Pushing the envelope on learning

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 July, 2011, 12:00am


On a stage crowded with 40 lively children, two-year-old Luna Belza swayed to Chinese music and belted out nursery rhymes with gusto. She was the youngest participant of a study trip to the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing earlier this year. Organised by local kindergarten KinderU Group, the graduation concert was the culmination of a seven-day music and cultural programme of daily choral practice and visits to such cultural landmarks as the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square.

Some children burst out crying in the concert hall and others looked puzzled and threw tantrums. But it hardly dampened the enthusiasm of the 80 parents who accompanied their children on the trip.

Luna's father, banker Sergio Belza, joined the tour with his wife, Alicia Garcia-Herrero, and their two older children. He says it provided good immersion in Putonghua and traditional Chinese culture for the youngsters.

Garcia-Herrero and Belza are firm believers in the early education philosophy espoused by KinderU Group.

Their two older children, who are now studying at the ISF Academy, also attended the kindergarten. The couple proudly rattle off their children's wide-ranging interests and linguistic capabilities: flamenco, ballet, flute, violin, piano, soprano singing, football, tennis and being able to speak German, French, Spanish, Putonghua and English.

'We don't think the kindergarten pushes them too hard by expecting them to read early,' Garcia-Herrero says. 'You can read early and still develop critical thinking.'

Set up in 1997, KinderU Group has an enrolment of about 900 pupils with ages ranging from several months to six years old. It uses Putonghua or English as the primary medium of instruction, but full-day pupils at the kindergarten are required to learn a total of four languages, including Spanish and French.

Babies as young as four months are shown flash cards to teach word recognition. Children are inducted into the world of phonics, a method of learning to read and write English, at the age of two. This attempts to help them master English pronunciation.

Also at two, the children are taught Di Zi Gui or Standards for Being a Good Student and Child. This is a classic children's text written in three-character verse, based on the teachings of Confucius. At three, pupils are already learning about his Analects.

While children in other kindergartens learn to do simple sums by playing games, pupils at KinderU are taught a maths curriculum involving set theory, co-ordinates, binary system and cyclic series. Besides the demanding academic regimen, students from K2 onwards are encouraged to join speech festivals and take part in outside sports and arts competitions so they can get a taste of public performance.

Some educators might frown on such ambitious programmes and say they are overly taxing for young children. But KinderU's founder and programme director, Thomas Ho Kwong-hung, will have none of it.

A lawyer by training, Ho reckons human beings are genetically suited to early learning, and a golden opportunity would be lost if children started their education later.

'Instead of pushing them, we are just letting the children do the right thing at the right time,' he says.

'A two-year-old can read the newspaper. [The children] learn 1,000 Chinese characters a year, and they would have learned all 4,000 Chinese characters by the time they [finish kindergarten] four years later.'

Proud of the academic prowess displayed by pupils put through the KinderU system, Ho says his kindergarten gives them a head start when they enter primary school.

'Our graduates are well-prepared, highly literate and much more willing to read books. While other children leave kindergartens without even a grasp of addition and subtraction, our children have solid foundation in advanced maths concepts.

'Through frequent exposure to competitions, their fear and shyness about facing a public audience will have dissipated by the time they graduate. When a student of ours is 18 years old, he would have [performed] onstage 1,000 times.'

Suzuki Music Academy, an offshoot which the group set up six years ago, adopts the same approach to music. Children as young as 2?years old start on the cello, piano and violin.

Ho is an advocate of babies absorbing stimuli while in the womb. So from the time they are 16-weeks pregnant, mothers-to-be in his programme are asked to strap on a machine playing various kinds of music. 'Reading aloud the classics is also encouraged. A child will remember what it heard when it was still a fetus,' Ho says. Other experts have argued over this topic for many years, but no research so far has confirmed or refuted the contention.

Classes at the academy are based on the methods of Shinichi Suzuki, a Japanese violinist who advocated teaching preschoolers to play musical instruments.

Marketing director Venus Tse Chan Sze-wing - whose six-year-old son, Paco Tse Cheuk-shing, has followed the Suzuki violin method since he was three - says learning the instrument herself has made her son more enthusiastic about his lessons. Instead of repetitive scale practice and cramming for musical tests, the Suzuki method advocates listening and internalising the tones of an instrument, she says.

'They are not required to read musical notations and pass exams,' she says. 'The method does away with the bulk of the technical exercises which are common among ordinary beginners' music books.'

But while music educators acknowledge there are benefits to early exposure to music, especially when parents are learning alongside their offspring, they say it is impossible for a really small child to internalise the tones of an instrument. Moreover, the Suzuki method tends to rely on mechanical training to help children strike the correct notes. This is not good for the future improvisation and emotional expression of the player.

The head of the department of cultural and creative arts at the Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIEd), Professor Samuel Leong, says: 'Rote learning or imitation can be overemphasised at the expense of critical listening and creative music making. A major concern is limiting the musical exposure of learners to 'official' Suzuki recordings of a set repertoire. This may lead learners to be copycats of these recordings without developing the necessary musical understanding and individual musicianship. 'Also, the Suzuki repertoire is almost exclusively restricted to works by Western composers, which may not be the most balanced musical education in the context of Hong Kong and the rise of China in our globalised world.'

But KinderU's Ho reckons the emphasis on parental involvement in school events sets the kindergarten and its musical academy apart from their rivals. 'We are not a kindergarten. We are a school for parents to learn about parenthood. We are a meeting place for parents who share similar educational philosophies.' That's why parents receive a rulebook at the beginning of school term listing a series of conventions which include dietary advice and the right habits to nurture at home. The approach is so effective, Ho says, 'our kids won't drink Coke or play video games. They do this of their own accord.'

But experts in early education reckon an overly ambitious regimen can be counterproductive. 'There are many claims about different methods being able to help children master skills at a very [young] age, but most of these claims are not accompanied by proper empirical evidence,' says Professor Nirmala Rao, an expert on early childhood education at the University of Hong Kong. 'A few exceptional cases may not justify the claims. We recognise the value of play for young children.'

Hazel Lam Mei-yung, associate professor in early childhood education at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, says there should not be too much emphasis on academic capabilities in kindergarten learning.

'I have doubts whether a kindergarten graduate can know 4,000 Chinese characters and understand abstract mathematical concepts,' she says. 'Kindergarten education should foster the holistic development of a child. He should learn how to take care of himself, as well as learning social skills and basic language skills. All these skills are learned through the child using his sensory systems and interacting with the environment.

'Formal education with rigorous academic training should start at primary schools. Children have shorter attention spans and individual differences. There's no need to push everybody to adhere to the same strict academic regimen. Enrolling children in competitions can have drawbacks as striving to win can induce pressure and losing can adversely affect their self-image. There are other better ways to boost a child's confidence.

'Parents want their children to master things as early as possible. They want to better prepare them for future success and are afraid that they may not get into elite primary schools. But they have to be careful not to be too pushy, and to take their children's development needs into account. Giving children too much stress will only backfire.'