Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Preschool Puzzle

I spent the last month visiting schools and preschools, and talking to assorted teachers, parents and school administrators, in order to decide when and where to enrol my little son.  My experience was a mixed bag, as experiences usually are, and very educating!  The result of all this is that I decided we could do away with much of preschool and jump in right at the end, which is where earlier it all used to begin...

Children were not formally taught until the age of about four (and in Norway and some other countries, about seven).  But times have changed; parents are working, families are nuclear and there seems to be tremendous social pressure to get children to learn more and more to ensure their admission to a regular school.  Regular schools meanwhile see tremendous advantage in admitting children at the preschool stage, partly as it makes good business sense and partly because all the children are 'trained' according to the school's requirements and they don't have to begin with an assorted class.

When I visited schools, I found the most harassed looking teachers were those in the beginning class - for each child was at a different level.  This difference I'm sure is retained over classes, but glossed over, as essential boxes are ticked by repeating certain basic course requirements over and over until everyone gets it.  The course requirements are non trivial, when seen from the perspective of a little child.  Reading, writing (painfully holding a pencil and writing between four lines in a cursive hand at the age of four), and to me, what seems even more painful is the fact that they are all confined to classrooms with intermittent periods of play allowed.

Many administrators predict disaster if you don't enrol your child at the age of two in a school.  "Your child will have no social skills," a school psychologist snapped at me, ignoring completely the fact that for the last ten minutes, my son had been patiently offering her little paper cards, waiting silently for her to notice him.  "He will miss his sensitive periods and will not even be able to hold a pencil," a Montessori principal said.  "If he doesn't see other children learning, he will lack the momentum to learn," she added, explaining why we would not be encouraged to skip any day of school.  Little did she know that my son runs to his books as soon as he is done with breakfast, that he quarters and cleans mushrooms for hours with a little toothbrush and every night clambers onto my writing desk, holds a pen and stabs pieces of paper with it, excitedly saying, "I'm writing!  I'm writing!"

"We take into account all kinds of learning," another preschool said, but were amazed to hear him identify a crab, which is what children twice his age were supposed to be doing.  Little do they know that he composes poems ("The red truck, Is stuck."  "Would you like a banana, Vicuna Nayan?" etc.) and asks if he can sweep and mop gravity.

If this is surprising to you, it should not be.  There are many accounts of children learning wisely and well, on their own, in varied environments.  I am currently reading a book called "The Importance of Being Little, What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups", by Erika Christakis.  It is all about preschools in America and how the curriculum needs reforming.  It reads more like a thesis than a piece of literature but gives a very clear picture of preschools and the kinds of pressures that go into designing a curriculum for children.  In America, of course, public money is spent on a large number of schools, which makes the situation different from middle class schools in India.  Though the reasons for cramming little children into schools and compelling them to learn more and more may differ a little between the two countries and the kinds of stress the children go through is very different based on social and cultural expectations, there are nonetheless some similarities.  They occur largely because we try to ape the west, in ways that are not necessarily the most thoughtful or balanced.  Education is an industry and large chains of schools introduce and dictate terms to parents and children.  Within all this, it's good to remember (as Erika Christakis points out) that we have no clear memory of our own preschool experiences, thus cannot really say with any certainty what preschoolers might want.

Preschool requirements have become quite complex as in addition to keeping up with surrounding schools and norms, they also cater to parental expectations and anxieties.  Preschools have to prove that they are training the children in noticeable and measurable ways to keep the parents reassured.  That creativity and individuality get compromised in the process is not anyone's concern.  "Children adapt beautifully," a (very nice) principal told me.  "It's we who cannot adapt to this fact."  That may be, but why should they need to adapt (unless circumstances are compelling) at this stage?  Why not just let them be, and let them learn as they like?

"We work based on multiple intelligence," many teachers solemnly informed me.  "Each child needs to learn in a different way and so we teach the things in many different formats."  It's fine in theory, but all children may not want to learn the same thing over again just to suit their neighbour's needs.  Children are remarkably unsocial at this age, despite what grownups say (and want).  They are happy to see others around, but when it comes to learning, they would rather do it by themselves, at their own pace.  Montessori methods are better than conventional ones as they recognise this, but even the best child centric programmes often fail because it is not possible for a teacher to cater to the ever changing requirements of ten (at best) or thirty (at worst) children at the same time.  Despite this, they all discourage home learning, which is where a child feels most comfortable, with a parent who knows him better than teachers would (under normal and non-strained home conditions).

"You must break the mother-child bonding now," many educationists said to me.  Why??  I know that many children undergo severe trauma in early years of school due to this, and need counselling to help them.  Little issues like going to the toilet (often dirty!), asking for help to do something and dealing with what appear to be minor issues like hunger, thirst, fatigue and bullies become very big when little children have to face them on a daily basis.  Apart from this there are many other factors which go out of the window when one enters school.  Lately I have been keeping track of which children come out to play, when and for how long, just out of curiosity.  In most places, there is no longer place for children to play, but we have a large campus with a big ground and several sports facilities.  I see only two or three children using the sports facilities, just a handful of others who come out to play around sunset - a tiny game of cricket in the car park, and I don't see most of the other children out at all.  Presumably they have done all they needed to at school or are busy with homework, or are just exhausted.  It's all right but not the optimal approach to a balanced way of life.

The other great loss at this stage is the loss of spontaneity.  Many of my most treasured memories of life at home are those that revolve around spontaneous moments of joy and sharing.  It's raining, you wear a raincoat and splash in the puddles.  It's windy, you sit out and eat hot pakoras.  It's cold, you sit by a fire and look into the glowing coals.  You are tired, someone gives you hot soup and you read a book.  Routines and schedules rule most of our lives, but they don't have to dominate us when we are two and still growing!

These are the most compelling reasons for me to keep my son at home for a little longer - to see him nurtured and secure, learning as and when he wants (and he is an avid learner as most children are), to share a laugh and sigh over a fall.  To develop a routine that suits his needs, not one that is modulated to accommodate the needs of many other parents, children and educators around him.

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