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The Education Your Children Are Missing Out On

This is my son, Brian. Brian is Thairish. His Mum is Thai and I’m Irish. The photo was taken on an island called Koh Mak, by the Thai-Cambodian border when he was 2 years old. It was one of the happiest times of my life. Not even in my wildest dreams did I imagine how amazing it would feel, lying in a hammock, working from my laptop, on a tropical beach, watching my family play in the sea.

When I took the photo I hoped Brian would be able to live the life I dreamed of. Free to live and work where he wants to – at the beach, in the mountains, or the city. I never want to force my children to choose a career they don’t love, but like all Dad’s I want to open up amazing opportunities to them in their lives. I feel blessed to have such a great job that allowed me to travel the world and I want to use computers and technology to help my kids find what they love to do in life.

Brian is 9 now and gets in trouble for playing computers too much. He is addicted to Minecraft like millions of other kids. If he’s not playing Minecraft he’s watching Minecraft videos on Youtube. Like millions of parents I had no idea why he loves this game so much. However, I was happy that he likes this game because I am a big fan of learning while building with blocks.

Teaching With Blocks

When I first visited America I was extremely fortunate to be invited to visit the most awesome school I have ever seen. Half the classroom was taken up with a town built by the kids with wooden blocks. The kids were organised into committees and they held town meetings to discuss its development. On the day I visited, some kids wanted to knock down the hospital to build a road so they held a town meeting. So a meeting was called and the kids worked together to create a new route.

The teacher was amazing. She was qualified in psychology and analysed how the kids interacted with each other to determine if they were developing healthily. One of her students was a young boy (5 or 6) who wanted to play with dolls and wear dresses and was fully convinced that inside he was a girl. She spoke with his parents, who were very worried. They wanted him to be a normal kid but they understood that there was absolutely nothing they could do to change who he was. So they just accepted him. The teacher read up on the psychology how how the kid could grow up as happy as possible, and they tried to teach him how to overcome any problems he would face in his life. I didn’t have any children back then, or I hadn’t yet worked in education but I made a commitment to myself to try to find my kids a teacher and a school like this.

Education In Thailand

Now I have 3 children, I’m living in Thailand and I’ve been doing my best to provide my children with the best education I can. In 2015 Thailand appropriated 20.6% of its budget to education (as opposed to 16% in Ireland and just 4% in the US). However, it was still ranked 47 out of 65 countries for reading according to Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Ireland was ranked 7th and the US 17th.

“You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself” Buddha

Although I have seen that the Thai education doesn’t work well academically I have found that it helps give children a good moral foundation in life. Especially in my kids school, which blends Thai and western philosophy and ideals. The Thai education system was first developed by Buddhist monks and kids are taught how to be kind, disciplined soft spoken, respectful and happy. I’m not religious but I have a lot of respect for teachings of Buddhism. My kids learn “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.”

At home I teach my kids more wisdom from Buddha “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”. My wife teaches our kids how to be discipline, self sufficient and good.

Our children are extremely lucky. In most Thai schools, Christian or Buddhist, students are not encouraged to develop analytical and critical thinking skills, or to grasp a notion through context. In Thailand teachers generally avoid introducing dialogue into the classroom or eliciting response from the students. Children are not encouraged to question their teacher. A wrong answer by a student, or heaven forbid a teacher, would be a huge loss of face, which Thai culture must always be avoided.

Dr Somkiat Tangkitvanich, President of the Thailand Development Research Institute summarises the Thai education system eloquently “The Thai education system fails to equip students with the ability to think for themselves. Individuals who know how to think, and can adapt themselves to new environments, are likely to excel in the world. The current curriculum does not allow students to truly learn, as teachers have to cover the detailed content set by the Ministry of Education first, before they can turn to anything else”.

Education In Ireland

In Ireland I was allowed to question many teachers but the curriculum was really bad. Especially for Irish language. My Grandfather, Father and my friends had to study the most boring book in the world. Peig. The book starts  “Im an old woman in the grave”  and continues downhill. Pretty much nothing happened Peigs life but Irish people had to learn every word of it for their final school assessment. We weren’t taught how to speak Irish with each other and Ireland lost a huge number of Irish speakers due to bad curriculum.  

Top Performing Countries In Education

So I decided to search for what countries performed best in education. In the The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and South Korea took top places for reading, respectively. However, these countries generally employ strict, drill-heavy, repetitive teaching methods that have been likened to 1980’s Soviet olympic level training. My sister, who taught in Korea said she let tiny kids fall asleep in her class because they were so tired studying extra classes in the evening after an early morning start.

Finland: First Place in Western Education

In first place in the West and sixth place overall lies Finland, a country that approaches education very differently. “In Asia, it’s about long hours — long hours in school, long hours after school. In Finland, the school day is shorter than it is in the U.S. It’s a more appealing model,” says Andreas Schleicher, director the PISA program.

There’s a lot less homework too. “An hour a day is good enough to be a successful student,” says Katja Tuori, a student counsellor at a school in Finland. “These kids have a life.” In Finland kids take off their shoes when they enter the school and call the teachers by their first name. Many schools feature  common spaces to foster mingling among age groups and nooks for small group based learning. Principals and teachers work with architects, who enter anonymous competitions to design the buildings because it’s how a young firm can get its start. The result is schools that often resemble tech companies. Curving glass walls maximize the country’s most precious resource—daylight—and turn hallways into viewing galleries where classrooms and the outdoors are always on display. Finnish pedagogy also gives students a lot of individualised attention, so designers include nooks where a teacher can retreat with a small group said Justin Davidson in New York Mag.

“The first six years of education are not about academic success. We don’t measure children at all. It’s about being ready to learn and finding your passion.” says Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and author. In stark contrast to Thailand, the Finnish national curriculum is only broad guidelines which means that teachers are flexible to customise education to their group’s needs.

“The best learning happens in real life with real problems and real people and not in classrooms.” Charles Handy

In Finland, kids prepare for class by venturing into the snow and collecting sticks, berries and stones that to create shapes for a geometry lesson, for example. Compared with other systems, Finnish kids they rarely take exams or do homework until they are well into their teens. Finnish educational philosophy dictates that every student has something to contribute. Students of varying achievement levels stay in the same classroom, and those who struggle receive specialised help. High-achieving students help low-achieving students. Finnish educators believe this approach helps bring even its lowest-performing students to performance levels equal to those of average-performing students worldwide.

The next big reform taking place in Finland is the introduction of a new National Curriculum Framework (NCF), due to come into effect in August 2016. Developing schools as learning communities, and emphasizing the joy of learning and a collaborative atmosphere, as well as promoting student autonomy in studying and in school life – these are some of our key aims in the reform. focus on more on “topics” and less on subjects. “We really need a rethinking of education and a redesigning of our system, so it prepares our children for the future with the skills that are needed for today and tomorrow,” says Marjo Kyllonen, Helsinki’s education manager. “There are schools that are teaching in the old fashioned way which was of benefit in the beginnings of the 1900s — but the needs are not the same and we need something fit for the 21st century.”

Education in 21st Century

“If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow”. John Dewey

The top 10 in demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004 according to the US Department of Labour. “We are preparing our kids for jobs that don’t exist, using technologies that have not yet been invented in order to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet”, says educator Karl Fisch.

Let’s look at the job market now. In Glassdoor’s 25 Highest Paying Jobs In Demand 2015 report 14 out of the 25 jobs were directly technology related (for example software architect, software development manager, analytics manager, IT manager, security engineer, UX designer etc). Over a quarter of the job growth in London comes from the technology and digital sector, according to Tech City Investment Organisation. A study carried out on behalf of O2 towards the found that Britain will need 750,000 skilled digital workers by 2017. “Of the top 25 highest-paying, in-demand jobs, more than half are in technology. And most of them require strong programming skills.”. Of top 25 jobs that weren’t directly IT related (finance, marketing, sales managers etc.), all required a very strong skills in computing. Even doctors and nurses require a good understanding of computers to be employable.

“A physician who cannot efficiently integrate a computer into his or her daily workflow will be incapable of working in the modern ER”. “Nurses should master technological tools and information systems … Nurse leaders must begin thinking now about how emerging technologies will change the practice of nursing and proactively create the educational models and leadership development programs necessary to assure that nurses will have the competencies they need to address these emerging technologies.” states The Institute of Medicine’s report on The Future of Nursing (2010).

Today’s young people live in a digitally-connected world surrounded by computers at school and at home.  They run their lives through mobile devices, it is their primary device for information and news and they immerse themselves in social media and screen entertainment.  “We believe that it is important that all young people not only know how to consume technology but are given the knowledge, insight and skills to create their own technology as digital operators” says Ian Livingstone CBE, co-founder of the Livingstone Foundation Academies Trust.

David Clarke CEO of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT suggests “Just as we give every student the opportunity to learn the workings of physics, chemistry, and biology, because they live in a physical, chemical, biological world, so we should offer every student the opportunity to learn the workings of the digital systems that pervade their world. This knowledge is empowering, enriching, and inspiring; the skills involved readily transferable. Writing a computer program, while seemingly esoteric, is the closest a child can come to thinking about thinking. Likewise, debugging a program is the closest one can come to learning learning. Amongst other things, Computer Science embodies logic, rigour and problem solving. Some commentators have dubbed it ‘the new Latin’”.

There is little doubt that that a deep understanding of technology will open huge opportunities in my children’s lives. Just as I want them to express themselves clearly through writing, or contextualise the world through geography and develop numeracy through mathematics, I want to give the understanding of tools to grasp the accelerating nature of technology. Computer software is the medium in which architects of community now function, as steel was the medium of the 20th century. The problem is that it is extremely difficult to find schools what have integrated technology into their classrooms and my kids aren’t being taught about technology early enough in their lives.

Teaching Technology at an Early Age

Extensive research has shown that because young brains are so adept at picking up languages, it’s best to introduce children to foreign languages as early as possible. This is why parents all over the world are sending kids to kindergartens that teach Chinese and English.

What these parents don’t understand is that the same neural mechanics that make kids sponges for Mandarin likely also make them highly receptive to computer languages. An article in Wired Magazine explains “Five-year-olds trump their elders at learning Spanish or Mandarin because young brains are better (so the theory goes) at formulating “procedural” memories—that is, memories that become so deeply embedded in a person’s psyche that recalling them is a natural reflex rather than a conscious task.

The evidence is beginning to suggest that as brains age, their capacity for procedural memory diminishes in favor of “declarative” memory, which we use to amass facts. The drawback to declarative memory is that it requires mental exertion to tap into—a huge minus when you’re trying to conjugate a tricky foreign verb on the fly. It is far preferable to have those conjugations be second nature to you, as a result of having learned them when your procedural memory was at its sharpest”.

There has been a debate going among academics since the 1950’s about what is the best age to learn a second language but many agree it’s as young as 3. Penfield and Roberts (1959) and assert that language acquisition occurs primarily, possibly exclusively, during childhood as the brain loses plasticity after a certain age. It then becomes rigid and fixed, and loses the ability for adaptation and reorganisation, rendering language (re-)learning difficult. Lenneberg (1967) asserts that if no language is learned by puberty, it cannot be learned in a normal, functional sense.

Kids who learn a foreign language outscore their non-foreign language learning peers in verbal & maths standardised tests, indicating that learning additional language is a cognitive activity not just a linguistic one. A study by Harvard University concludes “learning additional languages increases critical thinking skills, creativity and flexibility of the mind,” which in turn leads to better scores on standardized tests, even in seemingly unrelated subjects such as math and science.

Just as learning a second language early provides cognitive benefits later in life, early exposure to coding shows signs of improving what educators call “computational thinking”—the ability to solve problems with abstract thinking. “I would speculate that the same general-purpose memory systems that underlie language learning in children and adults likely underlie the learning of computer languages,” says Michael Ullman, director of the Brain and Language Lab at Georgetown University.

“The logical problem solving and algorithmic thinking at the core of computer science force kids to think about thinking – a process referred to as meta-cognition that has proven benefits related to self-monitoring and independent learning”, says Grant Hosford CEO at codeSpark. In The Impact of Computer Programming on Sequencing Ability in Early Childhood , researchers from Tuffs University found that young kids who study computer science improve transferrable skills like sequencing, which has a direct positive correlation with improved reading comprehension.

Research findings are unanimous, children learn computer languages faster, easier and deeper when they are younger. Children who become fluent in technology at a young age have the best  opportunities in life. As a Dad I couldn’t sit back any longer, watching my kids get older, knowing that each year that they don’t receive a formal education in technology they will never get back. I couldn’t take these opportunities away from my kids. So I decided to do something about it.

Find out in Part 2.