“Give me the first six years of a child’s life”, Rudyard Kipling once quoted, “and you can have the rest”. The need for more and better interventions in Early Childhood Development is receiving increasing attention. The crucial role it plays in the overall development of children, their future growth potential, and their abilities to come out of vicious cycles of poverty especially in low and middle income country settings, is being increasingly well recognized. But does this, through more measuring of quotients, put yet another section of society at risk of ‘failure’?
In order to protect at-risk children, we need to first identify them. This required a clear understanding of the risks, how the children or their parents could avoid them, and a way of documenting and assessing children’s position in this spectrum so that timely and appropriate action can be taken. In short we need data, quotients.
This raises a significant challenge: how to not reduce yet another section of society to a quotient. We see it the education system where in 2014, 2,403 students committed suicide due to ‘failure in examination’, and where parents scale walls to help their children cheat. I’ve seen it on the train and in homes, proud parents congratulating their children for memo-rising an alphabet-sounding-noise– eybeeseedeeiiefgee… – oblivious to the fact that the child cannot correlate the string of syllables with any meaning. In all these cases, the indicators and false positives of success are being taken as more important than actual success. How then can we collect meaningful data, but not reduce a child to that data?
I faced this question in February 2015 when conducting an early childhood development study. I have dedicated the last ten years to understanding the challenges faced in providing good healthcare and education in a single village of India, and one of the most marginalized, in an Adivasi community on the Gujarat-Rajasthan border. There, two years prior, I had helped run a community health survey. After interacting with each and every child in the village, our data showed two thirds of children were suffering from malnutrition and, tragically, one in seven doesn’t reach their fifth birthday. It was clear that parents didn’t have access to the information, resources, or services they needed to sufficiently protect their children’s health.
We wanted to try and understand more about this, specifically the status of early childhood development in the village, so we could look to provide suitable support. We employed tools designed to comprehensively measure a child’s developmental status, assess care giving practices and the caregivers’ capacity to care.
Our study found that while motor and social and emotional development of children in the area were largely normal as it to be expected in a rural village where most children are very active and interactive more than half of children had some form of language delay, and similar proportions of children showed signs of growth failure (stunting and underweight). Low vaccination rates, sub-optimal feeding practices and a lack of caring practices which encourage language development were deemed to contribute to the patterns of delay observed. These were compounded by an underlying poverty and illiteracy which limit the caring capacity of guardians. Being limited to the spoken word only, for example, denies parents access to advice drawn from other parents’ experiences during child care, which may only be written.
We can be highly encouraged by the recent news of Finland to be the first country to get rid of all school subjects, electing instead for integrated themes. The best thing we can do as other educators is to understand how they have transitioned to this commendable position. It has taken time and, critically, a clear vision.
The job of any learning enabler is to facilitate the child’s development so that she can become more self and socially aware and manage her life, but that’s only possible when children are healthy and have the capacity to fully interact. It took me four years to become proficient in Hindi, but just 18months to be fluent in French. Apart from their different alphabets and linguistic roots, I was studying at university in France in French full-time, but in my Hindi learning then I would come and go from India periodically, and had many more English speaking friends here. Put short, my environments were very different, and the one where I had the higher exposure is where I learned the language much more quickly.
It’s the same in early childhood. In a post-modern world where education is, in theory, a route out of poverty for every individual in India, marginalised parents that aren’t accustomed to telling their children nursery rhymes or asking them what they learned at school today aren’t doing anything wrong per se, but they are missing opportunities that would help their children better fulfil their potentials. Language and communication are key to success, and telling stories to your children that they enjoy is a simple way enjoy something with your child, develop their linguistic skills, all without putting any pressure on the child to ‘perform’ or ‘do well’.
Modern education is breaking the path of conventional education. In India we are beginning to say goodbye to ‘chalk and talk’, and starting to understand the importance of real learning, not memorization. Life skills and systems thinking are being introduced. Children are being encouraged to be curious, reflective, and be the leaders of their education process. Students are turning into learners, and teachers into facilitators.
It’s chalk and talk that has, in part, led to India’s declining education outcomes. Chalk and talk is the hallmark of feedback-less, and so context-free, teaching and ‘learning’. The irony is that, as we move towards a subject and quotient-free world, a world where any given community’s understanding of education and learning is nuanced enough that we can talk about feelings and ideas instead of outcomes on ABC and 123, then we still need these quotients to demonstrate how modern education is more effective. In a world where such blunt tools are used to do fine work – our education system currently measures to two decimal places, effectively saying that it has the sensitivity to differentiate between two children’s successes to within one in ten thousand – then it may take a little more time yet.
But if we can understand that numbers are just numbers, that any vibrant child lives a rich, complex, multidimensional life that cannot be reduced by numbers, then those numbers taken with a pinch of insight and experienced understanding, will get us to a point where the numbers are no longer necessary.
Ed Forrest is co-founder and CEO of Educate for Life, who run an innovative school called Hunar Ghar in Southern Rajasthan.