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Learning, Creativity and Early Childhood

This essay summarises a number of recent studies concerning learning in early childhood and the important issue of creativity and how early life experiences affect later life trajectories.

Specifically the topics are

Direct Instruction and Creativity: Learning in the Very Young and Beyond

Minister Christopher Pyne intervened in July 2014 to unilaterally determine what ought to be the right way for children to be educated. He announced that he was allocating $22 million for a rollout in remote areas of Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia of the Direct Instruction method. The Minister said, “the method, used at the indigenous settlement of Aurukun on Cape York, should be rolled out in disadvantaged communities across the country because it had achieved such good results at Aurukun.” The method has long been advocated by Noel Pearson of North Queensland in his Quarterly Essays, Radical Hope: Education and Equality in Australia (No. 35, October 2009) and A Rightful Place: Race, recognition and a more complete commonwealth (No 55, September 2014).

Direct Instruction requires teachers to “follow a step-by-step, lesson- by-lesson approach to teaching that has already been written for them. What the teachers say and do is prescribed and scripted, and accompanied by a pre-specified system of rewards. Following strict program of teaching as operant conditioning – teachers teach uniform content in scripted and monitored patterns.

“Teachers receive rigorous training and a directive teachers’ guidebook. The strict scripting of teacher behaviour is an attempt to place quality controls on the delivery of the curriculum. The aim of these programs is to take local variation and teacher/student idiosyncrasy out of the instructional mix. The instruction is followed by assessment tasks and tests aligned with the behavioural goals, the results of which feed back to modify pace, grouping and skill emphases.”

In the end result it is important to note that the OECD in its PISA studies, reported in the executive summary for the 2009 results makes it clear (p. 12) that “student engagement is critical”. PISA results show that “mastering strategies that assist learning, such as methods to remember and understand or summarise texts and reading widely, are essential if students are to become proficient readers”. Direct Instruction does not do that.

In a review of Pearson’s essay ‘Radical Hope’, I noted that it “traverses very important issues in respect of the education ‘gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, maintaining cultural identity on the margin, the nature of learning and indigenous rights including responsibilities of governments on the one hand and individuals on the other.

“As Mr Pearson shows there are extremely significant findings from educational research relevant to the education of Indigenous students. Education in the western tradition of the dominant society in Australia does not by any means require suppression of Indigenous identity: in fact quite the contrary. Maintenance and strengthening of identity is fundamental to survival for almost everyone, a fact suppressed by advocates of assimilation. Diversity of identity strengthens society!

“The provision of educational opportunity and building of capacity is not something solely for the individual student or parent anymore than it is solely the responsibility of the government. It is not properly any less a matter for Indigenous peoples than it is for the rest of society.”

The issue of Indigenous people and education does not receive the attention it merits. The response in Quarterly Essay Number 36 of 2009 to Pearson’s essay by Dr Christine Nicholls, senior lecturer in Australian Studies at Flinders University and former principal of Lajamanu School in Yuendumu in the Northern Territory says it all. “.. after many years of engagement in this area for the best part of a decade, I have come to the realisation that the issues of housing, health and employment need to be equal, simultaneous and concurrent foci of government and private attention before education can bring about real and lasting change. These are by no means autonomous fields.” Nicholls laments the numerous inquiries and visits by people from out of town from government agencies: nothing happened! (More essays by Nicholls can be found on The Conversation website.)

Delve into the literature on education in the US and the assertions of how “No Child Left Behind” will fix everything and the same comments will be found. NCLB will not fix poverty because it does not address the causes of poverty. Insisting that Aboriginal children attend school (and restricting social security payments to parents unless they do) will not fix poverty or education because schooling by itself does not fix poverty. The answer is not Direct Instruction but programs which address the root causes of poverty, the issues which Nicholls rightly identifies.

It is not as if there are little or no considered studies and commentaries on Indigenous education. At the 2020 Summit Chris Sarra, educator and former principal of Cherbourg school, “challenged the group to move away from a deficit mindset when it comes to educating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. He argued that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children should remain in their communities and be able to achieve as much as any other child: every child should aspire to excellence. He made a number of further observations:

In his Griffith Review lecture of August 2014, “Beyond Victims: The Challenge of Leadership “Chris Sarra reviews his Stronger Smarter philosophy. “The Stronger Smarter philosophy honours a positive sense of cultural identity, and acknowledges and embraces positive community leadership, enabling innovative and dynamic approaches and processes that are anchored by high expectations relationships. High expectations relationships honour the humanity of others, and in so doing, acknowledge one’s strengths, capacity, and human right to emancipatory opportunity.”

Minister Pyne’s pronouncement completely ignores the substantial commentary on Indigenous education!

The many objections to the Minister’s proposals on Direct Instruction have been widely reported. These include the Queensland Department of Education, the Queensland Teachers’ Union and distinguished education researcher Emeritus Professor Alan Luke. Observing that though Direct Action has been the object of education debates, controversies and substantial research, Professor Luke points out that it has not been adopted for system-wide implementation in any US state or Canadian province.

This is by no means a trivial matter: creativity is in fact an important feature of successful living. It has been asserted that creativity declines through life to the point where only a small proportion of people older than 20 years are creative. One of the main features in the books and lectures by Sir Ken Robinson is that schooling diminishes creativity. (Though this has been asserted to be demonstrated by tests which America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, to measure thinking in engineers and scientists – a reference to a study by George Land is often given but that does not contain the data or reference the source of the story as alleged!)

Nevertheless, though employer and business groups will often say that they want to hire people with skills in cooperation and creativity they support schooling which achieves neither of these.


Alison Gopnik is an expert on the behaviour and cognitive ability of very young children. She is Professor of Psychology and affiliate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. Some three years ago in the March 16 2011 edition of the online magazine Slate she reported two studies comparing teaching and learning approaches and creativity. Her research is important because it addresses the issue of the creativity of very young children and the question of whether educational regimes negatively affect the expression of creativity in later life.

The two studies exposed very young children – four year olds – to situations where they had the opportunity to play with new toys. In one study, conducted by MIT professor Laura Schulz, a toy with four tubes was given to the children. In one group the experimenter brought out the tube and pulled it as if by accident whereupon it squeaked: she acted surprised. In the second group the experimenter said, “I’m going to show you how my toy works. Watch this!” and deliberately made the tube squeak. Both groups of children were left alone to play with the toy. The children in the first group played with the toy longer and discovered more of its “hidden” features than did the second group.

The second study conducted by Gopnik and colleagues used a new toy which made different noises in different sequences. In one group the investigator showed the children five sequences which made the toy play music and four which did not, With one group the instructor acted as if she were clueless. Gopnik recalls, “(“Wow, look at this toy. I wonder how it works? Let’s try this,” she said.) With the other group, she acted like a teacher. (“Here’s how my toy works.”) When she acted clueless, many of the children figured out the most intelligent way of getting the toy to play music (performing just the two key actions, something [the investigator] had not demonstrated). But when the investigator acted like a teacher, the children imitated her exactly, rather than discovering the more intelligent and more novel two-action solution.”

Direct instruction by the “expert” leads to simple following by the “novice”: creativity comes into play when the “novice” has the opportunity to discover through their own play. Though these studies are of young children it is entirely reasonable to advance the proposition that Direct Instruction inhibits creativity to later life. Anyone watching young people learn how to work social media devices knows this as do many people from their own experiences.

For example, kids learning from playing aeroplanes, described below in the account of the discussion between Dr Norman Swan and Professor Len Syme!

Why should parents send their kids to private schools?

Is it possible to ever reach a firm conclusion that the policies proposed by the Abbott government and vigorously promoted by Minister Pyne are no more than a waste of money? The policies, which in essence are those pursued by the Howard government, were supposed to lead to a more effective education for those students attending independent schools. Two measures of that are success at university and level of earnings once the individual is employed. Those measures show that students of independent schools do no better than students from public schools. Support for independent schools has wasted taxpayer money and parents have wasted the individual fees they paid.

A detailed analysis of school NAPLAN test results published by Save Our Schools’ Trevor Cobbold shows that the results in public schools are just as good as those in private schools. The results show that public schools are a good choice for parents and they should not be beguiled by misleading private school marketing.

“Our study shows that the often-presumed better results of private schools are a myth. Public schools are the equal of private schools. Public, Catholic and Independent schools with a similar socio-economic composition have very similar results in nearly all states and the ACT. Medium SES public, Catholic and Independent schools have very similar results in most states and the ACT. For the most part, there are only minor differences that are within the margin of statistical error. Medium SES schools account for 60-70% of schools in all states except the ACT.”

University of Canberra PhD candidate Barbara Preston reviewed how private school graduates compared in their university studies with public (“state”) school graduates who had the same end-of-school tertiary entrance score. The review was based on numerous previous studies in Australia and England. “State school graduates do better at university than private school graduates with the same end-of-school tertiary entrance score… The differences between graduates of state and private schools were substantial (though less pronounced among those who did very well at university). The Australian research found that, on average, graduates of state schools received the same marks at the end of first-year university as graduates of private schools who had tertiary entrance scores around three to six points higher.”

Research Fellow Jennifer Chesters analysed data from the 12th wave of the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) project to examine the longer-term outcomes of attending private schools. “Preliminary analysis shows that individuals who attended Catholic or independent schools were more likely to have completed Year 12 and to have graduated from university, after controlling for the effects of parents’ education, age and sex.

In respect of labour market outcomes the type of private school is important. “Although those who attended a Catholic school were, on average, 1.3 times more likely to be employed on a full-time basis compared to those who attended a government school, former independent school students were no more likely to be employed full-time than those who attended a government school after controlling for the effects of level of education, sex and age.”

Chester also examined the earnings of those employed full-time according to type of school attended, controlling for the effects of sex, age and level of education. “When it comes to weekly earnings, having attended a private school rather than a government school has no effect.

“So there would seem to be no return on the parents’ investment in terms of the earnings of their offspring.”

The social gradient and stress

These conclusions are important but it is necessary to be aware of observations which suggest an advantage in attending independent or private schools. And it relates to stress in later life. The advantage actually relates to the socio-economic status of the family but that is correlated with attendance at independent schools. Like self-control, ability to cope with stress is learned in situations of high stimulation in early life, in advantaged families.

In late 1998 Dr Norman Swan presented on the ABC RN’s Health Report a series on stress and another series was presented by Dr John Merson on the Science Show in September 1999., entitled ‘The Anatomy of Stress’. In the first program presented by Norman Swan the guest was Professor Len Syme from the University of California Berkeley, who “spoke about his decades of study which have brought him to the conclusion that the key factor in all this is something he calls mastery: control over our destiny; the ability at work to decide how and at what pace we get the job done, and at home to be able to traverse life’s difficulties and solve everyday problems so they don’t overwhelm us.”

Syme and Swan discussed a famous study in the 1970’s and 80’s by expatriate Australian Sir Michael Marmot, known as the Whitehall Study, which explored the link between health outcomes and “social gradient” in British civil servants. Stress affects lifespan and the higher position in the social hierarchy, the study found, the longer one lived. Another expatriate Australian, Nobel prizewinner in physiology or medicine Elizabeth Blackburn, studied the link between the deterioration of the ends of DNA strands, telomeres, and stress and worked with Marmot’s collaborators to examine this issue (mentioned in the Hawke lecture presented on the ABC RN’s Science Show by Robyn Williams).

The issue is a feeling of control over one’s life. Marmot found that factors like diet, smoking, blood pressure, physical activity, obesity, social support, and hundreds of other variables only explained something like 25-35% of the gradient, the rest was unexplained by those factors. As Len Syme pointed out in discussion with Swan, some other factors had to be responsible for the differences: “From the earliest days of life, certain kids get a kind of challenge and experience and other kids don’t!”

The HighScope Perry Preschool study examined the impact of early experiences in early childhood: do high quality preschool programs provide short and long-term benefits to children living in poverty and at risk of failing in school? A total of 123 children from African American families living in Ypsilanti Michigan were randomly divided into two groups. One group was provided a high quality active learning preschool program and the other (the control group) received no program at all. Children from entering families were matched on initial IQ test scores, socioeconomic status and percentage of boys and girls and one of each pair assigned to the treatment or control program. Their status was assessed annually at ages 3 through 11, then on three occasions up to age 27.

Numerous studies have noted significant differences between the children who entered the program and control group in employment, economic self-sufficiency and social behaviour. A recent study by University of Chicago Professor James Heckman and colleagues of the studies found generally statistically significant gains for the program, returns that were above the historical rate of return on equity; benefit-to-cost ratios supported that conclusion.

A level of confidence is gained from these early experiences, experiences common to children from higher socio economic backgrounds. Syme observed, “That kind of confidence, and not only the confidence but the knowing how to go about solving the problem, is almost automatic. When I interview people in lower social class circumstances, and present them with that kind of problem, you can watch their shoulders slump with another life problem that they don’t know how to deal with. It’s not a question of intelligence, it’s a question of knowing that you can work it out, and having the training and experience to work it out. Once you give people in lower social class circumstances a clue, they get it in a minute and they’re off.”

Syme reported a conversation with a teacher in Oxford, England. ‘Well, the common theme is the children come to the school and they’re asked, ‘What do you want to do today?’ Typically the new kids say they don’t know, so they get assigned to work with children who do know. Eventually they do choose something, and then all the resources of the school are brought to bear to help them do what it is they said they’d like to do. [She] said ‘Yesterday a kid came in and said, “I want to do aeroplanes”, and all the other kids said, “Me too”. So they all got together and they made paper aeroplanes and they flew them and the planes crashed. Then they sat around and talked about what happened, and they re-designed the planes and they flew them again, and the planes crashed. Then they got together and discussed it again and they flew them and the planes crashed. She said, ‘That’s all we do all day, and that’s basically all we do all year.’

“Now to me, what this is about is teaching children about failure and about success and about being creative and hanging in, learning how to succeed; learning how to succeed to me is a critical issue. What happens is they then go to Grade I with a different view of life and that persists throughout their careers… So my sense is that somehow from the earliest days of life, certain kids get this kind of challenge and experience and other kids don’t. And there’s something you can do about it.

“Norman Swan: .. it’s not the high powered executive sitting on phones and jumping on jets to Paris and London who drops dead, it’s actually the person below that person, who has been told what to do, has very little chance to decide how they do their work; they’ve been told what to do, they’re given the time line, and they’ve got very little latitude, and they’re just spinning out of control and often at home the same thing’s occurring.”

“Len Syme: Exactly… people who have very high demands at work and very little latitude in discretion for dealing with those demands, have the very highest rates of disease, and that’s exactly what we found in the British Civil Service.”

It is interesting that this link between position in the social hierarchy and stress is not something unique to humans but occurs also in other primates such as baboons as shown by neurophysiologist Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University. That was discussed by Merson in his Science Show in which the influences of hormones released at times of stress were elaborated.

Merson explored the influence of social supports. Professor Stafford Lightman of the University of Bristol pointed out that people at the bottom of the ladder have no way of coping with the stress they experience whereas those at the top do have coping strategies, if they have difficult decisions they have ways of dealing with it. “It’s when you have lots of things to deal with and you can’t deal with it, there’s no way you know how to deal with it, and you can’t cope with it. Those are the people who have the problems, and certainly in the Whitehall studies the evidence is that it’s the people who can’t cope with the problems they have, who land up having the physical disease difficulties.”

In England kids in the higher social groups go to private schools (called “public schools”) and go on to the top universities from whence the highest levels of the civil service, the judiciary and the financial sector (and until the mid-1900s officers in the armed forces) are recruited. At those schools children develop personal relationships which are useful in later life. For kids lower down the social scale, it is a different matter.

In England (and Australia) all this is a matter of concern; in the US it is a major issue which remains unaddressed.

Continue to the second essay in this set.