David Whitebread On Formal Education And Early Years Development

dr_david_whitebread17:48 Thursday 12th September 2013
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[C]HRIS MANN: A Cambridge academic has joined over 120 other education experts to say introducing formal education to young children can cause profound damage. Instead they want children up to six or seven to learn through play. Let’s hear from the University’s Dr David Whitebread, who signed a letter with the other experts which was sent to the Telegraph. He’s a developmental cognitive psychologist, and an early years specialist.
(TAPE)
DAVID WHITEBREAD: The important distinction you need to understand is the distinction between what we might call incidental informal learning, that of course all of us do all the time every day, and young children do an enormous amount of in the first few years of their lives. So think for example of how a young child learns to speak and learns language. Nobody formally teaches them English, but somehow they pick it up. And that actually turns out to be the way we’ve evolved to learn language, and the way we do it most effectively. Contrast that with formal learning, which of course is quite a recent innovation in human development, of putting children in schools and teaching them things deliberately. Now young children, before a certain age, ┬ásimply do not have the intellectual equipment to be able to learn in that way. And it’s a huge mistake, and this is what the DFE aren’t really understanding, it’s a huge mistake to start children learning in a formal way, learning formal skills like reading, writing and formal mathematics, before the age of about six or seven. The best research evidence we have suggests that kind of age.
CHRIS MANN: You’re talking about causing “profound damage” to children.
DAVID WHITEBREAD: Yes.
CHRIS MANN: What do you mean by that?
DAVID WHITEBREAD: Well ironically the very children that I think the DFE are interested in supporting, and we’re all interested in supporting, are of course the children who don’t get the best start in life, who come from disadvantaged homes and so forth. And they’re the children who are least likely to be able to cope with formal instruction at an early age. And we have now very significant major studies, with thousands of children in America, in New Zealand, in different parts of Europe including the UK .. there is actually a large project funded by the DFE themselves that shows this .. that the children who benefit most from being in informal playful learning environments within a pre-school setting, for a good length of time, are the children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who don’t have a very large vocabulary perhaps, have not got the attention skills, they’re not as familiar with books, and so forth, as other more fortunate children who come from more well provided homes. And the damage that’s done is simply this. That because the children are then required to do something they can’t do, before they’re ready to do it, their first experience of reading and writing and so on is one of failure. And we now have very significant evidence to show that although in the short term, of course if you teach a child something they’ll learn it, in the short term, in the long term the consequences are generally damaging. And long term longitudinal studies following children who have been started with formal education at different ages have shown very significant evidence, quite consistently across all different countries of the world, that the children who are started too early initially show gains, then by the age of about, well there are studies looking at the age of eleven, other studies look at children when they are fifteen, they are demotivated. So for example in reading, by the age of eleven, children who started being taught earlier don’t read for pleasure.
CHRIS MANN: Dr David Whitebread there talking about the profound damage they say that can be caused by formal education too young in children.

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