Some thoughts on pedagogy and curriculum – what do we want our children to learn?

EYFS Series Part 5:

 

Welcome to part 5 of the EYFS Series we are running to support you with the EYFS reforms which come into play in September. In today’s article, our customer David Wright, OwnerPaint Pots Preschool & Nursery – shares his thoughts on pedagogy and curriculum. Further down the page you will find David’s suggestions / principles that underpin our pedagogical approach.

Catch up on:

  • Part 1 – ‘Using Birth to 5 Matters with Beatrice Merrick’
  • Part 2 – ‘A whistle-stop tour on Self-Regulation with Sue Asquith’
  • Part 3 – ‘Don’t worry about the reviewed EYFS: Make it Work For You with June O’Sullivan’
  • Part 4 – ‘Feel Prepared for the EYFS with Sue Asquith’

Some thoughts on pedagogy and curriculum – what do we want our children to learn?

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

Albert Einstein

Who is the child?

Not so long ago, a well-known educationalist and commentator made the following extraordinary claim on Twitter – “New born babies are universally stupid.” Was the intention to be provocative I wonder or was this a genuine expression of a belief that denies the scientific evidence of inherent genetic intelligence and child development from birth? For me, it is the justification of an ideology that views children, pre-education (whatever this means), as empty containers waiting to be filled. This new-born infant has no cognition, no capabilities, no knowledge, no agency, no rights, no voice. Has child psychologist Alison Gopnik got it wrong when she claims that, “Young children are actually smarter, more imaginative, more caring and even more conscious than adults”?

This raises fundamental questions for me –

  • Who is the child?
  • Why does the child exist – for what purpose?
  • What is the role of education in enabling this purpose?

It seems to me that unless we have a very clear answer to these questions, we will be confused in our role as Early Years educators. Proponents of the ‘empty containers’ school of thought, appear to suggest that the sole purpose of education is the impartation of knowledge, a very narrow interpretation of Matthew Arnold’s,”the best that has been thought and said”.

The government view?

Here’s Education Minister, Nick Gibb in 2015 offering the Government’s perspective: “What is the purpose of education? Education is the engine of our economy, it is the foundation of our culture, and it’s an essential preparation for adult life.” His explanation of these three objectives focuses on the need for contribution to our nation’s finances, alongside academic achievement as “essential to success in our modern economy.” With regard to culture, Gibb references Jonathon Rose’s ‘autodidacts’ – “individuals from all backgrounds staking their claim to our cultural inheritance.” It is laid out clearly that the key to this appreciation of our heritage (and who decides what constitutes our cultural capital?) is through the acquisition of knowledge and the mastery of skills. Lastly, the notion of preparation for adult life is described as acquiring “character and sense of moral purpose,” which need to be “underpinned by the highest standards of academic rigour.”

I find Gibb’s vision prescriptive, restrictive and flawed in its thinking. It does not appear to encompass the principles underlying the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework, nor its seven areas of learning. Where is the Unique Child and Positive Relationships? Where are the Characteristics of Effective Learning? Piaget said, “Are we forming children who are only capable of learning what is already known? Or should we develop creative and innovative minds capable of discovery from the preschool age on throughout life?” For me, knowledge and academic rigour alone do not answer my fundamental questions regarding our image of the chid.

Where academic achievement becomes the measure of success for everyone, there is a tendency for the system to become focussed solely on assessment to the exclusion of all else and for each step of learning to matter in support of the ultimate goal of passing standardised exams and contributing to ‘results’. Thus ever more formal learning and testing is pushed down towards our universally stupid babies to ensure we start filling them with knowledge and measuring the extent to which we are successful in doing so.

What is our life purpose?

But let’s take a slight pause to consider the other end of life. What are people mostly remembered for in eulogies – their exam results; their contribution to Gross Domestic Product; their knowledge of opera and ancient Greek? Or is it perhaps something more personal, more human? Often times, funeral celebrants directly address our questions about the recently deceased –

  • Who was this person?
  • Why did they exist?

This week, I read an obituary of Asfaw Remiru, the founder of one of Ethiopia’s best schools, who died recently aged (around) 79. His is a remarkable and inspiring life story, from raising livestock for the first 8 years of his life in a remote region of his country, to winning a scholarship to the General Wingate Boarding School where he announced on his arrival, dusty and barefoot, “I am here to learn.” He went on to petition Emperor Haile Selassie for land on which to build a school. He was given a plot of land on which he constructed ten make-shift classrooms which became the Asra Hawariat school for the poor, educating some 120,000 children by 2020. In 2001, Asfaw was awarded the World Children’s Prize.

There’s a moral purpose, right there. Was it underpinned by academic rigour, or rather a personal experience of poverty and a compassion that impelled Asfaw to act, to educate himself and then others as a way out of poverty.

I wonder what we hope our own obituary will say? What is it that we wish for our own children and those we have the privilege of sharing a relationship with each day in our Early Years settings?

As a now grandparent myself, I offer my hopes for my 2 year old grandchild, that she will be –

  • Confident in her own identity and value as a person, happy, kind, fun, compassionate, caring, empathetic, optimistic, creative, inquisitive, open minded….

And possessing –

  • An interest in and acceptance of others, ability to form relationships, self-regulation, self-motivation, persistence, honesty, integrity, a sense of wonder and curiosity, imagination, a sense of justice, a zest for life……

I would suggest that we all want these for our loved ones and that all children have the right to them. Sadly, we know this is not always the case. It is our responsibility, as a global village, to advocate for them, to create a world where everyone has the opportunity to become the best and most fulfilled version of themselves.

Interestingly, these dispositions are not learned through academic study and they are difficult to measure. They are mostly acquired as children experience being around people who exhibit them. It is the responsibility of everyone working with our children to model and make these dispositions visible to children.

They do not directly contribute to the nation’s bottom line, but I would argue that these underpin the “successful adult life” rather than the “highest standards of academic rigour.”

An Early Years curriculum

What then is the purpose of education? And how should we teach our children? What should an Early Years curriculum look like?

As we anticipate the implementation of the revised EYFS framework from September, it is an opportune moment to reflect on the teaching and learning that happens in our settings.

To return to the Unique Child and Positive Relationships of the EYFS, implicit in the combining of these is the notion that teaching is relational and has to be appropriate to the needs of the individual, as Ofsted reminds us – “the many different ways in which adults help young children learn” which includes “interactions with children during planned and child-initiated play and activities”.

Sue Gerhardt’s ‘Why Love Matters’, Jools Page’s work on Professional Love and Tamsin Grimmer’s recent book, ‘Developing a Loving Pedagogy in the Early Years’, all provide strong evidence for the fundamental needs of children in order to develop optimally.

This confirms what we now know and continue to discover about neuroscience, from amongst many others, the work of Bruce Perry on neurosequential development; Stephen Porges polyvagal theory and the need for safety; Anda and Felitti’s seminal work on the Adverse Childhood Experiences study and the implications for trauma informed care. All of these have vitally important things to contribute to our image of the child. They tell us that our very being, our consciousness, is contained within a physiological system that is affected by and adaptive to our environment. We are biological, emotional and spiritual beings and these do not work in isolation from one another. You would think this is obvious but time and again we see policy that ignores this. How can we overlook poverty, for example, as a contributor to both wellbeing and behaviour? If I haven’t eaten today or if my parents are repeatedly abusing me, my ability to learn is impacted. I have witnessed myself children afraid to take their coat off at the preschool door, scanning the room constantly alert for potential danger, ready for flight. How does knowledge address these children’s needs?

Unlocking museum cases

“I come not with my own strengths but bring with me the gifts, talents and strengths of my family, tribe and ancestors.”

Te Wariki Early Childhood Curriculum

I suggest that we need a pedagogy that first and foremost recognises our humanity, our need for security and that “sees” each child for their own worth and potential and supports them to discover and unlock their passion. Mary Beard, the world famous classics professor pin-points a specific event that sparked her life-long passion for her subject. Aged 5, her mother took her to the British Museum where she pointed out a three thousand year old piece of Egyptian cake to her daughter, far up at the back of a locked display cabinet. At that moment, a museum guide stopped and asked if there was anything Mary wanted to see. He unlocked the case and put the cake “right up her nose”. “It’s been quite a symbol for me,” Mary reflects, “because I think everybody’s in a position to unlock museum cases for other people.”

Of course children need knowledge, skills and capabilities. It is also true that they don’t know what they don’t know, hence the need for ‘scaffolding’. We are the adults with knowledge and the means of access to knowledge. It is our responsibility to make this available to our children but not, I would argue, through didactic prescription. We are not filling empty vessels. We are not loading the same copy of software onto laptops. Sometimes I read guidance about working memory and cognitive load theory and you could imagine that discrete areas of the brain are configured in the same way as a computer, that we can somehow monitor input, storage and retrieval and that that is our role – teaching and learning viewed only as the impartation of knowledge.

Shouldn’t we be looking to unlock museum cases for others? We need “responsive and intentional planning approaches” (Realising the Ambition: national practice guidance for early years in Scotland 2020). Higher levels of involvement and deeper interest are associated with activities where children have their own agency, choice and control to pursue their schemes of thought. It is our responsibility to teach them this but we do so according to what we know about their character, their heritage and lived experience – what has happened/is happening to them.

Our teaching needs to –

  • be ambitious for every child to enable him/her to fully participate in society, to the extent that they have the capacity to do so.
  • not be prescriptive.
  • guide children on their own learning and path to independence building.
  • encourage, support, value and celebrate each child’s expression of their interests and achievements.

And so we come to the curriculum. I am an advocate for the EYFS, its recognition of the three prime areas and the remaining four.  We already have much excellent material in the form of guidance (Development Matters, Birth to 5 Matters etc) which you can read yourself to decide what it is you need to teach your children in your setting, for each area of development.

I offer some suggestions / principles that underpin our approach –

Physical Development

Attitudes regarding nutrition and activity are established early on in life. Encouraging children in healthy eating and maximising opportunities for physical activity and exercise, should be priorities for Early Years settings. Additionally, we have the opportunity to build capabilities in each child through purposeful physical activities including the development of –

  • the vestibular system
  • proprioception
  • gross motor skills
  • fine motor skills

Language & Communication

The child begins to perceive the world not only through his eyes but also through his speech”

Vygotsky

Developing listening, comprehension and speaking skills is foundational in enabling children to communicate and participate in society. Whilst the Hart and Risley ‘32 million word disparity’ research of the nineties has been subsequently critiqued, the key findings remain valid that children who hear more words, acquire more vocabulary and language capabilities. The important point is that there must be engagement in meaningful dialogue and conversation, so called serve and return interactions. Children do not learn language from a screen. (How often do we see this out and about?)

  • Our settings must be language rich environments:
  • Language needs to be used repeatedly and in context, on a daily basis, through –
  • songs, rhymes, stories
  • dialogue arising out of normal activities and routines
  • commentary
  • one to one conversations
  • Children need to engage in meaningful dialogue and conversation. What is a meaningful dialogue for each unique child?

Personal, Social & Emotional Development

My stated hopes for my grandchild extend to all children, that every child should develop social skills, independence and emotional literacy. For me, the ability to recognise our emotions and to regulate them, to feel good about ourselves, to feel confident and self-assured and to empathise, are indicators of healthy development. It is our role to support children, for example, by understanding and co-regulating their behaviour, by being curious and asking, ‘What has happened to you?’

I asked a group of teachers from local schools what they want to see in our children at transition. This was their list –

  • self-confident
  • able to follow instructions
  • able to manage their own care routines such as dressing, eating and toileting
  • able to make friends, negotiate, take turns and share
  • kind, caring, empathetic.

Literacy

“We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading.”

B. F. Skinner

We want children to develop a love of reading. We want them to understand that the printed word has meaning and that stories are a powerful medium for communicating ideas, thoughts and emotions. We want our children to develop phonemic awareness – the ability to hear and identify different words and sounds. We want them to develop pre-reading and pre-writing skills. Our language-rich environments should contain inspiring and informative fiction and non-fiction books for all abilities. We need to share our love of books with individual children and in groups using larger picture books and bags of confidence, drama and laughter!

Mathematics and Numeracy

Mathematics is a practical subject. Children need repeated experiences that relate concepts to the real world. Opportunities for developing mathematical knowledge arise every day during play and routines. We need to be mindful of these so that our interactions with them support the development of numeracy and an understanding of mathematical concepts.

Rhymes and action songs introduce the concepts of number and counting. Counting, grouping items by characteristics, exploring shape, capacity, size and number occur as part of our regular activities. The adults’ role in providing vocabulary and supporting and extending children’s thinking is critical to securing their mathematical understanding and building knowledge and skills. A note to us adults – mathematics is not scary, it’s practical and it’s fun. Let’s make it part of what we do every day.

As a girl, Katherine Johnson (1918 – 2020), was fascinated by numbers, “I counted everything,” she recalled in an interview. “The steps to the road, the steps up to the church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed.” Years later, her brilliance at maths won her a job at NASA, where she was responsible for devising some of the equations that enabled US astronauts to land on the moon. She has come to be recognised as a trailblazer for women and African Americans in the field of space flight. Let’s get our children counting!

Expressive Arts and Design

“It is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”

Donald Woods Winnicott

We teach, encourage and support our children to express themselves and communicate their emotions with an unrestricted licence.

We offer them skills, techniques and capabilities to draw, paint, model, sing, move, dance, cut out, stick, sculpt and shape….. to choose any medium they desire that best helps them to express their free spirit and emotions.

We are interested in the process rather than the product.

Understanding the World

“There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million.”

Walt Streightiff

Our children should engage with the awe and wonder of life and new experiences. We need to support individual paths of discovery, providing space and opportunities to learn and experience the richness of their world first hand.

Every day is an opportunity to challenge, provoke, excite, stimulate, teach and investigate together with our intrepid explorers through the widest fields of study.

As adults we can ask ‘What if?’ questions. We can collect resources together. We can arrange to visit our local community and interact with our neighbours. Above all, we can instil in our children the values of appreciation, respect, tolerance, compassion, inclusion and acceptance.

Final Thoughts

In my opinion, we are not just preparing young children for what comes next. We need to see them as citizens with rights, many of which are for the present – the right to play, the right to be free, the right to love, dignity and respect, the right to be valued for who I am not what I do.

In considering their future, we need to ensure our children will have the necessary characteristics for a happy and fulfilled life. We need future men and women who will be able to tackle the many challenges the world faces right now and to do so with resilience, determination, imagination and compassion. This shapes our curriculum and our pedagogy.

I finish with this thought from Alison Gopnik…

“For human beings, in particular, our sense of who we are, both as individuals and as a group, is intimately tied to where we come from and where we’re going, to our past and our future. The human capacity for change means that we can’t figure out what it is to be human just by looking at the way we are now. We need instead to peer forward into the vast ramifying space of human possibilities. The explorers we see out there at the farthest edge look very much like our children.”

Alison Gopnik

 

 

David’s Recommended Resources

Birth to 5 Matters Birthto5Matters-download.pdf

Development Matters Development Matters – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

Felitti, V. Anda, R. (1998) Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive medicine. 14(4):245-58

Gerhard, S. (2015). Why Love Matters. Hove: Routledge.

Grimmer, T. (2021). Developing a Loving Pedagogy in the Early Years. Abingdon: Routledge.

Gopnik, A. (2009). The Philosophical Baby. London: The Bodley Head

Hart, B. & Risley, T. ‘The Early Catastrophe – The 30 million word gap by age 3’ The Early Catastrophe | American Federation of Teachers (aft.org)

Perry, B. and Szalavitz, M. (2017). The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog. New York: Basic Books

Porges, S. (2017). The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory. New York: W.W. Norton

Realising the Ambition: national practice guidance for early years in Scotland 2020 Realising the Ambition | Learning resources | National Improvement Hub (education.gov.scot)

Te Whariki Early Childhood Curriculum ELS-Te-Whariki-Early-Childhood-Curriculum-ENG-Web.pdf (education.govt.nz)