Melbourne, November 27
The first years of children, from birth to age eight, are crucial for their social, emotional and intellectual development. However, early childhood education in Australia is fragmented.
It operates through two spaces, the pre-compulsory period, often called early childhood education, and the first three years of compulsory schooling.
Over the past three years, the focus has been on evaluation which produces digital data. Teachers must demonstrate that children meet the standards.
In contrast, in the pre-compulsory years, the emphasis is on observation and interaction with the child. The practices are based on the belief that all children have the power to act and are capable learners.
A gulf has grown between these separate education systems. Children go from play to test in the blink of an eye. This abrupt change in the education of young children is problematic.
What does research tell us about the early years?
A 2015 review of best practice research in the early years identified key factors for successful teaching and learning. The review noted the importance of: A smooth transition from preschool to compulsory education.
Learning through play.
See children as capable and have authority in their learning dialogical interactions involving rich discussions among children and between children and teachers.
Australia has introduced a compulsory curriculum and a national assessment program in primary schools. The review noted that this meant that many early childhood teachers took a more formal and narrow approach to learning in schools. It is not suitable for young children.
We can see the resulting gap between non-compulsory and compulsory preschool education in Victoria. On the one hand, teachers must recognize the needs of children from birth to eight years old. On the other hand, for those aged five to 12, the Victorian curriculum requires teachers to assess and report on curriculum standards.
The emphasis on formal assessment and numerical data in the early years of schooling means that children as young as six can be labeled as having failed. In countries like Finland and Singapore, which have been identified as high achievers, children don’t even start formal school until they are six or seven years old.
One study described the early years in countries like the UK, America and Australia as being at the mercy of top-down political development, leading to “a highly prescriptive and child-oriented early childhood climate. ‘Evaluation “.
British researchers have identified the ‘datafication’ of early childhood education and its impacts on children and teachers. And Australian researchers have used the term “adults” to describe unrealistic expectations of young children.
So what is happening in our schools?
My doctoral research revealed that ‘datafication’ and ‘adultification’ defined the early years of schooling in Victoria. I have worked with over 100 early childhood teachers to explore their literacy teaching and assessment practices. The recurring theme was that these teachers were expected to frequently assess young children in a formal way providing digital data.
The teachers expressed their frustration. One of them called the first years “death by evaluation”. Another lamented that the community’s expectations are unreasonable, saying “people are addicted to data, to numbers”.
There was an overwhelming feeling that teachers knew their children better and should be allowed to assess and plan literacy instruction rather than being forced to use a suite of commercially produced assessment tools.
The Victorian Early Learning and Development Framework (VEYLDF) is designed to support early childhood teachers who work with children and families. Its premise is that children have the best opportunities to develop neural pathways for learning and are also the most vulnerable to negative experiences from birth to age eight.
The framework is based on research into best practices for children of these years. Rather than a formal, number-based assessment, the VEYLDF advocates an authentic and sensitive assessment of how all children can best demonstrate their learning and development.
The Victorian Education Department encourages school teachers to use the framework. However, little is known about how many people actually use the framework to inform teaching and learning.
Making the declaration of curriculum standards compulsory from the start of compulsory education for children sets limits on the number of teachers. It’s hard to have a foot in both camps when reporting against these standards is mandatory and you feel compelled to prepare kids for what comes next – which includes NAPLAN, the national assessment program.
Schools can still let children be children However, some schools are turning their backs on the relentless measurement of the achievements of young children. St John’s, a multicultural primary school in west-central Melbourne, is one example. One only needs to look at the school’s website to see that its philosophy differs from many others.
“Horizon of Saint-Jean [a school community-developed vision] clearly states â€œCHILDREN AT THE HEARTâ€ which sums up our focus and our belief in the image of the child – the capable, curious child, full of wonder, rich in knowledge, able to construct and co-construct their own learning . We believe in JOY – The joy of learning. A conversation with then principal Gemma Goodyear gave me insight into these beliefs, which are inspired by teaching and learning in schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy.
Goodyear said children don’t come to school to be â€œfixed,â€ and teachers engage them by providing meaningful and contextualized learning experiences. And, yes, with their focus on rich learning, they still achieve great results without incessant testing.
It’s time to revisit the early years of schooling and make sure teachers have the skills and understanding they need to support learners in this phase. These years should be a time when children engage and get excited about learning, a time of great joy, and a time when children are allowed to be children. (The conversation)