Why Kids Are Failing In The Learning Fundamentals

June 22, 2015 by Geoffrey Nixon

Are Tougher Standards Making It Harder For Children To Learn How To Learn?

Children are getting less and less time to develop learning fundamentals. Successive waves of test result-driven accountability are pushing formal instruction into earlier and earlier grades, squeezing out time for development of generalized learning skills.

Just for clarity, we define learning fundamentals broadly as the building blocks for all future learning.  These includes cognitive skills like processing, focus and working memory, learning tools such as vocabulary and comfort with numbers, as well as thinking skills like creativity, innovation and self-regulated and self-directed learning.

While education reforms and the Common Core are forcing schools to ramp up formal instruction at an ever earlier age, there is a lot of new thinking in the world of education headed in the opposite direction. Studies conclude that there are damaging long-term impacts on children from too much structured education too early. Consider these questions:

  1. Structured or unstructured learning?
  2. What is the right age to introduce reading?

Question #1: Structured or Unstructured Learning?

New Zealand, a world leader and innovator in literacy, has attracted attention around the world with its early childhood program.  It invests heavily in robust early childhood learning but insists on curriculum activities being 100% unstructured.

This approach has been developed over the last 20 years and is now backed by a growing body of external research.  For instance, in an early childhood study by MIT professor, Laura Schulz, children who were given a toy without any instructions for its use ended up being far more creative and capable in using the toy than a control group that was given help by the teacher.  Schulz recommends that the best way to develop learning fundamentals is to use a don’t show, don’t tell approach — unstructured learning.

Unstructured learning expands thinking and allows children to explore their strengths, where as direct instruction narrows every learning experience, limiting the development of a child’s learning fundamentals and his learning makeup. No doubt, a structured approach leads to the healthy development of certain skills, which of course is why it is common  — these skills are how teachers are judged, and how parents assess progress.

By contrast, a more unstructured approach may result in less progress in targeted skills (not a given however), but will allow for the development of a much wider range of skills in total.  Unstructured education will also inevitably lead to more creativity, imagination, innovation and self-regulation — the cornerstones of lifelong learning, arguably the ultimate educational outcome.

Unstructured learning, however, goes against America’s heavily instruction-driven tradition,  which is based on prior practice and also on parental demand for definitive results.

The Problem With Showing Kids How To Paint Wheels On A Car

Teachers are under pressure to show parents children’s work on parent nights. Unstructured learning can be ugly.  For instance, you will see American early childhood teachers showing children how to draw wheels on a car — this leads to a nicer picture, satisfying for the teacher and the parent.

But does this help the child?  Practitioners of unstructured learning would not “show” or “tell” the young child how to draw the car — it limits their creativity and imagination, and it deprives them of an opportunity to self-regulate, to recognize that the picture does not look right and to self-adjust.

The child should use art time to create, process and interpret based on his own observations, not the teacher’s.

How To Pursue a Less Structured Approach

The bottom line here is that instruction is limiting and chances are your child is getting plenty of it at kindergarten or school.  One thought would be, as a parent, to make the home environment instruction-free.  Resist showing our child how to draw wheels on a car.

Rather than “show” and “tell”, a preferred approach might be to “validate” and “encourage” as ugly as that may be and to recognize that suggestions or help will naturally limit your child’s creativity and ability to self-moderate and adapt.

Question #2: What Age is the Right Reading Age?

On a related front, the arrival of Common Core State Standards has revived controversy over the best time for children to start receiving formal training in reading.  The Common Core calls for quite sophisticated reading skills including some comprehension by the end of the first grade, putting pressure on US schools to short-change learning fundamentals and start reading instruction in 1st grade at the latest.

Meanwhile, many countries are heading in the other direction.  Education-world leading Finland and another of other European countries do not start formal reading instruction until children are 7 or in the 2nd grade.  New Zealand and Australia are also investigating moving out formal reading instruction to the age of 7.

The argument for starting reading later in life is that the extra time gives the brain more time to develop essential pre-reading cognitive skills —  such as language processing, attention and working memory — and to build a larger vocabulary.  Having these skills fully formed before starting to learn to read means that for most children learning to read will be far less painful, leading to the potential for a much better connection to reading long term.

reading fundamentals for the very youngOne study in New Zealand between two groups of children who began reading instruction at 5 and at 7 found that by 11 there was no difference in reading skill between the two groups, but that group that started later had a more positive attitude to reading and had better comprehension skills.  This study supports the theory that starting learning to read at a later age will improve long term outcomes.

Cambridge researcher, David Whitehead, was part of a group of 130 educators and academics advocating that the UK should start school (where formal literacy training beings) at age 7, not age 4 as it is now.  In addition to providing more time for cognitive skills to develop, he makes the powerful case that the longer formal reading instruction is delayed, the more time there is available for unstructured learning which helps children go on to be powerful learners and problem-solvers. He argues that play — pretending, physical, constructional and social play — contributes to intellectual and emotional ‘self-regulation’ skills which in the end are the drivers of  long-term learning success.

How to Give Your Child More Time To Come To Reading

Unfortunately, America is one of those countries that starts formal reading very early.  For most parents, the ball is out of their hands during the school day.

However parents do have a say on what happens at home.  If your child is under 7 and not enjoying reading, don’t press it. Read to your child and talk to your child to stimulate vocabulary and pre-reading skills — reading fundamentals — but otherwise allow your child as much unstructured time as possible.

In particularly, resist school pressure to force the most structured and tortuous aspects of reading training on your young reader at home — spelling practice, word lists and the humiliation of reading out loud. These activities are all steps towards a negative connection to reading from which many children are never able to walk back from.  The idea is to focus on the long term, trying to keep your child positively connected to reading so that when the reading skills are there, your child will be an enthusiastic reader.

The one downside of waiting until later to move into formal instruction is that if it turns out your child does have a reading problem, that the learning fundamentals do not develop as expected, then you have lost some time to respond.  On the plus side, a child that is exposed to reading instruction at 7 years of age should be making great progress within a few months.

If that is not the case, you should seek out a reading intervention such as the online reading programs provided by Gemm Learning or contact your child’s pediatrician or school.  Also, if your child has early symptoms strongly associated with being an at-risk reader — most notably, difficulty rhyming and/or speech delays in early childhood — you should not wait until 7 years of age.  You know there is likely going to be a reading problem and so you should act earlier.

  • Phoebe’s Mom

    Geoff, have you heard of any movements in the US that relate to Too Much, Too Soon?

  • The closest I know of is the BanBusy campaign that came out of the Race to Nowhere film, but that is more focused on homework in earlier grades rather than allowing fundamentals to develop fully at a young age. The Too Much, Too Soon movement was driven by the early start of formal schooling in the UK.