For many on edutwitter, it seems the answer is yes, for the following reasons:
- 4 and 5 year olds aren’t ‘ready’
- It is better that they pursue their own interests, even if it means mostly playing with lego, rather than have an ‘adult-imposed’ curriculum
- If we simply teach them, then it won’t be as meaningful as if they had constructed that knowledge for themselves
- If we simply teach them, then they will be actively stopped from becoming independent, resilient learners
I think the above doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny, partly because of the way the immature brain develops: we teach and new knowledge remains in working memory, and through ensuring lots of practice, new knowledge pretty much transfers to long term memory – then the child has lots to think about and be creative with (deliberate simplification here to keep this part of the blog shortish). There is hardly any neurological difference between a 6 year old and a 5 year old, unless you read up on EYFS ‘best practice’ whereupon you be reminded of Piaget, Rousseau, Montessori and then be under the impression that 5 year olds are perhaps an entirely different species.
The other reason the above bullet points don’t hold up for me is because of what we know about parenting. Your average parent is constantly teaching and reminding little children about various bits and pieces of important world knowledge such as names for common birds. Sometimes the child might ask first, sometimes the adult might just volunteer the information and then when they’re at the duck pond misconceptions will be addressed (No, the robin red breast doesn’t go in the pond and the duck doesn’t really go in the tree) and there will be some retrieval practice going on such as, ‘Do you remember what that bird is called and what it likes to eat?’ The parent is not likely to artificially create a duck pond simulation for the child to choose to play with and then wait for him to gently co-construct the knowledge ‘when he’s ready’. The parent will simply say ‘We’re going to the duck pond now. Get your coat.’
Of course some parents won’t be doing any of the above, which is why it’s even more important that we really do teach all little children.
Anyway, I wondered whether any little children had been taught knowledge in the past and if so, did teaching them knowledge cause them mental health issues, stop their brains from forming properly, or maybe switch them off of learning for life? Luckily, we all have access to book archives* now, so I thought I’d share with you some delightful yet typical books for little children in the 1800s, perhaps we can make a few inferences along the way:
The above book is dated 1797 and what’s really interesting is that it’s entirely composed of questions and answers to be shared between adult and child like this:
No need for silly cartoons there. The straight facts are interesting enough.
But how abstract can you go? I mean, little children might find some relevance in the above book because of course they would see the moon and stars in the sky and ask questions. History books for little children would surely be about the very near past and we couldn’t possibly expect tiny little children to learn about, say, the ancient Greeks?
Oh. It would seem that little children in the late 1800s could be taught about the ancient Greeks and we know there would’ve been a demand for it otherwise it wouldn’t have been published (unlike nowadays where any, ahem, ordinary person can just start up a blog). What’s interesting about the above book is that the medium of instruction is a series of short stories for the adult to share with the little child. Woah there squire! An adult sharing a fact-infused story with a child? That sounds like an adult-imposed curriculum to me. How very dare they be so cruel, especially with those latin names!
OK, let’s take it back a notch. We might be teaching little children about basic astronomy and the ancient Greeks through the medium of Q&A, or the more popular story mode, but what about every day life? Surely children would be allowed to just freely discover without some kind of ghastly adult-imposed curriculum?
Admittedly, books like the above would’ve been used with well off little children, as you can see from the front page, not that that should change our view of the capacity of all children to learn really. If you look at the medium of instruction through, you’ll see that the child is expected to imagine that they’re on a magic carpet, flying around the world and learning about children in other cultures too – this is so much more than mere lego, or the iPad. The language used to describe the physical appearance of other peoples does make us modern folk cringe, but I’m not sure we could infer that it was derogatory, more an honest reflection that little children of the time would have indeed found the differences in appearance surprising, shocking and intriguing (don’t forget that in the Far East there were also odd observations of us Westerners).
What really surprises me are the very high expectations and acceptance that little children can be simply told new knowledge, albeit while they’re mostly imagining they’re on a flying carpet (a common theme) – the range of vocabulary below, used to share new knowledge with very young children would flummox many of today’s year 7s, perhaps even some adults:
I couldn’t resist including the following book, not least because it reminds us that there were an awful lot of aunties out there in the late 1800s – an attempt to portray new knowledge for little children as being friendly, safe, associated with happy times. If you think about it, this helps us to understand the kind of age range these books were aimed at – the use of an informal name too, would you expect that in the late 1800s? Does this not run counter to our stereotypical view that adults in charge of children at the time were somewhat austere, foreboding individuals who preferred their children to never be around them?
If children in the past were read to, and what was read to them was happily infused with new knowledge and its associated vocabulary, surely children in the past were not expected to practice using that knowledge, or retrieve what they know – they weren’t expected to hold a pencil at the age we expect children to hold a pencil now…….
So, it would appear that very little children were expected to have some fun drawing from memory. Back to history though, and here is an example, again using the ‘transport yourself to the past’ story mode, this time through fairies as a way of piquing the imagination.
What I love about the above book is how the author uses the the concept of fairies and time travel to help the children with their imagination (the picture of the toddler is the youngest of a set of siblings who are central characters doing the time travel), yet ensures us that everything that is taught through this book is factually correct.
Whereas most of the knowledge books for very little children are designed to be read to them and tend to involve their imagining they are going on a magic carpet, for example, I’m going to finish this blog with another history book from the late 1800s which is designed to be read independently by a child. Here is the front page:
Fortunately, there is an inscription as it was presented to a child on his birthday:
So, this child was 7, and if he were here today, he’d be in year 2. Let’s have a look at what he’s reading about:
The level of detail and vocabulary used – could today’s 7 year olds answer these questions? Many primary schools are still having to teach year 2s how to read (if they did not pass their phonics tests) yet today’s children are bigger, stronger and healthier than children over a 100 years ago so there’s no excuse, is there? It really does go to show how much our expectations of little children have dropped over the last few generations, and much of this isn’t helped by a view that the first year at school should be a time where children direct their own learning, with only the lightest of input from the adult – no wonder children would be unable to access a typical 7 year old’s book from the late 1800s if they’re not being taught much by the adults when they’re 5? As I write this, there is some kind of protest about alleged impending changes to ELGs. Here are a couple of comments:
It is telling that so many in EYFS begrudge even the requirement to teach phonics, let alone teach children about the world around them. However, these wonderful books from the past shine a light on what is possible and that includes re-igniting the tradition of adults sharing (explicit teaching!) all kinds of knowledge with little children, and the joy of stories and rich language that really does fire up the child’s imagination. Much better than leaving them to play with lego all day long.
Who’s with me?
*Images courtesy of the wonderful Baldwin Library