24 July 2005

On Kids, Brains and Early Learning

People who like to read non-infantile blogs should pay more attention to Heavenly Sword, because he writes many thoughtful posts on real issues. Anyway, in his latest post, he argues that parents should not get too excited or concerned about which primary schools their children attend.

This is because Heavenly Sword believes that most primary schools offer approximately the same quality of education to the student. With some tentativeness, he suggests that the same probably applies to secondary schools and with even more tentativeness, he suggests that the same may possibly also apply to junior college.

I don't necessarily agree with all of Heavenly Sword's comments. But the purpose of my present post is not to analyse his views, but rather to extend the scope of the discussion. In other words, Mr Wang intends to talk about (1) kindergartens, (2) preschools and also (3) the home as a learning environment for kids below the age of three.

"Oooooh. This is relevant to me. I'd better listen to what Daddy is saying."
- Mr Wang's baby girl

If Heavenly Sword does not regard the choice of primary school as being particularly crucial, then I suspect that he is even less likely to regard the choice of preschool/kindergarten as being crucial. As for babies and toddlers below age 3 or 4, Heavenly Sword would probably say, "Oh please, leave them alone! They are too young to learn anything."

However, there are reasons why parents these days become concerned with their children's development at increasingly early ages (to the extent that some pregnant ladies even read to the baby in the womb - although Mr Wang personally thinks that that is rather ridiculous). The main thing is that in the past two or three decades, there have been monumental leaps in scientists' understanding of how the human brain develops, and while the science is still relatively young, the general conclusion so far is that the ages from 0-6 years are the most crucial stages in the brain's development.

I oversimplify, but the gist of it is that both nature and nurture contribute to the overall brainpower of each human being, and the crucial stage for "nurture" to play its role is when the child is not yet six years old (some scientists say, three years old). A dysfunctional early environment increases the risk that the child will eventually become an adolescent or adult with cognitive, behavioural and physical difficulties. Conversely, the benefits of adequate mental stimulation during the early years will lead to gains that carry over permanently into adulthood.

To put it another way, whether a person is "bright", "intelligent" or "clever" depends much more on what happens in his earliest years, than on what happens in his primary or secondary years. Or at any later age, for that matter.

"My greatest fear is boredom. I could literally die from it!"
- Neuron in the brain.

In view of these scientific discoveries, finding a good preschool or kindergarten may be far more important for finding a good primary school (or for that matter, a good secondary school or JC). Having visited more than a few playschools, kindergartens etc, Mr Wang regrets to say that in his opinion, the general standards of early childhood education in Singapore are somewhat lacking. There are some good places, run by teachers who really know what they are doing. But by and large, the average kindergarten in Singapore has yet to really take advantage of current scientific knowledge about the development of the young human brain.

The good thing is that for young children, it is not that difficult to design a home environment and family lifestyle that brings out the best in the child. The most basic prerequisite is that the parents must take the time to educate themselves and find out how. Unfortunately, a lot of misinformation and hype is floating out there in the market, mainly perpetuated by companies selling baby and children's products. It's important for parents to get their basic facts right, and strip out the fiction. From the perspective of the child's mental development, some traditional Asian methods of child-raising, and some typically Singaporean ideas about learning, are also rather unwise. More on this, another time, perhaps.

Mr Wang told you he was a voracious reader.
Here are some of his books about babies and toddlers.


Heavenly Sword said...

Thank you, Mr Wang... :)

I feel enlightened by what you said. All along, I thought pre-school education is not so important, but now it seems that my view was largely due to my ignorance about a large body of literature on child development/early childhood studies...

As a parent of one (and second one coming), I think I will adopt the advice and choose a good pre-school. And I should read up more on this area... :)

Heavenly Sword said...

Thanks, Dead Poet :) I did walk past some relevant books in the bookstores sometimes, but then I was probably ideologically biased and thought:

"Teach them when they are so young? Why so kiasu, aiyoh...Let them enjoy first lah."

So I didn't really pick any of these books up and read in detail..But I guess it's better to be safe than sorry...heh :)

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

"Teach them when they are so young? Why so kiasu, aiyoh...Let them enjoy first lah."

Aha! This is one of the misconceived and typically Singaporean approaches that I was alluding too.

Learning should not mean suffering, and especially for young kids, learning should ALWAYS be enjoyable.

Kids learn best through play, and one of your keys tasks as parent/teacher is to ensure that your kids get a wide variety of high-quality play, appropriately geared to their current level of development.

But no doubt you will find out more for yourself, when you start reading up. :)

Dorothy said...

I have a question! The other day I was sitting down to lunch with my mum and her friend, who has a five year old little boy. In a very animated discussion regarding self-improvement for five year olds, many courses (most of which I think ridiculous for a child of five) was thrown up, including abacus and the likes. Can a kid who can hardly count/spell do mulitplication up in his mind just by staring into space for 30 seconds? And more importantly, is this GOOD for him? Far from being a parent, and maybe too young to appreciate early learning (after all, my own childhood did not consist of going for endless classes), I may have been too quick to dismiss such courses as 'suffering' for our young. What do you think?

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

I think that almost anything goes, as long as that particular child enjoys it. If the child does not enjoy his math class and is being forced into it, then there is a real danger of harm being done.

It really helps if the parents appreciate each child for the unique individual that he is. If a child does not like to sing or dance, it is silly to say, "Oh, children at this age ought to be able to sing and dance." Equally, if a child shows a lot of interest in maths, it ism't appropriate to say, "Oh, children shouldn't be allowed to learn multiplication at this age."

What parents really have to be concerned about is that they are not forcing the child to learn anything which the child does not want to learn. Conversely, if the child indicates that he wants to learn more in any particular area, I can't see any reason why parents should hold him back.

The other point I want to make is that there is the danger of equating "learning" with "courses". For babies and toddlers, a lot of quality learning can take place right there in the home. In fact, everyday experiences provide lots of fertile ground for learning, if only parents were more aware of the opportunities and made active use of them.

singaporean said...

Congratulations Mr Wang, on the blog upgrade. Today Asia, Tomorrow the World!

Since you pruned some articles and this one floated to the top again, I do have some things to say.
While I am not a father (almost!) yet, I work in the education line, and so do my wife.

To Heavenly Sword's point, I want to add this: schooling is not just the teachers or the facilities; it is also who you meet. At some point of the development of the child, he or she is going to learn more from their classmates than their parents. Whether you want your child to be book smart or street smart, a lot will depend on the people he or she meets in school.

Furthermore, different schools have different sources of income. Elite schools are very capable in raising funds. My wife teaches in a primary school with facilities that will make polytechics, heck even universities, envious. And the teachers in elite schools are expected to work a whole lot harder, and this include conducting extra classes on Saturdays and school holidays, because they have a reputation to protect.

On the other extreme, unloved kids end up in unloved schools, and this is getting worse all the time, as unloved schools pick up a bad rep, and get more expelled unwanted students. Do you really want your kid to come home everyday with a black eye and robbed clean of his lunch money? How do you think your child will adapt to such a rough environment?

I was told that in some normal technical classes, some teachers are too fearful of disciplining the class if they are alone in the classroom. Why do you think we have teaching assistants? I think what they really need is more CISCO guards with stun guns.

To make things worse, the gahmen is encouraging elite schools to do the Integrated Program. If your child stumbles at primary school, how is he or she going to qualify for the six year IP program?

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

I think that Heavenly Sword believes that smart kids will make it at the primary school level no matter what school you send them to;

and that the not-smart kids will not make it at the primary school level no matter what school you send them to.

Of course, that is just his belief (and I think many would disagree).

I tend to agree with your point about unloved students and unloved schools - it is a sad fact.

More philosophically, I always like to see efforts being made to bring up the middle curve - but the harsh reality is that the Singapore system treasures only the top band of its people; it kinda tolerates its middle band of people; and as for its lower band of people, well, I think that the Singapore system wishes that the ground would just open up and swallow them, such that they are never seen again.

If I were the Education Minister, I would implement some kind of system whereby a certain percentage of teachers from top schools are regularly rotated and posted to other schools (once they've had at least three or four years of experience in the top school). In this way, they will bring the ideas and methods of top schools to the non-top schools, and the average and below-average students will thereby benefit.

This being Singapore, I don't think that this will really happen.