A View from the (Early Years) Burrow by David Wright

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A few days spent monitoring social media provides ample evidence of the debates taking place regarding education in England. Much of this is unhelpfully polarised into ‘enlightened’ and diametrically opposed camps, both claiming the moral high ground. It is a particularly unedifying rabbit hole to peer into, characterised by dogma, intolerance, fanaticism, vitriol, child-like name-calling and ultimately sulking (blocking). I view such role modeling from educational professionals as a bemused and saddened spectator but it begs the question what is it about ‘education’ that stirs such passion and causes us to lose our respect for and tolerance of opinions?

It seems we all have strong views on the notions of teaching – didactic versus experiential, learning – teacher led versus child initiated, knowledge – assessing its residency in long-term memory, curriculum – what should our children be taught, etc. and not forgetting pedagogy which many of us struggle to get to grips with defining.

To my mind, a helpful starting point, certainly for those of us teaching in the Early Years, is the child! To ask ourselves – what is our view of the child, shapes our thinking about education. It seems to me that there is no objective answer to this question. To state the obvious, we have all been children, although it would appear some of us have completely erased the memory of our earliest years! We have all undergone parenting and education of some form and this personal and unique experience, shaped by our culture and context, must inform and influence our attitudes. It is no surprise then, that there are a wide range of opinions on who children are or should be.

The reductionist image of the infant lacking in knowledge, as ‘stupid’, equates intelligence with the amount of facts retained in the brain. The belief that children are empty buckets waiting to be filled denies them the right to agency. It is also a credo in danger of narrowing education solely to the impartation of knowledge, the value of a human being assessed by their ability to recall a narrow, prescribed set of information. Such a view of the child relies on comparative measures to rank individuals. In this system, a child’s worth is represented by their test score, a token used to transact social capital – sense of identity, career and even relationships.

It is my contention that knowledge alone is insufficient to prepare our chidren for life. When the jobs of the future may not even exist yet, surely knowledge retention alone is an insufficient measure of an individual’s worth and suitability for employment? What is the requisite knowledge for the next generation of citizens?

Beyond facts, what else do we need to succeed in our lives? As Piaget postulated, “Are we forming children who are only capable of learning what is already known? Or should we try to develop creative and innovative minds, capable of discovery from the preschool age on, throughout life?”

And beyond this, what does it mean to be human? And therefore what do we want for our children? Should education simply be equipping the next homogeneous unit with the right data and skills to bring them up to the required level? Or do we see the child as a unique, social, spiritual being with intrinsic worth?

This child enters the World primed for connection. She is an innately relational being, highly attuned to her environment and those in it, with sophisticated pattern-matching and analytical skills. She has an immature memory but almost infinite potential to develop.

What is it we want for her? What do we want for our children?

  • to be acquirers of knowledge?
  • to develop an enquiring mind?
  • to develop skills and capabilities?

And what else?
– Independence, Love, Joy, Peace, Fulfillment, Patience, Kindness, Empathy, Compassion, Altruism, Optimism, Sense of Fun, Sense of Wonder, Spiritual Understanding, Imagination, Creativity, Critical Thinking, Curiosity, Problem Solving, Perseverance, Self-Motivation, Persistence, Reflection, Sociability / Co-operation / Collaboration, Attention / Concentration, Anger Management, Self Esteem, Emotional Intelligence, Ability to Defer Gratification, Resilience, Risk Taking and Self-Regulation.

What pedagogy enables our children to build a sense of self, an inner symbolic model of the World, metacognition – the ability to analyse and reapply the mental act of acquiring knowledge and understanding, and to answer the questions, ‘Who am I?’, ‘What is my value?’, ‘What is my purpose?’ and ‘What can I achieve?’

Most of the dispositions above are difficult, if not almost impossible to quantify – sense of wonder, creativity, perseverance, kindness etc. In a system where accountability demands outcomes and return on investment, it is unsurprising that we assess according to what is measurable but I suggest that our tests, exams and data are limited in their ability to encompass fully what it means to be human.

The Early Years Foundation Stage explicitly references the characteristics of effective learning, defined as engagement, motivation and critical thinking and these, alongside the prime area of personal, social and emotional development, do address some of these dispositions but the perception is that these are almost an adjunct, subordinate to the primacy of the 3Rs. Certainly, an interpretation of the Education Inspection Framework and accompanying Ofsted reports, would suggest this to be the case.

Hopefully, I am not accused of espousing an ideology or indeed a particular pedagogy. I am not advocating for any specific curriculum content, teaching or learning style. What I am suggesting is that an holistic image of the child provides for a richer, more expansive and inclusive educational doctrine that has a greater chance of fulfilling the potential of each child. In my opinion, this is not an either – or issue. It may be helpful, in this respect, to consider what Jan Dubiel refers to as nuance – e.g. how far the didactic approach should give sway to self-directed experiential learning.

Before I disappear back down my own rabbit hole, defending myself from ‘opinion’ on this subject, I leave the last word to Maria Montessori –

“Children are human beings to whom respect is due, superior to us by reason of their innocence and of the greater possibilities of their future.”

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