Dr Helen Street busts five top education myths.
Myth #1 – Early learners have an academic head start
Education is a race and the sooner our children begin that race, the sooner they’ll cross the finish line of success, right? It makes sense in the ‘adult world’. After all, I know the best way for me to improve on just about any skill is to practice it.
In reality, there’s growing concern from developmental psychologists about the harm done to kids who are given too much structured learning too soon. Advocates for child wellbeing such as Sir Ken Robinson and Dr David Whitebread from The University of Cambridge talk frequently about the loss of creativity seen in young people who are robbed of essential free time in their early years.
Children are not short adults but neurologically developing beings and as such, their needs are different to ours. They need free time to use their imagination, develop creatively, socially and emotionally, and to find their voice before adults intervene and ‘teach’ them. A child’s most vital learning tool is play. Play provides opportunity to learn everything from the symbolism required for literacy skills to rules for competent social functioning.
Many of the seemingly advanced skills acquired through early structured learning have been found to dissipate over time. For example, a recent New Zealand study found that children taught to read at age five end up no better at reading when they leave primary school than those not taught until age seven. The seven year olds are actually more likely to develop a love of reading and to process literary content at a deeper level.
It’s not so much about being ready to learn, as children learn from the moment they are born. It’s how and what we learn that counts.
Myth #2 – Absenteeism = poor academic outcomes
We’re often led to believe that taking our kids out of school for a belated family holiday is irresponsible. Certainly the older children are, the more key elements of the curriculum they’re likely to miss with extended absence from school. However, it’s important we don’t compare time out spent travelling with time out spent avoiding participation in the school system. It can indeed be detrimental to a child’s education if they feel alienated from school life, but alternative opportunities for learning can enrich a child’s educational experience. Education is as much about attitude as it is about any specific content.
Myth #3 – Rewards boost motivation to learn
From the stickers and stars at toddler gym all the way to the ‘principal’s award’ for character in high school, anyone who’s witnessed the glee on a child’s face when they receive a coveted award could be forgiven for thinking these gifts are a great idea for increasing motivation. In reality, many researchers have repeatedly found that prizes, awards and rewards actually de-motivate kids.
How can that be? Surely just about every child would jump to tidy their room if offered enough chocolate or screen time. This is true, but herein lies the problem – these children are motivated to gain the reward, not to pursue the task.
When it comes to education, this becomes a significant problem. UK researchers have found that children rewarded to read in Year 3 are less likely to read for pleasure in Year 6 than kids not rewarded. Other studies have found that kids rewarded for sharing toys at home are less empathetic and kind in the classroom.
More recently, we’ve started to reward kids for ‘effort’ as well as achievement. As motivation expert Alfie Kohn states so well, this equates to ‘drinking salt water to quench your thirst’. Reading needs to be seen as a joy, not as hard work that needs pay. Good manners are a basic necessity of a successful life, not something to attract a prize. We need to stop paying our children to learn.
Myth #4 – Homework improves kids’ learning outcomes
How much homework do your children do each week? How much time do you spend ‘helping’ them do it?
Such a prevalent practice must be based on a solid foundation of research, right? Unfortunately, this is simply not the case. There are several great analyses on homework, including one on the Victorian Department of Education website (bit.ly/1gs8CMO) that’s really worth looking at. The findings from more than 130 studies are varied, but overall there’s no substantive support for primary school children doing homework to improve long term learning outcomes.
The results concerning its benefits for high school students are more divided. There’s still a leaning towards the ineffectiveness of homework, particularly for project-based homework. There’s better support for homework that involves practicing skills learnt in class. It appears that young people (and their parents!) spend a lot of time and exert a lot of emotional energy for very questionable benefit.
We need to consider what that young person would be doing with their time otherwise. If your 10 year old loves to run around after school, their spare time is usefully spent. If however, your teenager likes nothing more than watching YouTube clips of cats falling off tables, a little time spent on homework suddenly seems like a better idea.
Myth #5 – High grades predict career success
High grades equate to high-status careers, right? Wrong! High grades may get you the job you want, but social and emotional factors get you past go. Adults who are socially and emotionally competent are more resilient, more popular, intrinsically motivated, connected with life and more likely to enjoy their work than their peers.
NAPLAN (the National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy) was never designed to be an individual assessment. It was designed to provide useful comparisons in whole school populations at specific points in time. A child’s performance on a single test is not an accurate assessment of their academic progress. It’s far better to ask for detailed teacher feedback and ongoing measures of performance. Sadly for our children, the NAPLAN competition fueled between parents and schools has resulted in many class hours spent on practicing sample tests, rather than on more valuable learning. You may be interested to know all parents are free to opt their children out of NAPLAN.
Education is not something kids do between 9am and 3pm five days a week; it is encapsulated in every minute of their lives. We need to stop asking how hard our kids are working and comparing their grades with their peers, and re-prioritise free time, social and emotional development and opportunities for creative growth. Truly exceptional lives blossom from truly ordinary childhoods.
Dr Helen Street is Chair of The Positive Schools Initiative (positiveschools.com.au) and the co-editor of Better Than OK: Helping young people to flourish at school and beyond, $29.99, Fremantle Press, 2014.
This article appeared as Wrangling The Sacred Cow in the March 2016 issue of CHILD Mags