There are deep ironies in the reflex defensiveness against the Upstart campaign to encourage play-based learning – either by extending this approach into primary school, or by delaying the school entry point.
The idea is based on the very simple observation that young children learn through play: observing and absorbing through repeat experimentation and interaction with the natural world. It’s an idea that will be painfully obvious to any parent, or anyone who has worked with children.
A Union of Learning
The first irony is that enthusiasts for compulsory testing of very young children are supporting a failed approach that has been backed enthusiastically by Conservatives and successive right-wing governments in England.
Second, some nationalists seem completely ignorant of the roots of Scottish educational theories, principles and origins. As Michael Gardiner writes in The Cultural Roots of British Devolution:
“The educational systems of England and Wales on one hand, and Scotland on the other, have never been unified, except for certain aspects of higher education entry. The Acts of Union guaranteed in principle the autonomy of each system, underscoring the the importance of separate educational traditions. Education has assumed a primary significance in stateless Scotland, where education is viewed as fundamental to national identity.”
Establishing a distinct path – and encouraging mass participation – used to be a source of pride.
This is true right through the education system, as Murray Pittock observes The Road to Independence:
“Participation in higher education in Scotland has always been higher than was the case south of the border (17 as against 10 per cent in 1979 for example, while in the late 1990s Scotland reached the 50 per cent target desired for England by Tony Blair).”
“Britain stands alone in forcing five year-olds into formal education at all. In 1870, the UK parliament chose an early school starting age so mothers could provide cheap labour in factories. Only 12 per cent of countries worldwide share British practice and they are all are former parts of the British Empire. Malta and Ireland, however, recently joined 66 per cent of the world’s countries, which start school at six. Meanwhile 22 per cent of countries including Finland, Estonia and Switzerland have a play-based kindergarten from 3-7. Perhaps that’s why they topped a recent OECD international review into education achievement.”
“Sue Palmer, founder of Upstart Scotland, says “after primary four there are evidence-based arguments both ways about the value of testing. In primary one there are none at all. National standardised testing runs totally counter to the Curriculum for Excellence and nips in the bud the growing move towards play in the early years. It encourages teaching to the test, narrows the curriculum and changes the relationship between teachers and children – particularly damaging for disadvantaged children.” The urge to stuff education into five-year-old brains may be understandable but it’s not rational, helpful or kind.”
But whilst Riddoch is quite right to celebrate in particular the outdoor education traditions of our northern Scandic neighbours, such as the Bukkespranget Barnehagen with Norwegian Turid Bornholm (see Get the Bairns Oot!) – we don’t need to always look abroad for inspiring educational practice.
Deep Learning of the Heart, Hand and Head
The fourth irony is that much of what Upstart proposes, far from being some exotic innovation from abroad has its roots in the Edinburgh Social Union and the early free kindergarten movement of the 1890s.
Geddes introduced the idea of kindergarten through his own childhood experience and his interaction with Madame Montessori and other leading European educational thinkers of the day (see also Womanliness in the Slums: A Free Kindergarten in Early Twentieth‐Century Edinburgh by Elizabeth Darling.)
As Kenneth Cadenhead has written Patrick Geddes: Timeless Educational Ideas:
“Wonder is the seed of knowledge. This idea formed the foundation of Geddes’s educational thinking. Wonderment is natural for the young child. With encouragement and guidance, wonderment can be transformed into curiosity and a commitment to search for answers to one’s own questions. Geddes shows the importance of an environment that nurtures wonderment. He used a metaphor of the passion flower, comparing the sensitive, searching tendrils of the young vine to the child”:
“Each and every tendril of the young vine-shoot – or still the passion-flower – is at first sensitive and searching; yet when it finds no opportunity of attachment what can it do but curl in upon itself, into a small centred coil? Where the shoot is isolated, each soon becomes standardized to this “good form;” and this in quite a long row, all as similarly stiff, inert and unresponsive. Are not these the very types of the “good average men” we know so well from public school and college, whom we meet in clubs or business, or see in politics or in “Society”, and whose blameless respectability and settled decorum is no longer troubled by any personal urge or thought, or initiative towards action? Yet in each of these and all of these, youth’s passion flower tendrils have guided them to opportunity of realisation, instead of standardised futility.”
Geddes believed that the child’s desire of seeing, touching, handling, smelling, tasting, and hearing are all true and healthy hungers, and these should be cultivated, not squelched. He likens the child’s wonderment to scientists whose habits of observing and thinking for themselves drive them to pursue questions that are important. He believed that the investigations of people like Darwin, Pasteur, Huxley, Hall and others he had known were simply the eager child just grown up. Obviously, this is an oversimplification.; however, it might be worth our rethinking the notion of wonder as the seed of knowledge. Wonderment is something that we have working for us if we can cultivate it rather than ignore it in an overprescriptive curriculum and systems of evaluation that do not place importance on the questions of children and young people.”
Geddes’s theory of education cannot be separated from his concept of the garden. In all he advocated a holism based on the equal emphasis on the Hand (physical/manual), Heart (compassion/political) and Head (learning /psycological /analytical).
As Pat Kane has recently pointed out: “Brian Boyd, one of the crafters of the original Curriculum for Excellence framework, spoke of Scottish education’s commitment in recent years to a Nordic-style “deep learning”, rather than the “surface learning of an exams-based approach”. This is what we need to cultivate and understand beyond a party-political squabble.
Upstart’s plea for play points us not just to a better experience for our youngest children but for all of us to shift away from ‘standardised futility’ towards deep learning and towards the Heart Hand and Head.
Of course “discovery, exploration and experimentation” should be at the heart of not just early learning but all of our learning. This would be obvious to us if we had not already been blinded by the sort of systems we see collapsing around us.