When are pupils cognitively ready to learn?

Posted on 27-09-2013

A couple of weeks ago there was a controversy about when pupils should start school. A group of academics sent a letter to the Telegraph arguing that ‘an ever-earlier start to formal learning’ could only cause ‘profound damage to the self-image and learning dispositions of a generation of children.’  In the Telegraph, Peter Tait, the head of Sherborne Preparatory School, has weighed in on the side of the academics, arguing that ‘the real tragedy is the failure to acknowledge the concept of readiness in education. At times, one wonders if those steering the runaway train of barmy educational ideas have the slightest idea of Piaget and stages of development or even how children learn.’

Piaget’s theory of the stages of development is still very popular, but it is unfortunately wrong. In the words of Dan Willingham, ‘development psychologists no longer believe that his theory is right’. To see why, I recommend that you read all of Willingham’s American Educator article on this point, which is fascinating. At the end, he suggests that we should ‘recognize that no content is inherently developmentally inappropriate.’

It’s worthwhile noting that the academics who published the letter did not reference Piaget’s stages of development, and that a research paper linked to on their website recognises that Piaget’s theory is incorrect (noting correctly that Piaget ’severely underestimated the abilities of young children’ and that ‘is also no longer accepted, as his theory suggested…that a child cannot be taught until they are cognitively “ready”’). However, they do consistently use the phrases ‘developmentally appropriate’ and ‘natural development’, which are hallmarks of the theory. One of the academics who wrote the letter to the Telegraph commented that ‘there is nothing wrong with seeking high educational standards and accountability, but there is surely something very wrong indeed if this comes at the cost of natural development.’ But in fact, to some extent, all education comes at the cost of ‘natural’ development. Left to develop naturally, pupils will never understand important concepts. As Willingham says in a blog post:

And you can’t always wait until children are “ready.” Think about mathematics. Children are born understanding numerosity, but they understand it on a logarithmic scale–the difference between five and ten is larger than the difference between 70 and 75. To understand elementary mathematics they must learn to think of numbers of a linear scale. In this case, teachers have to undo Nature. And if you wait until the child is “developmentally ready” to understand numbers this way, you’ll never teach them mathematics. It will never happen.

Of course, none of this proves conclusively that an earlier or later school starting age is right, but I thought it was worthwhile pointing it out nonetheless.