Sanity amid the madness

24th June 2005 at 01:00
FIRST HAND EXPERIENCE: what matters to children - an alphabet of learning from the real world. By Diane Rich, Cathy Myer, Andrea Durrant, Mary Jane Drummond, Annabelle Dixon and Denise Casanova. Rich Learning Opportunities pound;25. 01473 737405

In a world distracted by targets and testing, Sue Palmer urges primary teachers to renew their faith in real and direct interaction with children

"Read this book," writes Tim Smit in the foreword. "It may save lives."

When the creator of the Eden Project is that impressed by an educational tome, it must be worth a look, despite the rather clunky title.

Well, after a very good look, I'll go further than Mr Smit. If you work in nursery or primary education, buy this book, read it, enjoy it and consult it daily until you've regained your professional identity. It's aimed at those working with children aged between three and eight, but there are important lessons for teachers of older children too. In a world where tests, targets and curricular objectives have driven us all into a sort of collective madness, it will at the very least remind you why you came into the job in the first place. And if enough of us rally to the cause it represents, it will save lives.

The authors, established authorities on early childhood education, remind us of the elemental importance for young children of real experiences and genuine human interaction. For children whose lives out of school are often spent largely in front of screens, this essential stage in development is too often neglected. When they come to school, our cock-eyed educational system forces us to rush them straight into the manipulation of symbolic information (reading, writing, numbers). God knows what long-term damage has already been done by this clash between contemporary culture outside school and our premature start to formal learning, but for the sake of coming generations we must redress the educational balance. This book is a wonderful starting point.

There's an excellent introduction, explaining the theories that underpin the approach (theory which is almost daily being affirmed by neuroscientific research). I particularly liked the definition of the role of the educator: "to provide the curricular food that will nourish and strengthen children's powers... to organise children's enquiries and experiences so that they are actively and emotionally engaged" and to value the learning that comes from these activities, using it to plan children's next steps.

I'm sure the many thousands of teachers I meet every year would agree this approach fits the needs of young children much better than the pursuit of fixed objectives, an over-academicised curriculum and an inflexible testing regime, which at present creates not only educational failure but countless behavioural problems. It's certainly the message from the Effective Provision of Preschool Education project, which has found that "sustained shared thinking" between children and informed early years practitioners is the most significant contributor to later educational success.

The main body of the book is an alphabet of powerful starting points for practice, from A is for Apples (grow them, cook them, eat them, investigate them, read about them, collect them, look at them in art, consider the "big ideas" they trigger: inner and outer; parts and wholes; classification; naming; growth; transformation and so on) to Z is for Zigzag, which sums up the book's holistic - but nevertheless highly structured - approach to early learning. It all looks enormous fun. The alphabet pages are interspersed with "learning stories" - case studies by practitioners who have trialled the ideas with children - and the pleasure of reading them is considerably enhanced by their design: inspired use of colour, typeface and layout, creating instant accessibility.

Altogether a remarkable achievement, and I can't recommend First Hand Experience enough. However, I do have one serious quibble. Nowhere does the book tackle the vexed question of how, alongside this child-centred approach, we deal with the teaching of literacy skills. There are many recommendations for good children's picture books to share alongside investigations, but the teaching profession knows from bitter experience in the 1980s and 90s that literacy skills do not emerge from children's joyous immersion in books and stories: they have to be carefully taught. In a TV-dominated culture where many children are no longer tuned into language through nursery rhymes and songs, the need for specific teaching of phonological and phonemic awareness is increasingly necessary. And without structured help in developing the physical skills that underpin handwriting, then refining the ability to get letters and words down on paper, many children (especially boys) are seriously disadvantaged.

Personally, I see no conflict between the authors' holistic, interactive, child-centred approach to learning in general, and a systematic, teacher-directed but child-friendly approach to the development of the skills required for reading and writing. The two approaches can run in parallel, as early years practitioners are well used to such balancing acts. There's no reason to inflict a damaging testing regime on the under-eights, as is demonstrated in successful European countries such as Sweden, Finland and Switzerland, where the foundations of literacy skills are carefully laid during the early years. When formal literacy teaching begins in these countries (at seven years old) the vast majority of children learn to read and write easily and painlessly by the time they're eight.

This splendid alphabet of first-hand experience is essential if children are to grow into balanced, creative adults, but our pupils also need to learn how to use the alphabet themselves to decode and encode information symbolically. Literacy skills must be taught carefully and systematically during the first eight years. The fact that the book makes no reference to this leaves it open to attack or - even worse - to contemptuous dismissal by the powerful people who have locked us into our current, dangerously unbalanced system.

A significant quibble then, but it doesn't dampen my enthusiasm. I believe early years teachers are perfectly capable of sorting out the balancing act themselves, and all primary teachers are now ready for a more creative approach to their craft. Teachers just need the courage of their convictions and the justification to get on with it. So please buy this book: it can change your professional life.

Sue Palmer is an independent literacy consultant and co-author of The Foundations of Literacy (Network Press). First Hand Experience is dedicated to Annabelle Dixon, who died last month (TESPrimary Forum, June 10)

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