Sue's Blog

23 March 2012

What price is literacy in a world of iPads and smartphones? Nobody seems to be worrying much about this question, but the more I think about it the more I’m convinced it’s the most pressing question in education today. Last month I was thinking about it for a chapter in a book I’m writing (see extract below), and concluded that – unless people in the upper echelons of education start taking note of what’s happening in the early stages of schooling (and pre-schooling: see also they’re in for a nasty shock in a few years time.

The foundations of literacy

Early childhood isn’t merely a preparation for school, but an important stage of development in itself. That’s not to say that pre-school teachers don’t have an important role in laying sound foundations for the 3Rs of reading, writing and reckoning. As well as encouraging free play, they can – like parents – also engage children in playful activities that are culturally useful. And since human brains formed human culture, it’s not surprising that the sort of cultural activities children enjoy at different stages follow a similar trajectory to the evolution of human culture.

In pre-literate civilisations, knowledge was passed down the generations through songs, dances, poems and stories. These activities came naturally because – over countless millennia – musical ability and language proved so important to our species’ survival that they were integrated into our DNA. Even though they’re no longer in the daily repertoire of the average adult, singing, dancing, moving to music, recitation and story-telling are still highly effective (and enjoyable) ways of socialising young children, while simultaneously developing their language skills.

In countries that take a truly developmental approach to education, they’re key components of the kindergarten curriculum, alongside opportunities for drawing, painting, and other arts-and-craft activities that develop the physical skills children need for writing. In these countries, it’s accepted by parents, politicians and the general public that these are essential foundations upon which subsequent cultural achievements are built. Like the foundations of a building, they may later be out of sight, and therefore out of mind, but that doesn’t make them any less important.

It makes great sense to me, as a language and literacy specialist, to devote time and energy to developing small children’s sense of rhythm and their ear for sound through plenty of music, dance, songs, rhymes, poems and stories. Indeed, it seems particularly sensible for 21st century children. In an increasingly visual world, their auditory memory is much poorer than in the past (see page 00), so today’s girls and boys are likely to benefit from pursuing an oral curriculum for several years.

I came to this conclusion after watching three- to six-year-olds in Finland (the country that always comes top of international charts for literacy, does almost as well in numeracy, and came second in UNICEF’s league for childhood being). Musical activities, song, story-telling and recitation were threaded throughout their day, groups of children collaborated enthusiastically in turning their favourite stories into plays (making their own costumes, scenery and props), other groups went off on ‘field trips’ or spent hours engrossed in artistic projects of various kinds. They also had constant access to a wooded outdoor area, where children of both sexes rushed out whenever they felt the need to let off steam.

This play-based, child-centred curriculum, with its heavy emphasis on all-round development, oral language and memory skills, is a long way from the sort of thing I regularly see in UK pre-schools and early primary classes. Although many of our early years practitioners yearn to copy the Scandinavian approach, the bureaucratic constraints of EYFS and a national obsession with literacy and numeracy targets make it very difficult. But if parents support teachers in resisting the schoolification of early childhood, it’s perfectly possible.

The 3Rs – slowing down to learn

Of course, the time comes when children do have to comply with adult educational criteria in order to gain access to the higher levels of S-type thought. By the age of six, the vast majority of girls should be capable of disciplined, systemised thought. What’s more, if their earlier experiences have nurtured the intrinsic pleasure and excitement of learning, they should be ready to embrace this mental discipline, not just because the grown-up world expects it of them (and rewards them with praise, grades and test results), but because they actually enjoy the challenge.

Mental discipline traditionally starts with the 3Rs. But literacy isn’t just a question of learning how to read and write, nor numeracy of learning simple arithmetical procedures. Both involve orchestration of a wide range of skills, and constant practice until they become second nature, so it usually takes several years for learners to reach the point at which the basic skills are automatic. To children reared in a world where endless entertainment and information is instantly available at the flick of a switch, all this painstaking effort can seem extremely tedious.

Why bother reading books when you can watch a film or check out facts on Google or Wikipedia? Why waste time writing something down, when you can speak it into a smartphone? What’s the point of struggling over a sum when electronic calculators can provide the answer in seconds? In previous generations, primary teachers could rally the troops by explaining that the 3Rs were keys that opened the vast treasure house of human knowledge. In the 21st century, many of their pupils have a gadget in their pocket offering effortless short-cuts to that treasure house … and to much else besides.

However, in terms of children’s intellectual development, the long-drawn out process of learning to read, write and reckon is still important, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. All those years of practising literacy and numeracy skills literally changes children’s minds, rearranging internal architecture of their brains in ways that improve the capacity for rational, logical thought.

There are no short cuts here. It takes time and effort to lay down and consolidate the neural networks that characterise the educated brain. All those years of practice – gradually turning comprehension, composition and calculation into second nature – develop skills of reflection, analysis and organisation. As the essayist Neil Postman put it thirty years ago: ‘Print means a slowed down mind… The written, then the printed word brought a new kind of social organisation to civilisation. It brought logic, science, education, civilité.’ All modern education systems have been designed to take children through the same process, based on the mental discipline of the 3Rs.

The trouble is that as Moore’s Law rolls on, and children have access to increasingly wonderful gadgetry at ever younger ages, it’s getting harder to keep their noses to the grindstone. ‘Electronics speeds up the mind’, said Postman, and – as the primary teachers I met in the late 1990s were beginning to recognise (see page 00) – it’s much more difficult to help children focus their attention on academic study when they’re growing up in a world of instant gratification and digital quick fixes. Indeed, even adults who’ve already learned to read, write and reckon find it increasingly difficult to focus their attention for long these days. In the words of neuroscientist Robert Rekstak, ‘attention deficit is the paradigmatic disorder of our time’.

Computers in schools

This isn’t to say that, in the modern world, digital literacy is less important than the 3Rs – just that too much early exposure to screen-based technology makes it more difficult for children to learn to read and write. Both parents and teachers need to be aware that, in the words of psychologist Aric Sigman ‘there is a conflict between multi-tasking and sustained attention. These things cannot and should not be developed at the same time. Sustained attention must be the building block. The big problems we are seeing now with children who do not read, or who find it difficult to pay attention to teachers or to communicate, are down to attention damage that we are finding in all age groups.’ He recommends that computers shouldn’t be used for educational purposes until children are at least nine, by which time they’re hopefully well on the way to fluency in ‘old-fashioned’ literacy.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Finland, with its remarkable record of achievement in literacy and numeracy – uses no high-tech equipment at all in kindergartens, and hardly any in primary schools. Nor does it surprise me that many high-flying parents in California’s Silicon Valley – mums and dads who know a thing or two about the digital world – now opt to send their primary-aged children to a Waldorf School that doesn’t let computers over the threshold.

Unfortunately, the politicians who run UK education embarked on a love affair with information technology way back in the 1980s, and since then schools at all levels have been expected to integrate IT into all their work across the curriculum. Vast amounts of money have been invested in electronic resources, with teachers no sooner learning the basics of one generation of hardware before it’s overtaken by another. Not surprisingly, with constant retraining, and generally shallow understanding of the resources, the level of expertise is poor. In primary schools it often results in pupils being required to use computers for tasks that could be done much more productively in real life, and recorded with pencil and paper.

The biggest investment of the last decade has been in electronic whiteboards, which have been installed in almost every classroom in the country (including nursery classes). It’s depressing, when I visit schools, to see how much of their day young children spend zoned out in front of screens. But teachers feel obliged to use this equipment, because school inspectors mark them down if they don’t. So they upload the latest educational software on to their whiteboards for the class to stare at, or set simple tasks in the computer suite. In the last couple of years, there’s also been a craze for providing individual pupils with iPads, frequently starting in the nursery class – I’ve met many early years teachers who are appalled by this, but don’t dare object, as their headteachers ‘think it’s very modern and progressive’.

From what I hear out in the schools, a great many teachers of the under eights now agree with Aric Sigman – not from technophobia (many are highly digitally literate) but because they don’t see any advantage in using high-tech equipment with young children. They’d like to concentrate on consolidating the 3Rs within a stimulating, three-dimensional curriculum and leave the teaching of IT to specialist staff in upper primary and secondary classes. Such specialist teachers have the time and personal commitment to keep up to date with technological innovation, so they can teach pupils genuinely useful IT skills, such as writing programs, designing websites, making films and animations, inventing new apps and so on – the sort of skills young people enjoy learning and their future employers really want. And specialist IT teachers can do this much more effectively if pupils have a solid grounding in old-fashioned basic skills.

In the next couple of years, the IT curriculum is to be overhauled, and schools given more freedom about the way they teach computer skills but, after so much financial investment in expensive hardware throughout the system, it’s unlikely that nurseries and early primary classes will be allowed to drop it altogether in the near future. Commitment to the use of IT in every age group is now an established part of the UK’s ‘too much too soon’ orthodoxy.

Nevertheless, evidence about the effects of too much computer-use is growing every year, and I’m sure the government will eventually have to listen to the growing body of expert opinion, summed up by US professor Paul Thomas: ‘Teaching is a human experience… Technology is a distraction when we need literacy, numeracy and critical thinking.’

05 August 2011 - Think Tank report on parenting

Spent yesterday doing radio and TV interviews about a think tank report on parenting, which included a five-point plan for parents of babies and toddlers to help give them a good start in life. Their recipe boils down to:

  • Switch off the TV and talk to them for 20 minutes a day
  • Read to them for 15 minutes a day
  • Play with them on the floor for 10 minutes a day
  • Take a positive attitude to them, and praise them
  • Feed them nutritious food.

My job was to disagree. Well, you can’t disagree with accredited research, and I’m familiar with the research on which it’s based… But it’s just so utterly poverty-stricken. How can anyone presume to sum up something as complex as caring for a child in simple five bullet points. Or by giving time allocations to interaction.

Above all, why doesn’t it mention love?

I believe passionately that parents (indeed all adults) need information about child development. But they also need to know how techno-consumerism is adding daily to the problems we’re facing. Some midwives I was chatting to recently told me that it’s not at all unusual for mums to be texting their mates as they’re delivering the baby. ‘They’re not even completely present at their baby’s birth,’ one said.

A reductionist exercise like ‘5 a day parenting’ is merely a political distraction from the socio-cultural stew that’s threatening the next generation. I hate the way it throws the responsibility for sorting out ‘toxic childhood’ on to individual parents. As if they could hold back the rising tide of dehumanising materialism all by themselves.

Felt a bit mean ranting on about it though. The nice young man who’d written the report was doing his best. Ten years ago I might even have thought it was worth a go… Ah well, it’s an ill wind. Among the emails I got as a result of the interviews was one pointing me to this website: . It’s for parents of older children, but seems to me infinitely more useful than a five-point plan.

01 August 2011 - Some useful links

Earlier this year Oxford University Press asked me to make some short films about my work in child development and learning (especially literacy across the curriculum, and ‘skeletons’). These have just gone up on the OUP School Improvement Website. They’re planning another website for parents, and we recorded another film for that – ten ‘top tips’ for parents based on Toxic Childhood – but it isn’t up yet. In the meantime, I hope the following links might be of some use to people out there...

Toxic Childhood for primary teachers

21st Century Boys

21st Century Children: language, literacy and learning

Skeletons for writing

Skeletons for reading

13 June 2011 - 21st Century Families visit

A few months ago I went to visit a project in South Lanarkshire called 21st Century Families. They were a brilliant crowd of people, working together to ‘detoxify childhood’. And today I found this on You Tube:

What an honour! Gosh!

19th May 2011

Here’s my latest volley in the campaign to make Scotland see sense about early years.

It’s a response to an article in Edinburgh’s Evening News by the (LibDem) Convener of the city’s Education Committee, lambasting parents who ask to keep back their children from starting school at five. When I rang the News to ask if I could write a reply the editor was very helpful – perhaps because he’s kept his own children back.

When Should Our Children Start School?

Do you remember your first day at school? How big the other children seemed? The echoing corridors? The terrifying urgency of the bells? And the feeling that you’re a big boy or girl now, so you have to put your head down and please the grown-ups by getting on with stuff they care about – reading, writing, sums...

It’s a very significant moment for a child, which is probably why everyone I ask has at least a vague memory of it. And it’s sad that, for most Scots, it’s seldom a happy memory.

This is probably because the UK has one of the earliest school starting ages in the world. In Scotland, children enter Primary 1 at five, when most are far too young for formal education.

After ten years of research into child development, I believe it’s also a key reason why the UK is bottom of the league for ‘childhood well-being’ in the developed world (UNICEF) and steadily slipping down the international charts for achievement in literacy (PIRLS and PISA studies).

The country that scores highest for well-being (the Netherlands) doesn’t send its children to school till they’re six. In two other high-scoring countries (Finland and Sweden), which also regularly top the charts for literacy, they don’t start till seven.

So perhaps this is why a growing number of parents in Edinburgh now apply to defer their children’s entry to primary school. They want their offspring to enjoy a happy, carefree childhood for another year. And they instinctively know that the best way to build a sound foundation for future learning is the traditional ‘kindergarten’ diet of play, song, stories, art, drama and plenty of outdoor activity.

In a culture where childhood is under constant threat from a toxic cocktail of commercial and social factors, these parents want to ensure that – at least in the precious early years – their children have the chance to develop as learners naturally, without the downward pressure of tests and government targets for achievement.

So it’s extremely depressing when the Convener of Edinburgh’s Education Committee, Marilyne MacLaren shakes her finger at these parents and bombards them with scary statistics about the dangers of delayed school entrance (Evening News, 18-5-11). She trots out the usual arguments that the Curriculum for Excellence ensures ‘transitions for all pupils at all stages of education should be smoother and easier’ and it’s now ‘much less a case of the child needing to be ready for school and more that schools are ready to adapt learning and teaching approaches to meet the needs of all children.’

As an ex- primary headteacher, an independent literacy specialist for 25 years and author of several books about the effects of modern life on child development, I think this is nonsense.

The Curriculum for Excellence is a very fine document that makes all the right noises about child development, but Scotland’s competitive target-driven culture means that, from the moment children enter Primary One, they embark on an educational rat-race.

Many early years teachers try desperately to create a play-based, child-centred ethos in the first couple of years. But the system requires their pupils reach certain standards at certain ages, so they’re also obliged to crack on with more formal teaching strategies. And the expectation of academic ‘excellence’ – from parents, politicians and the general public – means commitment to child development inevitably takes second place to the pursuit of literacy and numeracy targets.

Like almost everyone else in the educational establishment, Marilyne MacLaren is desperately trying to convince parents to comply with this system. She’d be far better listening to their concerns.

Like thousands of other responsible adults across the UK, they want their children to have the same chance of a happy childhood and a sound foundation in the basics as children in the successful Nordic countries.

Perhaps they also know that these countries have an enviable record for social justice – while in Scotland the gap between rich and poor grows wider every day – and far fewer problems with teenage disaffection and crime. In Finland (the country that, in my opinion as a literacy specialist, has the best pre-school provision of all) the prison population is less than half that of the UK.

It’s now widely accepted that children’s experiences in their early years have a knock-on effect on achievement and mental health throughout their lives. So Marilyn McLaren and the rest of the Scottish educational establishment shouldn’t be berating parents who want to save their children from ‘too much too soon’.

They should instead be campaigning for a ‘kindergarten stage’, based on the Nordic model, and the deferment of formal education till the age of seven.

All Scotland’s children deserve the opportunity to thrive at school. And up to the age of seven, they also deserve just to enjoy being children.

10th May 2011 - IATEFL Speech

Last month I was invited to speak to the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language at their conference in Brighton. It was terrific – there were more than 2000 delegates covering just about every nationality in the world, and every one spoke perfect English! With so many interesting people to meet, I didn’t sleep for three days.

And IATEFL recorded my speech too, bless them. So, dear reader, if you’re stuck for something to do for an hour, here it is.

9th May 2011 - Follow Wales – and unleash the Braveheart in you!

(Article published in Times Educational Supplement Scotland, 6th May 2011)

Slainte mhath,’ I yelled, lifting my glass to the TV. ‘Now you’ll show ‘em!

The day Scotland got its Parliament, I was five hundred miles away, cheering you on. I wasn’t born a Scot, but I’ve been in thrall to your land and culture for over forty years.

Sadly, after training and teaching here in the 1970s and 80s, Fate whisked me back to the farthest end of the UK. So when a friend sent me the text of Donald Dewar’s speech, I sat in a Cornish park and wept.

‘The shout of the welder in the din of the great Clyde shipyards:
The speak of the Mearns, with its soul in the land;
The discourse of the enlightenment, when Edinburgh and Glasgow were a light held to the intellectual life of Europe;
The wild cry of the Great Pipes;
And back to the distant cries of the battles of Bruce and Wallace.
The past is part of us. But today there is a new voice in the land, the voice of a democratic Parliament. A voice to shape Scotland, a voice for the future.’

I wanted to be there. With all your Scottish cockiness and cussedness, and that rich shared culture, I was sure you’d forge a better future by creating an education system right for the 21st century. I wanted to be part of it.

So here I am, a dozen years later, home in Edinburgh discovering the other side of Scotland – the one that appears to’ve flourished over the last twenty years. A land of fine words and broken dreams, of growing class divisions and inequality. A land where everyone’s so terrified of sticking their head above the parapet that – despite devolution – education policy is constantly influenced by the flawed thinking issuing from Westminster.

The disappointment is devastating. And it’s doubly devastating because in Wales – where they didn’t even get their own Parliament and education pre-1999 was firmly yoked to English policy – they have actually done something. Indeed, from my perspective as a literacy specialist, they’ve done everything international research suggests they should do.

They’ve dropped the league tables, tests and targets that made English education so pressurised and divisive. They’ve established a ‘Foundation Phase’ to the age of seven, based on the Nordic model, giving children from less advantaged homes time to develop – emotionally, physically, socially, cognitively – before formal learning begins. (They’re now carefully prepared for literacy, as children are in Finland – the country that always comes top of international literacy leagues – with a rich diet of play, story and song. )

They’ve also introduced a statutory requirement on local authorities to provide open-access play opportunities for all children outside school hours – recognising that what happens in the hours around the school day must support children’s development rather than hindering it.

So the Welsh have taken decisive, concrete steps to counter social and cultural factors that drive inequality in a high-tech, screen-saturated global economy. They’ve done it by looking at where the children are coming from in terms of personal developmental needs, rather than over-focusing on what society wants them to be. Their education system is now more humane than any other in the UK, and other aspects of social policy back it up.

And what have you done in Scotland since 1999? Well, from what I can see, you’ve just produced endless ruddy documents.

There you were with your own Parliament, your own education system, geographically and genetically closer to the successful Nordic countries than anyone else in the UK – and all you’ve done is churn out of reams and reams of paper-thoughts. And although I’ve loyally tried to read the Curriculum for Excellence etc., I have to admit that after half an hour or so I’m always overcome by a deep sense of ennui.

From what I hear on my travels, many classroom teachers suffer the same weariness. How are they to reconcile the fine words with the need to get a certain number of children to a certain standard by a given date? Or with an early-start policy that emphasises ‘intervention’ rather than supporting human development?

It’s heart-breaking. All those years in exile, I believed your testing system was developmentally driven, but now I find it was just words. Because the minute you link tests to targets you can forget about development. And all too often you can forget about a broad and balanced curriculum too.

Of course, there are many brilliant schools and teachers in Scotland – such schools and teachers tend to flourish whatever the government policy. And there are some bits of the Curriculum for Excellence no one could quibble with, notably the eight word wish-list on which it’s built – successful learner, confident individual, responsible citizen, effective contributor.

But at the moment, Scotland’s locked into an early-start, target-driven mentality that successfully delivers this wish-list to the most fortunate children (because they’re ready to learn), but fails bitterly in the case of the less fortunate (because they’re not). And as 21st century culture rolls on, the gap grows wider every day.

Still – let’s not be defeatist. I mustn’t forget that distant cry from the time of the Bruce: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. From today there’s a new voice in the land – a newly-elected Parliament. It’s not too late to shape Scotland’s future for the better.

But only if you do something. Something brave.

14th September 2010 - Socrates

2,500 years ago, the great philosopher Socrates railed against the new-fangled fashion for reading and writing. He argued it would undermine human beings’ capacity to think, understand and remember.

How can we understand an idea unless we talk it through? he asked. Written words can’t engage us in dialogue – they lie silent on the page. To turn information into knowledge we must analyse and reflect on its meaning – that takes mental effort and discipline. We must absorb new knowledge into our minds and memories – why should anyone go to the trouble of remembering anything if they can look it up in a book?

Fortunately Socrates was wrong. It turned out that the huge mental effort involved in learning to read and write is an even better way of disciplining the human mind than the feats of memory required by the oral tradition. And once readers are fluent at decoding text, they can see through the words on the page to interrogate, analyse and reflect on their meaning. It’s as though we lock brains with the author and engage in an internal personal dialogue, integrating his ideas with all the other knowledge we’ve absorbed. So literacy given us access not just to the people we meet in real life, but to all the great minds whose thoughts are recorded in text – including Socrates, since Plato considerately wrote down his words.

But suddenly, in the early years of the 21st century, Socrates’ ideas have a new resonance. Will the human race’s increasing reliance on digital literacy undermine our thinking, understanding and powers of memory? Are we losing the skills that underpin true knowledge, and believing instead that access to endless scraps of random information is all we need? And as those scraps of information become evermore easily accessible – in multimedia forms, requiring minimal engagement with text – will our children no longer develop the mental discipline that comes from ‘the getting of literacy’?

If you want to think more deeply about these ideas, have a look at a few recent books, such as Proust and the Squid by Maryann Wolfe, The Shallows: how the internet is rewiring our brains by Nicholas Carr and Distracted by Maggie Jackson. (Oh, and then PLEASE have a look at my ‘Five Finger Exercise’ which is about what children need – and have always needed – to focus their attention in order to become literate in the first place.)

Welcome to the blog

Here’s a poem I was given at a school in Wales recently, written by a holocaust survivor. I’d like to show it to every politician who thinks education is about tests, targets, league tables and remorselessly ‘raising standards’.

Dear Teacher,
I am the victim of a concentration camp.
My eyes saw what no one should witness:
gas chambers built by learned engineers;
children poisoned by educated physicians;
infants killed by trained nurses;
women and babies shot and burned
by high school and college graduates.
So, I am suspicious of education.
My request is:
help your students become human.
Your efforts must never produce
learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmans.
Reading and writing are important
only if they serve to make our children more human.

A new website for a new decade

Spring 2010

A new website for a new decade – maybe this time I’ll manage to keep it updated...

I do have high hopes this will be the decade when the UK finally takes serious action to detoxify childhood. So with any luck there’ll be plenty to write about...

More entries coming soon