Tuesday, March 14, 2017

'Childhood is now too short', education expert warns

The 'age of wonder' is now less long and childhood is over far too quickly, the audience at last night's talk by educationalist Christopher Clouder were told, writes Brian Byrne.

Speaking in Kilcullen Town Hall, he suggested that so-called 'hothousing' of children from an early age, where they are pushed to learn to do many things, is part of the problem. "No time is given for the children to get bored," he said. "Boredom is good for children, but we rush them along."

He also noted that at the other end of childhood, the age of puberty continues to drop, by four or five months in every decade. "For girls, in 1860, the average age of puberty was around 16 and a half years. By 2010, that average has become 10 and a half years. It's a world wide phenomenon, and nobody is sure why."

He added that while childhood has shortened, the rate of brain development has remained the same, taking around 21 years before it is mature. The result is an increase in mental health disorders in children.

In his wide-ranging talk, Mr Clouder used poetry and writing from authors in Ireland, Poland, America, Israel, Chile, Brazil and Sweden to illustrate the importance of wonder, empathy, compassion and concern in a child's world, and how all these are equally important in the adults which they become.

But he raised his concerns that an educational push increasingly based on measurement such as the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) was undermining both the artistic element of schools curriculum and the importance of play in a child's development.

"There's less and less play in schools, for instance, because it is considered dangerous and a potential for litigation. Yet playfulness is a key aspect of life — we play games, music, sport, we play with words in writing, we play with our imagination."

Reflecting on the importance of maintaining arts in the curriculum, he noted research which showed that children from an arts-rich school environment are much more likely to go to university. "We also know that arts help with mental health, they work against anti-social behaviour, against drug abuse, and also improve intellectual ability. But the arts curriculum is under threat from the measurement regimes, and more and more countries are only concentrating on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects."

This trend not only 'homogenises' the curriculum, he said, but also directs the teaching system into 'teaching for tests'. "This analytical aspect is becoming stronger and stronger, and as educators and parents we have to resist it. We need to make sure that our children are not strangers to the real world, we have to find ways for them to be able to deal with the world when they encounter it."

Concluding that the world is currently undergoing a 'huge transition', he said that schools should reflect the fact that things are not going to remain the same. "It is so important now, with manipulation of news media, attacks on our uprightness. But if we work with our children, we can have hope.

"If people have goodwill towards children, they can work together, regardless of religion, ethnicity, whatever. That's what children give us — the child participates, gives us the strength to hope, to light, to enable us to work better as human beings."

Mr Clouder was in Kilcullen at the invitation of the Kildare Steiner School, and he spoke of the need for education to be always 'in the process of becoming'. "Nothing is static, we are always in the process of learning, yet we constantly try to make these structured boxes to fit into." He also cautioned the Steiner followers against 'evangelisation', as education is not just one particular way, nor is one system suitable for all.

Pictured at last night's meeting are Yuki Kobayashi, Alice Maher, Hanna Turri Burke, Christopher Clouder and Gail Pullen.