The Common early childhood education policies

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Common early childhood education policies suggest, that curriculum frameworks can be powerful instruments that make the education system more effective in raising quality standards in early years' services, but they can also endanger the learning process because they can go against the principles of good practice (Laevers, 2005b; Oberhuemer, 2005; Bennett, 2004; OECD, 2001). Different countries approach the curriculum in diverse ways which are set on broad societal goals and principles, based on agreed values and norms (OECD, 2006; Bennett, 2006; 2005a; 2005b; Laevers, 2005b; Oberhuemer, 2005; Ryan, 2005; Pramling Samuelsson, Sheridan, & Williams, 2004). There are two broad types of curriculum approaches that are used in the early years, with one taking a prescriptive pre-primary approach, where academic skills are introduced in a formal way at an early age and the other taking a descriptive, social pedagogical perspective where learning is defined by the children's interests and based on play experiences as a source for exploration and experimentation (OECD 2006; 2001; Bennett, 2005a).

1.1: Aims of the study

In view of this emerging discourse, this study aims to investigate and present a critical analysis of curriculum development as planned, implemented and practised within four Maltese kindergarten [1] classrooms [2] in a state school, and how such experiences are affecting and contributing to the children's holistic development. After analysing and discussing the research findings vis-à-vis nine principles of good practice, that are identified as baseline characteristics of acclaimed curriculum outlines (OECD, 2004), the study aims to provide recommendations for transformation from the present formal, pre-primary approach to a more social pedagogical curriculum.

1.2: The background of the study

'What children learn does not follow as an automatic result from what is taught. Rather, it is in large part due to the children's own doing as a consequence of their activities and our resources.'

(Malaguzzi, 1998:67)

Based on a comparison between the traditional approach of learning through transmission of knowledge and a sociocultural perspective where learning is experienced through interaction with others, this statement by Malaguzzi puts curriculum theory into perspective and highlights the bipolar differences between the two approaches. It also puts into dispute the local kindergarten practice that is based on a school-readiness approach, where through sequenced steps, children are instructed and filled with knowledge in preparation to the demands of compulsory schooling which does not necessarily lead to learning (Stephenson & Parsons, 2007; Aasen & Waters, 2006; Siraj-Blatchford, 2004).

1.2.1: The early childhood curriculum

The early childhood curriculum as designed at government levels can be regarded as a politically engaging process (MacNaughton, 2003) that leads towards a common framework and a national set of educational aims and goals for implementing teaching and learning (Pramling et al., 2004) while keeping progression in mind. Various literature broaden the view of the early childhood curriculum describing it as a source of principles and values that directs practice and professional development (Smith & May, 2006; Bennett, 2005a; OECD, 2001). Concomitantly, Carr & May (2000), indicate that the early childhood curriculum has been supported by a principle of holistic education which includes different approaches to assessment, elements of well-being, narrative frameworks and dispositions as outcomes. Therefore, curricula have an inevitable impact on the quality of early childhood education as they create new expectations, challenges and a new direction forward (Smith & May, 2006; Laevers, 2005b; Eurostat, 2002).

1.2.2: The curriculum in the local context

On the opening of the first, state kindergartens in Malta in 1975, a set of guidelines was drafted on the basis of the Council of Europe recommendations (Muscat 2005, in Sollars et al., 2006), where learning was presented in a holistic approach through play. However, a school-readiness approach, was strongly practised mainly due to pressure exerted by parents on kindergarten assistants [3] to introduce literacy and numeracy skills in a formal way (Zammit Mangion, 2002). Periodically, guidelines were updated where the programme offered was largely determined by parental expectations as well as the personal decisions of service providers and their employees (Sollars, 2003).

The current National Minimum Curriculum (NMC) (Ministry of Education, 1999) was the first formal document that acknowledged the early years as the first stage in the education process, identifying six areas of development that included the intellectual, the socio-emotional, the physical, the moral and the religious development of children and emphasising a holistic approach to education through a play-based pedagogy [4] . According to Dalli (2008), this curriculum takes a traditional perspective as it is based on the development of specific areas that are limiting and do not sufficiently capture the holistic experiences and development of children.

In absence of good curriculum guidance, early years' settings are free to design, plan and organise their programme of activities (Sollars, 2007). Frequently a school-readiness approach, with traits of adult-led, whole-class activities that focus on the teaching of pre-specified outcomes, still characterises early years' classes (MEYE, 2006). Demands have been made (ibid) for a change in provision and recommends a move towards a social pedagogical approach. Early years' programmes should be educationally and pedagogically sound with high quality programmes that include experiential learning, play and involvement of the child.

1.3: The professional significance of the study

Considering that the early years' sector in Malta is still in its initial stages, this study intends to provide some new insights and understandings on the present curriculum experiences practised locally. By suggesting recommendations for a transformation in practice, with an emphasis on a more process-related practice that allows for adaptation, experimentation and cultural inputs, the study will provide a discourse of change in favour of children's autonomy, creativity, and interest.

Viewing and analysing different early years' frameworks, will provide the national and international field with a critical evaluation of five open curricula that embrace a social pedagogic perspective. Another factor that makes this study relevant is that currently the pedagogical approaches used in early childhood practices vary and significant differences exist between European countries, where some of them still adopt a pre-primary approach while others have adopted an emergent curriculum (OECD, 2001). This study will contribute to bring into focus the differences between the two approaches and critically discuss the characteristics of each.

1.4: Conclusion

The interest of this research evolves from the experiences of various curricula which have adopted a social pedagogical approach to curriculum design and implementation appraised by the OECD (2004). Such an approach, adopted various countries, and which has been widely acclaimed within the early childhood field, has developed from a long tradition of early childhood practice that is based on full respect towards children (Stacey, 2009; OECD, 2006; 2004; 2001; Bennett, 2005a; 2005b; Siraj-Blatchford, 2004; Laevers, 2003; Soler & Miller, 2003; Siraj-Blatchford, Sylva, Muttock, Gilden, & Bell, 2002). This contrasts sharply with the static pre-primary approach adopted in the local system (MEYE, 2006; Hili & Mallia, 2005).

The next chapter will review various curriculum-related literatures to provide a theoretical background for this study. It also provides an empirical analysis of five curricula that have been commended as examples of good practice, where nine common principles will be identified and used as a baseline for discussion. Subsequently, the third chapter describes the design of the study, where tools and measures are explained and issues of triangulation, reliability, validity and ethics are discussed. This is followed by a discussion of the findings which provides evidence of the type of curriculum activities that local children experience, which are argued vis-à-vis the nine principles established in the empirical analysis. Recommendations for the implementation of a social pedagogical curriculum are put forth in the fifth chapter where it calls for a paradigm shift in the way children, childhood and learning are perceived, valued and projected.