Posts Tagged ‘school’

Should we start school later?

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016 | Thoughts

child-in-school

Compared to other European countries, especially the Nordics, we start school very early. In the UK, children start school the year they turn five, with many starting while they are still four. In Sweden, it’s seven. The Nordics also have much longer summer holidays: three months in Finland.

All of this does not make much difference to educational outcomes. The Pearson Education Index ranks Finland as the best education system in Europe (1st globally in 2012, 5th in 2014). The UK scores 6th overall, 2nd in Europe. You can compare this to the intense schooling that countries such as Singapore and South Korea and by the time everyone reaches undergraduate level, we see no significant differences between intensive schooling and Finland’s “turn up for a bit in the winter, when you’re older”.

Given that, it then seems sensible to reduce the amount of schooling and allow children more time “to be children” (rather than whatever it is they are being when they are in school). How we would implement this is not clear though.

Free, as in childcare

As a parent-to-be, I like the idea that by the time my child hits five, the state will provide me with free daycare for the next thirteen years of their life. It’s not that I don’t want to be a parent, but that I do have to have a job. And then spend most of my money on daycare. That is super-expensive for one child, let alone more. If you had to pay for child care until each of your kids was seven, well, you literally couldn’t. You can easily be looking at £600+ per month, per child. If you have two children, you are spending over 50% of your take-home pay on childcare even if you earn the average UK salary (and 50% of the population earns less!).

In Finland, this isn’t a problem. The state is mandated to provide childcare and it is on an means tested system. If you don’t earn enough you pay nothing, and the amount you might pay is capped, so even if you are a millionaire your childcare will be cheaper than the UK. It’s a great idea, and the UK has now followed suit, offering free childcare for three year olds.

However, note that Finland does not have a system where children stay at home and receive more parenting, they just go somewhere other than school.

Letting children be children

Given that most Finnish children go to daycare, the system is actually remarkably like the English one. You can argue that daycare is fundamentally different than school, because it is more relaxed and allows children to learn through play. However, I think this is being unfair to our schooling system.

While some structured learning does go on in reception, a large element of the learning takes place through learning through play as well. I don’t remember doing that much work in reception. I mostly did fun stuff.

There are advantages too

One possible advantage of having some structured learning in these years, is that it may help level the playing field across socioeconomic backgrounds. In the UK, everyone will go to reception the year they turn five and start doing some reading and writing.

This is not the case in the Nordics. If you are not attending school until you are six or seven, your learning will only start if it starts at home. For example, Elina could already read when she started attending school. This gave her an advantage over other children, who may not have even picked up a book before the age of seven.

Should we teach more foreign language?

Monday, May 23rd, 2016 | Thoughts

books

Learning foreign languages is a big thing these days. As we grow into a globalised society, children are being taught other languages from an earlier and earlier age. When I was at school I did French and German at high school. Now, you would typically start learning another language in primary school. This is in the UK, where we are far behind our European neighbours, who often speak several languages.

In Finland for example, you cannot earn a degree without speaking Swedish. So even when you go to university, you continue to take classes in Finnish, Swedish, and often English as well. In Luxembourg, you learn French, German and Luxembourgish (yes, they have their own language and it is taught in their schools).

However, all of this this focus on languages misses one quite important point: teaching children languages simply doesn’t work.

The failure of bilingualism

I remember very little of my French. In fact, the things I do know I probably re-learned last time I was there, rather than remembering. My German is poor too. Even my mum, who enjoys languages, speaks enough French to get by when they go there on holiday every year, would struggle to hold a conversation about anything meaningful.

It is not just us Brits however.

Have you ever spoken to a Canadian from the English-speaking regions? My money is on them having no French skills. They learn it in school: it’s an official language. In reality though, they forget it all as soon as they walk out the door.

Even Finland, greatest education system in the world, and with a dire need to learn another language because only 95% of their own population speak native Finnish (let alone other countries) has not been successful. English is strong in urban areas where they get to practice it, but my in-laws don’t speak English. Elina constantly bangs on about how poor her Swedish is. In Finnish Saturday school. I sit next to a Finland-Swedish woman, who’s Finnish is about as good as mine.

Of course many people are bilingual. However, this is primarly a result of them getting the opportunity to use and develop their skills in society: by living in a country and speaking the language. People who learn a language in an educational system do not develop those skills.

But what about the other benefits?

Learning a language does not provide the direct benefit of being able to speak that language, as discussed about. But what about the other benefits? Are there any? The answer is yes. Though what they are and how much benefit they provide is not always clear.

For example, being able to think in another language is highly beneficial because a language provides a construct for thinking. Therefore, by thinking in another language you are taking a different approach and that will improve your problem solving skills. However, this only works if you can think in that other language. As Elina found, you need to live in that language for years before you start thinking in it, rather than translating thoughts back to your native language.

Learning a language may also improve your cognitive skills, help keep your brain active through learning, help you understand your own language better and develop your multitasking abilities.

These are all genuine benefits and very worthwhile having.

However, if we accept that people don’t actually get the language skills out of the learning, they just get these benefits as a bi-product, we are essentially just using language classes as a proxy for these benefits.

Which is fine, they’re good benefits, but why not just teach a class in that? It might be that learning a language is the most effective way to do that. I doubt it though. Teaching a class specifically to develop these skills would intuitively seem the best way to develop these skills, rather than proxying it through another subject.

Summary

Teaching foreign languages develops important skills and those skills are certainly worthwhile having. However, given the lack of success in developing language skills, it may be that there is a more effective way to do this. Therefore, teaching languages may not be as important as is often claimed.

Teach Like a Champion

Thursday, December 24th, 2015 | Books

After being recommended the book Teach Like a Champion by another book, I decided to give it a read. I thought it was worth doing because it would have a lot of transferable skills that I could take into my community groups and public speaking. I was wrong; lesson learned.

A lot of it sounded very useful (although I am not a school teacher, so how would I know) but directly relatable to a classroom environment and therefore of little use to a wider audience. In my opinion, this certainly is not worth reading unless you are a school teacher.

One issue that came up again and again was time. This certainly does have wider applications. Time boxing for example. At Sunday Assembly we often give people “about 5 minutes” to talk to the people around them. We call it ‘meet your neighbours’. It’s always a struggle to get people focused again though. Ideally we would say something specific “take 3.5 minutes” and then conclude with a “time is up”.

teach-like-a-champion

Exam results

Monday, August 27th, 2012 | Thoughts

Yes, it’s that time of the year again when we compare exam results to previous years.

It seems silly. If the exam results get better there is a big news story about how the exams have got easier, if the results get worse, there is a big news story about how we’ve let an entire generation down. What do they want, exactly the same results every single year?

Actually, that is exactly what I suggested last year. Standardised exams are really for comparing people against each other (if they were for the benefit of those taking them, we would personalise, or destandardise them), so why not just hand out a certain amount of each grades. It also avoids many other issues – but you can read last year’s post for the full story.

According to the BBC News story, they are also changing the way GCSEs are assessed.

Modular GCSEs are being dropped in England, so that pupils starting GCSE courses this September will have to sit all their exams at the end of the course.

It has been suggested before that the modular system is partly responsible for the gender gap in education, so it will be interesting to see how this change affects it in years to come.