Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Pedagogy in early childhood - Part 1

Effective pedagogy in the early childhood curriculum is important to the best education outcomes for young children. Te Whaarik, the curriculum document of New Zealand requires teachers having in-depth knowledge of the learner and mediating learning through responsive and reciprocal interactions.

Te Whariki

The early childhood curriculum of New Zealand is called Whaariki, or a mat. You may visualise it as woven from the principles, strands and goals as defined in the curriculum document. The four principles, namely, Empowerment, Holistic Development, Family and Community, and Relationships, are followed by five strands, or essential areas of  learning and development. They are Well-being, Belonging, Contribution, Communication and Exploration. Each strand has several goals, and learning outcomes have been developed for each goal. Learning goals are broad and include knowledge, skills, and dispositions. 

The principles and strands of Te Whāriki form the framework of the curriculum in early childhood services in New Zealand . Effective pedagogy enables education and care to be integrated, with learning, development, and experiences for children inter-related. 

The curriculum explicitly states that it is informed by the perspective of "socially and culturally mediated learning", which highlights the critical role of reciprocal and responsive relationships for children with people, places and things in teaching and learning. Effective pedagogy is linked to children learning through collaboration with adults and peers, through guided participation and observation of others, as well as through individual exploration and reflection. 

Responsive and reciprocal relationships require the teacher to understand children’s experiences, interests and "fund of knowledge". To support such understanding, the teacher needs to build linkages between the settings of home and early childhood service, including sharing with families curriculum and learning aims. Within the early childhood setting,  reciprocal interactions makes a key contribution to children’s learning and wellbeing. Effective teaching practice is achieved by teachers who are involved, responsive and cognitively demanding, and who encourage “sustained shared thinking” where adults and children co-construct an idea or skill. The pedagogy affirms teachers’ beliefs and assumptions from a credit point of  view as the knowledge and skills of families and children are acknowledged and built on. 

Te Whaariki does not mention, specifically, any developmental theories. However, it pays tribute to socially and culturally learning, suggesting that learning and teaching is an interplay between the two lines of development - the "natural line" that appreciates construction of knowledge from within the learner, and the "social-historical line" that appreciates the environmental forces (one's culture and background) that influence the child from without. 

As regards the "natural line" of development, the curriculum document includes some indicators of broad stages in children's learning and development, and identifies processes of planning, evaluation, and assessment relevant to various stages. The document acknowledges that children make their own discoveries. Under the strand of Exploration, one of the goals is "children experience an environment where their play is valued as meaningful learning and the importance of spontaneous play is recognised." Children learn through play, -" by doing, by asking questions, by interacting with others, by setting up theories or ideas about how things work, and trying them out, and by the purposeful use of resources." 

Moreover, the document elaborates on the context of early childhood curriculum with reference to Bronfenbrenner's ecological model. The learner is at the centre, and then it is the child's home, the early childhood education service, and the relationships between these environment, which all have a powerful influence on the child's capacity to learn. The ecological model nicely reinforces the pedagogy of socially mediated teaching practice.
Early Years Learning Framework

The Australian Early Years learning Framework is generally quite similar to Te whaariki. Interestingly, the EYLF explicitly pays tribute to the discourse of developmentalism. It affirms that play as open-ended, with a child-centred orientation. Play is defined as "providing opportunities for children to learn as they discover, create, improvise and imagine." The pedagogy is informed by the idea that the child and the child's experiences should be the centre of all learning. 

At the same time, the EYLF acknowledges a range of theoretical perspectives, including the cultural-historical and post-structuralist movements. Against the background of developmental perspective, the curriculum tries to highlight the role of teachers in child-centred play. While the children are acquiring knowledge themselves through play, the teachers have an important role to play to initiate interactions with children in their play, bearing in mind the learning outcomes, such as desirable knowledge, skills, understanding. Effective interactions help make meaningful connections in which learners refine and reflect on their knowledge and skills. In planning for play-based learning, the role of teacher is to take into account the children's cultural experiences and funds of knowledge. For example, the teacher will connect play activities to particular conceptual and content-based ideas, so the children are able to acquire the desirable content knowledge. Within a play-based framework, the dynamic relationship between children, teachers and content knowledge is affirmed. 

To sum up, the EYLF outlines play as a pedagogical practice, informed by a traditional view of the child-centred approach. In addition, it suggests that teachers "provide a balance between child led, child initiated and educator supported learning" through intentional teaching, which is "deliberate, purposeful and thoughtful". With the notion of intentional teaching, the EYLF reconciles the dichotomy of play-based learning and teacher supported learning.

More about pedagogy in coming posts...

Thursday, 25 July 2013

The importance of the early years

The early childhood curricula of New Zealand and Australia both acknowledge the importance of the early years.

Te whaariki, the New Zealand document ensures children have the benefit of a quality early childhood programme, in addition to the care and education provided in their own home. In New Zealand, early childhood care and education covers the years from birth to school entry age. Although children can start primary school at five or six, parents tend to let their child start school on their fifth birthday.

In developing its curriculum, the early childhood education services and organisations in New Zealand worked together to formulate a curriculum for the early years distinctive from other curriculum, such as in schools. Te whaariki recognises the special nature of the early years, as it explains that children's developmental needs and capacities in the early years differ from those in any subsequent times of their lives, hence the early childhood curriculum is different in its approach from the curriculum for older children. In particular, for early childhood, Te Whaariki emphasises reciprocal and responsive interaction with others, both adults and peers, who can respond to children's development and changing capabilities.

At the stage of early childhood, the children's patterns of thought and behaviour definitely have their own unique characteristics. A special section in the curriculum document is devoted to describe some special characteristics of infants, toddlers and the young child, supplementing with advice about the key curriculum requirements for them. I think this section is helpful to educators as a handy reference in programme planning and conducting assessment for children.

While the learning environment in the early childhood years is different from that in the school sector, Te whaariki provides links to learning in school settings. The early childhood curriculum is designed to provide a foundation for children to become confident and competent and, during the school years, to be able to build on their previous learning. So, a number of links between the early childhood curriculum and the essential skills of the primary curriculum are conveniently set out at the back of the curriculum document.

More importantly, Te Whaariki not only upholds the integrity of the early years, it lays the foundation for life-long learning. The curriculum is founded on the aspiration for children:
"to grow up as competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body, and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society."

Similarly, the Early Years learning Framework of Australia advocates for the respect for early childhood as a special place in the sequence of human life. The Framework provides direction for early childhood educators to facilitate learning  for children from birth to five years and through the transitions to school.

Like NZ's, the Australia's national curriculum also suggests that children have their own needs and ways of learning. Specifically, it views children's life as characterised by "belonging, being and becoming". "Being" means treating children as children. The EYLF states that early childhood is a time to be, to seek and make meaning of the world. The early years are about the present, not just solely preparation for the future.

Te Whariki and the EYLF are alike in emphasising the role of relationships in early childhood experience, believing that learning takes place through relationships. Relationships are crucial to a sense of "belonging", which shapes who children are and who they become. The Australia's Framework considers children belong to their family, community, culture, hence the curriculum should respect parents as the child' first and most influential educators.

Lastly, "becoming" reflects the process of change, as young children learn and grow. During early childhood, children's identities, knowledge, understandings, capacities, skills and relationships change. "Becoming", in short, emphasises learning to participate fully and actively in society.

While Te Whariki holds a social perspective as it aspires for children to become a learner who makes contribution to society, the EYLF focuses more on the personal growth of the child, and its vision for children's learning is to ensure "all children experience learning that is engaging and builds success for life."

So far, the two curricula seem to be quite alike. Next time, I will investigate the pedagogy and theories behind the curricula. Interestingly, I can see some differences between Te Whaariki and ELYF....

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

What is a curriculum?

Because of the growing awareness of the importance of early years, countries around the world have constructed and developed curriculum framework documents  for their early childhood education sector. New Zealand published its national curriculum, Te Whariki, in 1996. Recently, I moved to Melbourne, Australia. The national curriculum is the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF), which seems to be quite similar to the New Zealand's, which prompts me to investigate further...

While researchers tend to study the curriculum documents of their own country, a cross country comparative research on curricula has the potential for strengthening the international knowledge base on the early years. I believe, this kind of study enhances our understanding of the contexts in which children learn; and we are able to learn from each other's curriculum and teaching practices.

In New Zealand, the curriculum is defined in terms of learning. Te Whariki uses the term curriculum "to describe the sum total of the experiences, activities, and events, whether direct or indirect, which occur within an environment designed to foster children's learning and development."

Unpacking it, "the sum total of experiences, activities, and events whether direct or indirect" reflects what actually happens in a quality centre, where teachers do more than setting up a variety of activities and events to engage children and extend their interests, the teachers  also make sure that children experience an environment which values, empower them and their family. 

Just share a little story here...

A nearly five year-old child, Victor, who usually preferred to stay inside to draw and write "suddenly" showed enthusiasm about the outdoor play one day. He asked a teacher to watch him while he climbed up the ladder to the top of the biggest box. And then, he cautiously walked across the wood plank. He walked sideways, showing coordination and balance. Probably, he was safety conscious?  When he came to the end of the wood plank, Victor made a leap for the soft mat and landed firmly on his feet.
Victor looked happy enough. 

Noting that Victor was surely gaining confidence and competence in his physical abilities, the teacher documented the story and invited the mother to comment on it, prompting her by asking her whether Victor has been more active at home too? The mother felt welcomed to contribute and she revealed that the Dad had come back and took Victor out, complaining that he had been doing wild things and was spoilt with a new pair of sports shoes. The parents were separated, and we understood that learning how to read and write was her aspiration for Victor. To extend the child's emerging strength and confidence in physical play, we invited him to join us when setting up the outdoor equipments, giving him an opportunity to set himself challenges. At the same time, we set up art easels, white boards and writing materials outside, The interests in write/draw and physical play are not in conflict at all. Also, Victor has been shooting up lately, he might be exploring and discovering what his growing body was able to do. This is an example of how children grow holistically. Afterwards, Victor participated in a foot race and passionately recorded who came first on a whiteboard, applying his literacy, numeracy and physical skills.

Regarding "designed to foster children's learning and development", Te whariki acknowledges the socio-cultural and ecological models of learning. So, learning encompasses skills, knowledge and dispositions. It's also about extending children beyond their current level of ability, as inspired by Vygotsky's concept of zone of proximal development (ZPD). Furthermore, the Curriculum reflects the holistic way children grow, acknowledging that "cognitive, social, cultural, physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of human development are integrally interwoven". In practice, the teachers are obliged to plan beyond the essential skills required for schooling.

Similarly, in the Australian framework, the term 'curriculum' means " all the interactions, experiences, activities, routines and events, planned and unplanned, that occur in an environment designed to foster children's learning and development," as adapted from Te Whariki.

The EYLF also affirms that all aspects of learning are interwoven and interrelated, and specifically, they include "physical, social, emotional, personal, spiritual, creative, cognitive and linguistic" aspects of development. Interestingly, while the Australian Framework specifies  'respect for diversity' and " high expectations and equity" as its principles, it doesn't include the "cultural" dimension of human development. Probably, because of the cultural heritages of both Maori and European, New Zealand sees the importance of everyone to learn and develop their understanding of its dual cultures?

While New Zealand and Australia are neighbours, the social, cultural and historical contexts are not the same, Will I find more differences in the two curricula when I keep reading?