What can the new ‘normal’ teach us about how and what young children should be learning?
‘Is it possible that we can use this opportunity to create a new normal around what and how young children learn?’ KAREN HOPE explores theories in early childhood education in a time where online learning has been the only choice and shares four ‘soft’ theories that she would like to ‘test’ during these times as teachers, educators and families figure out what online learning means.
Early childhood educators rely on the work of many theories and theorists to help us understand and interpret our work with children. These theories often translate into personal philosophies and beliefs that ultimately shape our pedagogical practices. The place of theory is so important in our work that the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) encourages us to employ a range of different theoretical viewpoints in our approaches to learning and development and to provide multiple perspectives in our work.
Theory should not become the tool of power that we hold over children but rather a way of possibly understanding children better. You do not force the child into the theory, but rather, you find a way to see the theory reflected in the child. What theories do I see in practice here when I look at the child in front of me?
I teach Ecology Theory to fourth year Pre-Service Teachers—specifically around the work of Urie Bronfenbrenner. Bronfenbrenner a psychologist who was born in Russia developed what is known as the Ecological Systems Theory. This theory called our attention to the large number of environmental, societal, political, economic and cultural impacts on a child’s development and provided us with an understanding of the many influences, from the macro (Government) to the micro (family), on development that can impact on a child’s place in the world. It is the connections and flows between these systems that influences development. It is also a theory of reciprocity that places children as active participants.
In my years of teaching this subject, there has never been a better example of how this theory works, than the world we find ourselves currently living in.
Theories, however, should not stay in books. They are to be part of the lived experience, explored, challenged, refuted and discussed and new theories should be found and explored. Thinking about Bronfenbrenner’s work it occurs to me that early childhood education is capable of establishing important connections at the moment, between politics, community and children. If you think about The Reggio Emilia Educational Project which has its origins in post-war conditions, there was a great desire by the Italian citizens for renewal and change. And they did it.
We often hear the term ‘new normal’ in a way that is a little ominous or unknown. Is it possible though that we can use this opportunity to transform what and how young children learn? This opportunity for transformative change does not mean that we continue to operate within the same paradigm, with some minor adjustments, but rather we write a new narrative for ourselves that reflects our new reality. This is a long term approach that requires us to discard what we thought we knew and what might be familiar to us. This is an opportunity that cannot be missed.
With the majority of the nation’s young children recently at home, media platforms were saturated with commentary, suggestions, resources and opportunities on how to engage, teach, cope, and ensure that children don’t fall behind. Online learning became the new ‘normal’ at a time when teachers and educators were still figuring out what this all looks like.
I do not know for sure what it is all going to look like either, but I have four ‘soft’ theories I would like to test.
- Curiosity is the springboard of all learning; therefore, children more than ever, should be encouraged to do what they have always done—be curious. Children’s daily context should be a curious one. If you provide materials, resources and an adult/s that can help provoke questions and thinking, then cognitive disruption is going to be the result. This shifts children’s thinking from one point to another. This is called learning.
- Adults can often anticipate difficulties and resolve them, and we do not give children enough time to think and find solutions. Adults that create a culture of ideas rather than answers and then offer to children the sustained time to really think deeply is what is needed here. This is called research.
- Children actually want to learn whatever they decide is worth learning. You only need to take a look at a teenager who cannot unpack or stack a dishwasher despite multiple tutorials and yet who can source and access WIFI in under 30 seconds— anywhere—as an example of this. When children want to know how something works, or how to do something they will figure it out. This is called invention.
- Lastly, Urie Bronfenbrenner once said that ‘Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about them’. Children need adults in their life who rejoice in their discoveries, who champion their ideas and who join their attention to the child’s attention. Days do not need to be filled but rather to unfold—together. This is called a relationship.
I recently came upon this quote by the Swiss born philosopher and author Alain De Botton who said ‘Most of our childhood is stored not in photos, but in certain biscuits, lights of day, smells and textures of carpet’. (De Botton, 2017).
It is not going to be what children were taught that will define this period for us, but rather what they learnt and how they learnt it.