Over the last three or four years I have been struck by the number of times I have seen early childhood services adopting traditional school-like rituals for their four-year-old and sometimes even younger learners. Extension sessions especially timetabled for the nearly five-year-olds, mat times peppered with today’s weather, letters of the week, and counting exercises, and even the practice of reserving story reading and music experiences for group times when all children are present, are all examples I see of this trend.
Granted, these services also have considerable chunks of time when children are able to play and choose from a variety of activities offered. However, ironically I often observe many missed teaching opportunities to capitalise on precisely the kinds of learning (literacy and numeracy) that teachers are aiming for in the more structure sessions of the daily programme.
Consciously or subconsciously these teachers appear to have been swayed by the argument that, no matter how well resourced and intentioned, a play programme alone is not enough to support this ‘real’ learning needed for school.
As I puzzle over how these more didactic practices exemplify Te Whāriki, our early childhood curriculum in action, I am prone to ask teachers how they arrived at these. The reply is almost inevitably; ‘It’s what our parents want.’ Some teachers also add, ‘It’s what the schools want, too.’
Now don’t get me wrong, one of the most positive developments over the last three decades across our education system has been the increased attention given to parent/whānau aspirations for their children. Te Whāriki has rightly led the way in this by recognising ‘Family and Community’ and ‘Relationships’ as two of the four foundational principles on which early childhood learning and curriculum is built. Early childhood experiences are more likely to be successful for children where parents/whanau feel able and confident to contribute. However, in their well-intentioned efforts to please parents/whānau (and in some cases schools), some teachers appear to be undervaluing their own, hard-earned professional knowledge of wise practice. The result is that the balance between providing what parents/whānau want and drawing on evidenced-based professional knowledge of effective teaching and learning has got a bit out of kilter.
Does this matter? Yes it does if we are to take our role seriously and aim to give children born today the best possible foundations for lifelong learning. It matters because what is important to learn is evolving in response to an increasingly technologically driven, globally connected, and environmentally challenging world. Parents/whānau can’t be expected to always foresee the educational implications of these changes. It also matters because now more than ever before there exists a body of evidence-based literature with some clear messages for teacher practice. Take for example, brain research, which in the last two decades has opened up a raft of new understandings about how patterns of learning are established in the first two to three years of life.
How then do teachers blend the interests and wishes of parent/whānau with professional knowledge and research, especially when the two often seem to be at odds? In their book Skilled dialogue: strategies for responding to cultural diversity in early childhood, authors Isaura Barrera, Robert Corso, and Dianne Macpherson have coined the phrase ‘3rd space’. By this they mean developing a mindset that integrates the influences from diverse perspectives so that each is valued and contributes to decision-making. They refer to the 3rd Space as consciously working towards a ‘both-and’ perspective. I think it is time we saw a little more 3rd-space thinking when it comes to determining what influences teachers’ decision-making. We can’t on the one hand complain that early childhood is the poor relation of the education system while on other hand sit back passively and let others determine what we do.
So, how can we apply this 3rd space idea to an area like parent aspirations for their child’s early literacy learning, a topic particularly prone to the issues I have raised in this blog post? Here are two suggestions to get you started.
- Distinguish between the ‘what’ (parental aspirations) and ‘the ‘how’ (ways to achieve these). For most parents/whānau their concerns are aspirational, they simply want to see their child do well in literacy. Teachers can show they are treating these aspirations seriously by taking the lead on the ‘how’, based on the best professional knowledge and evidence available.
- Develop a centre culture that values professional knowledge and research, and ensure staff keep current in best practices,for early childhood learning contexts through ongoing professional learning.
- Rather than having special school preparation times and activities, put efforts into increasing the opportunities offered children to practice their literacy in purposeful ways during everyday routines and play. I believe that, by doing this well and often, teachers can provide learning that is both educationally sound and what parents want, in other words; high quality.
Latest posts by Ann Hatherly (see all)
- On the path to literacy through a pair of shoes and smelly socks - September 2, 2016
- ‘It’s what our parents want’ — Really? - August 20, 2015
- Early childhood education, 10 Trends, and a not-so-little story of action - May 19, 2015