Goolbai Gunasekara wonders when teaching should begin

Ever since Maria Montessori launched her theories on a responsive world, teaching youngsters has started very early in their lives. In Sri Lanka, a two-year-old is often entered into the nearest Montessori nursery that his or her parents can find.

Signora Montessori visited Sri Lanka many years ago. Ever since she introduced her farsighted and innovative methods to the world, they have become a global yardstick in the argument favouring very early education. And her system has stood the test of time.

However, there are newer and more innovative ideas circling the educational orbit today. Things have gone way beyond her concept with the Suzuki method of teaching children in the womb. This idea took root when a Japanese educationist and his American wife started an experiment involving their four daughters.

The method comprised reciting poetry to their children in the womb, teaching multiplication tables, playing selected music, talking randomly but logically, telling short stories and generally teaching the unborn child.

As expected, the Suzuki children came into the world with a fair amount of pre-absorbed knowledge. The experiment worked in that they were all at genius level. They were born already knowing what other children had to be taught after birth. All this happened over 40 years ago, so I can’t recall exactly at what age the girls entered university. I think they were around 12.

But there was a downside to all this early learning. When asked, the Suzuki girls said they lost out on everything else. They had no proper friends since their classmates were older. And when their classmates had boyfriends and more grownup interests, the Suzuki girls felt left out. Their brainy attainments were always on show and they led rather lonely lives. They were social misfits.

So do we agree to all this extreme educating of embryos? While the extremes are not encouraged, it’s an excellent idea for music to be played, songs to be sung and (perhaps) the multiplication tables to be recited to the unborn. However, providing the expectant mother with a harmonious pregnancy is far more important than too much knowledge being fed into embryonic brains!

Recently, the principal of an international school returned from a study tour of Finland, which has worked its way up to having about the best education system in the world according to the PISA rankings. Apparently, the Finnish students beat competitors at math, languages and the sciences.

But the Finns don’t start formal schooling till they’re seven years old. They can stay at home until they turn six and after that, they have one year of preschool. It is an unfair comparison with Sri Lanka because other factors make it easier for kids to remain at home in Finland – but that’s a topic for another day.

A high level of affluence is necessary for countries to have the best education systems. To say that Sri Lanka has a highly literate population is simply not good enough. Being literate does not mean being educated – it only means that the population can read and write.

Also, climatic conditions are different. They vary greatly. It is literally a ‘North Pole, South Pole’ kind of situation. But what’s interesting is that although each classroom in every school in Finland is fully equipped technologically, the methods of teaching aren’t too different from those found in Sri Lanka.

Obviously, their teachers are better trained. Every child has a computer and smartphone in front of him or her in class. You can see what I mean by affluence being necessary. Modern technology in classrooms costs a lot of money.

And even if private schools could afford it, the state schools wouldn’t be able to equip every child with a computer, iPad and smartphone.

My first question was to ask how teachers and parents controlled copying during tests. The answer was that there is very little testing as we know it so copying was not an issue. Schools are small and there are plenty of them. The children of Finland face a matriculation exam when they are 19 and this is regarded as entry to university. There is no other public exam – no ridiculous Grade 5 testing, which upsets both children and parents!

How about kids viewing porn? The answer is that Finnish families are very close to their children.

There is a deep sense of trust that extends to school life as well. Honesty is expected. It is not anticipated that children will indulge in pastimes that are detrimental to their mental wellbeing. All this works in Finland.

It seems almost impossible, doesn’t it – especially when we are dealing with the twitchy restless teenagers of today? But we should try and copy what we can; and we should certainly rethink our exam systems for a start.