Some serious flaws in RI’s childhood education

Setiono Sugiharto ,  Jakarta   |  Wed, 07/23/2008 10:53 AM  |  Opinion

One fundamental issue we often forget when commemorating National Children’s Day, which falls on July 23, is the extent to which our childhood education system has produced the real benefits children need for their future.

It is axiomatic that our cognitively overloaded curriculum has become the major weakness in childhood education. Critics say this ambitiously dense curriculum does not foster creativity, critical thinking and enjoyment in learning.

Neither does it foster a love of learning which is a necessary precondition for children’s cognitive, affective and psychomotor development, for example, observing, imitating, practicing and adapting keyboard skills.

By contrast, it makes learning a mundane activity, and positions children as passive, submissive and servile recipients of knowledge.

What the critics say is undoubtedly true. Nobody would deny it. However, the outstandingly poor feature of our childhood education, in my view, is that the curriculum promotes children’s literacy development (reading and writing) in the wrong way.

That most of our children lack reading and writing habits provides clear evidence that our childhood education system fails to implant the seeds of love for books.

The common and erroneous practice here has been the introduction of heavy and demanding reading materials on many school subjects during the early years of learning. This assumes that heavy reading results in better acquisition of knowledge.

This assumption is not well-supported by current research on childhood literacy.

Early childhood is the golden age for developing literacy skills. Contrary to popular belief that the exposure to reading and writing at early ages produces deleterious effects, and should be deferred until children are older, children’s early acquaintance with these skills can bring out optimal results.

Literacy skills can best be instilled in young children, provided we choose the correct path — in a manner consistent with children’s learning philosophy.

The wrong path, on the contrary, hinders literacy development, in turn creating indifference or even hostility to learning, eventually leading to resistance to all things academic.

Sadly, what is often excluded from the childhood education curriculum is something that is intuitively appealing, but overlooked by many practitioners. It is called light reading — reading not necessarily related to an academic genre, but that offers enjoyment and entertainment to the reader. The sources of light reading can be bestsellers, comic books, magazines, story books, simplified novels and folk tales.

This kind of reading is certainly compatible with children’s learning philosophy. Through light reading, children are free to choose what they want to read. They aren’t held accountable for what they are reading. They will not be punished and treated as a wrongdoer in the pillory if they don’t grasp what they are reading. More importantly, light reading provides children with happy learning experiences.

There is, however, fear among teachers and parents that exposing children to light reading may impede their ability to absorb academic works, which are more demanding and complex.

So prevalent is this fear among educational practitioners that light reading has hardly had any place in the curriculum. After all, heavy academic texts are believed to gear children up to higher academic achievement.

The value of light reading has been increasingly acknowledged by pedagogic specialists in the United States. Not only has light reading been proven to stimulate children’s inquisitiveness and love of learning, but it also provides impetus for reading more demanding and serious academic works.

Overwhelming evidence exists, buttressing the claim that light reading accelerates development of literacy. Those who initially access light reading will gradually move on to read more demanding books and write better than those who don’t.

Research has also shown that light reading helps children accumulate background knowledge and develop sensitivity toward different styles in writing, vocabulary, and grammar.

Given its valuable pedagogical benefits, light reading deserves a place in the curriculum. Its inclusion will bolster not only children’s literacy development, but more importantly a life-long reading and writing tradition in our country.

The writer is chief editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching and teaches English composition at Atma Jaya University, Jakarta. He can be reached at setiono.sugiharto@atmajaya.ac.id.

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