After 40 years in education, focusing on gifted students and having two of her own, Ann Easter is finally gaining her PhD.
In 2010, Ann Easter was awarded a Waikato Doctoral Scholarship. At the time, her son Ashley was at Waikato, but about to head to Cambridge on a Woolf Fisher scholarship. He started university at 17, a year younger than most students. Her daughter, Caitlin, was a Hillary Scholar in her third year of a Bachelor’s degree. Ashley completed his PhD in molecular biology at Cambridge and now works for a global pharmaceutical company in the UK. Caitlin went on to graduate with a PGDip in Clinical Psychology and now works at the Child Development Centre at Waikato Hospital.
Ann is an experienced teacher and worked at the University of Waikato’s Faculty of Education for 20 years. Now, after 9 years of trying to fit doctoral study in with work and family life, she is Dr Ann Easter. “My PhD was a lesson in persistence and hard work.”
The fact that both her children had done their theses and research in the time she was enrolled was great motivation for Dr Easter to complete her qualification as well. “After 40 years in education, I was determined to finish it. It was also in memory of my father who passed away at the start of my PhD.”
Dr Easter’s thesis is on gifted students, specifically children who had been accelerated in their learning and entered university at a younger age than is typical. “It was a personal interest based on my son’s experiences at school. He was very bright and it got me looking at educational acceleration and how we should be teaching children based on their needs and readiness to learn, rather than their chronological age.”
Working at Waikato, Dr Easter had easy access to the main resource she needed for her research: young people at university. A scan of enrolments for a five-year period turned up 29 students aged 16 years or younger, which was more than she imagined. She found the six youngest on the list were all male. “There are some interesting issues around that. Why is that boys tend to come to University earlier than girls? I suspect it is for a range of social reasons.” In the end, Dr Easter interviewed 10 students, including the four youngest females who were all 16. The youngest boy was 13 when he was enrolled full time in a Bachelor of Science.
The overall findings of Dr Easter’s research refute the popular misconception that putting young people into higher education ahead of their age peers will have long term harmful effects on their emotional and social development. “For the young people in my study that was not the case. For the majority of the participants in my research, starting university early was a very successful experience.” Five have gone on to complete their PhDs, three have Master’s degrees and been employed in their respective fields, one completed an undergraduate degree at Waikato and then went on to become a doctor. Only one participant didn’t complete their degree, and Dr Easter says that happened for a number of reasons: he was the only student to live away from home, so didn’t have that close family support, English was a second language, and he dropped out with one paper (10 points) left to complete. “It was mainly because of the English language barrier. He still wants to complete his degree and is just working on his essay writing skills.”
For many of the young people in her research, school had been quite an unhappy experience. Dr Easter says they were bored in their learning and often socially isolated because they didn’t have peers they could relate to. “Coming to university allowed them to regain their love of learning, with an appropriate level of challenge. Although some of them even said they found the first year of university study a bit repetitive.”
There were issues and challenges because of their age, but Dr Easter says they tended to be relatively minor and short lived. “Things like drinking, driving, dating - they are referred to as the three Ds - were not big issues for these young people. They were very pragmatic and just got on with their studies. Those who went on to postgraduate study said that was where they really found their niche. From their perspective, based on their lived experiences, none of them had any major regrets about going to university early.”
Requirements to get into universities have changed over the last few years, and Dr Easter is warning it means some pathways are no longer open to high-achieving students. “Unless schools are prepared to accelerate students, and let them do Year 13 subjects ahead of time, there will be less access to university education at an early age.” Dr Easter says it is important for schools, teachers and parents to be aware of her research, and the overwhelmingly positive experience the young people she interviewed had in going to university when the time was right for them, no matter what their age.
Ann Easter graduated on Tuesday 07 May 2019.