Baby Steps to Learning
There was a time when Kindergarten was seen just as a place for teaching a few rhymes and first letters of the alphabet ABCD.. to keep the kids engaged before they start the formal learning by the age of 5 or 6. With more research into neuro science and early learning, it was found that the age of three to six is the most eventful period in a child's life as the brain growth and development reaches its fullest potential in this phase. In the past few decades several pre-schools in the private sector sprang up in cities and towns catering mainly to the middle and upper class while anganvadis set up by the child welfare departments catered to the lower income levels with free food and some rude learning for infants. The New Education Policy 2019 also has devoted some pages for discussion of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE). It emphasises that ECCE should be flexible, multi-faceted, multilevel play activity and discovery-based learning and the curriculum on the same basis is to be developed by National Council of Research and Training (NCERT).
The 54th Rajagiri Round Table held at Sanskara School, Infopark, Kakkanad on 13th November, Wednesday discussed the issue “Is it Time to Redefine Early Education?”. Do the existing learning systems take into account the unique needs of the child and lay a good foundation for his or her intellectual and creative growth? Has there been a proper appraisal of Montessori and other systems keeping in mind the relevance of the new age child? What does the latest research say about the early interventions required to make the child entertained and to ensure a smooth transition from home to pre-school and beyond.
The expert panellists were Ms Shanthi Menon, Founder, Southpoint The Pre School, Dr Elsie Oommen, Consultant Psychiatrist at Medical Trust Hospital, Ernakulam, Ms Hillary Hinchliff, Principal of Gems Modern Academy, Infopark, Kakkanad and R Durga Devi, Montessori Teacher Trainer. The session was anchored by Sreekumar Raghavan, Editor of Eduportal-Pallikkutam.com.
The success of pre-school education depends not only on the infrastructure and learning content but also on the quality of teachers who deliver the content to the learners. At present there is no licensing system for pre-schools and they are set up in town and cities by people who may not have any domain expertise. Various learning systems such as the tried and tested Montessori integrated with new systems are being tried out by the schools. However, there is no uniformity of curriculum, no regulations and no uniform standards enforced across the country. Prof Yashpal Committee which contained experts from all over the country had prepared a blueprint for early education in the early 1990s which still remains relevant today but not yet implemented. NCERT entrusted with preparation of educational content for schools has course materials only from 1st standard onwards.
Relevance of Pre-School
The pre-school should lay a proper foundation for the overall development of the child and not just learning ABC or rhymes as brain grows at the fastest rate in the 3-6 age group. Care should be taken to make the system child-oriented rather than teacher-oriented. It was observed that parents consider pre-school as a training ground to get their child admitted to a reputed school in primary classes rather than providing a firm foundation for the child to progress in life. They insist on getting their children trained in languages, rhymes and answering questions such as name, age, name of the father, name the colours and shapes. Naturally, a child will be scared to get such formal training in communication and asked to write letters of the alphabet when their hands are not yet ready for such activity that requires hand-motor co-ordination. Kindergarten learning should not be seen as a downward continuation of the primary classes but a critical period in a child’s life that opens up the five senses to face the complexities of life.
Gayatri Govind, Vice Principal, Sanskara School: We don’t conduct interviews for admission to the pre-school or primary school. Children can be left in observation rooms and asked to do various activities that will enable the teachers to know the interests and deficits in learning in the child rather than asking questions about colours, age, pronouncing words at the time of admission.
Dr Elsie Oommen: Plasticity is the ability of the brain to change functionally as well as structurally. A child is born with 85 billion neurons and each has 7500 connections. He starts learning through the 5 senses and the neural connections are established with new experiences. The neural connections die unless the experiences are repeated. The learning should be such that all the five domains -intellectual, moral, social, emotional and linguistic domains of a child are developed by the age of six.
Prof Dr PR Poduval, Former Director, School of Communication & Management Studies, CUSAT: The objective of the parents in sending their children to pre-school is for care-taking services as both of them may be employed which comes into conflict with the larger objectives that teachers envisage. What matters is the quality of experiential learning that the child gets.
Quality of Teachers
Serious concerns were raised about the quality of teachers in pre-school and kindergarten levels. It could be a vicious cycle of low salaries and status not attracting right talent or the right talent not able to get a financially and creatively fulfilling jobs. They lack the skills required to teach children who will be going through a sensitive period in life when their neuronal connections are getting established to help them. Most often women become teachers in primary and KG levels because they have nothing else to do and not out of a passion for the job. In many countries which have advanced in school education such as Finland, their best teachers go to pre-primary teaching whereas in India the best teachers vie for jobs in universities and higher education centres. The teachers are restricted in their movement in the classroom as they wear saris which inhibit them. The government had recently taken a policy decision to do away with sarees for anganvadi resource persons to wear overcoats and trousers so as to enable easier movement.To become a pre-school teacher, one needs to learn psychology, philosophy, linguistics and learning strategies.
Shanthi Menon: There is a serious problem with the quality of Kinder Garten teachers in schools- they lack the most essential skill sets required for the job. They need to be good at storytelling, singing rhymes, dramatizing a story or song, good in vocabulary and pronunciation.
Renita Warrier, Academic Co-ordinator, Sansakara
School: We require a PhD to teach in higher levels of
education but when it comes to early education, women who have nothing else to
do are recruited as teachers. Their husbands may be in business or having a
good job and the wife is also urged to do something rather than sitting at
Dr Elsie Oommen: The KG teacher should have an ability and attitude to create a warm relationship with the child.
Ms Hillary Hinchliff: “We have got to value our KG teachers so that the best of them stay in the profession. Why should I pay the most important teachers very low salaries? We train our teachers to improve their ability to support children’s engagement. It is vital for the child’s neural development.
Relevance of Montessori
The Montessori system continues to inspire pre-school educators and continues to be relevant today. It is about self-education and not forcing the child to learn. Even children are not forced to write. A child learns to move by the age of 3 months and stands up in the 10th month. It all happens unconsciously and no body teaches them. Montessori recognises that there are some sensitive periods in a child’s life which is most appropriate to learn a skill. Motor skills aren’t developed until the age of five and hence children should not be forced to write before that. However, pure Montessori system is not sufficient for the new age child. We need to be open minded and take the best out of Montessori, agile learning apart from the well-researched curriculum available from MIT, Stanford and other universities.
Durga Devi: As a Montessori trainer, I have reduced the writing part. They go by the phonics system not the name of the alphabet. So they are able to read better. In Hindi, we don’t start with swaraksharam but consonants and the words introduced are all consonants.
Shihabudheen PK, CEO, Winwius Techno Solutions and Founder of Alternative Schools: We talk of research only to obtain PhDs. But it is applicable for the early learning as well. Let the children observe, do research on their own. Let them view the world and see what is happening. Design thinking approach is ideal as it will enable them to develop critical thinking and problem- solving skills.
Shihabudheen PK: At alternative schools we use a gamification method to teach numerical and quantitative skills using card games. Our concept is based on self-learning with teacher being a facilitator. My 10 year old child self-learnt coding and robotics and is now taking classes for engineering college students apart from earning income selling ornamental fish.
Rekha Anand, KG Teacher, Sanskara School :” I have been trained in Montessori and would like to implement play-by-way methods but we don’t get the opportunity as parents want their children to learn the alphabets and rhymes”
Classroom Design and Play Based Learning
The KG or preschool should be designed creatively and differently from a primary school where benches and desks occupy the prime place. There should not be benches and desks which restrict the movement of the child and the teacher. The teachers should be taught to be give freedom to children to move across the corners in the classroom. They should be able to sit, lie down or move. There are differing views about technology access to be given to infants. When it comes to play-based learning there should be both guided play and free play. Playing is not just the physical act of throwing a ball or jumping. It is about language play, physical play, games and constructive play.
Durga Devi: In the Montessori House of Children they sit on the floor and work. They have sitting mats, work mats and chowkis which makes the atmosphere friendly for the child.
Dr Elsie Oommen: In pre-school, playing helps the child learn to wait patiently for his turn to come, understand and respect opposite party, to face adversities like failure, builds aesthetic and motor skills. Formal learning should only start by the age of 6 in primary class.
Awareness about the importance of pre-school learning and latest research information is lacking in the parent community. They consider the KG as a training ground to attend interviews for primary school admission by answering the set pattern of questions such as what is your name, age, family details etc. They want their children to learn three languages, be good at rhymes and answering questions in an interview. Parents should be sensitised about the need for kids to be trained in social and emotional skills.
Dr Varghese Panthalookaran, Director, Rajagiri Media: Is it possible to evolve a frame work that combines or harmonises the best of the existing systems developed by Froebel, Montessori and others? If we are not able to convince parents about quality pre-school training, how can be influence the policy makers on this aspect?
Dr Ajay Sanker, Director, Laurus Institute for Training and HR: When a student completes his higher education and enters the job market they are found to be unemployable as they lack the requisite skills. In the early learning stage itself, why are we not able to identify the competencies and competitiveness in a child and develop them?
Thomas George, Corporate Trainer: There are enough evidences that experiential learning through field trips and hand-on activities can kindle the spirit of curiosity and confidence in the child.
Manoj Manavalan, CEO, Emjay Exporters: After listening to divergent views on early learning methodologies, as a parent I have started getting apprehensive about the kind of education my children are getting in school and about whether I can follow a different system for my youngest child who is yet to enter KG.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Photos by Ajeesh Cherian