Early learning programs play critical role

 

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A debate now rages over what constitutes a proper grade-school education in Canada. Should it be, for example, a straight, by-the-numbers approach (literally) to teaching math? Or should it be a more flexible, creative, play-based model of problem solving?

It matters, because, until just recently, Canadian children have lagged their counterparts in other developed countries on international tests of basic numeracy and literacy skills. Increasingly, the best jobs in the world are going to European kids, whose educational systems have given them a leg up in the competitive, knowledge-reliant global economy.

So, it should come as no surprise that a recent study on the efficacy of full-day kindergarten in Ontario – introduced four gears ago – is generating ample heat in the pages of the nation’s self-appointed arbiter of social values.

Last week, the Globe and Mail’s education reporter, Caroline Alphonso, bylined a story claiming that a new analysis from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto “is raising questions about the value of full-day kindergarten, showing children attending the program in Ontario are no better in reading, writing and number knowledge at the end if Grade 1 than their half-day peers.”

The piece quoted study leader Janette Pelletier, a professor at OISE, thusly: “I would say the challenge is to improve play-based programs that contribute to lasting change in things like writing and number knowledge. And we want to make sure that learning in Grades 1 and 2 builds on engaging learning in full-day kindergarten.” 

Within a day of the article’s publication, the Globe’s letters page bristled with commentary, both for and against FDK, starting with Professor Pelletier, herself. “Your report on my preliminary research,” she wrote, “did not put enough emphasis on the significant benefits of full-day kindergarten. I stressed that the findings of the study show the strong vocabulary and self-regulation benefits of full-day kindergarten. These are the cornerstones for life-long benefits of early childhood programs, including better education and mental health.”

Moreover, she scolded, “cherry-picking to create a negative impression regarding positive research results is not helpful to the public discourse about something as important as early childhood education.”  

Such are the perils, perhaps, of reporting from the front lines of the great and eternal conflict over human perfectibility. How do we measure achievement, and which achievements are more relevant than others at various stages in a kid’s academic career? What’s more, whose opinions should we heed? 

Doretta Wilson of the Society for Quality Education in Toronto thinks that would be her. In a letter she wrote wrote to the Globe, she insisted that “the best way to ensure that children are prepared to learn is to implement explicit, direct instruction of primary reading and mathematics in Grades 1 to 3.”

But is this actually verifiable? Is the best way to make kids active learners to keep them out of early childhood education programs and away from school until the last, possible minute and only then commence drilling math and language concepts into their supple minds. 

All of which, of course, misses the larger point about play-oriented (yet, also structured) early childhood education: Its true value, as Professor Pelletier and other experts in the field attest, is in its capacity to nurture and encourage certain qualities of character and habits of mind and expression that are foundation stones to later learning.

In her letter to the Globe on March 31, Kerry McCuaig, fellow in early childhood policy at the Atkinson Centre of the University of Toronto, wrote, “all the full-day children (in the OISE study) were significantly ahead of their half-day counterparts in self-regulation, which includes impulse control and the ability to focus on tasks. Research is showing that self-regulation may be far more important than IQ in determining the grades children achieve in school, attendance, time spent on homework, how aggressive they are, and even how vulnerable they are to risky behaviour as teens.” 

In fact, the body of evidence suggests that early childhood learning before and right through full-day kindergarten is not the expensive frill its detractors claim; rather, it is an essential aspect of a student’s entire academic career, and a fundamental predictor of human health and social stability. 

The only debate that now makes sense having is how best to implement these programs universally and publicly across Canada. 

 

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