As a mother of two young children, nothing pleases me more than watching my children play. I love to observe the inventiveness of their young minds as they stock pretend shops with shells, stones and leaves or fashion imaginary tools from twigs. It’s fascinating to watch as they run about, assume roles or create exciting imaginary, make-believe scenarios with just minimal resources.
My daughter is now seven years of age. She is about to start in KS2 and is considered to be academically successful, although she does not yet write with a pen, or join up her letters, neither does she speak another language. But she reads well, and and her written work is legible. Her punctuation and grammar is at, what I would describe as, a ‘fledgling’ stage. She also has a tendency to spell all words as they sound – which can be problematic. There are also a lot of basic mathematical concepts that she has not yet fully grasped. For example, she does not tell the time very well, and her understanding of distance, weights and measures is limited. Although her arithmetic is quite good, she does not know her times tables. Yet despite all of this, the school report to me that she is ‘above average’ in every single area – and ‘well above average’ in a few.
Thus, she has been at school for three years, and is, apparently meeting and often exceeding their expectations.
In the early 1540’s when the majority of the population were completely illiterate, a more fortunate child than these was also being schooled. Despite the decapitation of her mother and the absence of a father, Elizabeth I was in the process of proving what heights of academia could be possible, with the right tuition.
‘Elizabeth’s comfort with reading and writing Latin…as well as being fluent in many other languages, would suggest that she began linguistics lessons very early.. Modern studies show that the younger a child is when they learn a second language, the easier it is for them to retain other ones.’
And by the age of fourteen, under a new tutor:
‘Ascham helped Elizabeth to perfect her classical languages through his famed method of “double translation.” For instance, he would present her with the original texts of Demosthenes or Cicero, having her turn them into English, and then translating them back into their original languages …Elizabeth spent her mornings reading from the Greek New Testament, followed by a study of classical orations, and Sophocles’ tragedies. Ascham believed that his selections would help Elizabeth to ‘gain purity of style, and from her mind derive instruction that would be of value for her to meet every contingency of life.
After noon, Elizabeth would study Cicero, and some Livy. Ascham also supplemented these famous works with St. Cyprian, and Melanchthon’s Commonplaces…’
(‘The Shaping of Elizabeth I through Childhood Events and Academic Pursuit‘
Born into less financially favourable circumstances than Elizabeth, Leonardo da Vinci was all-but orphaned as a child. In 1466, at the age of fourteen he was sent to be apprenticed to an artist- ‘Andrea di Cione, known as Verrocchio, whose workshop was “one of the finest in Florence’. Here, he was schooled, not only in the techniques of fine art (in which he soon surpassed his master), but also in engineering, linguistics and mathematics. Obviously a hugely talented man, but it seems that none of these skills were gained without the additional labour of academic study and strict regime.
Now, I’m not suggesting that an Elizabethan, or late-medieval method of schooling is necessarily the way we should be going about things in the modern world. but I do think it’s interesting to consider the possibility that our children may just be capable of far more than we give them credit for, or ever give them the chance to show us.
Under the current system, a varying amount of KS1 education (certainly in Reception and Y1) is devoted to play and discovery learning. Desks are usually arranged in mixed-ability groups – presumably to facilitate this. The national curriculum is followed, and there is a proportion of academic input, but I’m not certain whether it is necessarily given priority over the more ‘creative’ aspects of the curriculum, in all schools. By KS2 and above, there is undoubtably more of an academic focus – but is it enough? Some argue that it might be too much:
Sir Ken Robinson is a widely respected voice on this matter. Often opposing academic regimes, he regularly posits that our modern schools may actually be far too formal and rigid:
‘In Sir Ken’s ideal school, there would be no hierarchy of subjects in the curriculum and classes would not be grouped by age. Dance would be as important as maths, and children would feel free to do what they wanted, even get up and wander around in lessons..
..he would get rid of almost all school exams, suggesting that in chasing certificates we “over-school” and “under-educate”.’
( ‘How badly do we teach our children? Discuss’ Sarah Montague 13 Aug 2014 )
And he has the ear of many modern academics and educationalists on this matter. It seems that many agree with him, feeling that academic rigour, routine and testing are simply stifling to creativity.
But what, then, do we now define as creativity? Does a modern creative curriculum even allow the creative arts to flourish to their fullest degree? Leonardo da Vinci clearly was one of the most creative, innovative and imaginative people who ever lived. Elizabeth I herself was famed for her love of dancing and the arts, and the Elizabethan period itself is responsible for (almost) indisputably one of the most creative literary figures ever – William Shakespeare. But presumably we would have none of those wonderful plays if Shakespeare himself hadn’t been properly schooled in grammar and linguistics. (Indeed,, when there were no words in English to suit his purpose, he made up new ones – 2,000 in fact that are still in use today!) Elizabeth I famously loved to dance and sing outside her enforced periods of academic study, and Leonardo da Vinci did not become the truly great artist, anatomist and inventor he became, without the documented long hours of study and practise.
For my own part, I’ve become more resentful of my academically-lightweight nineteen seventies and eighties education as the years have passed. I regularly wish I’d been given more regular formal grammar and mathematical instruction. My daughter, it seems to me, is faring no better. In the example of her written work, at least, I think she may even be slightly behind where I was at her age. This despite my being utterly convinced that she is naturally more academically able than I was. For children from more deprived backgrounds than her, the stakes are even higher. Academic qualifications are generally acknowledged to be the best ticket out of poverty of all. To deny pupils this opportunity on the basis that academic study, rigour, testing and hard work are somehow cruel and unnecessary could prove to be an absolute travesty for them.
Children love to play. It is also true to say that they are naturally creative. Schools should certainly provide plenty of recreational time for children to explore and discover their creativity. Creativity is also crucial for academic study. Children need to be creative in many academic disciplines – drawing, poetry, Drama and creative writing, for example. However, this is a two sided coin in which the accurate application of creativity depends hugely on acquired knowledge and skills to successfully execute. If we teach children how to draw and write well, if we equip them with the language they need, if we impart the scientific studies of previous generations, if we teach children how to calculate and measure, then they will have truly strong foundations on which to build their academic careers. If we neglect to do this, then they will only have what their limited early life experience has taught them, to build on.
Sir Ken argues that we are doing our children a disservice by ‘over schooling’ them. Surely the opposite is actually the case? I think the purpose of schools is to educate young people in disciplines, and provide knowledge and skills in areas that they may not otherwise discover for themselves. To view learning and academic study as the enemy – the bad guy – might just be a huge mistake. It’s entirely possible that the gift of learning may just be the most valuable gift of all.
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