The aim of the study was to analyse the local curriculum practice, beliefs, attitudes and the type of activities children experience at kindergarten level and investigate how the approach practiced, the limitations and challenges experienced are affecting the children's holistic development. It also aimed at providing suggestions for the implementation of a new social pedagogical curriculum that contrasts with the pre-primary approach that is currently being practiced.
6.1: Brief description of the study
The study initiated by analysing five curriculum outlines that are well-known examples of good practice (OECD, 2004; Pramling Samuelsson et al., 2004) where nine principles were thereof identified as the foundation of a strong social pedagogical curriculum. The study then moved on to analyse the local practice vis-à-vis the nine principles, where various methodological tools including narrative observations, interviews and screening tests were used to investigate the curriculum as planned, implemented and practiced where the perceptions of the adults who worked in the setting provided the study with notions of what is regarded as important learning for young children.
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The main research questions that guided the study evolved around identifying:
the current methodolgoy used in local kindergarten settings
the perceptions and philosphies that guide the KGAs in their choice of play and learning activities
the type of curriculum that can suggested for the Maltese early years context
the underpinning theoretical framework of such a curriculum
Based on the hypothesis that a social pedagogical curriculum empowers children to construct knowledge and meaning through authentic, shared experiential activities of play, that grant them with possibilities to be autonomous and self-directing individuals, the study proposed recommendations for the implementation of such a framework that would give direction without being prescriptive while trying to improve the level of quality in learning settings (Miller, et al., 2003b; Carr & May, 1993).
6.2: Summary of findings and recommendations
The findings of this study indicate that in absence of a local early childhood curriculum and an inadequate theoretical framework, a pre-primary approach led by a behaviourist tradition dominates the local early childhood practice where experiences are totally planned and led by adults. In a process of schoolification and normalization, the focus of the activities children are exposed to, is on the product of learning and on the acquisition of academic skills which do not suit the way young children learn. In an environment were conformity and compliancy are valued, space and resources limit the children's experiences, and where practitioners have limited training, it was predictable that the children's engagement and involvement in the activities was poor and the level of well-being was relatively low.
In view of these findings, the study concluded by providing various recommendations for change which can be effected by developing a curriculum that embraces a social pedagogical perspective based on child-initiated play, self-expression, and experiential learning that emanate from project-work, amongst other activities. Such a socio-cultural curriculum is responsive towards the children's interests and respects their agency and their potential to be the protagonists of the learning process in a collaborative environment that provides them with autonomy and space to participate and be active in creating their own theories of learning (Stacey, 2009; Hayes & Kernan, 2008; Hayes, 2007; OECD, 2006; 2004; 2001; Bennett, 2005a; 2005b; Pramling et al., 2004; Siraj-Blatchford, 2004; Siraj-Blatchford et al., 2002). Consequently, pedagogical documentation has been suggested as a way to assess children's experiences that captures their competences, their interaction, their process-making and their evaluation of their work, in a non-standardised way that will eventually be used to inform the planning. To be able to effectively implement an open-curriculum that is flexible, broad and process-oriented, requires the involvement and ownership of well-trained practitioners who need to develop positive attitudes, perceptions and behaviour. While embracing a common, underpinning theoretical perspective that is intertwined with philosophies of children's ways of learning, educators have to have professional responsibility in adopting effective methodology (Pozar Matijasic, 2005). This calls for highly qualified practitioners where issues of teacher-training and continuous professional development need to be addressed.
In order to implement an emergent curriculum that evolves around the interests of the children, it was recommended that the environment has to be adequately designed and resourced to help children make choices, to develop their ideas, and their individuality and independence. Smaller group sizes and lower adult-child ratio were also recommended to provide the practitioners with more time to interact and develop closer relationships with the children. This change is seen in a framework of political commitment that entails substantial funding in the system that needs to be planned and gradually invested over a long span of time.
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A paradigm and ideological shift in the way that children and early childhood are perceived from merely passive recipients, to active co-constructors was recommended. This change demands of all the involved stakeholders to be knowledgeable about the benefits of early childhood education, to be informed about how children learn and know what contributes towards their holistic development.
6.4: Limitations of the study
For the purpose of this study, only four classes within one KG setting were observed, where the aim was to obtain data about the type of curricular activities children experience at KG level. Although this provided the study with a good, cross-sample within one setting, yet, the sample size was limiting when one compares it to the local context, where differences are likely to be present. This implies that the study might not represent the larger population; therefore one cannot make generalisations about what actually takes place in other settings, even if the findings of the study were supported and validated with other local research. It would have been beneficial, if more classes within different settings were observed to provide a more consistent picture of the typical practice experienced and to acquire a broader spectrum of the activities children are exposed to, the type of resources used and the adults' attitudes towards the children. It could also have been opportune to interview all the involved stakeholders in the process including policy-makers, education officers, college coordinators and parents. Their opinions could have provided the study with richer data of their insights and attitudes about the present school-readiness approach and the proposed open curriculum and the challenges they predict.
One of the main limitations of the study that resulted from obvious restrictions of time and funds was that the recommendations suggested couldn't be tried out, evaluated and compared to a school readiness approach. This could have provided the study with data about the transformation process within the practice, the measures that need to be taken in order to assure a smooth implementation of the curriculum, the affects of such a change and how such a curriculum can be more beneficial for children.
6.5: Recommendations for future research
Similar future research studies could be carried out across all KGAs settings where a sample of three- and four-year olds groups of children, would be observed to provide a more comprehensive picture of the curricular experiences children are exposed to, where differences and similarities between centres can also be brought up.
Another research, which could involve a longitudinal comparative study that follows the same group of children from the age of three up to the age of five, could include the actual implementation and testing of a designed emergent curriculum in various settings, where comparisons would be made between controlled and experimental groups. Subsequently, the experiences of children are compared, analysed and assessed over a span of time to investigate and evaluate how the differences in the approaches used might have affected the children by the beginning of formal schooling.