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Wednesday, January 20

Childwise by Ruth Liew

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Young children are active learners with unlimited potential.

LOOKING at five-year-olds and six-year-olds sitting in rows of desk writing away in their workbooks makes me wonder how little we know about their potential. If we really respect children for their ability to think and value their ideas, we would be sitting down with them and asking them what we should do instead.

Most teachers and parents consider conversations with children frivolous and a waste of time. After all, what do children really know at such a tender age? The adults should be the ones deciding what they should learn and how they learn.

It is sad to note that almost a decade into the new millennium, we still have so little trust in young children as active learners. If we focus on what they are paying attention to, we will learn that they are serious about their learning. They do have ideas that matter a great deal.

The adults in their lives – parents and teachers – want to make sure that they learn and develop the intellectual skills that they need in life. They teach children to “bark” at print rather than to enjoy reading.

During one parenting seminar, a mother asked me: “How many hours in a day should my child spend on reading before he makes the breakthrough to knowing how to read independently? Should I send him to additional reading classes after kindergarten?”

Learning to read takes more than just drill work or learning the sounds to make words. Children have to gain many experiences first before they start to master the ability to read and write.

One six-year-old boy proudly read in English, the title of the book I was holding at storytime. After reading aloud the title, he turned to me and said in Mandarin, “See, I can read.” When I asked him to speak to me in English instead of Mandarin, he turned away without saying a word.

This little boy, like many of his friends, had his head filled with information deemed important by the adults who control their lives. He learned how to read but he did not fall in love with the language.

Before they can read, children need a chance to mess around and to experiment. They need to delve in meaningful conversations with adults to share their ideas and opinions. Give them opportunities to reflect on what they know and what they think. When they realise that they can use writing to express themselves, they will happily do so without much persuasion from adults.

This kind of teaching and learning is not happening in many preschool settings.

When I saw a five-year-old child holding a pencil and drawing a line between one picture to another, I wonder what was going through his mind. He could be thinking about the cartoon character that he liked so much. Or he could have quite a bit to say about his visit to the zoo during the weekend.

The little boy turned to his friend sitting next to him, who was drawing circles instead of lines. He muttered something to him and both of them ended up laughing. The teacher walked over and reprimanded them: “Do your work properly. No talking in class.”

The mind of a child has unlimited potential. When we do not value individual differences or accept the ideas that come out of children’s interest, we lose the Bill Gates, Picassos, Montessoris and Albert Schweitzers of the future. Montessori believed that no teacher could teach a child what he can learn for himself. Our role as adults, their teachers and parents, is to support their learning.

We provide them with the right tools and opportunities to learn. We should not force them to learn when they are not ready or get them to merely follow what we set out for them. Just because children’s ideas are not part of the curriculum planned, they are far from being unimportant. Their ideas can help them build a bridge from existing strengths to new learning.

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