The concept of Modern Learning is pervading education circles of late. Perhaps I’m more sensitive to this as I work in Christchurch where school developments have taken centre stage. The reasons behind the drive for more modern school learning environments include new understandings about how learning occurs, what learning is valuable, and the type of learning environments that actively support this learning. These new understandings demand different pedagogical approaches from those upon which traditional schools were established and are identified as the drivers for change toward meeting the requirements of 21st Century learners.
Influences on ECE environments
I have been wondering how all of this discussion impacts on the early childhood sector (ECE) in New Zealand. In light of future-focused thinking and providing for 21st century learners, have we reached a time when we need to move beyond the firmly entrenched historical influences to the way ECE indoor and outdoor environments are presented? Do the drivers for educational change in general have relevance to the early childhood sector? Do we need to relook at the pedagogy that underpins current practice?
Just as I have been wondering about all of this, the Report of the Advisory Group on Early Learning came across my desk. It should be no surprise that one of the recommendations of the report is for Te Whāriki, the early childhood curriculum, to be updated by making its future-focused principles and content more explicit. The context of rapid technological change, implications of global and climate change, and 21st century learning contexts are identified as some of the factors that influenced the development of this recommendation. The report positions “New Zealand’s early childhood centres and schools as well placed to plan for and respond to these changes.” The time has come for the sector to step up and begin progressing the implications of providing for 21st Century learners.
Does ECE have the 21C learner in mind?
Three of the key drivers of change for 21st Century learning in the schooling sector are the concepts of Agency, Connectedness, and Ubiquity. While strongly influencing change within the schooling sector, little attention has been given to these in relation to early childhood education. I have heard many from the schooling sector comment that, ‘ECE has been doing this for years’. Granted, many of the modern learning ideas such as collaborative teaching, and flexibility, openness, and access to resources, resonate with ECE practice. However, there are deeper issues to consider.
Learner Agency is about learners being active as contributors, creators and collaborators in the learning process. Learners learn best when they are involved in choosing what and how to learn. Learner agency is firmly embedded in early childhood pedagogy, particularly in the principle of Empowerment and the strand of Exploration of Te Whāriki, the early childhood curriculum, where children are positioned as competent, active explorers and contributors in learning.
A benchmark of ECE environments has always been the accessibility of resources and equipment and the different spaces that allow for different activity. Typically ECE environments offer open spaces where children and teachers can choose where to become involved, which resources to use, and which people to work with or alongside. They can work independently, in small or larger groups. The spaces offer flexibility as the layout can be altered or moved around according to the interests of the day. Children moving to a modern learning environment at school will have familiarity with the layout and expectations that their new learning environment affords them.
I can’t help but reflect on some of the environmental changes I have seen happening recently in the ECE sector. In some of the newly-designed buildings I have seen, larger open spaces have been given over to smaller age-separated ‘classroom’-type set-ups where shared areas include auxiliary rooms such as kitchens, storerooms, outdoor spaces, and bathrooms. This type of set-up seems contrary to the driver of Learner Agency currently influencing the schooling sector. Shared spaces in a school’s modern learning environment include group-work hubs, reading areas, project spaces or, in other words, learning spaces as opposed to auxiliary rooms. It would seem to me that, while the schooling sector is making environmental changes to better support teaching and learning, some in the ECE sector might be taking a backward step.
Connectedness is about learning as a collaborative and social process rather than an individual endeavour. Socio-cultural theories of learning underpin early childhood pedagogy as reflected the Te Whāriki principle of ‘Relationships.’ Collaborative teaching is the norm in early childhood as larger groups of children engage in learning with teaching teams in large open rooms rather than single cell classrooms.
However, the concept of connectedness moves beyond merely face-to-face collaborations as is the norm in the early childhood environment. Technologies enable an entirely new realm of connectedness in which learners can access and collaborate within learning networks and communities well beyond their immediate environment. Connectedness is certainly a driver that expands the current understandings evident in early childhood environments. This new realm of connectedness has relevance for both children and adults as learners.
Ubiquity is about the ways that learning takes place anytime and anywhere. An emphasis of early childhood pedagogy is to make connections to children’s learning beyond the walls of the centre as it is well accepted that learning does not just occur while the child attends early childhood. Home and centre relationships focus on building those connections with and for the learner.
Technologies offer new ways to learn anywhere, any time, and with anyone to construct new ideas and understandings. This world is not new for young children. By the time today’s child reaches five years of age they have grown up in a world where technologies such as smartphones, social networking, online connectivity, tablets, e-commerce wearable technology, augmented technology, are things that ‘just are’ in their lives. Their teachers, however, have been introduced (or not) to these technologies with many struggling to keep up.
Today’s youngsters are already very tech savvy with 6-year-olds having the same level of knowledge about technical devices as the average 45-year-old. Children are overtaking us with their technology abilities.
– Purple Wifi
I think that in the current context the place of digital and networked technologies in the ECE environment demands consideration, particularly in light of the connectedness and ubiquity drivers of change to schooling education. I would encourage ECE teachers to think about how and why technologies are or are not used in their early childhood learning environment.
Is ECE keeping an eye on the future?
Let’s not lose sight of teaching and learning in ECE when planning modern learning environments. I posed a question earlier in this blog — ‘Do the drivers for educational change have relevance to the early childhood sector?’ A lot has changed since the 1900s when Kindergarten, Playcentre, and Montessori laid the foundation for ECE learning environments. Digital technologies were not even on the horizon then. I guess this is what we need to keep in mind; we don't know what may not be on the horizon in our young children’s future. With such fast-paced technological developments we can’t begin to even know what society will require of our current preschool children in the future.
A few questions to ponder:
- How do these ideas of connectedness, ubiquity, and agency influence your vision of a confident and competent learner who will make a valued contribution to society of the future?
- What do you believe is important learning for 21st century learners? And how are you providing for this learning?
- How and why are technologies used or not used in your early childhood learning environment?
- Have you ever challenged the traditional ECE learning environment? For example, have you ever asked yourself, ‘Do we really need to define activity areas?’ Or, ‘Why do we group children according to age?’
- Report of the Advisory Group on Early Learning: The report referred to in this post
- CORE's Ten Trends: For more about Agency, Connectedness, and Agency.
Latest posts by Jocelyn Wright (see all)
- Modern Learning and early childhood education (ECE) - October 16, 2015
- Chennai India, KiwiLearners, and technologies - April 29, 2014
- Where have all our children gone? - February 20, 2012