When they're ready

“If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it.” W. C. Fields


Finland routinely scores among the top in the world for its education system and is held up as an example for others to follow. There, they don’t start formal education until the age of seven, fully two years after children start school in the UK, a real case of less being more. I’m not recommending letting your kids play until the age of seven, that seems radical despite the evidence it works so well. However, it demonstrates an underlying principle which can be applied in more limited ways: letting kids learn when they’re ready.


This ties into Piaget’s theory that children need to construct knowledge for themselves, that others can’t do it for them. Your children are ready for certain ideas which can be added to their understanding, but not others which require knowledge they don’t yet have. For those, you need to back off and give them more time.


The quotation above is attributed to W. C. Fields, although probably in error. In education, we can add to it: and quit, then come back again later. My kids have hit subjects that flummoxed them completely, then we left them alone, and a few months later they sailed through the very same questions.



I came across several subjects that my kids couldn’t initially understand, usually in maths. Introducing algebra was one, proportional relations was another. I used a maths app (Doodlemaths) where my kids would plough ahead through different areas. Unfortunately, every so often there would be a complex topic amongst the gradual learning-curve and they would need help on every question. Its algorithm had moved them on too fast. We worked at them, I broke them down, simplified and practised them, but when I couldn’t think of any other ways to make them easier, then I gave up, at least temporarily. They weren’t ready for it yet. I reset the app to repeat a chunk of the syllabus, which was great revision in itself and when they returned to the problem questions, they breezed them.


I experienced this myself in further maths A-level. Our teacher was inspirational, in that he was vastly clever. Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to tone down his intellect to teach kids. We whizzed through the syllabus in a confusing blur, so fast it wasn’t even scary about how difficult and baffling everything was. Then he whizzed through it a second time. By the third time through, I was starting to pick things up.


Conversely, with my kids we spent ages teaching my oldest how to ride his bike while he was quite young; it was tough, but we got there in the end. With my youngest, we never got around to it, and time slipped by. She was a couple of years older when she first tried without stabilisers, but she cycled away on her first attempt and never looked back. That’s the Finnish effect in action: if you wait until they’re ready, teaching is so much faster.


I wouldn’t recommend going as fast as my maths teacher, nor as slowly as teaching my daughter cycling. Try varied, interesting new topics. For anything that’s beyond their grasp, persevere and teach in different ways, but then back off. You have time. If they don’t understand then they aren’t ready yet. Come back again later, and maybe they’ll fly through.


See also

Getting it wrong

It's never easy

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