Preschool: A response
A Response to Compulsory Preschool Education
David BC Tan
[This article first appeared in the national paper New Straits Times in 2000 when mandatory preschool was raised. Although the proposal was subsequently shelved, there remains an undercurrent of popular support for it. Here is one father's stand against the tide]
THE RECENT PROPOSAL BY THE MINISTRY OF EDUCATION to make preschool mandatory has drawn considerable public support, if newspaper reports are any indication. By all accounts, editorials, statements by NUTP and random surveys conducted by this paper suggest that it’s a move in the right direction.
I can appreciate the general round of approval, as there is indeed a crying need to address the lack of access to kindergartens or educational amenities in many parts of the country. The rural-urban disparity is never more visible than in the sphere of education. Parents who cannot afford early education for their young, or are too busy eking out a living to mind, sigh with relief because a solution is in sight. Making such an option available is surely timely as a headlong rush to embrace technology and industrialisation invariably sidelines the needs of our children, leading to intractable social problems.
However, as a parent who did not enroll his 2 children (now 10 and 8 years) in a kindergarten – excepting our oldest child who spent a brief 3 months in one – I would like to caution against viewing education institutions (in this instance, preschools) as a panacea to our predicament. The fact that hardly any reference to actual replicable findings and current thinking on child development were mentioned in the ongoing discussion is disconcerting. Let me add a dissenting voice for your readers’ consideration.
‘Schooling’ is not the same as ‘learning’
It is true that in many countries, preschool is touted as a necessary rite of passage into the ‘real’ world. There are many reasons why this idea is so prevalent, but I suspect it is because ‘schooling’ is mistakenly associated with ‘learning’. Consequently, it is felt that the earlier a child begins formal schooling, the better equipped she is for life and vocation. However, what schools really do is to provide a means to an education.
Having said that, are there any grounds to believe that merely putting a child through preschool makes her a better (or smarter) student? Do we have conclusive evidence that she actually becomes a more responsible adult or a more capable human being? Indeed I have not come across any published research to suggest that the difference between high-achievers and non-achievers is early education through kindergartens. (But why talk of research when a simple dipstick survey among colleagues and relatives would do?) It would not surprise me at all to find that ex-preschoolers are well represented across that social divide. If schooling, much less preschool, does not equal learning, parents ought to be allowed to do what they think best for their children.
Take a look at Japan where high stakes in school success have earned her the dubious distinction of having the highest number of child suicides this side of Asia, if not the world. School stress and bullying have reportedly even led to death in children as young as four-year olds. Singapore, which boasts of an excellent educational system and competitive preschools, laments the increasing number of juvenile crimes. Apparently teenage girl gangs are on the rise too. And need we refer to the sickening violence in American schools for further examples?
Researchers put the blame on stress, school fatigue, the media, but mostly on lack of parental attention. Malaysians familiar with ‘bohsia’ and ‘lepak’ will agree with that. Yet so many unwittingly pin their hopes on this same system to nurture and educate their children, at an ever younger age. And often at an exorbitant price.
On the other hand, there is a disproportionate number of great thinkers, artists, writers and leaders who were tutored at home – and by their own parents too. Mozart, Thomas Edison, Yehudi Menuhin, Blaise Pascal, George Washington Carver, Abraham Lincoln, Florence Nightingale, Pearl S. Buck and C.S Lewis, to name a few, were variously taught at home in their formative years. This may come as a surprise to many people but studies have confirmed that these individuals’ early years in the home with responsive adults is one of the main reasons for their achievements.
Dr Raymond Moore is a developmental psychologist, educationist, and homeschool advocate. As head of the Moore Foundation he has recorded over 8000 studies on vision, hearing, taste, touch, smell, cognition, brain development, coordination and socialisation and found no support for six-year old school entry. One study on genius by psychologist Harold McCurdy from the University of North Carolina (Smithsonian Report), discovered that ‘genius’ is common among children who spend more time with adults than their peers. On the other hand, children who socialise largely among their peers impede their intellectual and character development.
This would explain recent news in this paper of 15-year old Wong Jiang Fung from Segamat who is the youngest student at the National University of Singapore – evidently without the benefit of kindergarten. That his ‘genius’ was realised probably had to do with the fact that he grew up with little social contact, but a mother who taught him addition and subtraction on an old abacus.
Better late than early
Contrary to what some are saying about early education, persuasive research have associated it to declining literacy, delinquency and widespread academic failures. David Elkind, a Piagetian specialist warned in his writing, The Case for Academic Preschool, Fact or Fiction that early education was leading to early burnout. Elsewhere, W.D Rohwer, Jr., commenting on a 12-country study by Sweden’s Torsten Husen, even went as far as to suggest that school entrance be delayed until the child is at least 11 or 12 years old. ‘Delaying mandatory instruction in the basic skills until junior high school years could mean academic success for millions of school children who are doomed to failure under the traditional school system,’ he wrote in Harvard Educational Review.
Neuroanatomists are finding out more and more that synaptic development in the brain may be linked to cognitive readiness in children. What this means is that one cannot speed up maturation of motor or learning skills. We need to give our children time to explore, to grow at an unhurried pace in a secure and loving environment. It also means not all preschoolers grow in the same way, or at the same rate. In fact, current thinking as expressed by authors such as Thomas Armstrong (In Their Own Way) say that next to readiness, it is unlocking a child’s learning style – and there are a few – that will determine how freely a child learns. Evidence suggests that ‘abuse’ to the brain when a child has not reached her ability level may lead to stunted verbal and analytic facilities, and other literacy problems.
Parents and teachers may disagree by pointing out how ‘clever’ today’s kids are. But precociousness and intelligence are two different things. Well-known educational psychologist Dr Jane Healy wrote that while many little children appear advanced, it is merely ‘a veneer of sophistication.’ In her book, Endangered Minds, she criticises the kiasu mentality which places value on the speed a product is derived from the system, saying that because of ‘an impatience with the essential processes of childhood, that measures children’s mental growth like steaks on a butcher’s scales and that deifies test scores instead of taking the time to respect developmental needs, every child is potentially in jeopardy.’ She adds that, ‘Wise adults do not impose demands for which development and experience have not yet primed the system [human faculties].’ (Parentheses, mine.) There are compelling reasons therefore for starting a child in school later than earlier – if we wish to avoid learning problems.
Parents know better than preschools
Mandatory preschool education falsely assumes that the establishment knows children better than their own parents. It would seem that mothers who quit their jobs to focus on nurturing and growing their own children are being told in no uncertain terms that such selflessness is unnecessary. Leave it to other caregivers, they imply. Preferred, apparently, is the scene of young children snatched away crying from their mother’s side in the early hours of the morning and bussed to kindergarten.
When our son was almost four, he went to a preschool. The three months he was there was the saddest period in his young life. I’m sure there are better equipped kindys with better teachers, but not at the one we could afford. To pacify our son, we took turns being with him. The first time I was there I noticed hand-drawn posters with spelling and grammatical errors. The helpers or teachers spoke in a pidgin mix of English and some Bahasa at a largely distracted class. A particularly difficult child was intimidating our son and had to be seated elsewhere. To their credit the teachers were kind and did try hard, but as I watched them go through their lessons it dawned upon me that this had to stop.
Rote learning the alphabet, singing a rhyme off-key, working on manipulatives etc, were all right (to a degree) except that each child had no more than a few minutes of attention and verbal interaction with their teacher. What was it that we couldn’t do, I asked myself? Of course, Mum would have to be home. But why play with lace frames when he could learn to lace real shoes?
Why repetitive twaddle when there are real books with great stories we could read aloud to and with our son? Mum and dad could engage in stimulating conversations and thoughtful exchanges with their own child. We could do things together, go on walks, play games. He could meet adults in real situations, and not merely peers in an artificial world. Being with his dad, he learns the measure of a man, and of his mum, where true beauty lies. Together in the family, he would learn the value of personal relationships. Best of all, he would learn these values in a secure and emotionally stable environment.
More schools, not mandatory schooling
That so many understaffed and ill-equipped schools in the country did not prevent mandatory education from being proposed is bewildering. Teachers are deserting the once noble profession in droves. Many it is said are resigning to avoid being posted to rural towns.
Everywhere, schools and kindergartens operate with undertrained staff, while pictures of roofless and furniture-less schools stare pensively at us from the newspapers. Gangsterism we are told is on the increase. In the meantime, parents, teachers, and educators cry out for a massive overhaul of school and education curricula. Are we now to traumatise our children with mandatory preschool? The magnitude of logistics and social cost to families and community are too frightening to imagine. What good will it be then to moan over fragmentation of the family unit?
What our children – the advantaged or disadvantaged – need is more access to education, whether in the towns or kampungs. We need more libraries, more schools, and not mandatory schooling. We want more diverse learning opportunities. Even learning opportunities for mum and dad to improve their parenting skills. In a free market economy, there is no reason why families should not have wider educational options. Should parents who desire to teach their pre-school children themselves be forced to delegate their responsibilities to a kindergarten?
Why should a willing mother be stopped from exercising a prerogative that God and a maternal instinct have endowed her with?
Of course some mothers may be prevented from being with their children due to circumstances beyond their control. In situations like this, a good preschool fills an unquestioned need. The whole point is, a choice is available. Nevertheless, as good as a teacher may be, she can be nothing more than an inadequate surrogate mother. I tip my hat to all the teachers who have taught me and influenced me for good, but a hundred teachers do not a father make.
Give parents a choice
In his book The Disappearance of Childhood, renowned media and social critic Neil Postman calls on parents to resist the weakening of parental authority in the face of technology and negative social forces. It may mean a lower household income, but ‘helping (our) children have a childhood (and) at the same time creating a sort of intellectual elite’ is of greater consequence, according to Postman. Reading his context, it is clear that the writer is not advocating ‘elitism’. Instead he suggests that children who are not subsumed in the culture of the day often develop stronger values and greater literacy. Qualities such as these are what businesses and corporations frequently seek in their employees, says Postman.
John Gatto, a former three-time winner of New York Teacher of the Year Award (1989 – 91) voiced in a scathing acceptance speech that, ‘It is impossible for education and schooling to be the same thing.’ Without pointing his finger at teachers per se, the vocal critic of traditional education institutions said that schools promote, ‘confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, conditional self-esteem and surveillance [that one is always being watched].’ (Parentheses, mine).
Admittedly Gatto’s words are somewhat loaded and merit closer inspection. Nonetheless, statements in the press agreeing with mandatory preschool so 5-year olds would be ‘traceable’ and ‘monitored’ send dreadful signals and corroborate in part with his indictment. It will not do to enter the Third Millennium while holding on to sentiments more suited to 1984. By all means make preschool available to all who need or want it. For parents who prefer otherwise, let them have a choice.