Friday, 29 October 2010

Cursive Writing

My eldest son started in Year 2 without being able to read or write. We had been living abroad and, in Turkey as in many European countries, formal learning didn't start until a child was 7. With Year 2 being a SATs year, our son had a lot of catching up to do. And with the support of a great teacher, catch up he did! However, less than a term into Year 3 he was struggling and said, "I don't know what to do. Either I write enough but it isn't neat enough. Or I write neatly but I can't write enough." Apparently, this sometimes led to him missing his playtime, and it was a source of stress to him.

At parents' evening, we asked his teacher why there was such an emphasis on cursive writing. Our son's printed writing was really quite neat, and we never had to write in cursive script when we were at school. The teacher's response was short and telling: "It's 2 marks on the SATs test."

I am not arguing that it is not important for children to learn to write, but when do you or I now sit and write by hand? Maybe a list or a note .... However most writing now is done at the computer, and by the time our children leave school, voice recognition technology will mean they need only talk to a computer and the text will appear. This technology is already in existence. Why then the insistence on cursive writing, the endless hours spent by active inquisitive youngsters labouring over their handwriting? For 2 marks on a SATs paper? That's not a good enough reason for me.

I have just heard that the schools' line on cursive writing has now been extended to reception - with young children being taught cursive script right from the beginning, rather than learning to print and then having to switch over to cursive later on. I wonder if anyone has actually observed a young child writing before making these changes to the way in which children are taught. My 4 year old is learning to form his letters very well at his own pace. Today he wrote his first and surname (which he copied from a label he found) in beautiful print. How on earth he would react to my pointing out and picking over his 'errors' or to my continually insisting 'We don't write it like that, we write it like this' I cannot imagine. But surely it would crush his pleasure and sense of achievement in these early efforts. Worse, over time, I am sure it would destroy any inclination he had to write purely for pleasure.

I wonder why the solution in current educational practice always seems to be to start things younger .... Maybe we would be better to take a lesson from other countries and formalise learning later instead?

The Nonsense of SATs

Yesterday, I received an email from MyChild trying to persuade me to purchase a pack which would help me to help my child prepare for the SATs tests. I quote:

"The SATs - the Standard Assessment Tests - are commonly misunderstood. They are not just for compiling school league tables! SATs sum up four key factors:

* The knowledge your child has gained
* How far your child has come
* How your child compares to the national average
* What your child needs to reach his or her full potential

The idea of the SATs is to show what pupils have learned and retained over the course of the year. The tests help teachers and parents learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of what your child understands about a subject, and where to focus attention.

How SATs measures your child
The SATs will measure - for the first time - your child’s ability in English, Maths and Science against hundreds of thousands of other children, in their school and across the UK. SATs are one of the great milestones since your baby was assessed for weight, height, hearing and speech!

The educational level your child has reached will become an official record of progress, with the results showing whether or not your child has reached the expected National Curriculum level for that year group.

The pressure is on. If the children measure up, so does the school.

It is essential that you understand why you should help your child prepare for their SATs.

The fact is that you cannot leave it all up to your child's teacher. There are obvious time limitations in the school day, and it’s difficult for a teacher to single out an individual child for extra aid.

Many parents will say: “But what if the tests make my child anxious?”

This is where MyChild comes in, and is exactly why we commissioned a special collection of SATs practice papers, plus hints, tips and expert advice.

The school year will pass quickly, so by giving your child a helping hand NOW they’ll be able to breeze through SATs week and get top marks!"

I am so disappointed by the general acceptance of Government measures for 'improving' education.
One of the reasons we decided to take our children out of school was to remove the pressure of a system which feels the need to constantly measure them and assess them in relation to others, and according to the national averages. The temptation for schools, teachers and now (this email implies) parents as well, to teach our children to test rather than nurturing a true love of learning and intrinsic motivation to develop and grow as a human being in a broad and balanced way is a real concern to me.

The email says:
"The SATs will measure - for the first time - your child’s ability in English, Maths and Science against hundreds of thousands of other children, in their school and across the UK."

As a concerned parent, I am well aware of how my children are developing in their mathematical, language and scientific skills without the government imposing any tests on them. I also believe that English, Maths and Science are only a part of the broad and balanced curriculum needed to help children develop into whole and healthy adults. I do not need to know how my child measures up against hundreds of thousands of other children across the country as long as I know he is developing happily and healthily and is comfortable and confident in his own skin.

Observing my unschooled 4-year old, I notice that many of the things he is intrinsically motivated to learn at present are on the curriculum for the reception year. He is figuring out consonant-vowel-consonant words, for example, and is interested in simple addition. But these are not learning objectives I have imposed on him, they are just learning opportunities which he is choosing to take. It reminds me that the curriculum probably started with the child. Sadly we forget that, and now assume the child needs school / teachers / tests / pressure to learn these things.

The email says:
SATs are one of the great milestones since your baby was assessed for weight, height, hearing and speech!

We seem to forget that in contrast to SATs, our child's growth, hearing, speech developed naturally in the home context without the need for Government pressures and league tables and without any child anxiety.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Whose responsibility?

A very interesting comment was made by a woman in the audience of Question Time last week. In a summary of the basic services she expected the government to provide, she included the responsibility to educate our children, and to educate them well. I am sure that many, many people in our country now agree with her and we all pay the price with our taxes.

How quickly public opinion changes.
Schooling only became compulsory in this country through the education acts at the end of the 19th century - so our state system is only 140 years old at most. It was opposed at the time. It's necessity was wrapped up with issues of poverty, class discrimination and with the social effects of the industrial revolution. It was aimed primarily at children who were not receiving adequate education.

Whilst the government might be required in some cases to act 'in loco parentis', with whom ought the responsibility for a child's education ultimately to rest?
With their government or with their parents?

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Behaviour Management ... Drip, drip, drip!

Wow - I feel like I am dealing with some behaviour this week ... One of the benefits of home education is having the time to spend talking through and dealing with issues of behaviour and attitude properly. I am amazed at the range and depth of discussion we have throughout the day about so many subjects .... just by going about our daily lives, and talking about what we encounter.

There is a tendency in our culture to use a 'stick and carrot' approach to discipline .... This is the approach advocated by many parenting books, and by programmes like 'Super Nanny'. I read Alfie Kohn's book, 'Unconditional Parenting' with initial dismay as he spends the first half of the book tearing down this approach to discipline. This left me feeling so upset as these are the methods we are all encouraged to use, and I wondered if he was going to come up with an alternative approach ... and, if so, what that could possibly be.

Well, the great thing about the 'stick and carrot' approach - manipulating behaviour by offering a reward or threatening a punishment - is that it brings results FAST ... and in a world in which we need children to comply NOW, in which parents are stressed and do not have enough time, it does seem to provide a solution. However, Alfie Kohn points out how this method encourages extrinsically motivated behaviour ... when what we really want is people who are intrinsically motivated, who behave because they understand why they ought to. This type of behaviour management is really about mentoring a child, continually discussing and evaluating their behaviour, attitudes and choices whilst walking life's path together. This is a costly process, but it is one of the things I like about home education - having more time to invest in the things which really matter.

Sometimes I despair and think that all the effort is in vain .... and I have one son in particular who will test the boundaries, and push and test me, who seems to have little empathy, who is very single-minded and seems not to consider the effect of his behaviour on others .... but then I get a small glimpse of an attitude change or the realisation that he has unwittingly hurt someone, and I realise it is going in ... like fluid through a drip: drip, drip, drip .....