We vastly under appreciate the catalytic effects that even small improvements to the education of children age 0-9 will have. Around 90% of human brain development happens before the age of 51, yet our effort (and our money) is disproportionately focused on secondary and tertiary education. We should instead hyperfocus on boosting education in the younger age ranges where our impact is highest, including improving children’s social mobility and widening their future prospects.
Increasing the focus on primary education doesn’t mean forcing young children into rigid classrooms. We know those regimented systems aren’t efficient ways to teach young children: as a matter of fact, they work poorly for older children too2. Instead, we should focus on tools which create individualised learning tracking that caters to both the way the child prefers to learn and their comprehension level. Children’s education should be adaptive to the child and good at continually challenging (read: extending and developing) them, without ever penalising those who learn at a slower or quicker pace. Without individualisation at this level, we run the risk of alienating children and stunting their future potential.
The case for individualisation
Before the age of six, many parents know whether their child is likely to fall behind in school. Falling behind leaves children anxious and confused, and their parents feeling under pressure. Homeschooling during the pandemic has amplified many of these anxieties for parents and children alike, while accelerating the adoption of interactive learning resources3.
Despite us knowing that children progress at different rates, children are part of educational systems that overwhelmingly teach them skills based on their age and not their understanding. These systems penalise children who learn at a slower pace or have learning difficulties, and don't provide the tools necessary to those children capable of learning at an accelerated rate. As a result, parents push their child to meet age-derived standards and not the ones they are truly capable of achieving. Children who fall behind at a young age face an uphill battle to flourish academically and often suffer from poorer social mobility.
Ultimately, children face a worse future because their schooling and education lacks the appropriate tools to engage them in a way that continually develops them as individuals.
The case for reading technology
The goal of individualised primary education tools should be to work with the latest research to develop underlying technologies that understand the child’s starting point of comprehension, then work to develop it. Concrete applications of these tools could be numerous.
Reading technologies are one application where it’s possible to have a huge impact. This is largely because reading sits somewhere in the divide between education and entertainment, the typical household behaviour being: “If you finish your (education) you can go and use your (entertainment)”. This gives reading technologies the upper hand as an area where it’s possible to implicitly educate without the child disconnecting fully into passive entertainment.
Despite the appeal of improving reading, it’s not possible to shoehorn new technologies like individualised learning (i.e. providing children with text and images that challenge them while being at or near their level of comprehension) into such a traditional format. In order to individualise it, there would first be a necessity to make reading digital and therefore more adaptable. This has shot up in popularity in recent years, with 1 in 5 children and young people reading exclusively in digital formats4.
Digital reading allows the creation of tools to interact with the reader in order to spot reading struggles, and the generation of adapted, illustrated experiences without the large overheads or environmental footprint of print equivalents. Adaptive reading can mean changing images, text (language and complexity) within the same book as well as offering books that suit the reader’s maturity level.
Better still, adaptive reading can create experiences customised to the child themselves - not just by adjusting to their reading level but also by including the child in books as a form of representation. Only 10% of children’s books published in the UK during 2017-19 feature characters from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds5, despite 35% of the UK’s primary school population being from a minority ethnic background. Personalisation gives children and parents buy-in, equity, and representation, especially for those who don’t usually see themselves in their media. It’s a huge draw when a child first picks up a book.
Primary education is deserving of our time and attention: it has huge knock-on effects on children’s development and social mobility. Digital innovation in individualised and adaptive reading can enable better reading comprehension and representation in children’s books. Reading technology needs more disruptors.
- Brown, T.T., Jernigan, T.L. Brain Development During the Preschool Years. Neuropsychol Rev 22, 313–333 (2012). (link)
- Makel, Matthew C., et al. How can so many students be invisible? Large percentages of American students perform above grade level. (2016). (link)
- ONS - Coronavirus and homeschooling in Great Britain: April to June 2020 (link)
- Literacy Trust - Our new research shows that reading both in print and on screens benefits children’s literacy (link)
- Centre for literacy in primary education - Survey of Ethnic Representation within UK Children’s Literature published 2020 (link)