It’s that time of the year again. The summer is coming to an end, the leaving cert results were out a couple of weeks ago and families, including our own, are starting to prepare for the new school year. It’s bittersweet for me, our youngest daughter is about to start school and my older girl is starting her fourth year in primary school. Last week I tackled her schoolbag and the bag of last year’s books and copies, and as I was packing them away to be stored in the attic, I looked through some of her work and once again I became quite frustrated and disillusioned. There was a big pile of books and copies full of “boring” repetitive exercises accompanied by a small folder of art activities, which were more or less token activities, nothing to spark the children’s own imagination or abilities.
More than once in the last three years have I considered home schooling due to my frustration with our education system, but there are other factors to consider as well in our personal circumstances. The school our girls attend is only 4 minutes drive from our home and it’s what is widely considered a “good school”. It’s a small, well run country school, class sizes are not too large and we are more than happy with the girls’ teachers, all very important factors. We have no family around, so unlike many of their peers my girls don’t have cousins and or extended family to hang out with on a regular basis, so social connection is a definite reason for me against the home schooling option. Also, I believe that all children should benefit from a wholesome education, that is not just based on a purely academic and competitive outlook. Just taking my children out of school only for them to go back into that same system, when they have reached secondary school age doesn’t make much sense to me either. I strongly believe that it takes us parents and educators, us who know our children best to stand up and “fight” for a meaningful reform of our school system!
This is not just a “being annoyed”, a “wanting things to be done my way”, it’s much bigger and more urgent that that! I believe that we are in crisis! I know I might repeat myself from previous blog posts, but society has changed dramatically in recent times and childhood is now often a source of stress and worries, rather than a time for exploring, play, fun and age-appropriate learning. 25-30 years ago children grew up with much less distraction and social stress, which is partly caused by the media, the rise of technology and the changes in general lifestyle and parenting styles among other aspects. Children used to spend much more time outdoors and they were able to have unsupervised playtime with their peers and explore their surrounds independently. Much of this has changed and children aren’t getting enough of opportunities to experiment, explore and learn from their own mistakes. This is obviously a generalised observation, but it is most certainly a trend and concern as many recent studies show.
Our education system is not recognising these changes enough. It’s not prioritising our children’s welfare, nor are methodologies, curriculum content and the approach to differentiation/inclusion catering for different learning styles, additional needs or simply a child’s natural desire to explore and experience subject matter, rather than sitting at a table for the majority of the school day, filling in books and copies, or looking at power point presentations on an “interactive” whiteboard. To top it all off, children have to undergo formal testing from the word go, instilling a “better than”/”not good enough” outlook from the start.
I know some things have changed in the last few years, but it has been sluggish and half-hearted a lot of the time. A major improvement has been the introduction of the Aistear Programme for pre-schools and the first two primary school years, a play and experience based approach to learning. Unfortunately, it is very limited in time (approx. 1 hr. per day in junior and senior infant classes) and it abruptly stops after the second year, and from my own experience the children are not only disappointed but the sudden change in teaching/learning is overwhelming and frustrating children as well as parents. I know I am generalising and I’m sure not everybody shares my opinion and that’s only natural.
There are many schools and teachers that are trying their very best to find a balance between adhering to guidelines and regulations, and still providing a wholesome education for the children in their care. I took part in a recent “Facebook discussion” in a teachers’ forum, where the amount of prescribed schoolbooks and workbooks were the topic of conversation. I voiced my opinion, which many agreed with, but there were certainly teachers who were quite happy to continue the current rigid approach of mainly academic table-top activities and the system of regular formal assessment of the students. Of course, this is a much more work effective way of teaching, as activities are prescribed and preparation times are minimised, sorry if I am offending anybody with this “theory”. It certainly involves more time and effort to prepare independent learning opportunities for students, but the reward and outcome is worth it for both teachers and children in the long run. Naturally there have to be aspects of a more formal style of teaching and assessment is a necessity, but it needs to be balanced and work hand in hand with giving our children meaningful learning opportunities. Teachers carry out continuous informal assessments of their students and I believe the amount of formal testing, especially for young children is counter-productive.
To achieve a positive change, teachers must be given more freedom in the methodologies they apply to their teaching and less emphasis on the large amount of paperwork, which is taking valuable time away from actual teaching and learning opportunities. The rigid curriculum, in my opinion, has to be revised to prioritise things like mental health, independent learning, outdoor experiences, learning by doing, play-based learning and the recognition and support of individual learning styles. Support structures have to be provided, and resources have to be freed up in order to provide motivating learning environments indoors and outdoors. I know some might think I am in “Cookoo Land” as my eldest daughter would say: I just read in a headline, that pupils were asked to bring in their own toilet roll as finances were so tight. I understand that a reform can’t be happening overnight, but we as parents and educators have to get involved and voice our concerns and ideas for a positive change, that is if you agree with the need of a reform of course. Many changes can be implemented without huge financial expenses, sometimes all it takes is some fresh ideas.
Here’s to a good new school year for us all, whatever that means to you and your children/students! Let’s try and get involved a little more and voice our wishes and ideas for our children’s sake. It doesn’t matter what it is in relation to, all of our children are different and so are our priorities, but it is important that we are right behind our children’s welfare, both as parents and educators. Xxx