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How Early School Education can inspire a wide-ranging curriculum reform

Katarzyna Pająk-Załęska

Children starting off on their educational journey ought to be provided with opportunities to develop in many different directions. Emphasis, at the same time, must be shifted from an overarching curriculum to tracking and responding to specific interests exhibited by any given child. School curricula have to be flexible enough to accommodate students’ inquiring minds, and not pruning their budding passions to fit into a rigid pre-planned framework. The entire process should be carried out in an environment that is both safe and supportive, where the children are assisted by teachers and accompanied by “peers” who are not necessarily of the same age. 

Most children, having experienced kindergarten as a space both facilitating playful activity and conducive to individual development, seem confused and dismayed upon starting their school education. Sadly enough, this is exactly the point where their hitherto almost unrestricted expression gets stymied. One of the reasons for this is that Early School Education (the term referring to a slightly longer period than early childhood education) appears to be markedly closer to “adult” learning processes when it comes to, for instance, classroom seating arrangements (orderly rows) and overall organization of lessons.  As a matter of fact,

… children as learners attain decidedly better results at school if their early education consists rather of group cooperation and collaborative learning-by-fun than of skimming schoolbooks while seated separately at desks. It stems directly from young children’s cognitive capabilities allowing them to elicit and acquire information more readily when it is delivered in an interdisciplinary form, holistically intertwined, and not broken down into subject lessons, each lasting for several dozen minutes.

Obviously, the foregoing does not mean any negligence in terms of teaching reading comprehension and basic math at this stage. Much to the contrary, it suggests that interdisciplinary teaching has the potential to surpass the early education stage; in fact, its benefits may be extended to subsequent stages, the most evident instance of such a methodological “extension” being collaborative projects carried out by older students in public schools.

At the school of hard knocks

How we function in society is key to each and every one of us, and especially, how we function outside our families of origin and without the boundaries and limitations they impose upon us. That is precisely where school is supposed to “interfere” and start teaching values that are new to a child, that is, those likely to have been foregone or insufficiently emphasized thus far in a child’s home upbringing. The said values, through work conscientiously and patiently rendered by a guidance teacher, may be internalized with close to no effort. The sooner children familiarize themselves with the world beyond their immediate environment, the better, even though sometimes it needs to be done in spite of family circumstances, which may strike as especially true when we consider families that are underprivileged and, for any reason whatsoever, socially marginalized. Early School Education provides the possibility of closing the gap between individuals by distributing the experience of goodness inherent in the protection granted by school more equally.

The values which should be taught in school at early stages of education include a number of universal issues that are bound to be useful in hindsight, specifically, from a whole-life perspective. Many of them (the issues and corresponding virtues) are already addressed and developed by schools, yet when we consider the educational process widely in this regard, it much too often resembles stumbling around in the dark. As a result, the urgent necessity to teach the said crucial issues has been side-tracked. And yet school may, and in fact must, deploy all of its causative potential to teach humane values which, when understood as the attitude of causing no harm, combined with the cultivation of the virtues of self-control, empathy, and kindness, may manifest itself, for instance, by tending to, and caring for, a classroom pet, which in this capacity could basically be considered a living and breathing teaching aid.

Knowledge derived from caring for animals, and growing fruits and vegetables or other plants in a school garden or orchard translates into responsibility and respect for the laws of nature. Those activities present occasions to work in groups and collaborate purposefully, where a palpable goal could be, for instance, an animal’s wellbeing.

Tending school gardens is a relatively common practice in Japanese schools (Ito, 2013). The more widely understood enchantment of nature is also referenced and utilized in the activities of forest schools all around the world. Practical activities of this sort allow for the introduction of life into education; on the one hand, by simply meeting the curriculum requirements relating to life sciences, and on the other, by empowering learners by giving them practical knowledge about various ways of growing crops and sustainable animal farming.  The shared work on a functional project teaches problem-solving skills which are directly applicable to real-life situations. It also teaches to whom and in what way one may turn for help when a given situation becomes overwhelming. Oftentimes, it also proves to be “the school of hard knocks”, providing lessons in the cycle of life and death, for example, when in the morning one finds the classroom pet lying dead or a school of baby fish recently born. Last but not least, such cooperative work kindles curiosity, teaches creative thinking, and inspires experimentation, while also introducing the necessity to take a step back if a given experiment is deemed pointless or inadmissible by the group. By consigning the responsibility for the “crop yield” to the children, the school teaches them participation in the educational process, pro-active engagement into it, and also, creates a space for experiencing “loss”. By and large, in this process school ought to teach about, and demonstrate in practical terms, the notion of social justice, clear division of labour, and responsibility, which includes the role of the teacher as an actively supportive companion to a child rather than just another demanding instructor drilling them in ever more complex exercises while allowing too little time for critical reflection or an analysis of actions to be undertaken, let along for facing, acknowledging, and reflecting upon their own mistakes.

The opulence of knowledge

Early School Education has the potential to serve as nothing short of an ideal environment for creative work, and learning about the laws of nature and social mechanisms. It is also a phase when mistakes committed do not result in incurring consequences for a lifetime, but, on the contrary, constitute an occasion to obtain knowledge to be used in unforeseeable future.  If we regard school from the perspective of an interdisciplinary teaching/learning process, it seems obvious that this very stage is the most adequately designed to receive interdisciplinary content; not only due to a particular regulatory framework of respective curricula, but also owing to the specific psychological traits of children about to commence their school experience. During this stage, school emphasizes the development of their sensibility to art, not merely in terms of reception, but also in terms of children’s yearning to produce it. Moreover,

… school should stress the mutual permeability between various fields of study, along with the permeability of values. At this stage no curriculum is composed of clear-cut explications; they refer rather to general principles which are reflected in a multitude of fields of knowledge.

The foregoing by no means amounts to any kind of infantilization or trivialization of the education happening at the early stage. Quite to the contrary, it consists of creating a solid social foundation for the available knowledge to be received. Such education ought to provide children with opportunities to understand goodness and decency through attitudes and personal stances assumed by people who epitomize school, namely, by teachers.

Creating an adequate, supportive environment which facilitates each child’s actualization of his or her individual potential, along with teaching group work, would be a decisively firmer foundation for further development than reading and numerical competencies alone. In this day and age, it is virtually unimaginable that one could function without the skill of reading, so perhaps it is the adult’s most fundamental role to imbue a child with confidence in this respect, trusting that since the child needs this skill in particular, he or she will master it in due time by him- or herself.

Observing the manner in which early childhood education operates, one may feel compelled to consider whether the assumptions pertaining to the interdisciplinarity of teaching content in the programme and basing the very process on collaborative group work would not find fertile ground in the course of subsequent education. Evidently, they would. Yet, the test culture and educational research give decidedly more attention to individual attainments and culturally-defined success, gauged most commonly by one’s achieved prestige and comparative ranking rather than by reaching personally-defined aims. Thus, emphasis is placed on individual work during the years of further education. And so the culture of individual achievements will begin to overshadow the strength of creating relationships, establishing communication, and learning cooperation in order to advance communally understood good and harmonized sustained development of societies. Therefore, …

it might be that one of the greatest challenges of the current school transformation is to change the collective perception of the meanings of success and prestige, but also to shift the focus of educational studies and measurements from those measured individually towards those strengthening and favouring effective, non-violent communication with clear purpose of laying foundations under non-trivial efforts towards building a harmonious future.

The challenge of today’s education is to prepare young people to live in a dynamically changing world. If we assume that the human race stands a greater chance of survival when we put cooperation first, it is only natural for us to redesign school learning in favour of social cooperation, and away from individual competition; away from thinking based on clearly distinguished fields of study, and towards a holistic understanding of the world, noting the interconnections and interdependencies, and fostering insight into various relationships. An ideal here would surely be reshaping national curricula towards the above-mentioned organization of teaching, or at least introduction of a mandatory school subject whose content would point towards understanding the world as a whole.  If, however, only a fraction of the foregoing recommendations could be implemented, it might be worthwhile to persuade teachers that incorporating collaborative group work more frequently during lessons is instrumental in explaining to students the world’s complexity and providing hitherto unprecedentedly common access to information and knowledge.


References

Ito, K. (2013, July 21). “Growing Place” in Japan—Creating Ecological Spaces at Schools that Educate and Engage Everyone. The Nature of Cities.
https://www.thenatureofcities.com/2013/07/21/growing-place-in-japan-creating-ecological-spaces-at-school-that-educate-and-engage-everyone/

About the author
Katarzyna Pająk-Załęska
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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