Thursday, November 3, 2011

Pikler, Constructivism and Content Knowledge...

In exploring the learning principles of Pikler I've found that there are several stumbling blocks with its alignment with elements of constructivist theory, principally developmentalism. One of these issues is the introduction of new knowledge to children: essentially good-old-fashioned teaching, but in a manner that respects the reality of how children learn. As I have discussed in earlier posts (Pikler Revolution; Introducing Emmi Pikler) the central tenet of Pikler is that teachers adopt a 'wants nothing' position that allows the learner freedom to learn and develop at their own pace and direction. Teachers do not interfere in this process. While this stance clearly links with developmentalism where a learner is left alone to allow natural coded development to progress through set stages, I don't believe this aspect of a rigid and linear individualism that seeks a universal 'truth' is the intent of Pikler when we consider the image of the child and the emphasis on respect, equality, and empowerment. Constructivism leads to the reproduction of the status quo. It is individual and insular. It means that dominant discourses remain dominant at the expense of other views on development, learning, and the world about us. How does a class of white kids learn about other cultures? About gay families? Poverty? About science or mathematics or Monet and Rembrandt?

If we are serious about using Pikler's ideas with older children where cultural and social interactions become the basis of learning (with play the vehicle), we need to look at how we can introduce new ideas into a learners world in a way that respects their right to initiate and direct their learning journey. Yes we listen to the child, but is there space for them to listen to us?

For this post I will first look at content knowledge. Next will be how we 'share' this knowledge.

A central tenet of my personal philosophy is an image of the child as being an active, self-initiating learner with the fullest of human rights who wants and needs to engage in play. I consider play to be a human right, a cultural right and the right way to learn. When Hedges (2010) says that while free-play has the capacity to promote deeper learning, teachers must be actively involved for this to occur, as a neophyte teacher, I swing between the sacredness of free-play and knowing that research is highlighting a lack of deep, sustained inquiry within these environments (Lillemyr, 2003). That's a bit sad eh? Hate it when things I like don't really work out :(

Anyway, researching the teaching of content knowledge has revealed just how contentious a subject this is: from its pedagogical relevance, what content knowledge teachers need, and most importantly, how to pass this knowledge onto a child at play.

Traditionally, New Zealand has favoured a free-play approach to learning, a position that drew upon Piaget's constructivist theories of a naturally occurring, individualistic process of development and learning that saw teachers adopt a 'hands-off' approach to teaching. This discourse of learning through free-play remains powerful today despite serious critique from a perspective of community, culture, and social relationships (Nuttall, 2003). Alongside this discourse is the concern that any emphasis on subject knowledge is supporting the 'schoolification' of early childhood education (Moss, 2010). Hedges & Cullen (2005) claim that “these philosophical beliefs appear to have left teachers without clear guidelines for content selection in curriculum and excused them from the responsibility to be knowledgeable about childrens interests(p.11).

Cullen (2003) claims that the typical play-based curriculum that develops from children's interests, “while justifiable in socio-cultural terms, has also inadvertently served to de-emphasise the significance of content and skills in children's learning” (p.281). Te Whāriki is a descriptive document in that its principles and strands act to guide programme planning rather than specify content. Yet if Te Whāriki's central goal is for children “to grow up as competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body, and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society”, Hedges & Cullen (2005) are right to ask that “if functioning as an adult member of society requires a body of knowledge, then what might that knowledge consist of?” One might also ask how children get this knowledge.

According to Shulman (1986) the divide between content knowledge and teacher practice has grown from a century of research about learners cognitive development, yet fails to consider where teacher explanations come from. While New Zealand's Graduating Teacher Standards are led by the statement that teachers will have 'content knowledge appropriate to the learners', there remains a powerful legacy that a “subject-based approach to curriculum is inappropriate as it is contrary to the ways children think and learn” (Hedges & Cullen, 2005, p.11) - a position reflected by research into teachers’ responses to children’s scientific questions that found scientific knowledge (70% of the replies in fact) to be inaccurate and insufficient (Hedges & Cullen, 2005).

One of the main critiques of the constructivist / developmental position is that it totally ignores the reality of living within a social and cultural context. Achievement is both individual and collective. We are not taught culture, we are culture. Yes we learn by doing, but we also learn by observing and imitating others who have greater knowledge and skills. This is the Vygotskian / Brunner idea of the Zone of Proximal Development and it can't be ignored. Constructivism must be critically analysed if we are to genuinely respect and support a child's learning journey. Maintaining a 'hands off' position is to deny the child access to new knowledge.

With access to content knowledge positioned as an integral part of learning, how can we as educators teach content in ways that align with holistic socio-cultural principles and an image of the child that sees them as competent, capable learners in control of their learning journey? How do we bridge our respect for the empowered constructivist with living in a diverse, dynamic, ever-changing social and cultural world? Perhaps it is as Hedges & Cullen (2005) suggest, that it's “not subjects per se, but how teachers assist children to construct subject knowledge that is the central pedagogical issue for early childhood education to resolve."

Stay tuned folks for part 2 and how to resolve this issue!

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