View from here - 'Major' decisions at young ages

22nd October 2010 at 01:00
From science to sport, Canadian pupils are being encouraged to specialise at the age of six. Nathan Greenfield reports

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 seven are taking the same step.

According to Dan Hoch, principal at RJ Hawkey 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 on which pupils can choose to concentrate, 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.

Mr Hoch is quick to point out that the programme has nothing to do with "streaming" children into classes for advanced or slower learners. "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 or 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 pupils 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 experts require 10,000 hours of practice to perfect their abilities.

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 shoelaces and how to get ready for school," says Paul Bennett, a teacher with 30 years' experience and former head of Lower Canada College (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."

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