Are we damaging our children through learning?

By - Monday 19th March, 2018

How can we ensure that our children learn more effectively, and have a better quality of life as adults?

Photo author’s own.

There are many ways our society is damaging children’s learning. Among them as discussed at the Croydon Assembly/National Union of Education event on Saturday 24th February are funding cuts, testing, the lowering of qualifications needed by teachers, the adverse effects of increasing poverty and poor housing, the lack of quiet homework space, libraries now being less able to support homework, and the reduction in extra-curricular activities.

There are growing examples of schools putting pressure on parents to donate money, even if they cannot afford it, on top of the expense of school uniforms and kit. Croydon has extra-special problems due to teachers not being paid Inner London Weighting – even though increasingly north Croydon is an inner city. There is also inadequate government funding for refugee children.

But there are other ways in which we may be adversely hindering children’s learning.

Children find it increasingly hard to hold pens due to excessive use of tech

The Guardian newspaper recently reported that senior paediatric doctors are warning that children are increasingly finding it hard to hold pens and pencils because excessive use of technology, touchscreen phones and tablets is preventing children’s finger muscles from developing sufficiently to enable them to hold a pencil correctly.

The way computer suites are installed does not help, with children sitting close to screens with the risk of being in the electrical and radiation fields that are emitted by them.

But things are actually even worse. A lot of learning difficulties experienced by pupils in primary schools appear to be due to poor motor skills, lack of co-ordination and poor postural control, which impact on development of binocular vision and sound processing. Making sense of sounds is more than just hearing them. Visual processing is about developing the skills so that the brain is able to ‘see’ patterns, relevant from irrelevant, 3D shapes, and so on.

People may struggle to understand and learn – but do not know why

These blocks to good development also impact on anxiety, because the person struggles to use all their senses and motor skills together efficiently. Coping strategies enable the person to get by – but they know that they struggle to understand some aspects of life and learning, but often do not know why.

Croydon-based Fit 2 Learn CIC argues that early action is needed to address these motor skills and co-ordination problems. If not rectified, then those difficulties continue to adversely affect pupils’ learning at secondary school and on in to adult life. Remedial work is therefore also needed with older children and adults.

Fit 2 Learn CIC is also pointing out that children working at tables is damaging. In the 1940s, Dr Darrell Boyd Harmon in the United States established that children learn and breathe better if they sit with good posture. He screened over 160,000 children and identified that 20% of children entered school with visual problems – but after five years of education, 80% had then. They had also developed postural problems. His solution was for them to have a sloping desk.

Sloping desks or keyboards could be an answer

Charlotte Davies of Fit 2 Learn CIC, who ran an excellent workshop at the recent conference, says that this can be cheaply remedied by buying sloping keyboard stands.

The National Union’s guidance to its members on ICT in schools recognises the issue too, saying: “A comfortable keying position must be achieved for all users who must not be either hunched over the keyboard or having to stretch out to reach it. The keyboard should be tilted with a matt surface to avoid reflective glare. It should be easy to use, adequately contrasted and have legible symbols on the keys”.

The emphasis Charlotte Davies put on the need to address motor skills problems, was reinforced in another of the workshops and by a plenary session speaker, demonstrating how physical activity can be built into class teaching, even for reading, writing and numeracy.

Reduced music provision can also have an effect

The overemphasis of governments and Ofsted on reading, writing and maths has been at the expense of a broad and integrated curriculum in which these fit. As a result, many schools have reduced music provision.

At Norbury Manor Primary School, where I am a governor, we have increased music provision and activities because of its importance in children’s development. Most significantly good sound processing is the foundation for sequencing, which is essential for everything from time management to mathematics.

Music and rhythm help develop language and increase co-ordination. Taking part in musical performances trains children to be in tune not just musically, but also aligned to others’ needs as they understand how they fit in with the other performers. The challenge of the final performance fosters a sense of achievement, supports children’s engagement in school, aids emotional development and builds good memories – which are the foundation of a secure adult.

Listening to music builds imagination and promotes curiosity

Understanding how music works technically is picked up naturally by most humans. This playing with aural patterns develops maths skills and fine tunes auditory skills. Listening to music and moving along to it builds imagination and intellectual curiosity. It can help children relax and cope with stress.

The concentration required to learn a piece of music – whether singing or playing an instrument – helps to develop concentration and the ability to focus on very precise detail and how each note fits into the whole. Working together on music means large groups of children can learn teamwork, how to take risks and can build better self-confidence.

There is much emphasis these days on health and wellbeing. Yet self-harm and mental health problems among children are growing.

So how can we help?

  • Analysis by health and wellbeing boards and council scrutiny committees.
  • Presentations by Fit 2 Learn CIC to joint meetings of governors, teachers and parents in schools.
  • Discussion by governing bodies.
  • Allocation of money by the Croydon Schools’ Forum to tackle these issues.
  • Training for teachers and governors by the Octavo Partnership.
Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Mark Johnson

    Ofsted’s obsession with statistics and paper work mean that teachers spend a large chunk of their time on compiling statistics and filling out forms instead of teaching. Add to this the other obsession with exams/ testing, there is very little time left for real teaching outside of whats in the exam.