I believe the most important outcomes of education for children today are the enhancement of their individual intelligence and the enrichment of their creative capacity. These are the things that underpin a child’s potential success and wellbeing in life. But if we are going to get such outcomes for our children we need to start early.
The trouble is we seem to be winding back the extra support schools need, especially support for disadvantaged children – including those with learning difficulties and health problems as well as children with language backgrounds other than English – and especially for children in their early years.
In Australia there’s a war going on. The recommendations of the David Gonski chaired panel on school funding that would give vital support to our most disadvantaged schools has been overturned by Minister Christopher Pyne. Reform has stalled. Things that should be being implemented and introduced to help our children are either not happening or not getting the funding and attention they should.
Education doesn’t start at school.
It starts as soon as the child is born. A vast amount of research in recent years, not only on learning in the very young, shows the significant impacts of economic circumstances on the physical, emotional and intellectual environments experienced then. Disadvantage starts in the very earliest years, in fact before.
The greatest development of the brain occurs in earliest years. Brain research is now one of the most important areas of science after quantum physics: the brain is plastic, exercise stimulates development. Psychology and social behaviour including behavioural economics amplifies that understanding.
We now know that self control is a better predictor of later success in life than IQ scores and self control is learned at home in the early years.
In their early years most young children are astonishingly creative and tolerant of ambiguity. Their play reflects the world as they have observed it and can interpret it very literally even proposing in games that someone can be a mother but not have any children.
Views of the very young child have changed radically.
Professor Alison Gopnik at the University of California, Berkeley, observes, “By the time they’re 2-1/2 … young children seem to be able to discriminate between purely conventional roles and genuinely moral ones.” In fact Gopnik says, we now know that, in many ways, “young children are actually smarter, more imaginative, more caring and even more conscious than adults“.
In Australia COAG (Council of Australian Governments) in 2009 endorsed a National Early Childhood Development Strategy, Investing in the Early Years. It aimed “to improve outcomes for all children and importantly, reduce inequalities in outcomes between groups of children… Specific outcomes relate to improved health, cognitive and social development leading to improved transition to school and improved educational, employment, health and wellbeing outcomes.”
Investing in the Early Years noted advances in neurobiology and related areas which have increased understanding of the importance of early childhood. It also recognised the critical role of families: “the strategy seeks outcomes for families related to workforce participation and engagement of parents in understanding the importance of early childhood development and in supporting their child’s development.”
Areas of concern noted by COAG included low birth weight, especially amongst Indigenous children, the lowest of OECD countries and double that of non-Indigenous children. Obesity and diabetes, disability, social emotional and behavioural issues and child abuse, were also noted.
National Partnership Agreements on Indigenous Early Childhood Development, Preventive Health, a National Quality agenda for education and care and national workforce initiatives to improve quality and supply of early childhood education and care workforce are among relevant agreements and plans.
Will all this continue?
Children of high SES families enjoy advantages in their physical and emotional environment.
Children of advantaged families enjoy stimulating physical and emotional experiences from an early age. They are encouraged to discuss issues with their parents and develop language skills. Intellectual stimulation as well as by relationships with primary carers, especially the mother, and physical health are critical. Participation in creative and sporting activities, learning other languages and music also contribute significantly.
Not in disadvantaged homes. Parents are often absent at work, or maybe it is a one parent home. Physical surroundings including play areas are limited. Children will not be expected to express their own opinions when young. Involvement in crime, substance abuse and school absenteeism can follow, sometimes prison and further crime.
Around 50 per cent of educational achievement at school is contributed by what the child brings to school. The return on investment in terms of educational achievement, eventual employment and relative freedom from crime is substantial: there is no downside risk. Early childhood intervention, like parental leave, is not child minding and ought not to be justified as a labour market assist!
The COAG strategy provides for all children to receive a full year of preschool in the last year before starting school.
In 2010 Australia ranked 34th of 38 OECD countries in early childhood education enrolment rates, though the data left out some information from the private sector.
The gains from strong supports for development of the child from earliest years show up in later behaviour and success in adult life. The gains from intervention are greatest for disadvantaged children in preschools staffed by qualified teachers; children looked after by relatives or friends and, importantly, children already advantaged gain much less.
In many European countries preschool is near universal and government funded. In New York the new Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to introduce universal preschool (and after school programs for adolescents) to be funded by tax increases on the wealthy. He is yet to overcome the resistance of Governor Cuomo and the State legislature to increased taxes! President Obama has recently spoken strongly of the importance of early childhood intervention. Universal preschool is a feature of many European countries.
In Australia we still do not have universal preschooling for our four year olds.
Trevor Cobbold of Save Our Schools noted in 2013 that only 71% of children aged four attended a pre-school; there is huge variation across Australia in children attending and hours of attendance. The review by the University of New South Wales’ Professor Deborah Brennan of the situation in New South Wales found improvements and challenges, especially in remote areas. Education Minister Piccoli announced in 2012 support for remote schools, including those with high Indigenous enrolment, and for teaching “in language”: moreover, if nearby pre-schools did not exist, the government would build one.
We need to have a clear plan to develop creativity.
Successful education outcomes result from attention to basic issues of human rights and what characterises humanity, a natural curiosity, the incorporation of new experiences into previous understandings, a capacity to question, a wish to advance one’s self, to be involved in meaningful relationships and worthwhile pursuits.
Intelligence enhanced by effective learning opens a vast and continually exciting world experienced through all the senses. Creativity gives new ways of seeing, hearing and feeling the world, understanding new meanings.
Education reform ignorant of new knowledge leads to an unwinding of intelligence and the marginalisation of creativity. We all suffer the consequences.
Des Griffin is Gerard Krefft Fellow at the Australian Museum, Sydney where he was director from 1976 to 1998. He graduated from Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Tasmania in marine biology. He is interested in museums and arts organisations, the environment and science, organisational dynamics, especially leadership and governance and in education. He was founding president of Museums Australia, the single association representing museum people from 1993 to 1996. He was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1990 and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales in June 2014. He writes at www.desgriffin.com.
Education Reform: The Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity (Springer, 2014) is available at the publisher’s website. The book and individual chapters can be downloaded from the site which contains abstracts of the chapters. The book can be purchased from the site or from booksellers such as Fishpond.Reviewers can obtain a copy free from the publisher.