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About the potential of early school education and curriculum on the margin

Katarzyna Pająk-Załęska
Ewa Wojciechowska
Dzieci z Azji

Reader’s question: Why is early school education different from education at next levels? Why can’t education be the same at all stages?
Thesis for the reader: Early school education has the biggest interdisciplinary potential which may be the model for designing subjects at further stages of education which will have measurable social effects.

Early school education is a crucial element in life of every student. An adequately conducted process may inspire to further learning and searching for answers to intriguing questions. In Holistic Think Tank, we are looking for answers to what the school should teach at different levels to be effective in building a better world.

1. Early school education in the context of the Holistic Think Tank research

Among the participants of the research done by the Holistic Think Tank “What Schools Teach vs. What Schools Ought to Teach: A Phenomenography of the School Environment”, there are people who create the environment of the primary school: teachers, students and their parents. Students constitute a group of beneficiaries of the research: they will become a recipient of an interdisciplinary subject that will be created based on the empirical data gathered within the research.

Some children participating in the research are at the level of early school education. This means that in the HTT’s research we will receive data that come directly from beneficiaries of the early school education and based on this data it will be possible to verify the quality and adequacy of the teaching methods and students’ expectations towards the educational offer provided to them.

2. What is early school education?

Generally speaking: this is the initial stage of education at which students begin their adventure with the compulsory pimary school. It would be difficult to speak about an average or a unified norm, since the age at which children begin compulsory early school education differs and depends on regulations in place in different countries. Depending on the regulations, some children undergo compulsory pre-school preparations or not: if the latter is the case, children’s experience with school is shaped only at the primary school and is not burdened with any memories from the pre-school stage. Most children, however, who have the experience with the kindergarten as a place providing an opportunity for having fun and individual development, seem to be confused when they begin school, as their freedom of expression becomes limited. Early school education is closer to the “mature” education bearing in mind the system of school desks and organisation of classes. As it seems, children do far better at school if education at an early stage shifts the accent from developing the knowledge included in the curriculum to social and communication skills. This does not mean, however, that we can forget about reading and mathematics, but this should not be the essence of education at this stage.

For everybody, it is key to function in a society, out of one’s family group and its limitations. This is a moment when the school should teach skills which may not have been stressed at previous stages but may be acquired thanks to some patient work of the teacher. The earlier the better, in oposition to family experience, especially if we deal with people from families excluded for various reasons. Early school education may be a chance to shorten the distance between the entities, unifying the common good coming from the care ensured by the school.

3. Early school students

Children who participate in early education are at the development stage which is called the period of late childhood or early school period. This stage enables them to soak up new information in a very intensive way. On the one hand, students at this age have some resources that enable them to acquire new information and adapt it to the information they already possess. On the other hand, the curiosity of the unknown and exciting world makes children very susceptible to educational processes.

Development changes in the period of late childhood are less intensive than in the previous period (middle childhood called pre-school age as well) and in the subsequent periods (adolescence). Stability of this period is significant for education, since it is a safe ground for teaching and upbringing in the school environment. When comparing the early school education with adolescence, we will notice that in the latter the changes are very dynamic and influence childrens’ approach to school.

The child’s development at an early school age affects all spheres of the child’s life. Children develop their cognitive, social, emotional, linguistic and communication competences. This is the time when child’s personality and morality are shaped.

Children need to face development tasks. Among them, there is acquisition of knowledge and structuring of the information about the world and the child itself in terms of description, values and norms. At this age, children master skills required for acquiring and structuring knowledge and applying it in different situations. The key task in this period is mastering reading and writing skills, as well as entering a peer group and finding a place for oneself. Children also need to achieve personal autonomy and develop their stance towards social grous and institutions.

A very important issue in the contenxt of development of children at an early school age is school preparedness which may be defined as an entire set of skills necessary to start school education. School preparedness affects the child’s approach to learning, testing and discovering. Children who display this preparedness develop independence in searching for solutions of different difficulties and discovering alternative way of actions.

Cognitive development of children at an early school age is visible in the rise of skills to concentrate on the aspect of the situation which is in line with the objective of child’s activity and ignoring elements of the situation that are insignificant for the child. Children develop flexible thinking and its structure and the child’s dictionary is enriched by more and more concrete and abstract notions. The memory’s efficiency rises and it is related to extending the child’s general knowledge and the ability to manage ther own cognitive resources. The child starts to use memory strategies, such as repeating, organizing and looking for similarities, inconsistencies, connotations and images.

Children at early school age, when starting school education, face the task of changing their existing day agenda full of play and fun into a world of obligations. The child’s basic environment is school, which can be defined as a place of work.

The social dimension of the school education is an important aspect for a child who is at an early stage of education. Relationship between peers is a very important matter in a student’s life and influences the quality of relationship with other people in their mature life. This is a period of integration of knowledge about other poeple, thanks to which a child can develop a more general social knowledge. A child starts to notice fixed features in other people’s actions and becomes able to perceive the reality in a subjective manner. Based on all convictions developed by themselves, children create their own concepts of social, economic and political phenomena.

The requirement of formal education has a major influence on shaping child’s personality in late childhood. A child learns hard work, the system of awards for persistence and dilligence. Children develop an ability of emotional self-regulation and learn to name emotions, including the complex ones. The experience earned at school also influences the child’s ability to conduct self-assessment which is meaningful for the way they interpret their successes and failures.

4. What can the school teach at an early stage?

Values that should be taught at an early stage of education include a wide set of universal issues which will be necessary during the whole life cycle. A lot of them are shaped by school which does not, however, manages the process consciously, but it introduces these issues somehow on a margin. With all its power, the school can and should teach humanitarianism that, understood as an idea of not causing harm combined with learning self-control, sympathy and friendliness, may manifest itself through taking care of a classroom pet: a hamster or fish. Education that comes from taking care of pets, as well as cultivation of plants in a school garden, teaches responsibility and respect towards the rights of nature. They also teach cooperation in a group and acting together for the sake of a common goal which is pet welfare. Such practical classes in a group allow for introducing education for life: on the one hand, introducing the knowledge included in the curriculum within natural sciences, on the other hand they allow for empowerment that stems from the knowledge about plants which may be directly reflected in the quality of crops. Joint work on practical projects teaches problem solving in real life, it teaches whom and how to ask for help when one cannot cope with the situation on their own. It teaches the hard law of birth and death when in the morning it turns out that the class hamster has died or when, under the cover of night, new fish are born. Eventually, it teaches curiosity and critical thinking, inspires to conduct experiments, but also shows the need for subordination, if a given experiment is perceived by the group as inadequate or unacceptable. By handing over the responsibility for the result of school crops to children, the school should teach participation in the educational process, active engagement in the process and tolerance for mistakes. Also, it ought to teach social justice, clear distribution of rights and responsibilities, with the teacher as an active supporter of child’s development rather than an instructor who commissions increasingly complicated tasks without critical thinking and analysis of the undertaken actions, not to mention tackling problems.

Early school education has a potential to be a perfect environment for creative work, learning the rights of the nature and society. This is a moment when the committed mistakes do not impact anyone’s life, but may be a valuable lesson for the future. If we look at the school from the perspective of interdisciplinary education, this is the stage that represents the biggest potential and the biggest ease to introduce interdisciplinary contents. And this happens not only because of the curriculum framework, but also due to the mental construction of children who begin their experience with the school. At this stage, the school should focus on sensitivity to art, not only on its perception, but also on children’s willingness to create. It should also stress the interpenetration between the disciplines, as at this stage the curriculum does not assume explaining the world at the detailed level yet; instead, it focuses on general rights which can be reflected in different disciplines. And the early school education is not about infantilising or trivializing school education. It is more about preparing strong social foundations to receive contents stemming from the generally accessible knowledge. The school should provide the child with a possibility to learn how to understand the good and the fair through the stance of people who design school and constitute its direct emanation: teachers.

Ensuring good and supportive environment at school, providing a possibility to realize the individual potential and learning teamwork will constitute a far stronger foundation for further development than solely practical knowledge of reading and maths. It is difficult to imagine the functioning in today’s world without knowing how to read; maybe it is a responsibility of adults to believe that if a child needs a certain skill, they will acquire it over time.

When observing the functioning of the early school education, we could ask ourselves a question whether the assumptions related to curriculum interdisciplinarity of the taught contents and basing the learning process on teamwork cannot be continued at later stages. Perhaps they could. However, the culture of testing and doing research in the field of education focuses on single achievements and culturally-defined success that is measured by prestige and a place in ranking far more than satisfaction with the personal goal. Hence the focus on individual work on further stages of education. Culture of individual success overshadows the strength of relation and communication, cooperation to the benefit of the common good and harmonic development of societies. Maybe the biggest work that we need to do to change the image of today’s school is the change of the social perception of success and prestige, as well as the change in the proportion of research and educational measurements: from the ones taken individually towards the ones that strengthen and enhance cooperation and efficient communication without violence, to the benefit of building a non-trivializing and harmonic world of tomorrow.

5. How can IDS support the development of children at the early stage of education?

A characteristic feature of cognitive development of children in the late childhood (early school age) is that children can formulate some first rights and solve mental tasks based not only on specific data. The efficiency of the information processing system rises and the knowledge becomes more and more structured and integrated. Such development competencies constitute a foundation for problem-solving thanks to logical and critical thinking and abstract understanding of issues.

Moreover, early school age is a period when the school activity plays a key role in the child’s life. Developing a skill of effective learning and taking a positive attitude towards knowledge may definitely make it easier for children to acquire knowledge and use it at further stages of development.

The child develops knowledge about society: it acquires information about politics and economy. At the end of this period, the child is capable of undertaking economic activity on their own (e.g. doing shopping). From the moral perspective, the child no longer is subordinate to the authority and thinks about obligations from the point of view of their own life. The child discovers equality, moral relativism and the need to analyse obligations from the perspective of law and social order. The period of late childhood is a good moment to introduce children to the functioning in the society (among others, in the context of the relationship with the state – responsible civil behaviours, awareness of social inequalities, respect towards diversity).

The level of development of moral understanding constitutes a basis for learning respect for common goods, such as natural environment and cultural heritage.

The development of relationship with peers is very important for children. They are able to enter into and maintain long-lasting friendships. The school situation may, however, lead to new forms of agression (bullying, proactive aggression) and fears (school stress). In the light of these elements of the discussed development period, learning communication skills and the ability to cope with conflicts which is in the spectrum of interest of the interdisciplinary subject that is the goal of the HTT’s research seems to be of special importance.

The child copes with unfavourable emotional skills by developing efficient skills of regulating their own emotions that lead to a gradual increase of mental resilience when entering the adolescence period. At the stage of late childhood, there is a gradual transposition from perceiving emotions as external expression to noticing possibilities to hide them and regulate one’s own expression. Children notice the possibility of living one’s own emotions (also the ambivalent ones). There is also gradual enrichment of one’s own image, especially when considering self-assessment. Developing one’s own competencies and self-awareness of a child is another objective of IDS.

A number of factors influence the child at the early school age. First experience often shapes the child’s approach to education, self-development and a number of factors related to the perception of the world and the presented values for the rest of one’s life. This is why it is critically important to provide children with adequate education, both at the meritorical and relationship level, related to social environment within which the educational process takes place.

Written by: Katarzyna Pająk – Załęska, Ewa Wojciechowska

About the authors
Katarzyna Pająk-Załęska
holds a doctorate in health science along with a degree in philosophy. Over the years, while remaining an enthusiastic educator, she has been researching and tracking education system changes with a particular focus on alternative education. As a researcher she worked for the Educational Research Institute, the Association for Open Education, and the “House of Peace” Foundation.
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Ewa Wojciechowska
Last year student of psychology, majoring in clinical psychology and neuropsychology at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University. She also studied law at the same university. Aims to deepen the respect for children's rights in school education and to adapt it to the developmental needs of children. Privately, she is interested in forensic psychology, and more specifically- in working with children who are participants in court proceedings.
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