jump to navigation

Benign Neglect or Eternal Vigilance? Which parent are you? March 25, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Community Engagement, Early Childhood Education, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
Tags: ,

from Professor Karen Malone

As the issue of children’s freedom, mobility and bad parenting hits the headlines once again (see Sydney Morning Herald, February 9, 2012), I see the same arguments recycled and positions once again polarised. There are those who believe parents who allow their children to walk the streets alone are negligent and should be told so and those who reminisce of a rich and free childhood lost and question parents who bubble wrap their children. I believe this either/or position is not so helpful in a debate that is fuelled fundamentally by a desire for parents to protect and keep their children safe. The questions is though are we killing our kids with kindness? Is our desire to protect our children actually making them more vulnerable? Is there the possibility of satisfying both positions – children’s freedom and safety?

Picture this. It is 2005, and I arrive for the first time in Tokyo city. I am making my way across the busy city to attend a meeting when I encounter a small group of kindergarten age children walking along the street in front of me. The school bags on their back reveal they are on their way home from school. They are oblivious to my presence, as they busy themselves with the task of crossing streets, picking up autumn leaves, straddling low brick curbs and chatting amongst themselves. There is not a supervising parent in sight, no walking school bus conductor, no older siblings.

Children in Tokyo

Children in Tokyo

As a parent myself I feel a sense of foreboding – I worry about their safety. Eventually, I have to go on to my meeting and leave them. When I arrive at my destination I recount my experience to my Japanese colleague and exclaim, “there were no adults watching out for them”. He was a little taken aback – “What do you mean, no adults?”  There were the car drivers, the shopkeepers, the other pedestrians – the city is full of adults who are taking care of them!” Subsequent visits and research I have conducted in Japan with colleagues has identified that on average 80% of primary age Japanese children walk to school, where in Australia the figure in most communities is as low as 40%. This begs the question: Why Tokyo? What happens in this society that makes it so different to Australia?

At a community seminar recently I asked the audience to imagine themselves at eight years old in a special place and to describe that place to me. The majority recounted being outside in their neighbourhood, with other children out of earshot of parents, with the often lasting request of parents ringing in their ear –be home before dinner:

“I had some bushes where I would play and hide with my brothers and sisters and sometimes friends” (Wilma aged 43);

“My friends and I would go to this vacant lot and build our own cubbies” (Richard aged 36);

“There was a playground at the end of our street and I would go there to play” (Catherine aged 27);

“There was a creek near our house and we would go and search for tadpoles, I wouldn’t go home till it was dark” (Mark aged 31);

“We use to get all the neighbourhood kids together and go out on the street and play cricket” (Andrew aged 39).

Tim Gill, author and play commentator, would call this parenting style ‘benign neglect’ and for many of us growing up in baby boomer suburbia this was our experience of childhood. We may look back and wonder how our parents could let us roam so freely, but good or bad it is these experiences that shaped the people we grew up to be. Self-reliant, independent, confident, physically active, socially competent and good risk assessors – these were just some of the positive outcomes. Next step in the seminar I asked the audience to consider if they would give these same freedoms now to their own children. They all said no: “I would love to let my kids play outside, but I just can’t trust other people, there are just too many dangers these days. Actually, sometimes I think back and I can’t believe my parents let me do the things we use to do” (Richard aged 36); “No way, too risky” (Sara aged 38).

Essentially the big issue pervading the psyche of our parents around children’s independence in the streets (and it seems now our police) is the concern of ‘stranger danger’ and the likelihood of child abductions. For many parents the only defence is eternal vigilance. The irony is, that when you look at the statistics on abductions almost all are by family members, and the number of abductions has been going down for a decade. When I tell my audience the odds of a child being murdered by a stranger in Australia is one in four million and their child is at a much greater statistical risk of drowning in the bathtub or being hit by a car at a pedestrian crossing, they answer typically like Andrew (39): “I want to and I wish we could. I know the chances are slim but I just couldn’t forgive myself.”

So is there a middle ground between benign neglect and eternal vigilance? If we look to communities in Japan and many Scandinavian countries where children’s independent mobility is high we can see there are possibilities to support that middle ground. While research reveals parental fear of strangers is still high in these countries, rather than driving children to school or other venues, parents and the community have initiated and participated in activities to increase children’s safety. For example, in inner Tokyo, a neighbourhood has parent safety brigades that patrol the streets around schools; shopkeepers who are signed up as members of the neighbourhood watch program; and the local council has provided a mamoruchi, a GPS connected device that hangs around a child’s neck and connects them instantly to a help call centre. These concrete strategies, while unique to each neighbourhood, are reliant on one critical cultural factor: a commitment by that society to the belief that children being safe and being able to walk the streets alone is a critical ingredient. It is an indicator of a civil, safe and healthy society and if lost, it not only undermines children’s quality of life but signals that all people, young and old, will have their freedom eroded. Having social trust, knowing someone is there to help you and your children if you need help, is a central outcome of this cultural commitment.

So while we might criticise the policeman who decides to take it on himself to deliver a child back home, it is heartening to know someone is watching over us. While there is work to be done to increase children’s independence, again it was reassuring when our recent results from a historical comparison of children’s independent mobility (CIM) in suburban Sydney showed that in the past ten years CIM has stayed stable and in some cases increased, with many parents looking to ways to get children out of the house and back to the parks and playgrounds. So it is timely to have these debates, but if we want to start claiming back the streets and local parks for children then it’s our role as community members to step up to the plate and let parents know we are willing to support them and play our part.

For further information on the comparative study of Australia and Japan children’s independent mobility: Malone, K. A (2011) Editorial: Changing Global childhoods: the impact on children’s independent mobility, Global Studies of Childhood (Special Issue) Volume 1 Number 3, pp. 161-166.

Children in Tokyo

Children in Tokyo

Professor Karen Malone PhD, BEd (Hons), DipEd School of Education, University of Western Sydney, Bankstown NSW Chair and Founder, UNICEF Child-Friendly Asia Pacific Regional Network Email: k.malone@uws.edu.au CFAP: www.childfriendlyasiapacific . Karen Malone was recently appointed Professor of Education in the School of Education at University of Western Sydney, and is a member of the School’s Centre for Educational Research. She is also Chair and Founder of the Child Friendly Asia-Pacific network and a member of the UNICEF International Research Advisory Board for Child Friendly Cities. In the past ten years Dr Malone has attracted over 2 million dollars in research grants, awards and consultancies and has published 5 books, 14 book chapters and over 50 refereed publications focusing on child friendly cities, childhood sociology, early childhood, children’s participation, children’s environments, environmental education, urbanisation and participatory and child centered research methodologies. Her most recent research grants include designing and implementing a national accreditation program for UNICEF and the Republic of Kazakhstan, Implementing a child friendly cities project in San Pedro, Chile funded by Foundacion Minerva Econdia, Dapto Dreaming a child friendly participatory research project for Stockland developers, and the Smith Family project: How child friendly is my community? She is currently coordinating seven international research teams in collaboration with the UK Policy Institute to replicate Hillman’s seminal project Children’s Independent Mobility.

Categorizing knowledge from an evolutionary perspective: The example of speaking versus writing March 11, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Early Childhood Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
Tags: , ,

from Dr José Hanham

Learning to write is a complex and cognitively demanding process that is acquired often with difficulty. Learning to speak is also complex, but appears to happen effortlessly. Why?

Educators have long been interested (and perplexed!) as to why learners are able to acquire some types of knowledge with ease, and other types with great difficulty. We know that the ease or difficulty of acquiring knowledge is likely to be related to factors such as motivation and/or the cognitive complexity of learning tasks. Another factor, recently proposed by evolutionary psychologist David Geary (2008), is whether the category of knowledge to be learnt is one that we have evolved to acquire, known as biologically primary knowledge, or knowledge that is the product of our cultural inheritance, known as biologically secondary knowledge.

This distinction between biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge is important in several respects. To begin with, there are different demands placed on a learner’s cognitive resources depending on the category of knowledge to be acquired. Acquiring biologically primary knowledge is usually unconscious, effortless and rapid – even when the knowledge to be learnt is complex. In contrast, acquiring biologically secondary knowledge is conscious, effortful and slow – with complex material severely impeding a learner’s ability to acquire knowledge.

With these differences in mind we can perhaps provide an “evolutionary” explanation in regards to why learning to speak is complex, but apparently not cognitively demanding. There is no doubt that learning to speak one’s native tongue is a complex process – one only needs to think of the vast array of cognitive, perceptual and motor skills involved in expressing oneself verbally. Yet, despite this complexity, very few conscious cognitive resources are involved in learning to speak. This is because learning to speak is a biologically primary form of knowledge – to reiterate, knowledge that we have evolved to acquire. Because learning to speak is innate or instinctual (Pinker, 1994), no formal instruction is required when learning to speak a first language. Although in many Western societies we give our pre-school aged children language lessons, this is not necessary for a child to learn how to speak her or his native tongue. In some societies children have very little verbal engagement with their parents or care givers, yet still end up being competent speakers (Harris, 1998). Indeed, children of profoundly deaf couples who do not have the benefit of being able to verbally engage with their parents also turn out to be fluent speakers of their native language (Harris, 1998). In general, the acquisition of biological primary knowledge, such as learning to speak a first language, occurs when we are very young, most often through immersion in a social context.

The differences between biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge can also provide an explanation as to why learning to write is both complex and cognitively demanding. The complexity involved in learning to write is widely acknowledged by scholars working in the field of composition studies (e.g. Kellogg, 2001; McCutchen, 2000; Torrance & Galbraith, 2006). Writing often involves the learner managing a large number of cognitive processes including planning, generating language, and reviewing (Flower & Hayes, 1980). Unlike speaking, which we have evolved to acquire, writing is a cultural invention that has existed for the last few millennia – “far too short a time to be influenced by biological evolution” (Sweller, Ayres & Kalyuga, 2011 p.6). Because writing is a recent cultural invention, humans have not yet developed the necessary biological mechanisms to learn this cultural knowledge without instruction. This is important because during the 1970s and 1980s there was view espoused by some scholars that the mechanisms involved in learning to write were very similar to those involved in learning to speak. To acquire cultural knowledge, such as writing, learners have to rely on a cognitive architecture comprised of an apparently unlimited long-term memory and a limited working memory that can only process 2 to 4 elements of new information (Cowan, 2005) for 20 seconds without rehearsal (Peterson & Peterson, 1959). Because writing is a conscious process, this means that working memory is actively engaged in managing multiple cognitive demands. The multiple demands involved in learning to write often overwhelm a learner’s working memory, and as a consequence, many school children have difficulty becoming competent writers. Therefore, it is no surprise that researchers have developed research programs that focus on the demands placed on working memory as school-aged children develop their writing capabilities (e.g., Kellogg, 2001; Ransdell, Levy & Kellogg, 2002).

Using speaking and writing as examples, the differences between biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge have important implications for instruction. Despite what some people may think, learning to speak a first language does not require direct instruction. Even in terms of grammar, many children by the age of three (Pinker, 1994) are able to verbally communicate complex and grammatically correct sentences without any formal instruction. Early childhood approaches to instruction often adopt discovery-learning methods, and perhaps these methods may be well suited for nurturing biologically primary knowledge, such as speaking. However, in terms of acquiring biologically secondary knowledge, teaching approaches that emphasise minimal instructional guidance may be ineffective. Learning to write will require teaching that takes into account the limitations of working memory. It is important to point out that may scholars working within the field of composition already acknowledge the importance of explicit teaching (e.g. Graham, Harris & Macarthur 2006) and the need to design instruction that does not overload working memory as learners develop their writing skills (McCutchen, 2000). The contribution provided by Geary’s (2008) distinction between biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge is that we now have an evolutionary perspective that adds to weight to claims that formal instruction is not needed when learning to speak, but it is necessary for learning to write.

In my next blog post I will discuss one of my current research projects on the use of worked examples for improving students’ essay writing capabilities. This research is being carried out in conjunction with my colleague Dr Wayne Leahy (Macquarie University).

References:  Cowan, N. (2005). Working memory capacity. New York: Psychology Press. Flower, L. S., & Hayes, J. R. (1980). The dynamics of composing: Making plans and juggling constraints. In L. W. Gregg & E. R. Steinberg (Eds.), Cognitive processes in writing (pp. 31-50).   Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. Graham, S., Harris, K. R., & Macarthur, C. (2006). Explicitly teaching struggling writers: Strategies for mastering the writing process. Intervention in School and Clinic, 41, 290-294.     Geary, D. C. (2008). An evolutionary informed education science. Educational Psychologist, 43, 179-195.     Harris, J. R. (1998). The nurture assumption. New York: Free Press.    Kellogg, R. T. (2001). Competition for working memory among writing processes. The American Journal of Psychology, 114, 175-191.   McCutchen, D. (2006). Cognitive Factors in the Development of Children’s Writing. In C. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.) Handbook of Writing Research (pp. 115-130). The Guilford Press: London.    Peterson, L., & Peterson, M. J. (1959). Short-term retention of individual verbal items. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 58, 193-198.    Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct, London: Penguin.    Ransdell, S., Levy, C. M., & Kellogg, R. T. (2002). The structure of writing processes as revealed by secondary task demands. Educational Studies in Language and Literature, 2, 141-163.    Sweller, J., Ayres, P., & Kalyuga, S. (2011). Cognitive load theory. New York: Springer.   Torrance, M., & Galbraith, D. (2006). The processing demands of writing. In C. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.) Handbook of Writing Research (pp. 67-82). The Guilford Press: London.

Dr José Hanham is a Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. His previous post on this blog was on ‘human cognitive architecture’.

%d bloggers like this: