On the 18th of August 2019, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered his National Day Rally speech at the Institute of Technical Education College Central at Ang Mo Kio. He discussed many issues relevant to Singapore’s future, including improvements to the education system. The first subject of consideration was early childhood education, better known as preschool or kindergarten.
In his speech, PM Lee stated that the government wants to put more emphasis on the early years in a child’s life, because these early years make a big difference to his development. Early childhood, defined as the period from birth to the age of eight, is a period of remarkable brain development. It is perhaps the most crucial period of a child’s life, and it is best to make full use of it.
During this prime period, a child’s brain is at its peak learning capacity. In the early twentieth century, the French psychologist Jean Piaget revolutionised child psychology by outlining the stages of cognitive development in children. Specifically, the key stages are the ones that lay the groundwork for children to learn to control their bodies, interpret their surroundings and develop their understanding of language and communication. Evidently, it is this period in a child’s life where we can indeed make the most difference in their growth, but in what ways?
Understanding the ‘why’ is only half the story. It is of importance to further understand the ‘how’ – that is, how should children be taught to maximise their growth during their early years? Having grown up in Singapore, I recall having to familiarise myself with mathematics and languages early on and being told what’s right and what’s wrong. There is, however, an alternative proposal known as ‘constructivism’. Simply put, constructivism is the belief that learning is best done through experience. Children ‘construct’ new knowledge from new experiences by attempting to apply what they already know to the situation at hand. This experiential learning allows them to better perceive the spaces around them and learn to solve problems on their own. As Maria Montessori, pioneer of the eponymous Montessori method, once said, “Never help a child with a task at which he can succeed.” Truly, we ought to place more faith in a child’s ability to succeed on his own.
Granted, the fact that children learn best through experience does not mean we should leave them to their own devices. Guidance is important, and this is where parents and teachers come in. Nowadays, it remains difficult for young parents to find time to raise their children. According to a study by technology company Kisi, Singapore is ranked as one of the most overworked cities of the 40 cities surveyed. Though there are many schemes in place to alleviate this burden, the fact remains that parenting is not getting easier. The responsibility of mentoring and counselling the child has fallen almost entirely upon the teacher. It is hence why teachers need to be well-trained and qualified to teach. However, the teacher must never be thought of as a “nanny” for the child.
The job of an early childhood educator is one that is not very well understood. Sure, they impart the necessary knowledge like any other teacher would, but when you look beyond the surface, their work is deceptively complex. Though they do change diapers and teach simple content like the alphabet, the reality is that there is much more to the job than meets the eye. Early childhood educators have the difficult responsibility of nurturing character and handling the changing temperaments of the child. Children at this age learn differently from older children, and so demand a different set of skills and planning in their education. Educators also painstakingly document the development of the students under their care, a tedious piece of work meant to determine the effectiveness of the learning programme for each student. Early childhood education is not just about eating and playing and sleeping; it is essential to a child’s development.
What else can be done regarding early childhood education? Among efforts such as improving kindergartens and making preschool more affordable in general, the government also offers training awards and scholarships to prospective early childhood educators, and one of the efforts that will be made will be to improve the salaries of early childhood educators. Considering the importance of education in general, it is a shame that teachers are not paid as much as they should be. Making a career in education ought to be a desirable future, since it in turn changes the future of our children.
Beyond this, we need to change society’s perception of early childhood education and children in general. More awareness needs to be made about how crucial the early years are, which is why it is heartening to hear early childhood education brought up at the forefront of the National Day Rally. A better understanding of the importance of early childhood education and how to guide children at this stage will be the catalyst to ensuring a healthy education for children in Singapore.
As a final point, we must understand that children ought to be treated with respect. We must remember that they deserve care and guidance, but still deserve the opportunity to learn on their own. Instead of sheltering them from the most trivial of hardships, they should be allowed to learn from their experiences and grow. The lessons they learn will ripple throughout the rest of their lives and ours. We need to think of the future. We need to think of progress. We need to think of the children.