All my life I have been learning, sometimes formally, at other times on an ad hoc basis. Most of my life in employment I spent as a teacher. I now understand that these two activities go on simultaneously, if no other pupil is present, than one is teaching oneself. About people in my age group, two phrases are used, Life Long Learning or the Third Age. I don’t remember learning to read; the method used or even the books that were available. I do remember the immense pleasure of being able to and the indescribable joy of joining the free public library. There were few books in my home, it was wartime and books were in very short supply and pretty low down on my mother’s list of essential items. Food and warm clothing , gas, coal and rent took the small amount which constituted a soldier’s pay. Reading has been from those early years my way of learning about the world outside my own family, now broadened by the electronic means available to me. The ability to make sense of the written symbols of sadly only one language, is still indispensable.
One thing which angers me is the fact that a dreadfully large percentage of young people leave school without having mastered; reading, writing and arithmetic. I am shocked that this happens in a developed country and so little is done to deal with this problem. This week I read about a country which has a 100% literacy rate, how did they do this? The country is of course Finland, which regularly tops the OECD rankings in the PISA tests. How did this small population in a country without great wealth producing natural resources resurrect itself from a poor country into one leading the world in the electronics industry?
Children do not start school until the age of seven, they have the shortest school day in OECD countries, they do little home work. Yet since 2000 they are always in the top five countries, frequently number one, when their fifteen year olds are tested on literacy, mathematics and science. There will be different explanations. No I have not been to Finland, I have learnt about the same way I learn many things, by reading. This is my explanation. I have taught reading and writing and number work in English schools, some time ago. From the reception class at five enormous stress is placed on individual learning. A few children can already read even at this early age, some are ready to read with the right structured reading programme and others have problems of different kinds and require specialist help. Children are now tested and graded very frequently so just as those children at the top know how they are ranked, the other three quarters of the class also know that they are failing and it is their fault. What emotions does this create in the classroom: disappointment, fear, jealousy, anger and in many cases this leads to bullying. This I know from personal experience, my elder son taught himself to read long before he went to school. Very quickly in the infant school he was regarded as strange, unfortunately some teachers were as guilty of this and even encouraged the children to treat him as being different. If the focus had been on the class as a community, every child of value and helping those who need extra help, in other words on cooperation and not competition. Life would have been immeasurably better for everyone. No child would leave school functionally illiterate and enumerate, that is handicapped in our increasingly complex world.