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Thursday, 1 September 2016

What good is ICT education at primary school, when children lose the ability to express themselves verbally in a crystal clear and concise way, that is well understood by the people who read their work?!

It were just two news messages in the Dutch national media of last week. Two articles that were peculiar – in case of the first article – and disturbing, in the second case. In combination they sent a tell-tale signal about the state of the primary education in The Netherlands.

The first article was an article in the Dutch ICT magazine Computable that was printed last week. It was a plea, administered by the Dutch, national employer’s lobby organization VNO/NCW and the Dutch guild for the ICT industry ‘Nederland ICT’, to start with ICT and programming education at the Dutch primary schools:

Hans de Boer [chairman of VNO/NCW – EL]: Lessons in ICT knowledge and programming skills should become a regular topic in Primary and Secondary education. In these times of robotization and digitization of labour, it is essential in order to catch up with the future in later years. If we want to remain competitive and want to offer people a lasting perspective on a prosperous future, people need to have ICT knowledge and programming skills, irrespective of their future choice of jobs.

Nederland ICT CEO Lotte de Bruijn states: With the ICT as driving force, there are chances present in all industrial sectors, like logistics, healthcare, agriculture. There should be a Cabinet’s vision involved that superseeds the individual ministries. Only then we are able to profit optimally from the chances of digitization.

Chairman of  VNO/NCW Hans de Boer
during BNR Newsroom in 2013
Picture copyright of: Ernst Labruyère
Click to enlarge
Although I am (of course) not against teaching children important stuff at an early age, teaching ICT knowledge and programming skills were not exactly the first things that I was thinking of, as an enhancement for the curriculum of today’s primary schools. 

It is the same with teaching English at Dutch primary schools, as it happens today: I understand what people are thinking, but I just don’t know whether I agree with it. An old expression in The Netherlands is that you first should be able to walk, before trying to step on a bike.

And that very expression was exactly the point in a disturbing article, printed yesterday in Het Algemeen Dagblad:

Children are poorly educated in writing clear and concise texts, that are easily understood by their reading public. Teachers don’t know how to train their pupils in order to enhance their skills. With earlier alarms on behalf of this very topic, involving various Dutch primary schools, nothing has been done after all, according to researchers of Utrecht University.

Of the eight weekly hours that are spent on (Dutch) language training, only 45 minutes are spent on writing texts. Pupils are hardly trained on HOW to do that, as teachers don’t know exactly how to instruct their pupils to this regard, according to the researchers, two doctoral students of Utrecht University.

“Nowadays, children hear that they have to write a text about a certain topic”, according to Monica Koster. “Those children write down the first things that pop up in their heads, thus making the resulting text incoherent and unclear". 

During the research of Koster and her peer Renske Bouwer at 52 primary schools, it became clear that two-third of all pupils cannot communicate a relatively simple message on paper.

The average quality of the writing lessons on primary schools was insufficient. Teachers first and foremost put energy in reading and vocabulary lessons. Writing skills are hardly mentioned in the textbooks. Also in teacher training schools the writing skills are hardly educated. In the meantime even vocational schools and universities started complaining about the poor level of the texts that students create.

According to Amos van Gelderen, teacher language acquisition at Hogeschool Rotterdam and researcher at the Kohnstamm Institute (centre for education research of the University of Amsterdam): “Children simply cannot write good enough. 

They can’t create a text that is so clear and concise that their readers understand it directly”, he states. “That is not their fault. Teachers have insufficient attention for writing, as it costs time and is hard to verify. They miss the right expertise”. 

In the remainder of the article, the researchers endorse a teaching method “that could dramatically improve the children’s writing skills in a short period of time”, but that is not my point.

My point is that children nowadays get seemingly insufficient and arguably poor education in one of the most important skills that the human race has to offer: their writing skills. Both the available time for writing – 45 minutes (!) per week – and the below-par quality of the education to this respect, leaves a lot to be desired. 

Reading skills and vocabulary are undoubtedly extremely important too, but clear and concise writing is paramount in the life of every boy and girl. Especially as the chances to sufficiently acquire these skills at a later age, are quite dim and the consequences for one’s career and future are grave.

Already in the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans, people possessed the skills of writing texts and books that were both concise and clear and interesting to read and educate: even nearly 3000 years after they have been written. Numerous students are daily educated in the writings of Homer, Cicero, Socrates and Plato, even though these authors have passed away thousands and thousands of years ago .

Writing and communicating via texts is one of those skills that sets the human race apart from every other animal in the world, as such communication (texts and books) strongly outlast the life span of the authors. 

Therefore the fact that “we” seemingly cannot educate our children anymore to express themselves in a way that everybody can easily understand, is deeply disturbing. The fact that this is not “just another research study about just another subject”, but research of which the conclusions are broadly endorsed by the Dutch education inspection, as well as by teachers and professors at vocational schools and universities, makes this even more disturbing.

When you oppose this last news message against the plea for teaching programming skills and ICT knowledge at primary schools, as quoted in the first Computable article, the latter request seems quite grotesque and superfluous.

Unfortunately, as a member of the participation council at my children’s primary school, I already have experienced that the working days of primary schools are already “filled to the brim” with lessons and educational targets and goals, leaving little time for yet another goal and another politician’s / lobby group’s dream. 

These are targets and goals, which in some cases are either quite political or ideological in nature: that is at least my personal gutfeeling. 

Teachers are constantly complaining about their elevated and mounting working pressure and about their administrative backlog that keeps them busy until late in the evening every day.

Besides the normal skills necessary for their profession, like good knowledge of all aspects of the Dutch language, as well as sound knowledge of children's math, history, science and geography, primary school, teachers already had to learn English at an educational level. 

Forcing them to learn ICT and programming skills too, would ask very much of these teachers, while ICT training on schools by specialized teachers would be too expensive – especially for small primary schools. For secondary schools, this is a different story of course.

More important, however, is the question where these ICT and programming lessons would fit in in the roughly 6 hours of classes per day and 30 hours per week and which other part of the education should drop off the current curriculum.

There is no way that new subjects and topics can be squeezed in the school curriculum, without diminishing or even cutting out other subjects, which are also considered to be of high importance. 

In the current school time table there are no ‘spare’ hours anymore. How else can it be explained that something with paramount importance as ‘writing skills’ gets only these totally insufficient 45 minutes per week.

Basically, the vast majority of the primary schools are definitely not administering poor education, to these eyes. They are also not disconnected from reality or ‘teaching the wrong things right’, is my firm opinion. Most teachers and daily school executives are doing the best they can to administer the best education that they can deliver.

Yet, they simply cannot find the time to squeeze all these new subjects and political / ideological trends and topics in. They don’t have the time available for that. It is time for politics and lobby groups to consider that and to focus on what really(!) matters for young schoolchildren to learn.

Writing skills are definitely one of those subjects. Of programming and ICT skills at that age, I am not so sure. 

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