Finnish-style reforms proposed under new blueprint for primary education
Greater emphasis is put on learning through play instead of traditional formal lessons
Children in Ireland begin formal lessons – and up to 11 subjects – from the moment they start primary school at age four or five. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Ever since Finland developed a reputation as Europe’s education powerhouse, it has become a source of fascination among policy-makers.
It doesn’t start formal education until age seven. It scorns homework and testing until well into the teenage years. Instead, a big emphasis is placed on learning though play.
Ireland may well be about to head down a similar route to countries such as Finland.
Children in Ireland begin formal lessons – and up to 11 subjects – from the moment they start primary school at age four or five.
Under new proposals produced by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), children in primary schools may not study traditional subjects until as late as age 10 years of age.
Instead, there would be a much greater focus on creative play during the early years of primary school and broader areas of learning in later years.
The existing curriculum was drawn up almost 20 years ago. During this time, experts have come to understand much more about how children learn.
Research indicates there is little evidence that teacher-led early learning improves long-term achievement.
In fact, it may have the opposite effect, potentially slowing emotional and cognitive development, causing unnecessary stress and perhaps even souring kids’ desire to learn.
David Whitebread, a psychologist at Cambridge University who has studied the topic for decades, says play is often regarded as “immature behaviour” which doesn’t achieve anything. Yet, he says, it is essential to child development.
He says they need to learn to persevere, to control attention, to control emotions – which can be achieved through play.
Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, has also spent his career studying how the human brain develops from birth through adolescence.
He says most children below the age of seven or eight years of age are better suited for “active exploration”. Highly structured lessons, however, can discourage this kind of exploration.
In theory, our current primary school curriculum should allow for a greater emphasis on play during the early years.
In practice, however, it happens rarely. Many teachers complain of “curriculum overload” and argue they do not have the time or resources for new approaches.
The proposed changes seek to alleviate some of this pressure through significant changes to the time allocated for learning during the school day.
Under proposals to be formally launched next month, a minimum of 60 per cent of the school day could be set aside for teaching the core curriculum, such as English, Irish and maths.
Up to 40 per cent of the rest of the school day would be designated as “flexible time” for roll call, assembly, breaks, discretionary curriculum time and the patron’s programme.
This would allow schools to spend additional time on the part of the curriculum which they feel best meets the needs of students.
Schools would be free to decide how much, or little, time they wish to spend on religious education.
This appears to be a response to concerns among teachers that too much time is spent teaching religion.
For example, a survey of almost 600 primary principals published earlier this year found that eight out of 10 believed less time should be spent on teaching religion in the classroom.
This proposal may well spark the most media attention, given growing tensions over how to accommodate the competing priorities of a more pluralist society.
However, it diverts attention from much bigger and more significant reforms in how children are likely to learn over the coming decades.
The NCCA’s proposals also involve a potential move away from subjects to towards “curriculum areas” or broader areas of learning.
This could allows for greater cohesion across related subjects, compared to the current, sprawling 11-subject curriculum, according to some experts.
Another proposal is to introduce key parts of the pre-school curriculum – Aistear – into the early years of the primary school curriculum . Aistear uses a much different curriculum structure based on four themes: well-being, identity and belonging, communicating, and exploring and thinking.
This would form the bedrock for a more play-based approach to teaching and learning at primary school.
The NCCA is keen to emphasise that the proposals are intended to begin a discussion about the redevelopment of the primary curriculum.
An initial consultation will run through spring. The council will use the findings to draft an overview of a redeveloped primary curriculum which will be the focus of further consultation in late 2017 and into 2018.
Many educationalists argue that our more traditional approach to education is much less effective at producing people who can discover and innovate. Rather, the argument goes, it is producing people who are likely to be passive consumers of information, followers rather than inventors.
Traditionalists, however, are likely to maintain that the current system has served us very well.
Much of this future debate over reform is likely to boil down to a single question: which approach will be best in fostering the kind of skills our children will need in the 21st century?
Current weekly time allocation in primary school (1st to 6th class):
English and Irish: 7 hours, 30 mins
Maths: 4 hours, 10 mins
History, geography and science: 3 hours
Arts, drama, music: 3 hours
Religious education: 2 hours, 30 mins
Recreation: 2 hours, 30 mins
Discretionary curriculum time: 2 hours
Assembly: 1 hour, 40 mins
Physical education: 1 hour
Roll call: 50 mins
Breaks: 50 mins
Social, personal and health information: 30 mins
Proposed changes to primary school day:
State curriculum time: Minimum of 60 per cent (English, Irish, maths, etc)
Flexible time: 40 per cent (Assembly, roll call, discretionary curriculum, religious education)