Goolbai Gunasekara questions educating children too early

While Western countries such as Finland and Australia start schooling children rather late, Sri Lanka in the Global South begins educating its tots while they’re very tiny. Two years old is not considered too early to pop them into the nearest Montessori school to begin an often arduous 16 year academic slog… hopefully, to gain entry into university eventually.

We have problems with baby care since the economic situation demands that both parents often need to work. Except for a small minority among the moneyed class, children can’t have their mother’s full attention.

And those who have the money tend to employ maids who are often hardly interested in furthering the baby’s mental development. Furthermore, most parents these days want their kids to have at least a smattering of English language skills.

They get this in varying degrees depending on the efficacy of the nursery (good, bad or simply indifferent). So the early education of a child isn’t an organised business; it’s in the hands of parents, and their financial, mental and personal ability to deal with the learning process. The Department of Education starts schooling children at the age of five in Grade 1. It seems a good age but these are then five years that need to be gainfully and expertly guided.

When contributing his views to training Roman Catholic children, one pope is reputed to have said: “The church wants a child up to the age of seven. After that, anyone can have him.” The thinking behind that comment was that up to the age of seven, a child’s mind and beliefs can be moulded for life.

The church seemed secure in its knowledge that early teaching was of paramount importance as far as unshakeable faith went.

Carrying this idea a little further, educationists believe that early education is vital. But how early is still debatable. I don’t think we can compare ourselves with the West. European children grow up speaking several languages; it’s easier for them than it is for us.

Sri Lankans attempting to learn Sinhala, Tamil and English, each with different scripts, face a problem that’s not present when European children learn languages since the written scripts in Europe are mostly Romanised. I am told that English is a compulsory second or third language in Finland. As a result, the Sri Lankan delegation to that country had no difficulty communicating with Finnish teachers.

Compare this to a similar situation here in Sri Lanka.

Even after those compulsory lessons in English for many years, the average Sri Lankan graduate teacher in an outstation government school wouldn’t be too comfortable when, or fluent in, explaining things to visiting educationists. Perhaps our methods of teaching English are inadequate?

So much money is spent on providing children with vote attracting gimmicks like free uniform materials that our Department of Education doesn’t have the money and certainly no expertise to put a good teacher training programme in place.

Dr. Rajiva Wijesinha, Nirmali Wickremesinghe and I were involved in a programme under former President Chandrika Kumaratunga when Dr. Tara de Mel was Secretary to the Ministry of Education. But these efforts never came to fruition when the government changed and de Mel resigned, as rumours circulated that education would not enjoy the same priority under the new administration.

We read in the newspapers about the utter waste of public funds by the Department of Education on frivolous activities. These monies should be used to uplift the education system.

Early education in Sri Lanka can take a few lessons from Rudolf Steiner, the well-known founder of Waldorf schools across the world. He also agreed with Madame Maria Montessori that cognitive education shouldn’t be introduced till much later. Basically, early childhood activity focusses on activity and creative play. Nature study and outdoor play is stressed. Reading, writing and math are not given priority until secondary education begins

The first Waldorf school started in Stuttgart in 1919. Today, there are nearly 1,100 independent Waldorf schools in 64 countries and hundreds of centres for special education, which help those who want to know more.

So with Steiner, education began very young but not the way we’re carrying on in Sri Lanka – where to some extent, little children are being taught cognitive skills too early. There is no control over independent Montessori schools, after all.

There is no educated and expert authority guiding the destinies of future syllabi for Sri Lankan students especially in the area of where to start. Perhaps from this time of turmoil will rise a new system – like a phoenix from the ashes of the fires burning all around us today.