The researched child in early education

by Sally Blundell / 04 February, 2012
The author of a history of junior education is worried that the era of progressive solutions is past.
First day of school 1979, photo Ross White/NZH

They’re on the move. A small army of five-year-olds marching towards their first day at school. Some can tie their shoelaces, some can’t. Some are readers, some are not. Some can write their names, others wouldn’t know where to begin. And that, says Helen May, former dean of the University of Otago College of Education, is just fine.

“It really doesn’t matter. There is such a wide developmental range at that point. Some might not be able to write their ­letters, but they might be communicating in all sorts of ways.”

How well we tap into those skills as a foundation for future learning is addressed in May’s latest book, I Am Five and Go to School, an overview of the past century of junior-school education in this country. For most of that time, she argues, determined infant mistresses and people “at the highest level of New Zealand education policy” kept the country at the forefront of new educational ideas born out of the kindergarten movement and growing research into child development.

“People knew about [US educationalist John] Dewey’s work almost as it left his pen. In 1907 [then NZ Secretary for Education] George Hogben visited the avant-garde of progressive education throughout the United States. When Montessori schools appeared outside Italy in 1908, New Zealand knew about it immediately.” So impressed was the Wanganui Education Board that, in 1916, it decreed Montessori methods, which emphasise a child’s independence and individuality, should be introduced in all infant classes.

“We had kindergarten teachers travelling the world, bringing back new ideas. We were a colonial country – if we saw Europe doing something, we wanted to do it, too – but we were very do-it-yourself, rejecting what we didn’t like, recreating what we did.”

Not all infant mistresses embraced the new child-centred play-based ideas. There was a lag of some 50 years, says May, for the reforms to spread into all corners of junior schooling. She quotes artist Colin McCahon’s description of his arrival in Standard One in 1926, “battered to utter misery and exhaustion, bashed with straps, held hostage in front of the class”. But the strap and rote-learning, she says, was more about overcrowding and underfunding than about teaching philosophies.

“To implement mass education with very little money and no teacher training, you had to standardise it. A curious child in a classroom of 60-70 new entrants was a bit of a problem.” In her book, May salutes those early infant mistresses who implemented the radical new teaching practices – Gwen Somerset (Rewi Alley’s sister); Sylvia Ashton-Warner; Isobel Little, who burnt the desks at South Wellington School; and Winifred Maitland, an early advocate of kindergarten creator Friedrich Froebel. In the post-World War II years, Clarence Beeby, then director of education, championed the use of creative play-based education programmes as the key to successful learning in later years.

“He had a huge impact – he could walk the talk with politicians, he could walk the talk with teachers. He saw that change would start with the kindergartens and the infant schools.”

By the time May left teachers’ training college in 1965, “developmental free play” – supported by the coloured Cuisenaire mathematics rods and the locally produced Ready to Read books (successor to the ubiquitous Janet and John stories) – were an integral part of the school day. “All my children learnt to read, all learnt to write, all learnt their numbers, but play was out there in the classroom and you used that for everything.”

Despite concerns the 3Rs had been replaced by “the 3Ps – psychology, phys-ed and play-way”, the pace of early-schooling reform continued throughout the 1970s and ’80s. New reading initiatives, pioneered by Myrtle Simpson and Marie Clay, put New Zealand’s reading programme on the global map. The Kohanga Reo movement and Kura Kuapapa schools prompted further interest in immersion-language schooling and bicultural development that filtered up through the education system.

These decades, however, were “arguably the last era of progressive solutions to early school learning”, May writes. In the last chapter, she tracks the advance of “new right” agendas in education: more benchmarking, more data-netting, more “silo-ing” of subjects. Reports – some disputed – pointing to high levels of non-achievement sparked a strident debate on the “whole language” approach to reading. Although the 1992 Junior School Study identified a “kitbag of various methods of learning” in use in junior classrooms, former Act MP Donna Awatere Huata pushed the panic button, demanding “explicit phonic instruction [to be] implemented immed­iately upon entry to school, with the aim of turning children into proficient readers by the end of the first term at school”. An overreaction?

“Internationally, we are reputed to have a very high success rate of education,” says May. “We have a tail of poor achievement, but part of that tail is about poverty and you can’t solve it all through education.”

The revised curriculum of 2007 reiterated the whole-child ethos implicit in the internationally acclaimed early childhood curriculum Te Whaariki (developed by Margaret Carr, May and Kohanga Reo pioneers Tamati and Tilly Reedy). The rapid development of National Standards to assess pupils’ progress in reading, writing and mathematics, however, appeared to fly in the face of the integrated focus of the new curriculum, insisting as it does, says May, on a simplistic (and potentially undermining) pass-fail formula.

“The notion of integration – that you don’t learn in silos, that literacy is about art, which is about science, which is about music – is a strong progressive philosophy. We all want our children to do well at school, but I don’t think the sledgehammer of National Standards is the best for early-school-years education.” Standardisation is not new – in the early years of the last century, children had to pass a test at the end of Standard One to progress through primary school – but National Standards, says May, grade children too early and too narrowly.

“The researched child is becoming the way we see childhood learning, and that does worry me. We’re seeing [early schooling] as part of a trajectory to employment and the poor child is only five! Our children are in school for a long time – it’s not like at the beginning of the 20th century when they were out of school often at 12 or 13. We’ve got an opportunity to stand back, to take more time to think about being a child and to see that there are many pathways to learning.

“I’ve got three adult children. None would have passed level one National Standards. They were all able children, but they started reading at different ages and stages and that was fine – they are fine.” Of concern to May now is the threat of a “downward pull” of National Standards to early childhood level. In I Am Five she describes a Northland kindergarten incorporating key competencies from the revised school curriculum to “bring school into early childhood education”. Which is, she says, missing the point entirely.

“If we can produce children who have a disposition to be learners, to take an interest, to become engaged, to take responsibility, to become good com­municators, to become explorers – then we are setting a great foundation. It’s going to take a brave teacher to really challenge National Standards, but if there is sufficient freedom and innovation, skilful teachers will make it happen. They always have.”

I AM FIVE AND I GO TO SCHOOL: EARLY YEARS IN SCHOOLING IN NEW ZEALAND 1900-2010, by Helen May (Otago University Press, $49.95).


Thanks to Helen May for her overdue book, I Am Five and Going to School, and to Sally Blundell for the article. I began teaching in the 70s in a junior classroom where teaching the whole child was the norm and the curriculum was integrated to this end. National Standards have now come along and are complete anathema to the nurturing of open and creative minds. National Standards forget our education heritage and turn away from the holistic integrated methods – methods skilfully evolved from committed practitioners connected to the needs of their students. We once led the world in thinking and practice. As a nation, we need to delve deeply into why, and this book begins the conversation.
Noeline Anderson
(Kelburn, Wellington)
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