Did you know that aged 5 Finnish children are 6 months ‘ahead’ in maths compared with their English contemporaries?
It is a fascinating fact to me on a number of levels. I teach my three children maths at home (actually it is more my physics teacher husband doing the elder two now), I taught the younger two to read. I began to show my youngest letters and numbers when he was two. I don’t do much other literacy stuff though because it seems likely that long term they will benefit most from just reading lots and doing interesting things. My decision to formally teach my young children reading and maths (and openly admit it) makes me almost a social pariah. If you go on Mumsnet middle class parents must excuse any academic focus by explaining that their ‘dd’ or ‘ds’ was falling over themselves in desperation to learn. Otherwise you are (horror horror) a ‘pushy parent’. I will stress right at the start I don’t think other parents should do what I do at all, just that it has benefits and is fine if you want to.
In my next post I will give some of the positive reasons I have for teaching my children but this one will address the arguments against doing so.
1. Some content is appropriate for school, other content for home.
Finnish parents don’t believe in teaching their young children formally but the research paper said they didn’t learn that extra maths at nursery (of course, they don’t go to school till seven). It seems that what a culture views as formal academic knowledge can vary enormously. While in England many parents will take trouble to ensure their child can count to ten, place value (tens and units) is for school (unless they really beg…). I think many just assume that the cultural norm is ‘the right balance’ when differences between cultures suggest any lines drawn between what can healthily be learnt by a five year old, or cause harm, are arbitrary.
2. Children miss out on childhood because they are taught stuff.
Everyone has their own priorities for their family time and sitting down to do some maths with your kids might not be high up your list – cool. However, there is often an implication that time spent doing academic work at home is robbing young children of golden moments (presumably otherwise spent climbing trees and frolicking in streams). Well my kids do plenty of the frolicking stuff actually but I am more likely to be robbing them of half an hour playing Minecraft. I wouldn’t want a significant part of my childrens’ home time taken up with learning maths etc . I want them to play and that is mostly what they do…
3. Academic work is harmful to young kids
I find this argument faintly absurd. Yes, you may tell your tot what a tractor is but the number two is DANGEROUS. Actually it is more silly than that. Teaching numbers to tots tends to be acceptable but time on the alphabet is hothousing. You hear people saying ‘children don’t need to be bothered with that stuff’. Well that is correct, young children don’t ‘need to’ but it doesn’t follow that it is corrupting of childhood innocence if they are taught.
4. Academic content is fine if it is learnt naturalistically
When my little ones had baths I told them how to wash their face and under arms etc. I told them how to brush their teeth and how to carry scissors and hang up their coat (wish they had ever learnt the latter). However, when it comes to anything that could be viewed as academic there is a common fear that instruction is in some way harmful. In fact there is a sort of hierarchy of what I’ve found will sound socially acceptable in conversation with other mums:
- Instructing your child: DO NOT ADMIT IT
- Instructing your child in response to their expressed desire to learn something: MUST PROVE THEY WERE DESPERATE
- Teaching your child in a playful way (unrequested by child): DOWNPLAY IT
- Teaching your child in a playful way (requested): HOW LOVELY… (but only when they ask to)
I’m not sure a child sees much difference between being instructed how to wash (or learning to swim) as opposed to recognising letters.
5. Children should learn when they are ready
Readiness is a funny idea. If you aren’t a paid up Piagetian then the assumption children must wait until they have reached the developmentally appropriate stage before they can be taught doesn’t ring true. Sure babies don’t do quadratic equations but a child is always ready for their own next steps. When I began to show my two year old how sounds linked to letters he showed no curiosity. I would look at an alphabet book with him for a few minutes at bedtime before reading his stories. My middle child had learnt her letters when she was three just listening to her big sister doing her school work. If teaching her to read at five was like ploughing a lush and fertile meadow, teaching my two year old son to recognise letters was like an American settler’s first attempt to break up the prairie sod. I would never have had the confidence to persist with my previous children. I am well aware how that analogy will make some readers recoil and I use it quite consciously. He was not a quick learner but we weren’t in a hurry. What was fascinating was seeing his curiosity bud and blossom as a consequence of me opening up the world of letters to him. Responding to a child’s own interests is a good and lovely thing but it is also a beautiful experience to show your child a world they did not know existed and watch their interest gradually ignite.
6. They will be put off or get bored at school.
Well it didn’t happen. My children loved stories and so when they were able to read books for themselves they did so. If an experienced driver initially struggled to learn it has really no bearing on whether they will enjoy the destinations they now drive to. The mechanics of reading, like driving, is a means to an end. My kids frequently say maths is their favourite subject at school despite many extra hours of slog at home. Well they find it easy so no wonder they are confident and able to enjoy it. I was worried with my middle child that she would be bored at school and so hardly taught her to read before reception. I now realise that within a term of schooling the progress of the children in a class is so variable that there is no one homogenous group to stick with.
There are campaigners who claim to be protecting childhood from things like exposure to adult media and marketing. But these campaigners slide into their rhetoric the idea that formal learning is also a new threat to childhood. In fact many of them believe children should learn through play until they are seven and even then consider traditional forms of teaching unacceptable. Everyone does what they think is best for their own children so I do resent being told by self appointed champions of childhood that they know best. This post is really explaining why I think those campaigners are wrong. but it doesn’t explain why I do teach. For that explanation please click on my next post!