Enhancements to human capital should start in pre-schools

Any discussion on ways to enhance our future human capital should start at the pre-school level, which has the greatest potential to make or break a child's life trajectory ("Three shifts in education beliefs to become the future economy"; Feb 15).

Recent research has demonstrated the superiority of a play-based pre-school curriculum over a teacher-driven one, with the latter being less effective for learning, and stifling to creativity and curiosity.

Though some teacher-led instruction may be necessary, it should not be the main mode of learning.

Scaffolded play, guided by teachers who set up a variety of play experiences and progressively build levels of complexity, is now regarded as the gold standard in learning everything from mathematics to languages.

More importantly, teachers who are encouraging, responsive, warm and playful as they interact with the children deliver the best outcomes.

Children in interesting and nurturing environments from their pre-school years become more receptive to learning.

Many pre-schools have now adopted a play-based curriculum but, unfortunately, many parents may be unintentionally sabotaging their children's learning, as evidenced by the proliferation of after-school tuition and enrichment classes.

A 2002 study by the University of North Florida found that fourth graders who attended academic pre-school programmes had lower grades than those from child-centred ones.

Research by Stanford University has shown that children who attended academic pre-schools rate their own abilities as lower, have stunted expectations of their own success, and are less motivated than children who attend play-based schools.

We also need to ensure that children from lower-income families have access to high-quality pre-schools.

Ample research has found that a good pre-school matters more to children from lower-income homes than to those from better-off families, which are able to provide a more conducive environment, from diet to learning experiences.

Though there is now universal recognition that the pre-school years are the most important in influencing children's development, pre-school teachers' remuneration is still not commensurate with the crucial role they play in nurturing our young.

This disparity in pay between pre-school teachers and other teachers may be preventing many potential teachers from joining the sector, as well as causing the high teacher turnover in pre-schools.

Maria Loh Mun Foong (Ms)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2017, with the headline 'Enhancements to human capital should start in pre-schools'. Print Edition | Subscribe