Mini majors can take lessons in all flavours

8th October 2010 at 01:00
Canada From science to sport, pupils are being encouraged to choose an area of educational specialisation at the age of six

It is a rite of passage usually limited to first-year university students: choosing a "major" on which to focus one's academic mind.

But in Alberta, Canada, pupils aged just six are taking the same step. According to Dan Hoch, principal at the RJ Hawkey Elementary School in Airdrie, the new approach "places students with interests together and with a teacher who has that same interest or passion".

The Learning in Engaging Network Settings (Lens) programme has been developed by Mr Hoch's team together with researchers at the University of Calgary. They have come up with four areas that pupils can choose to concentrate on and a 25-question survey designed to match students and teachers.

The areas are humanitarianenvironment, visual and performing art, scientific inquiry and innovation, and sports and athletics.

Hoch is quick to point out that the programme has nothing to do with "streaming" children into classes for advanced or slower learners based on their abilities. "Nor does it call for the cramming of the curriculum into the morning so that the kids can play hockey in the afternoon," he says. "Rather, it is a way for us to utilise the kids' interests while teaching the curriculum."

If, for example, the concept being taught is measurement, in the sports concentration students might be asked to bring in a baseball bat, glove or a hockey stick. They will then be asked to estimate its weight and length and will measure the item. Across the hall in the science concentration, the students might measure rocks and stones and trees.

According to the project's proposal, the programme is partially based on bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, which claims that experts require 10,000 hours of practice to perfect their abilities. Engaging students' interests and then giving them ongoing practice in an environment that they feel passionately about will make it easier for them to learn, says Mr Hoch.

The concentration is not a grade school-long commitment, however. At the end of each year, students will be reassessed to determine which concentration they want for the following year.

Critics were quick to point out that having six-, seven- and eight-year-olds decide on a "major" was putting a lot of faith in their abilities to think long term.

"Many six-year-olds are learning how to tie their shoe laces and how to get ready for school," says Paul Bennett, a teacher with 30 years' experience and former head of Lower Canada College in Montreal and a Halifax grammar school. "Asking them to make life decisions at this point is wrong and opens up the whole question of who will be deciding. I suspect it will be the parents."

In mid-August, after seeing his 11-year-old sprawled on a couch in his wet swimming trunks, "spoiling his appetite with a bowl of cereal", Ron Petrie, a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, also wondered whether teachers should put too much stock in children's desires.

"The dreams of an eight-year-old change weekly," he wrote. Cowboy, ballerina, doctor, rock star... pinning them down to one interest for a whole year could be tricky.

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