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December 19, 2003
Do they need to know it? Do they need to know it now?

More words of wisdom from home educator Julius Blumfeld:

When we started home education we were slaves to the school timetable. If school children were learning, for example, to tell the time aged five, then so must our children learn to tell the time at age five.

So when (I shall call her) Agnes had her fifth birthday, Mrs. B began the immense task of teaching her how to tell the time. Believe me it isn't easy. Much effort was spent and not a few tears were shed. Eventually, after many months, the effort began to pay off. Finally, some time during her sixth year, Agnes began to manage it. Hallelujah.

But the memory of all the effort involved was such that when (I shall call her) Janet reached her fifth birthday, Mrs. B decided to put off the wretched task for a bit longer. Weeks passed. Then months. Eventually I could stand it no longer. "She's six and a half and she can't even tell the time" I said. "What will the neighbours think?" So Mrs. B gave in and promised to begin teaching Janet how to tell the time.

So off I went to work. And when I came back that evening, Janet could tell the time. Well perhaps I exaggerate. But it certainly didn't take very long. Nor is it anything to do with Janet being cleverer than Agnes. It is simply that teaching the average a six and a half year old to tell the time is far easier and quicker than teaching the same thing to the average five year old.

As time has passed, we have seen the same thing over and over again. Something that takes weeks or months to learn at age X, takes a fraction of the time at age
X + N.

On the other hand, of course, if a child needs to know how to do something now, it is no use leaving it until they are older, even if the learning process will be quicker when they are older. No doubt a child could be taught to read more quickly age 17 than age seven, but that is no argument for leaving reading until a child is 17.

So there is a balance to be struck between needing to know and needing to know now. If a child learns too soon, huge amounts of time are wasted. If a child learns too late, opportunities to use valuable skills and knowledge may be lost.

The implications are obvious. A system of education that treats children as an undifferentiated mass will either end up wasting huge amounts of time in teaching subjects at too early an age, or will deprive children of knowledge they should already have acquired. Either way, the process will be hugely inefficient.

I have no idea how schools can address this problem, except perhaps this thought. One of the lessons of home education is that full time formal education for children is largely a waste of time. If things are taught at the right age for the child, the entire primary school curriculum can probably be mastered in about six months (albeit spread over a number of years). So why not cut the school day from seven hours to two and let children decide which classes they want to attend and at what age?

There are of course many reasons why this is unlikely to happen any time soon. But perhaps the main reason is this. Although dressed up as places of learning, the primary function of schools, especially government schools, is child minding keeping children off the streets while their parents do other things. Far from efficient teaching and shorter school hours being a desirable goal, it is probably the last thing most parents want.

I leave others to work out the implications of that.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:27 PM
Category: Home education

Great post Julius. One gripe however. Why feel the urge to teach the time at any specific age? Surely the time to teach it is when the child starts to take an interest in wanting to know what time it is, be that when they are 3 or when they are 10.

Also, please don't Think that 6 1/2 is late to be learning about time. Although it appears in Key stage 2 SATs tests at school (for 7 year olds) I know plenty of schooled children aged 8 and over who can't tell the time (Yet somehow they seemed to know when doing their SATs...very curious).

Fully agree that the concept of pushing knowledge onto younger and younger children is going to cost dearly in the longer term.

Comment by: Mike Peach on December 20, 2003 03:49 PM

Thanks Mike.

You are of course quite right, but I never was one to let the facts get in the way of a good story!

In truth, what defined "ready" in Janet's case was that she had a particular telly program she wanted to watch. After having missed it a few times because Mrs. B. forgot to put it on, Janet pretty much taught herself to tell the time so that she wouldn't miss her program. In other words, she learnt it when she needed to know it. The fact that she was six at the time didn't have much to do with it.

As for pushing young children too soon, quite apart from the sheer inefficiency of the process, there is also the danger of interfering with the natural learning process. I may do a separate post on that.


Comment by: Julius on December 21, 2003 02:01 PM

I am quite happy with the school system STATE SCHOOL! No bullying...no of my child anyway) Learning lots. What is the problem if it works for some?

Comment by: juliette on February 17, 2004 12:04 PM
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