xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: February 2016

Friday, 19 February 2016

Too much, too soon.



In 2009, the standardised testing of literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 was made mandatory in all Australian schools by the Rudd Labor government. NAPLAN was a refinement of earlier national testing programmes introduced by the then Federal Ministers for Education, Dr David Kemp and Dr Brendon Nelson, in the Howard Government. The Gillard Labor government subsequently established the Myschool website so that parents, and others, could check on a school’s NAPLAN performance and compare it with other schools.

The fact that all schools were able to be compared and judged on their NAPLAN results caused principals and teachers to focus on improving their NAPLAN scores. Media attention also brought pressure on schools to lift their NAPLAN scores. As a result, many schools instructed teachers to concentrate almost exclusively on literacy and numeracy in term one each year in preparation for the NAPLAN tests in May.

Many parents began enrolling their children in after school and weekend pre NAPLAN classes to improve their chances in the tests. At the same time “distractions” like in-term swimming, interschool sports fixtures, cultural and educational excursions were postponed until after NAPLAN. The focus on NAPLAN also caused formal education down into the early years of childhood.

The dangers of inflicting formal education on very young children was highlighted by Professor David Elkind in 1989, when he published his bestselling book, “The Hurried Child, The Power of Play and Miseducation.”

Elkind, born in 1931, is now Professor Emeritus at Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts. He was formerly Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Education at Rochester University, New York. He spent many years studying “The Hurried Child” and the many problems that arise from getting young children involved in formal education too soon. He stressed that “Education is not a race.” He believed that children’s education activities should be “developmentally appropriate.” Unlike our politicians, Elkind has spent a lifetime researching the subject.

In 2001, Elkind published a paper entitled, “Much Too Early”. He again warned of the dangers of forcing formal education on minds not yet ready.  He warned of the “Growing call for early-childhood educators to engage in the academic training of young children. The movement's beginnings lay in the fears sparked by the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik in 1957.”

Elkind says that in the United States the civil rights movement highlighted educational inequality and led to the creation of Head Start, a program aimed at preparing young disadvantaged children for school. He says though Head Start was an important and valuable program, it gave rise to the belief “that education is a race - and that the earlier you start, the earlier you finish.” Unfortunately, Australia, although it had arguably better and more equitable education programmes than the USA, was encouraged to follow America’s example of providing formal instructions to children in Kindergarten and Pre-Primary classes.

 Elkind went on to point out that “Those calling for academic instruction of the young don't seem to appreciate that maths and reading are complex skills acquired in stages related to age. Children will acquire these skills more easily and more soundly if their lessons accord with the developmental sequence that parallels their cognitive development.”

He says much research over many years shows that children benefit most from learning activities that are developmentally appropriate for their age. He poses the question, “Why, when we know what is good for young children, do we persist in miseducating them, in putting them at risk for no purpose?
The short answer is that the movement toward academic training of the young is not about education. It is about parents anxious to give their children an edge in what they regard as an increasingly competitive and global economy. It is about the simplistic notion that giving disadvantaged young children academic training will provide them with the skills and motivation to continue their education and break the cycle of poverty. It is about politicians who push accountability, standards, and testing in order to win votes as much as or more than to improve the schools.”

Elkind wrote these words in 2001. They are even truer today than they were then. Even though Elkind clearly identified the problem fifteen years ago, politicians have continued to push for policies that win votes but do not necessarily improve schooling.

National and international standardised testing regimes such as PISA have highlighted differences in achievement levels in schools and between countries. Unlike the USA and the UK, Australia is generally placed in the top twelve in PISA tests and compares very favourably against countries that do not have an indigenous population and a large multi-cultural society in which significant numbers speak English as a second language.

Unfortunately, some parents and most politicians, do see education as a race. Despite the research evidence of educators like Elkind, who have spent years studying the effects of “Too much Too Soon”, they believe that they can give children a head start in “The Race” by starting them earlier and earlier.

To those politicians who are intent on seeing Australia at the top of the PISA Premiership race Professor Elkind has warned, “The deployment of unsupported, potentially harmful pedagogies is particularly pernicious at the early-childhood level. It is during the early years, ages four to seven, when children's basic attitudes toward themselves as students and toward learning and school are established. Children who come through this period feeling good about themselves, who enjoy learning and who like school, will have a lasting appetite for the acquisition of skills and knowledge. Children whose academic self-esteem is all but destroyed during these formative years, who develop an antipathy toward learning, and a dislike of school, will never fully realize their latent abilities and talents.”

That last sentence is chilling. Elkind is talking about a generation who had their childhood taken from them. It is society that will reap the whirlwind of these disinterested, antagonistic and unmotivated students.

Elkind concludes by saying, “If we want all of our children to be the best that they can be, we must recognize that education is about them, not us. If we do what is best for children, we will give them and their parents the developmentally appropriate, high-quality, affordable, and accessible early-childhood education they both need and deserve.’’ These words should be written in bronze on the walls of every politicians’ office. The problem would be getting them to read them and understand them.

Many Australian educators agree with Elkind. Like him, they believe, especially in K to 6 primary classrooms, that children should progress developmentally and that their natural curiosity should be fostered so that they will feel good about themselves, enjoy learning and develop a lasting, life-long appetite for the acquisition of skills and knowledge. Their fear is that standardised testing and formal learning, especially in the very early years, will destroy self-esteem and develop as Elkind warns, “an antipathy to learning and a dislike of school.” This will create an enormous educational and social debt that we will have to face up to and pay, at great cost, sometime in the future.

Of course literacy and numeracy are very important, but the pressures caused by NAPLAN and Myschool are having deleterious effects.  School principals know very well that their school, hence their own performance, will be judged by the parents, the Education Department and the media on their school’s NAPLAN results. As a consequence, in many Australian schools, pressure is being firmly applied by school administrators on early child hood teachers for them to deliver a more formal approach in developing literacy and numeracy skills in Kindergarten and Pre-Primary children.

About three years ago I was supervising a student teacher in a Pre-Primary class. The children were asked to retell a story the student teacher had read to them. As they finished their stories they took them to the student teacher to receive a tick or a stamp of some kind. One little girl, on her way back to her desk, proudly showed me her work. It was a wonderful effort. Her work was neatly printed, her spelling was good, her sentences well-constructed, correctly punctuated and with interesting word usage. I could not believe she was in Pre-Primary. To me it looked like the work of a good Year Two child.

I subsequently observed work of a similar standard by other Pre-Primary children. Later on I complimented the class teacher on the high standard of written work in her class. However, in this particular case, the Pre-Primary teacher was unhappy that her strong focus on language development, at the principal’s direction, had been to the detriment of many other worthwhile creative and interesting learning activities. She wasn’t as happy in her job as she should have been and she felt that her children were missing out on the “fun and creativity” that used to epitomise pre-primary learning.

These stresses on early childhood teachers are exacerbated in schools that previously had strong child centred, activity based learning programmes that followed the Montessori and Regio Emilia philosophies of learning. Over time, in my mentoring roll with student teachers, it became increasingly clear that, as far as number and language development were concerned, Kindergarten was the New Year One and Pre- Primary was the New Year Two.  A clear case of too much, too soon.


In 2011, I attended a huge school assembly to farewell the school’s Pre-Primary teacher. She was not retiring because of age or ill health; she had in fact resigned because, for her, early childhood education had become far too formal. I listened, teary eyed, as her students, ex-students, fellow teachers, the principal, parents and community members sincerely thanked her for the wonderful impact that she had had on them and the lives of all of the children in her care.

Teenagers, some of whom she had taught twelve years ago, turned up from the nearby high school to express their gratitude and to recall with great pleasure, not only what this wonderful teacher had taught them, but, more importantly, how “special” she had made them all feel. Like me, everyone present was affected by these emotional outpourings, but I was also saddened to think that such a brilliant teacher, a pre-primary teacher Par Excellence, was lost to future generations of young Australians because of the system’s pressure to push formal literacy and numeracy learning into the lives of our very young children. She now works for less pay, but very happily, in a childcare centre where she nurtures very young children with love and with interesting, challenging and stimulating activities well suited to their developmental levels. The children all love her, they love school and they love learning. Above all, they feel very good about themselves.

Sadly, we are hearing more and more stories of good early childhood teachers who are resigning because the job they are being asked to do is not the job they signed up for and loved. A very sad and unintended outcome of universal standardised testing.

Universal standardised testing has had a great many unfortunate unintended outcomes. It is so unnecessary.  In 2009, as NAPLAN was being introduced in Australia, The Cambridge University Review of Primary Education was published. It strongly criticised the way in which standardised testing was taking the focus, and important teaching time, off other worthwhile subjects. In that same year, in the USA, Dr Diane Ravitch published her bestselling book, “The Death and Life of the Great American Public School System”. The book’s subtitle was “How testing and choice are undermining education”. Cambridge University pointed out that education systems could gain valid and reliable accountability information about literacy and numeracy and other subjects by doing away with costly universal testing and making use of random sampling. After all, that is what PISA does and our politicians are transfixed by the results obtained.

Unfortunately, in Australia, teachers are not politically powerful. Our education system is controlled by politicians who, as Professor Elkind observed over twenty five years ago, generally make decisions based on what gets the most votes, not on what is in the best interests of our children...and ultimately, our country. The late Dr David Mossenson, a highly esteemed and very effective Director General of Education in Western Australia in the 1970s and early 1980s, was once heard to say, “I spent the first half of my career trying to get politicians interested in education and the second half trying to get them out of it.”

We can only hope that more and more Australian educators will acquaint themselves with the evidence presented by the Cambridge University Review of Primary Education and Dr Ravich’s “The Death and Life of the Great American Public School System”. We can only hope that they continue to try to influence our politicians, before our primary children are completely deprived of the wider curriculum they previously enjoyed and before our kindergarten and pre-primary children are further burdened down with the pressures of formal education.

Many readers would have seen and possibly been shocked by the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent programme aired on June, 16, 2015, highlighting education in South Korea, a leading PISA country. What they saw was a “Battery Hen” approach to education. Students spent all day in school and then went to a “cram school” for further instruction and tutorials or to study centres to continue their school work. Most students did not return home until 11-00pm at night. The video showed students asleep at their desks and designated staff walking around to rouse them back to their studies.

After the Korean War, South Korea was a poor country with a weak education system. It saw education as a means to economic improvement. Today South Korea is among the world’s largest and most robust economies. It also has the highest suicide rate in the world and the suicide rate for 10 to 19 year olds is increasing alarmingly. This is understandably so, considering the enormous physical, mental and emotional pressures that it puts on its school children.

In our primary schools and especially in our Kindergartens and Pre-Primaries “enjoyment” should be the operative word. We should all be praying that one day we can have someone with real life teaching experiences making the important decisions that will impact on children in our primary schools and kindergartens. It is to be hoped that more and more Australian educators will speak out strongly against speeding up children’s formal development. That more and more Australian educators will stress the benefits of letting our children enjoy their childhood, learning in developmental, incremental stages and not being force fed as early and unwilling participants in some educational race.

In the meantime, we can only wait and see what troubles lie ahead as those children who are now in their early childhood years and who are being robbed of their childhood today, grow into their mature tomorrows. The Lost Childhood Generation.

I wonder if they will look back fondly and thank us for the way we made them feel.






Monday, 8 February 2016

Rottnest Island revisited.


Rottnest is a holiday island thirty kilometres west of the Fremantle. Lesley and I have been revisiting Rottnest Island for over forty years.

In late January this year, Lesley and I again enjoyed a wonderful week’s holiday on Rottnest. Before we had even met each other we had enjoyed holidays on Rottnest, but our first visit to the island as a family was in November, 1974, when we enjoyed a two-week holiday with daughters, Jane (5yrs) and Sarah (almost 3 years). 

Breakfast in bed.  Sarah, Noel, Jane and Lesley. November 1974.




Waiting for the ferry. January 1977
At our "secret"cove near Catherine Beach. January 1976.


We are going home today. January 1976.
Armstrong Point January 1976

We did not go in January 1975 as our new born daughter, Emily, was only four months old. However, we went back in January 1976 and almost every summer since then we have been to Rottnest. Our daughters learned to ride their bikes there and loved Rottnest as much as we did. When they grew up Jane and Sarah both had jobs working in the restaurant and café on Rottnest.

When our daughters left home we started going to Rottnest with friends, where we partied hard and extensively. We had many memorable moments. If only we could remember them!
Geordie Bay.
Geordie Bay.

In the 2000s we started going to Rottnest with our daughters and their families. This January we went with Sarah and Denis and grandchildren, Sophie and Luc. Emily and Jack, Sari and Kai joined us a day or two later. Carl came over on his boat for the last three days, stopping on the way to catch a feed of delicious whiting. 

This year’s Rottnest holiday was a bit different. Also enjoying the comfortable holiday villas at Geordie Bay were eight couples whom Sarah and Emily had become friendly with as parents at the schools that all of their children attend. So our holiday group comprised of about twenty adults and fifteen children, ranging in age from two to 14 years. It was a lot of fun for everyone.  

At the end of each school year the senior graduating students all head off to various holiday places, including Rottnest Island, for a week of unbridled celebration of the end of their schooling. It is called Leavers Week and generally involves a fair bit of alcohol and very enthusiastic and often random intermingling of the sexes.
Jamie with the catch of the day. January 2016.
The old man and the cray. January 2016

Well our holiday was a bit like Leavers Week…without the random intermingling, of course. Three of the dads had boats, so each morning they went off to pull in their cray pots, usually bringing home large and delicious crayfish. Western Australian crayfish are like lobster but without the claws. They are sold on the international markets as Western Rock Lobster, but we West Aussies still call them crays, or crayfish. The sad part is that our crayfish are so popular in the US and China that we hardly get any to eat for ourselves. The Yanks and the Chinese pay top dollars for our crayfish so the fishermen do not have too many to sell to us locals. As a result the price goes up and up. At Christmas they were selling Western Rock Lobster at our local shopping centre for $99/kilogram. Needless to say we satisfied ourselves with prawns, scallops and big blue manna crabs.
Luc gives Captain Denis directions about how to get to Eagle Bay.
Denis with the kids. About to go snorkelling with seals at Eagle Bay. January 2016

Each morning on Rottnest, Lesley and I would go for a swim and a long walk and then come back for another swim with the rest of the folks and then lunch. In the meantime, the dads with boats would go out early in the morning to pull up their cray pots. After bringing in the crays the dads then ferried the children and their mums and dads to various bays and reefs. Everyone would swim, snorkel or frolic with a colony of seals at Eagle Bay, right near the west end of the island, or enjoy swimming or sunbathing in the beautiful waters of Porpoise Bay and Little Porpoise Bay just around the western point of Geordie Bay.
At Porpoise Bay. Some happy campers and their champers.
Of course there were occasional visits to the Rottnest Hotel, once the summer home of the Governors of Western Australia but now affectionately known as The Quokka Arms.
The Quokka Arms. Always a popular spot.
In the late afternoons, the dads would go down and play beach cricket with the children. Naturally they took an adequate supply of liquid refreshments with them. About half an hour later the mothers would roll up with their drinks of choice, champers or chardonnay.
Fielding practice for beach cricket. Everyone wants to field at DEEP mid on.


This conviviality continued through the pleasantly warm afternoons until the sun sank below bright pink, orange and purple clouds on the western horizon. It is very unusual for us coast dwelling West Australians, when we are at the beach, to see the sun setting behind land. It always sinks into the Indian Ocean, usually in a splendid blaze of glory. But Geordie Bay faces north and so the sun sets behind the low hills that make up the west end of Rottnest Island.

It was during one of these genial gathering, as we watched the twilight painting up the sky, that I remarked to Sarah that our group of about twenty adult beach drinkers looked a little bit like a Leavers Party. Of course we were much more well behaved and a lot quieter than twenty leavers would be at 6-30pm in the evening.
Fun in the afternoon. January 2016
Then it was time to go to our respective villas for tea, after which Lesley and I were content to stay home watching the Australian Tennis Open or Australia playing India in the cricket or some TV drama while the mums and dads partied into the night. There was too many of them to all comfortably fit into one villa so the fun of the evenings was usually enjoyed in two or more villas.  Their children played on the beach, or safely on the roads (there are no cars on Rottnest), rode their bikes, went to the Island’s picture theatre or just stayed around in groups talking.

Occasionally some of our grandchildren and their friends would drop by to see how we “oldies” were going. Although, I really think some of the grandies friends often came to see us in the hope that Lesley would provide them all with some lollies, which she always managed to do.

Less occasionally, Sarah or Emily or Denis and Carl would drop by the let us know where they had been, with what particular group of social activists and where they were going next.

Two of the ladies in the group are sisters and their parents, from Luton, England, have been holidaying with them in Perth since about August last year. This couple, Jimmy (born in Glasgow), and Norah (born in Country Clare, Ireland) were visiting Rottnest for the first time and were absolutely entranced by the place. There is a tour bus that goes around the island visiting various beautiful bays and landmarks. They both went around twice on the one ticket!

On one occasion during an afternoon gathering on the beach, Norah said to me, “Rottnest is such a wonderful place, especially for the children. And even though the island is packed with people you always find beautiful bays with hardly anybody there. It is a paradise. We are 45 minutes from Perth and a million miles away.”

She is right of, course. It is a wonderful place…and not just for children!
Jimmy and Norah O'Brien. Forty five minutes from Perth and a million miles way.
Yes, indeed. Rottnest is a place where you just lose yourself in the beauty and peacefulness of it all. It is my intention to write a travel article about Rottnest. I was going to use my time on the island to do some research. The trouble is that you soon get so lost enjoying the Rottnest Holiday experience that you do not do a lot of the things that you planned to do gathering material for a travel story.

As the great Robert Burns once said, “The best laid plans of mice and men are gang tae go awry”
Robbie Burns described my feeble research efforts to a tee. However, I do have some pictures of Rottnest and my memory is still operating in a reasonable manner so, perhaps next week, I’ll try to get some words down about that sun drenched isle of beauty that is just 45 minutes from Perth and a million miles away.
Endless summer fun for the youngsters.

And as the sun sets brilliantly in the west we reluctantly say farewell to our beautiful holiday at Geordie Bay on Rottnest.