International comparisons might flip your expectations of formal learning

In a recent debate via social media the question was posed ‘what can we learn from education in other countries, and what can’t we’. On pondering the question one clear answer came to mind, that of leaving formal education until after 7. There is much debate why a formalised learning curriculum should be implemented from an early age within the UK- not least to address disadvantage.

However what this appears to overlook is the differentiation between individual children, the differentiation of children within the whole class based on their chronological age and a realistic expectation of how long young children can ‘sit and listen’. In the UK children are required to attend school the term after their 5th birthday. Whilst this sounds reasonably straightforward, what emerges in September, at the beginning of Year 1 (or Reception or Year 2) are classes that contain children who were 5 in the previous September and soon to be 6 years of age alongside those who were 5 possibly one or two weeks previously and won’t be 6 years of age until after the school year finishes. Looking at other countries a significant number do not formalise a learning curriculum (which includes testing and comparison of ability) until after 7 years of age. These countries point to a range of research that argues for learner readiness, and support the belief that children are more ‘ready’ to manage a formalised system after age 7. The following example highlights how this can work - reflecting on a school experience 10 years ago that remains as a positive experience to this day for the child attending ‘school’ in Europe one summer for one week.

The school operated with a ‘normal’ school day: registration was 08.45 and children were to be collected at 3.30 unless notified by the school about a later finish. There was a structured activity plan for each day that encouraged learning and development across the main curriculum areas (Science, Maths, English for example). All children were required to take a packed lunch.

Language: as the only English child present the other children requested they all spoke English so that he was not left out or isolated; they taught him German words and phrases so he could practice this with them. This meant he began to learn a second language in an informal natural way, whilst the children present (of varying ages 5-9) enhanced their own second language (English).

Science: he developed his appreciation of liquid to solid mass and evaporation from churning butter and making cheese (having walked to a nearby farm to do so). The process was discussed in depth during the visit and included other liquid to solid mass possibilities. He applied this much later in his education when this was part of the curriculum in his formal education and could clearly remember everything he had understood from taking part in the process.

Maths: using talk and walk approaches whilst out of the classroom, maths was taught as a game of question and answers shouted out by the teacher. If one of the older children answered correctly, they explained the answer to the younger children. They also made up songs to recall the times tables in both German and English.

Geography: whilst outside, much discussion took place over mountain formations, height of the mountains, and plenty of ‘what ifs’ - what if a lot of water ran down the mountain? How might this change what the mountain looked like (erosion)? Many other aspects of landscape were also pondered and he also participated in Geocaching.

History: the history of the village was pointed out and discussion around what had changed over time and why (this reflected Social Studies and citizenship also).

PE: walking met the requirements for any physical exercise need.

Science: Within the classroom the children made models and tested a range of items for suitability and durability, such as rockets from bottles, electronic systems, how fast to push a toy car based on weight and gravity to get it to the distance required and so forth.

The majority of all activities were completed as small groups; the groups were made up of children of different ages and stages of learning: this led to a high level of peer learning and if the older child was unable to answer questions posed this was then passed to the teacher, leading to the child reintegrating the answer in a way younger children understood. This encouraged all children to ask questions to develop both their knowledge and understanding.

It could be argued that this system would not work in the UK, within the current system. There were parts of the day where the children did sit at tables but this was more conversational or instructional and children were allowed to sit at any table, encouraging friendship and participation. On return home he kept in touch with several children through letter writing, supporting construction of written English.

Such approaches promote learning through play; and negating any child’s belief that learning was what you did at school and playing was something you did when you were not at school. During the week he attended school, he gained a wide range of skills, knowledge and understanding that remain with him today some 10 years later and ones he clearly recalls and remembers; something he cannot do about many learning activities he participated in during his primary phase schooling.

For me, then, flipping the system means thinking carefully about the evidence from international research and implementing a structure that allows for more flexible early learning; considering why we are so wedded to formal education at such a young age in this country and who that currently benefits.

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