Thursday, October 12, 2006

A learning experience

I’ve always been pretty opinionated on the subject of early childhood education. Preschool, I’ve told anyone willing to listen, should be about fun, safe, age appropriate interaction. A good sensory table, free access to art supplies, well designed playground equipment, caring teachers and a healthy snack are the cornerstones of what I consider to be a good nursery program. There are plenty of years ahead for our kids to devote themselves to academics. The early years should just be fun.

All of that is out the window here in London.

The British take a very different approach to education than we do in the States. Here, children attend school for much longer time periods and begin academic work from a much younger age. As a 4 ½ year old, Julia would have been learning through play in a Pre-K class this year had we stayed in New Jersey. There would have been little in the way of “traditional” academic work in the curriculum, though she would no doubt have learned quite a bit without even realizing it. In contrast, 4 ½ year olds here are in Reception, which is the first formal year of schooling (though most kids have already been in some sort of a Nursery program). Reception classes are full day and follow National Curriculum guidelines for educating students about literacy, numeracy and other early academic skills. It is a far cry from the sand and water tables I looked for when selecting a school back home.

We could have tried harder, I suppose, to find an American-type educational experience here for Julia. But we came to London to experience life here, not to replicate our life back home, and the British educational system is part of that experience. In the end, we hedged a bit by selecting a school which houses Reception classes with the Nursery students rather than with the rest of the Pre-Preparatory grades. The building, with its brightly colored kids’ artwork and classrooms full of young children playing, looked a little more familiar to us than the schools that had 12 year olds raising their hands at desks just down the hall. As a bonus, this school had a spot for Evan in January, and the idea of having both kids in the same place was appealing on both an emotional and a logistical level. The actual Reception curriculum, with its French lessons and worksheets, still felt downright silly to me. But that’s what they do here. And so that, we decided, was what we would do, too.

Julia’s been in school for nearly 3 weeks now and there’s no doubt that she’s adjusting nicely to her new environment. She chatters cheerfully all the way home each day about the activities and lessons she’s participated in throughout the day, and seems completely unfazed by the amount of time she’s spending on traditional academics. I generally hear about the “extras” first; gym and music and art and dance are always among the highlights of her day. But she’s often every bit as excited about a book she’s read or a math exercise the class has completed or a new French word she’s learned. The day feels impossibly long to me, the expectations of these not-yet-5-year-olds incredibly high. I was shocked the other day to discover that Julia had taken a math test (though I'll admit she didn't even realized she'd just been tested), and I continue to be overwhelmed by the amount of time the class spends on desk work. Yet, I have to admit, the kids all seem far more capable and ready for this kind of learning than I might have expected.

It helps some in our case, I suspect, that academics come easily to Julia. She taught herself to read more than a year ago, so the prospect of daily one-on-one reading with her teacher was neither intimidating nor particularly challenging (it is helping, though; I can already see her reading confidence and skills growing exponentially with the discipline of daily reading). As a child who loves to teach herself new things, Julia’s already mastered many of the other concepts her class is working on, so literacy and numeracy lessons have turned out to be fun group activites for her rather than things she's necessarily had to learn. (The one exception is handwriting, where her self-taught block printing is woefully behind her peers' pre-cursive penmanship.) She's a fairly quiet, well behaved kid (except at home!) and she thrives on routine, so the discipline and order of the classroom and the structure of the school day are probably more comforting to her than they would be to a more physically active child. Despite all of my protestations that young children should really only be learning to play and socialize at school, I have to admit that this whole academic thing seems to suit my kid just fine. In fact, I daresay she’s pretty damn happy.

Have I changed my mind about early childhood education already? Not by a long shot. I still wish that I could have given Julia one more year of fun in her American preschool classroom before she dove headfirst into a dozen or more years of academia. But it didn’t happen that way, and now that I’ve seen the British educational system in action, I’m definitely becoming a bit more open to other ways of doing things. Julia really likes learning things like French in school. Evan, who’s now counting and saying his colors in French thanks to his big sister’s tutelage, can’t wait to get into school to see what his teachers are going to teach him. And maybe, just maybe, I’m learning something here, too.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A learning experience, all of it. Every day. My year spent in an international school was one of the highlights of my academic "career"'s good to have a taste of something different.

5:31 PM  
Blogger J said...

British schooling has had a complete overhaul in recent years, with kids being thrown in at the deep end academically much eariler than they were in the not-so-distant past. I started Reception in 1989, and the first piece of homework I had to submit, or "test" I had to sit wasn't until the later stages of high school. I played and played 'till my heart's content all throughout primary school. It's much different now. French lessons? Wow. I certainly didn't have those.

"(The one exception is handwriting, where her self-taught block printing is woefully behind her peers' pre-cursive penmanship.)"

I never understood the obsession with cursive script in British schools. Is it specifically a British thing, or do they do it in the US also? Nevertheless, in my school, writing in block script would have meant your page being torn out of your exercise book and you having to start again :(

7:23 PM  
Blogger Denzylle said...

I'm a generation older than J so, in my view, British schooling has gone full circle and then some, probably having gone full circle again!

My own experience was similar to Julia's. I was reading before school, which started when I was four and which I was 100% ready for and loved, and upon which I thrived. School after the age of 11 was a different matter but, presumably, that won't matter to your family. My son's experience was closer to J's.

French lessons are not common for four year olds; I guess this is a private school priority (and not a bad thing at all). However, the whole approach, being National Curriculum, is common for all four year olds.

It's interesting that you should mention handwriting as the WP just had an article on this topic:

It's refreshing that you can embrace the 'British way' (well, one British way. The state school experience is often different, eg. the uniform issues) in an area which is so crucial to your children's early lives. Yes, there are good and less good aspects to both the UK and the US systems.

If you stay here for two years, it will be interesting to hear how the children's experiences impact upon their return to US education. Evan will have had almost two years of UK 'nursery' preparing him for the place that Julia is at now, and Julia will have had two years of real academic education. My guess is that, in most respects, they will be ahead of their peers, which is great but which, ironically, might make it harder for them to re-integrate into the American school system.

8:07 PM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

It's interesting to see how much the system has evolved.

I am definitely a little concerned about re-integrating into American schools. One of the reasons the 2 years seemed a good timeline for this adventure is that kindergarten in our (U.S.) town is a half-day program. We couldn't see putting either child in Reception here and then bringing them back to a shorter, far less academic curriculum the following year.

Hopefully, the transtion from nursery to Pre-K will not be too dramatic for Evan. And as for Julia, she would have been ahead anyway, given the fact that she taught herself to read a good 3 years before U.S. schools start to teach such things. Hopefully, the discipline she's learning here will enable her to tolerate the repetition cheerfully. :)

1:35 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

I always find it so interesting that my children are so much more ready for "things" than I would have anticipated. On the 2 days a week he eats lunch at his daycare, Nolan clears his own plate and brings garbage to the garbage can on his own. The first time I witnessed him doing this he was 17 months old! Marching cheerfully to the pint-sized garbage can and then washing his hands at the pint-sized sink. I could not get over it. I, too, believe there is a LOT to be said for freeplay during the early years. But maybe that's just an adult, thinking wistfully of the fleeting nature of childhood. Maybe the children actually want French lessons. :)

I'm glad she's doing so well!

9:09 PM  
Blogger Rosemary said...

I, too, believed that children are natural learners and if one gave them a supportive environment with lots of safe ways to explore their world, they would thrive. I found this wonderful place, the Miquon School, situated on 13 acres of land with many small school cottages (?) for individual classrooms. Every classroom had a door to the outside and the kids played outdoors every day, rain or shine (well, maybe not in torrential thunderstorms). Sean went to Kindergarten there and Alex nursery scool. What happened? Sean did not do very well with all the freedom (part of the school's progressive attitude). Next year she went to Catholic private school. Lots of boundaries -- against which she always pushed. Still, I just think that Sean needed more clear boundaries. I'm glad there are so many choices -- and there will be when you get back to the States, too. I think you'll find that asking a very bright child like Julia to endure repetition is a soul killer for a child.

12:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your blog has been very helpful so far. We are in the process of moving from the US to a NW suberb. Can you give us some pointers on the school to pick? Was it hard given the choices there? It will be very useful if you can give us some direction on the schools.

Appreciate your help,

12:23 AM  

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