Tuesday, April 17, 2007

No Barney for Us

I have often been puzzled by the Argentine schooling system. It doesn't help my confusion by being aware of stories about the lack of consistency in standards among schools; yes, even private ones.

First of all, if you ever express the slightest interest on the subject, most Argentines are eager to assure you that standard of education in this country is "very high", nothing short of "excellent". On what basis do they reach these conclusions, I have no idea because Argentina is nowhere in any kind of international benchmarking of education such as TIMSS or PISA (the USA ranks very poorly so comparsion there is futile).

I have slowly come to the conclusion that many of them are nostalgic about the golden era of Argentine intelligentsia. Argentine standard nowadays is probably still quite high within the Latin American context, quite possibly better than the USA even; however, that is no basis to determine its excellence (superlatives are not relatives). Also, I suspect that many parents judge the quality of education by whether they pay for it – the logic being if it costs money, it must be good and if it costs loads, it must be fantastic.

Of course, the fundamental question which needs to be asked is what constitutes good education. Each parent has different idea and it also depends on the general standard within the society we live in.

Two of our nieces and nephews in BA are both aged 5, neither of them read nor write without assistance. They are happy kids who do not seem to be behind their peers at their private pre-schools (primary schooling starts at 6 in Argentina instead of 5 as in many countries and it lasts for 7 years instead of 6 as in others). On the other hand, our niece in Australia who is barely 4 is reading unassisted story books which average at least 60-70 words per page.

More relevantly, this inconsistency exists within BA; an acquaintance's son sat for an entrance test to St Andrew Scots School in Olivos, just outside of Capital Federal. The boy who was the same age as our porteño niece and nephew at the time he sat for this test, was asked to spell and write down a range of words in English. Among them, "rocket" which spelling may not be all that obvious for a junior with English as his second language; I doubt very much if our niece and nephew could spell that even in Spanish.

Of course, some parents feel that if their children are a little older when they start knowledge-based learning, they will feel more confident as they should be more emotionally and socially mature by then to handle the rigour of focus and concentration. To these parents, teaching their 4/5 year-old "babies" is certain to cause irreversible psychological damage.

Fair enough, if the world functions on the same set of lowest common denominator. Unfortunately, that's not the case; that's not the case even within any individual barrio in our city. A porteño friend's niece is 2 and has just started at the fairly costly Washington School in Belgrano. She is an engaging child who can already count and say a few words in English. It is obvious to the mother that sending her daughter to school everyday is dumbing her down rapidly. In addition, their modern-minded family doctor feels that 2 is probably too early an age to be attending school everyday anyway. However, competition for a place at that school is so stiff that she cannot afford to lose it now.

I really don't know what we would do as parents if we ever need to face schooling choices in this city. I just have a gut instinct (while Guillermo is sure from his work and research) that learning to read or count is not necessarily demanding on young minds, it is only the adults who are constantly underestimating the capacity of their children. As long as the parents make learning fun and enjoyable, well-paced and not based on parental ambitions, there is no reason why children should be steered only towards a silly purple beast or a piece of talking sponge.

Check out Giro Didactico for educational toys; Av. Callao entre Santa Fe y Arenales (for other locations see their website)

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