State of Learning in Canada: No Time for Complacency

Unattributed, Canadian Council on Learning, Jan 29, 2007
Commentary by Stephen Downes

OK, I'll give them their concerns about literacy - I've seen enough evidence myself to believe the assertion that literacy rates are not what they should be in Canada (and probably elsewhere). Sure, people can read, but - as the announcement says - literacy is not an on-off switch. People need to be able to read more than a McDonald's advertisement. But this assertion puzzles me: "One in four children enters kindergarten with a learning or behavioural problem." How can this be? Are they all malnourished? We need to look at the full report (hint to CLC: if you're going to distribute 4.3 megabyte PDF files, your website needs to support better than dial-up speeds).

OK, they get this bit right (and it's really important, and a lot of people don't get this): "Human development is not a matter of nature versus nurture, but of nature and nurture working together. In response to stimuli from the environment, the nerve cells of the brain form physical connections and pathways. This brain wiring process, which begins before birth and continues through life, is most intensive during the first three years of development." yep. I'm rewiring my brain as I read.

Anyhow, to the children. The report basically points to four things: birth weights, motor skills tests, the "Who am I" copying and writings tasks tests, and the Peabody Picture Vocabulary tests. Looking at this, I would say that the 21 percent figure is pretty irrelevant (being based on sentences like, "88% of four- and five-year-olds were considered to have average or above-average fine motor skills," which is itself meaningless). But two things stand out clearly: first, the rates are steadily improving over time, which is good to see. And second, the risk of developmental delay is far greater for children of economically disadvantaged parents. According to the report, such children are less likely to be read to daily and to have less interaction generally. Additionally, "low birth weight is associated with poor nutrition, smoking, and alcohol and drug use," which are also associated with socio-economic status.

The question I have is: are we politically ready to give to our poor children the advantages the children of richer parents have? Are we ready to make sure that children between 0 and 6 are properly fed, are kept away from toxic substances, are read to daily, and are otherwise granted the higher level of stimuli we know children need for cognitive development? Or are we going to continue to say that their poverty is their fault, and that if they had a better attitude they could lift themselves out of it? This report, which places the onus on parents, (p. 122) doesn't offer that hope.
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