physically as well?

Today’s children seem to ‘know it all’. They are second/third generation English learners. They have well-educated, well-informed and involved parents. They travel in India and abroad and know a whole lot more about wild animals, food, culture, terrains, etc. than any of us knew even when we were three times their age! They watch more science on TV in three years of their life, than what we took twelve years to memorise from a book. They speak in grammatically correct sentences at two without having to learn the specifics of grammar that we took several years to master. They are born in an era where knowledge is updated every 24 hours and they are totally ready for it.

Plethora of resources

Another reason is the affordability to purchase learning resources and to attend ‘handwriting workshops’, ‘theatre workshops’, ‘thinking skills workshops’, phonics workshops’ etc. These provide the children exposure to several avenues of learning even before they enter preschool. In fact these learning programmes are now available not only for infants but also for babies in the womb!

What does this mean? Are we now having super intelligent children? Are our children super developed? Is academic development a good measure of the child in totality? Will moving this five-year old to Grade 3 really benefit her? Will she be able to make friends with children who are four years older than her… especially when children born even two years apart seem to have a generation gap! Is she physically ready to take the complete load of academics at Grade 3 with regard to volume? Can she study for two hours after she is back home? Is it okay for her to speak about, and try fashion and discuss relationships in Grade 6 when she will only be eight years old?

Not too soon

Research has proved that a child’s neurological development determines both physical and cognitive milestone achievements. For e.g. learning to write before the eye-hand development is secure can be more frustrating than fruitful. Free unstructured age relevant play outdoors provides avenues for imagination and exploration. Conversations fire the child’s neural networks, ignites curiosity and forms the basis for further cognitive development. The child thus develops skills important for academic learning like sitting tolerance, attention, focus, task completion, patience, perception etc.

Preschool is a social learning environment that teaches the young child how to interact with others, be patient, to take turns, and how to listen and follow directions. These are all valuable skills for succeeding not only in “real school,” but also in life.

There are also other reasons for a good preschool education — it provides a solid foundation for academic learning — the very building blocks the child will need later on. The “magic” of exploring a sand table, sensations of using finger paint, negotiating with a peer the use of a toy translate into sharing personal space, creativity, and group skills.

Primary school takes a child to a whole new platform. She is expected to now slowly work on her academic skill levels, learn to take responsibility, endure the stress levels of quality and quantity expected and slowly gain independence. As she grows she learns from her environment, the first lessons on conflict resolution, decision making, judgement, importance of values like trust, loyalty, honesty etc. She learns from her own mistakes as well as that of others, she learns to win ethically and lose gracefully.
As she becomes physically stronger, she evolves mentally as well. She cries lesser, seeks lesser parental intervention and lets go easily. Her relationships become deeper, more meaningful and she discovers herself as an individual.

The environment plays a crucial role in all of the above. The child’s peer group, her mental, emotional levels, her family structure, her teachers and parents all form an integral part of this “learning.”. We all will agree that it is this learning that takes us a long way ahead; it is this learning that decides our social adjustment and our emotional and happiness quotients. We cannot deny our children the time and space to pick these skills. If we do, we would be raising imbalanced adults.

The fine balance

But then how do we balance this? How can we allow this generation which is smarter, faster, and better in academics, find a challenging academic environment which gives them the space to grow in other areas at their pace?

Today’s parents face the challenge of finding this learning environment for their children, and schools are facing the challenge of having a classroom with skewed talents. How do they ensure that they provide a balanced environment to these children so they don’t get bored in academic related classes?

The solution is to have an enriched curriculum component. Teachers must be encouraged to have a lesson plan which takes into consideration not only children who are trying to catch up but also children who are at higher levels. Every worksheet and assessment must have room for adaptation for these children. These children can be challenged with lateral thinking in the same topic; provided with research based assignments; allowed to participate in a buddy system or help the teacher in classroom management.

Children who are several levels higher in one or two particular subjects like English/Math/Science must be allowed to go to those higher classes for these subjects and return to their peer group for other activities like Arts, Play, Drama etc…

The other option is perhaps to overhaul our entire education system and have level-based classrooms. Here they can enable several children with different age and skill level groups to mix and match their skills. They can learn together in various groups where they fit for various lessons. A study of the curriculum of Grade 1-4 Math and Science shows the same lessons are taught in all grades albeit at different levels. So the same can be done in this level based classroom where the children evolve as they delve deeper into a few topics every year building their concepts along the way. This will give the children, an opportunity to be motivated and involved personally in their learning planning, process and outcomes.

This is just the beginning. We must anticipate these new classrooms and work towards creating them. Teachers must be trained to facilitate learning in the same classroom at different levels. Maybe there is even a need to reconsider what we are currently teaching in our classrooms. It may in fact be wiser to do a pre-test at the beginning of every topic to see if the children even need the lesson at hand. For, they may already know it all!