What to teach children

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What to teach children

This is my son, Brian, in the picture above. He is Thairish. He is half Thai, half Irish. The photo was taken on an island called Koh Mak, by the Thai-Cambodian border when he was 2. It was one of the happiest times of my life. Fiona, my daughter was just 2 weeks old. I felt so lucky to have such a lovely family and to be able to spend every minute beside them while I was working at the beach.

Like many new Dad’s I spent a lot of time imagining the brightest future my children could have and the people they will grow up to be. I don’t believe a father has a right to force his children to choose a path in life but I love to spend as much time as I can with my kids. I like to travel and live in remote places. That limits the types of schools and jobs available for my kids. I know someday they will need to leave home and explore the world but I want them to be able to live beside me, anytime they wish. I want to give them the freedom to travel anywhere without interrupting their education and work. So I have been teaching them to use technology. At the moment they are learning how to draw using Figma, a beautiful, collaborative design tool for making webpages and mobile apps.  

Brian is 13 now and has grown up using the best and latest technology. His first memory is falling into a swimming pool with my iPhone, a few weeks after it was released. Now, he wants to drop out of school and be a video game designer. He says “Daddy, why do I need to go to school when when I can learn what I want to and earn money at home, like you do”. I understand that I put that thought in his mind. I understand that it’s my fault he thinks like this but I can see that most schools prepare their children for life in the last century.

Teaching With Blocks

When Brian was younger he became addicted to Minecraft like millions of other kids. For a few years, if he was not playing Minecraft he wanted to be watching Minecraft videos and tutorials on Youtube. Like millions of parents I had no idea why he loved this game so much. However, I was happy that he liked this game because I am a big fan of using blocks.

While I was in America I was fortunate to be invited to visit the most awesome school I had 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.
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. The Thai education system was first developed by Buddhist monks and kids are taught how to be kind, disciplined soft spoken, respectful and happy. 
However, 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”.
When we lived in northern Thailand my children went to a wonderful school that followed Waldorf education, also known as Steiner education, which is based on the educational philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy. Its pedagogy emphasizes the role of imagination in learning, striving to integrate holistically the intellectual, practical, and artistic development of pupils.
Steiner’s division of child development into three major stages is reflected in the schools’ approach to early childhood education, which focuses on practical, hands-on activities and creative play; to elementary education, which focuses on developing artistic expression and social capacities; and to secondary education, which focuses on developing critical reasoning and empathic understanding. The overarching goal is to develop free, morally responsible, and integrated individuals equipped with a high degree of social competence. Qualitative assessments of student work are integrated into the daily life of the classroom, with quantitative testing playing a minimal role in primary education and standardized testing usually limited to that required for college entry. Individual teachers and schools have a great deal of autonomy in determining curriculum content, teaching methodology, and governance.
Ava and her friends
However, my children and I decided to move to Koh Phangan (an island in South East Thailand. One of the main reasons we decided to move here was because of the beautiful school right beside the beach. I found a house just a few minutes away and the kids can walk to a school with classrooms made from little Thai style huts. It was lovely to be able to learn while living so close to nature. The school is (apparently) one of the top 10 primary government schools in the province and the kids learned about Thai customs and made friends in our community. However, it turned out to be a disaster. The kids hated school, especially my son. I felt that the school focused too much on trying to maintain their rankings above all else. There is a huge workload. The teachers don’t have time to allow the older children to learn with experimentation and play. For computers they typed words – that’s it. The school does not prepare children for life in the 21st century so I had a look at education systems around the world to see which countries are best. 
Fiona in front of her classroom huts

Education In Ireland

In Ireland, when I was growing up the school curriculum was really bad – especially for Irish language. My Grandfather, Father and myself had to study the most boring book in the world – Peig. The book starts  “Im an old woman with one foot in the grave”  and continues downhill. Pretty much nothing happened in Peig’s life but Irish people had to learn every word of it for their final school assessment.


In my Grandfathers and my Dad’s generation, it was too dangerous to deface any book but when I was young they changed the rules. Teachers weren’t allowed to hit children anymore so my friends and I could turn Peig’s picture into Art, without the same consequences. The book has finally been removed from the curriculum and Ireland’s education system has improved. There has been some great work being developed by the Department of Education and Skills in Ireland. 8 principles underpin the Framework for the Junior Cycle (Transition Year age 15-17) in Ireland. 

The Twenty-four Statements of Learning (2015)

1. communicates effectively using a variety of means in a range of contexts in the language medium of the school (English in English-medium schools; Irish in Irish-medium schools).

2. listens, speaks, reads and writes in the second language (Irish in English-medium schools; English in Irish-medium schools) and one other language at a level of proficiency that is appropriate to her or his ability

3. creates, appreciates and critically interprets a wide range of texts

4. creates and presents artistic works and appreciates the process and skills involved

5. has an awareness of personal values and an understanding of the process of moral decision making

6. appreciates and respects how diverse values, beliefs and traditions have contributed to the communities and culture in which she/he lives

7. values what it means to be an active citizen, with rights and responsibilities in local and wider contexts

8. values local, national and international heritage, understands the importance of the relationship between past and current events and the forces that drive change

9. understands the origins and impacts of social, economic, and environmental aspects of the world around her/him

10. has the awareness, knowledge, skills, values and motivation to live sustainably

11. takes action to safeguard and promote her/his wellbeing and that of others

12. is a confident and competent participant in physical activity and is motivated to be physically active

13. understands the importance of food and diet in making healthy lifestyle choices

14. makes informed financial decisions and develops good consumer skills

15. recognises the potential uses of mathematical knowledge, skills and understanding in all areas of learning

16. describes, illustrates, interprets, predicts and explains patterns and relationships

17. devises and evaluates strategies for investigating and solving problems using mathematical knowledge, reasoning and skills

18. observes and evaluates empirical events and processes and draws valid deductions and conclusions

19. values the role and contribution of science and technology to society, and their personal, social and global importance

20. uses appropriate technologies in meeting a design challenge

21. applies practical skills as she/he develop models and products using a variety of materials and technologies

22. takes initiative, is innovative and develops entrepreneurial skills

23. brings an idea from conception to realisation

24. uses technology and digital media tools to learn, communicate, work and think collaboratively and creatively in a responsible and ethical manner

Ireland has been ranked by the World Economic Forum as having the sixth best school system in the World. Our secondary students rank among the best in the EU (especially for reading). Ireland has the second-highest percentage (43%) of working-age adults with a third-level education in the EU, according to an OECD report in 2016.

English Language And Literacy

The UK’s curriculum is outstanding, especially for the English language. Here are the objectives for Language and Literacy for the UK’s Primary Curricilum (2014).

Teachers should develop pupils’ spoken language, reading, writing and vocabulary as integral aspects of the teaching of every subject. English is both a subject in its own right and the medium for teaching; for pupils, understanding the language provides access to the whole curriculum. Fluency in the English language is an essential foundation for success in all subjects.

Spoken language

Pupils should be taught to speak clearly and convey ideas confidently using Standard English. They should learn to justify ideas with reasons; ask questions to check understanding; develop vocabulary and build knowledge; negotiate; evaluate and build on the ideas of others; and select the appropriate register for effective communication. They should be taught to give well-structured descriptions and explanations and develop their understanding through speculating, hypothesising and exploring ideas. This will enable them to clarify their thinking as well as organise their ideas for writing.

Reading and writing

Teachers should develop pupils’ reading and writing in all subjects to support their acquisition of knowledge. Pupils should be taught to read fluently, understand extended prose (both fiction and non-fiction) and be encouraged to read for pleasure. Schools should do everything to promote wider reading. They should provide library facilities and set ambitious expectations for reading at home. Pupils should develop the stamina and skills to write at length, with accurate spelling and punctuation. They should be taught the correct use of grammar. They should build on what they have been taught to expand the range of their writing and the variety of the grammar they use. The writing they do should include narratives, explanations, descriptions, comparisons, summaries and evaluations: such writing supports them in rehearsing, understanding and consolidating what they have heard or read.

Vocabulary development

Pupils’ acquisition and command of vocabulary are key to their learning and progress across the whole curriculum. Teachers should therefore develop vocabulary actively, building systematically on pupils’ current knowledge. They should increase pupils’ store of words in general; simultaneously, they should also make links between known and new vocabulary and discuss the shades of meaning in similar words. In this way, pupils expand the vocabulary choices that are available to them when they write. In addition, it is vital for pupils’ comprehension that they understand the meanings of words they meet in their reading across all subjects, and older pupils should be taught the meaning of instruction verbs that they may meet in examination questions. It is particularly important to induct pupils into the language which defines each subject in its own right, such as accurate mathematical and scientific language.

Top Performing Countries 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.

A government school in Finland

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 transferable 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 can’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’m doing my best but I know it’s not enough. 

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