An Equal Start

2. Demystifying Creative Pedagogy in Early Learning and Play: Critiquing Technical Rational Ideas of ‘Quality’

child and horse

This post by John Davis continues our discussion concerning pedagogy in order to explain the political context of our work. It questions rigid notions of ‘quality’ that impose inflexible ‘norms’ on our settings – it also continues our discussions concerning how we build our pedagogy on the idea that children gain from feeling connected to our natural environment, the outdoors and the land.

In the last post we saw that Pedagogy is not a neutral entity.  Pedagogy involves local power politics, particularly, when a child is prevented from learning with their peers. Also, pedagogy involves a tension between helpful frameworks for learning and rigid notions of learning.  Pedagogy can be enacted as an equitable learning space, where children have the power to explore, lead and make ‘real’ their aspirations.  However, it can also be enforcement as a restricted space where adults have the answers, impose the rules and manipulate the reward systems.  At its simplest and most stereo-typical, the key difference between school-based pedagogy and nursery/out of school pedagogy lies in the fact that the latter settings set out to understand what learning means for the child, where-as, rigid school-based pedagogy may set out to prescribe a list of things that children should achieve by a specific age, in a specific year or within a specific time-scale.

You might think this list will be full of educationally virtuous things. Yet, if a school’s pedagogical approach lacks imagination, their practice can often focus on technical rational issues such as behaviour ‘control’ and academic league tables, rather than on more meaningful learning outcomes (for more on standardisation, creative pedagogy and school curriculum see link here).

Our two work-based learning course, on the BA Childhood Practice degree, enable students to consider issues of: work-place conflict resolutions; flexible management; and devolved leadership. These courses seek to pose questions about whether our management approaches enable us to afford professionals the same flexibility that we preach for children.  For example, our Work-based Learning 2 course: asks students to consider which working relationships best enable creative pedagogues to flourish; compares different theories of management; and engages with various theories from children’s geographies concerning the design of enabling ‘spaces’.  This course enables students to questions whether their management structures help, or hinder, us to promote a socially just and creative pedagogy.  It encourages students to analyse the limitations of top down management tools that are utilised to: ‘test’ children; monitor professionals; and to create league tables.

These ideas can also be found in the work of John Dewey who critiqued rationalist and empirical approaches for separating out thought and learning from the world that we inhabited. Dewey argued for pragmatism, professional inquiry and recognition of context.  He particularly valued learning by doing and experimentation.  This approach, when applied to contemporary contexts, highlights the need for children to be able to take part in messy play, get close to the ground, use their hands, make things, climb up in the air, get wet and get dirty.  Such ideas are presently under threat from the advocates of top down performance indicators that seek to use ‘tests’ to establish the impact of policy and from people who believe that the foremost role of education is to instil in young people the correct ways to behave.

Dewey’s work encourages us to employ professional enquiry to work out what works for children and parents.  It also asks us to question any new fad, gimmick or top-down initiative that is imposed upon our play settings. Indeed, we encourage students to avoid blindly implementing national guidance and to question what the Standards for Childhood Practice, SSSC Codes of Practice and The National Care Standards actually mean.  It is important that we understand, in practice, what theory, policy and new initiatives actually means for professionals, parents and children.

Our Work-Based Learning and Integrated Working courses, on the BA Childhood Practice, utilise the work of Moss, Dahlberg and Pence (see link here) to critique ‘quality’ performance indicators for early years and play settings. The Siraj and Kingston review of early years in Scotland noted that there was too much emphasis on quantity rather than quality in Scottish early learning and care services.  Yet, surprisingly, the Siraj and Kingston report did not cite the book ‘Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care’ – nor point out the various academic critiques of rigid ‘quality’ indicators.

Section 5.2 of the Siraj and Kingston report defines ‘quality’ in a fairly technical rational way. It is hard to view their idea of quality as anything other than an extremely simplistic, apolitical and tautological definition.  Section 5.2 suggests quality involves things that academics can measure with scales, such as:  structures (child/adult ratios), processes (e.g. quality relationship/interactions with degree level professionals) and outcomes (cognitive, social and emotional development at different age stages).

Qualifications are important e.g. our An Equal Start report highlights a need for improved government intervention on qualifications, pay and design (see link here). Yet, little research actually examines that qualitative processes by which qualifications enable quality services.

A number of documents connect quality, qualifications and resources.  The Scottish Childminding Association have called for greater provision of services that integrated childminding, early learning and care.  The Scottish Out of Schools Network have produced various documents on play pedagogy and advocate that we;

  1. Ensure that out of school care services such as breakfast clubs, after school care clubs and holiday childcare services are supported financially and by “in kind” support such as free or low-cost lets and secure tenancy agreements within local authority premises.

  2. Ensure the inclusion of out of school care services within national policy and local community planning to ensure the best possible wellbeing outcomes for children and families.

  3. Through increased resources, enable wider access during term-time and holidays to out of school care services across Scotland for children in need, especially children with disabilities and families in poverty.

  4. Support the maintenance and where required, further development, of the current level of out of school care provision in Scotland- out of school care services are key to parents and carers of school-age children either remaining in, or accessing, employment and education opportunities.

  5. Ensure on going financial commitment to support the continued development of the out of school care workforce including funding to pay for required qualifications and essential training.

  6. Include the out of school care workforce within the Scottish Government’s commitment to provide additional financial resources – ensuring early learning and childcare staff are paid the living wage as a minimum.

  7. Enable continued, and increased, support for families (especially those working in poverty) through childcare vouchers and tax credits.

The Scottish Government have hugely expanded early years provision and there is no doubt that increased resources and qualifications will have an impact in early learning and play services.  My previous blog  indicated that qualifications are important because they enable professionals to learn how to critique rigid approaches to pedagogy.  They enable professionals to critique the imposition of ‘scales’ to test what young children can’t do.  On our qualifications we encourage students to critique some of  the rigid ideas concerning quality that are evident in the Siraj and Kingston review.

Developmental ‘scales’ originated for old fashioned ‘moral development’ and psychological/deficit model approaches to pedagogy. The Siraj and Kingston report employs the term children’s outcomes when discussing these scales, but, of course, outcomes and scales for measuring child development were invented by adults – so they are in fact adults’ scales not children’s outcomes.

On our BA Childhood Practice degree, we encourage students to questions whether we evaluate services holistically, or, simply concentrate on testing measures of child develop. Our courses argue that child development scales are rigid and problematic, because, they ignore wider resource issues; promote discrimination against disabled children; create blame cultures amongst adults; and promote deficit model thinking in services.

For example, deficit thinking leads professional to ‘measure’, by way of externally imposed lists, things that professionals, parents and children can’t do.  Deficit approaches measure human beings against technical rational criteria rather than seeking to understand what learning means for the child and how we might meaningfully evaluate, from children and parents perspectives, what services do and do not do so well.

Our courses does not completely reject the idea of measurement, or, of employing a mix of methods to evaluate our services. Indeed, our final year dissertation project critically analyses a range of research methods.  However, we ask our students to balance the use of ‘measurement’ with more meaningful evaluation (observation, discussions and critically reflexive dialogue) that shows greater awareness of the social justice issues that arise when we employ scales and top down measures of performance.

Control Versus ‘Freedom’ to Learn, What Does a Meaningful Pedagogy Look Like?

Our work-based learning courses involve students developing presentations, posters, assignments and a conference about their work. At the end of each academic year, students run a conference on a pedagogical issue of their own choosing. At the centre of our discussions are literature and research on how to foster an environment that enables creative pedagogy.  For example, we have come to the conclusion that if we want children to be able to lead their own learning, we cannot micro manage staff.  Staff have to be able to be responsive to, appreciative of and engaged with children.  There ability to respond to children can be inhibited or distracted by micro-management. Therefore, and in contrast to rigid notions of quality, we pose students questions concerning how they might devolve leadership to enable professionals to respond quickly to and support the evolution of children’s ideas of  play.

nicola-sturgeon-at-daddy-daycare-in-edinburgh-20150715-460x306Our practice assumes that no one pedagogical approach suits all children and that no one individual should use top-down leadership to deterministically and/or arrogantly control the learning processes of nurseries and play spaces. Some school based curriculum can be extremely prescriptive.  In contrast, creative nursery and play curriculum emerge through every-day processes, participatory planning, collective analysis and collaborative reflexivity.

At its worst, a rigid primary school curriculum involves homework that subjects parents and children to death by meaningless work-sheet. Death by work-sheet involves poorly prepared activities being sent out to families with no explanation of: why an activity is to be carried out; what the learning outcomes are; and what the role of the parents and children might be. Rather than learning by doing – death by work-sheet involves learning through confusion.  In contrast, creative early years and play pedagogy involves trust, devolved leadership, adults responding to children’s interests, clearly discussed aims and adults learning with children (rather than top down ‘teaching’).

The SSSC research project, Taking the First Steps (see link here) demonstrated, statistically, that Childhood Practice students and graduates believed their qualifications enabled them to connect creative pedagogy and devolved leadership. The Taking The First Steps project was able to demonstrated, that the major impact of the qualification related to the ability of students to learn new ideas (e.g. on children’s rights, inclusion, creative pedagogy, etc.) and yet devolve leadership to staff and children on how to meaningfully and practically engage with those ideas.

The concept of ‘meaningfulness’ is an important issue. For example, our BA Childhood Practice degree demonstrates the difference between meaningful learning and rigid construction of the curriculum by, asking students to bring into class examples from their own childhood, families, communities and work places.  We do not assume that only university lecturers should build our program’s content.  We assume that our students are experts on their own lives who can employ their knowledge to critically analyse academic ideas, policy frameworks and current notions of ‘best practice’.

During our Childhood Theory course, our students are asked to bring in and analyse depictions of childhood from: the media, literature, poetry, photography or music. This enables them to build the curriculum from their own perspective and to connect their perspectives to literature on pedagogy, child development, childhood studies, anthropology, sociology, geography etc.  We don’t know where the students will go with this – but we encourage them to value their own knowledge as much as the academic ideas in books and journal articles.

This inclusive approach enables us to illustrate that no one person holds, in their heads, a single concept of childhood and that all concepts have strengths and weaknesses. Our approach also invites students to clarify their conceptual starting points and to work through the various unclear, confusing and competing ideas concerning childhood – that we have in our heads and that we find in research and policy.

Our qualifications, constantly discuss pedagogy and we invite students to critically analyse whether old fashioned child development theory can cope with the nuances of our complex, contemporary and multi-cultural society. By enabling students to bring in their ideas, we enable childhood diversity to be visually represented in our classrooms.  Jane Read argues that, through play, our inner life is made outer and that when children develop their own answers, or even have only worked out a quarter of an answer, they gain more than having adults ‘teach them’ the answers.  We believe that this idea should also be applied to adult learners – if we rigidly ‘teach’ adults we create the risk that they will apply our rigid techniques to children..

We ask students to connect their ideas to theories from anthropology (on how children develop their own values through play e.g. Opie and Opie), sociology (on representations of childhood as innocent, evil, ‘tribal’, empty vessels, in crisis, requiring charity, etc.) and geography (on the difference between majority world and minority world/western cultures of learning).  We encourage students to tell us what connections they have made and to critically examine these theories. We connect students to glittery, shiny, and colourful theories (and some pretty tarnished ones as well) and then wait to see: how the students play with these ideas, what meanings they construct and how they connect those meanings to children’s own ideas (real life examples from the student’s work-places).

Jane Read asks professionals on our various Froebel CPD courses to consider what the benefits are of different pedagogy for children’s holistic development and learning. We encourage our course members to consider what provision they have made in their settings for active play, outdoor play and child-led space.  But, we also ask them to analyse the different ways that children use these spaces.

Froebelian ideas now make their way into national policy documents and strategies. For example, the Siraj and Kingston, whilst having many important suggestions on issues such as staff pay, also, mentioned our Froebel CPD course.  We were pleasantly surprised when the review highlighted our Froebel CPD course’s impact on early learning and play.  When I read Siraj and Kingston definition of quality I was even more surprised, because the ethos and essence of the Froebel CPD course directly challenges, critiques and problematizes Siraj and Kingston scales-based definition of ‘quality’.  I am unclear that Siraj and Kingston were aware of this contradiction when they mentioned our Froebel CPD course.

Our approach on the Froebel CPD course’s involves a much more meaningful, reflexive and creative idea of pedagogy than can be enshrined in simplistic notions of ‘quality’. Jane Read illustrates this distinction by comparing Froebel’s ideas to other ‘pioneering’ thinkers on early years and play pedagogy, including Owen, Montessori and MacMillan (We also make this comparison on our Childhood Theory and Work-Based Learning courses).

We ask students to compare the flexibility and rigidity of these theorists and through this comparison gain a better understand of what a more ‘meaningful’ pedagogy looks like. Our courses differentiate between pedagogy that seeks to teach children (and adults) the correct way to behave, and pedagogy that perceives (in a socially just way) human beings to have diverse capabilities, interests and aspirations.  In so doing, they invite students to avoid dogmatically implementing ideas that they encounter in their learning (even Froebel’s ideas). Indeed, Jane Whinnett indicates that students don’t get stamped ‘Froebel Approved’ at the end of the Froebel CPD course – as if there is a correct way for our students to behave after they have completed the course.  Our course offers students the opportunity to develop their own diverse approaches – some of these approaches will conflict with the lecturers ideas, will enable the lecturers to learn new way s of working and push our understandings onto new levels.  This will occur because we do not see learning as a one way (teacher-child, lecturer-student) process.  Learning is always, a least, two way.

Robert Owen (b: 14 May 1771 – d: 17 November 1858) was a member of the co-operative movement who established nursery provision in his New Lanark Mill. Ironically, his mill utilised the labour of highlanders who had been turfed off their lands (by the clearances) and the wool from the sheep that had replaced those very people.  In 1816, Owen developed the first ‘schools’ for early years in Scotland and he believed that at no age is the desire for knowledge stronger than in childhood.

It is unlikely that Owen was influenced by European ideas. Jane Read explains that Froebel and Owen were similar, in the sense they were interested in learning through the wider world and unity. Yet different, in relations to notions of ‘appropriate’ behaviour. Owen wanted to give children a sense of the wider world (through pictures of elephants, etc.) – just as museums still do to this day.  Owen believed that by recognising difference, children might learn tolerance of other people’s ways.  Less than 70 years after Culloden and in the midst of the second wave of highland clearances this aspiration might have had as much to do with ‘owner’ self-preservation than Owen’s apparently socialist values.

Owen believed that people’s characters were formed by their life circumstances (which they could not control) and therefore, that we should not judge them for what they had experienced. We analyse ‘non-judgemental approaches’, in relation to guidance, law and policy, in our Children’s Rights course on our BA Childhood Practice degree. This course discusses the perspective that: we should build services on a strength-based perspective (in keeping with notions of social justice and rights that critique the concept of ‘wellbeing’ for being too vague).  This course highlights the legal tradition that we attend to the ‘needs’ not deeds of children (in keeping with Scots child and family law); and promotes ideas from inclusive education that suggest we need to remove various ‘barriers’ to learning that children encounter (e.g. in keeping with the ASL Act).  One of the key ideas of the Children’s Rights course is that welfare, rights, social justice and well-being are not the same thing (See our paper develop for the 2014 independence referendum here and our article in Scottish Left Review for more on these competing concepts of here).  Well-being is a fluffy idea that suggests children have specific ‘minimum’ requirements (e.g. to be safe, healthy, nurtured, achieving etc – see link here).  It tends overlook the political context of children’s lives and its use acts as a sticking plaster for more fundamental problems.  Values and local politics often lead professionals to be judgmental when children fail to achieve developmental targets or have problems with issues of well-being.

girfec-shannariOwen sought to be non-judgemental, yet, he found it difficult to disassociate his pedagogy from moral traditions. He argued that early learning and play could enable positive ‘character formation’ by instilling physical, moral and social values in adults and children (see Gary Walsh’s writing here and Curriculum For Equity blog here for an excellent and critical appraisal of ‘character’ education).  Owen was more rigid than Froebel believing that through instruction and games workers and their children learned the rules.

At a time when Highland Folk in Scotland (and First Nation Folk in North America) were referred to as ‘savages’, this social engineering is problematic.  Historians now pose the question – who were more savage the people who tried to maintain their connection to nature, or, the people who: drove them off their land; instigated their deaths (e.g. in ships bound for North America or cholera camps set up for new arrivals); and rode rough shod over their indigenous traditions?

Indeed, recent reports, into historical child abuse experienced by First Nations People in Canada, indicate the connection between the imposition of religious values in segregated residential schools and endemic racism.   These reports teach us that not only can educational approaches exclude and create barriers for specific groups of people, but, education can also employed, by racist administrations that seek to socially engineer the eradication of indigenous cultures and the values those indigenous cultures enshrine (see link here):

Canada denied the right to participate fully in Canadian political, economic, and social life to those Aboriginal people who refused to abandon their Aboriginal identity. Canada outlawed Aboriginal spiritual practices, jailed Aboriginal spiritual leaders, and confiscated sacred objects. And, Canada separated children from their parents, sending them to residential schools. This was done not to educate them, but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity. In justifying the government’s residential school policy, Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, told the House of Commons in 1883: ‘When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.’ These measures were part of a coherent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will.

The institutionalisation of First Nation children included: regimes of punishment, misuse of adult power, over work, illnesses of despair and a lack of access to healthy food:

These accounts all come from statements made by former residential school students to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. These events all took place in Canada within the realm of living memory. Like previous generations of residential school children, these children were sent to what were, in most cases, badly constructed, poorly maintained, overcrowded, unsanitary fire traps. Many children were fed a substandard diet and given a substandard education, and worked too hard. For far too long, they died in tragically high numbers. Discipline was harsh and unregulated; abuse was rife and unreported. It was, at best, institutionalized child neglect. The people who built, funded, and operated the schools offered varying justifications for this destructive intrusion into the lives of Aboriginal families. Through it, they wished to turn the children into farmers and farmers’ wives. They wanted the children to abandon their Aboriginal identity and come to know the Christian god. They feared that if the children were not educated, they would be a menace to the social order of the country.

Over three thousands children were recorded as having died in these ‘schools’ (over 2000 recorded in ‘unnamed’ records). Many, many, more deaths went unrecorded. Many more ‘pupils’ died of tuberculosis having been discharged’ from ‘schools’, and many more were injured whilst working on farm equipment and/or were subjected to abuse.  Strict age demarcation, notions of ‘seen but not heard’ and suppression of indigenous languages, meant that different aged siblings were punished if they attempted to meet or speak together.

When you listen to First Nation people’s accounts, and the accounts of children in Ireland or Scotland who have experienced religious-based institutionalisation, you learn that such ‘schools’ can be disgracefully dangerous and deadly places.  Adults can do sever damage to children when they only engage with ‘moral’ aspects of pedagogy, and, when they seek to impose religious ideas concerning the correct way for children to behave. Froebel knew this – having experienced strict, religious and unloving parenting. The experiences of these First Nation children act as a testimony of what the Scottish expansion of early years provision must avoid – it must avoid the institutionalisation of childhood.  And, it must avoid the pedagogies of oppression and control that are associated with institutionalisation.

Historians have argued that in order to be thought of as ‘white’, Scottish lowlanders and highlanders were forced to give up their association with their culture, language, environment, land and nature. Some chose to do so and took part in the persecution of First Nation Folk in North America.  Other highlanders, on arriving in North America, chose to marry First Nation Folk, for love (as opposed to because their bosses thought it economically beneficial).  In so doing, they attempted to carry on their connection with the natural environment – yet their off spring also experienced years of persecution, unless they adopted ‘white’ ways.

Our connectedness to outdoor space is very important aspect of Scottish politics. Controversy over land access, and land rights, have long dogged Scottish history. Since its inception, the Holyrood Parliament has sought to legislate on land rights.  During Froebel’s entire life time, generations of Scots were forced away from their connection with the land, through: violence, war, economic strife, religious intolerance, cultural discrimination or legal trickery.

In Scotland, people were pushed off the land so that it could become more productive. Land moved from being a place where human’s connected with and were guardians of nature, to being a place where one human sought to gain an advantage over others.

Arguments about land and arguments about the correct way for children to behave have the same source.  Rigid child development approaches to learning, stem from racist traditions that sought to highlight the abilities of one race whilst diminishing the importance of others.   When I was re-reading Froebel’s approaches which promote learning through play and the natural environment, I was reminded of arguments I had come across in a book about the Highland Clearances. Colin G Galloway’s (2008) book, on the indigenous people of the USA, Canada and Scotland (see here), argues that in both countries the emergent capitalist class employed the excuses, ‘they aren’t making best use of good land’ and ‘highlanders have a naïve connection with their environment’, in order to justify the expulsion of Highland and First Nation Folk from their land. Land grabs did not only happen in the Highlands, more recently, the need for the few to make profit at the expense of the many, has also been recognised as a reason why there were land grabs in lowland Scotland (see link here). Such land grabs still have consequences in modern Scotland where half of the land is owned by less than 500 people (see link here)

Ironically, old arguments about productivity have returned to haunt absent land owners who simply buy land in Scotland and wait for the price to go up, doing little to contribute to local economies. In Scotland, and internationally, early learning is perceived to be a key way to confront generations of inequality. Nothing could act as more of a symbol of that inequality than our disconnection with the land.  Hence, an early years and play pedagogy that reverses this disconnection seems extremely appropriate for our country.

International research makes connections between poverty reduction strategies and early learning. However, our qualification encourages students to question approaches that seek to employ education as a means of social-engineering.  They also question the idea that education/learning always act as a way out of poverty.  For example, our Integrated Working course analyses the Blair government and other neo-liberal governments’ associations with social integrationist discourse and the notion of welfare to work.  It problematizes the argument that learning leads to employment and a path out of poverty.

Indeed, the recent shift to a low wage economy has been a trick instigated on workers by a series of UK governments. We now have a situation in the UK where 60% of folk who live in poverty actually have jobs (see link here) and 30% of graduates experience under employment (see link here). The present UK economic system enables inequity to flourish because work does not pay.   Specifically, the early years workforce in Scotland experience poverty wages (see article here) – the Scottish Government’s own research demonstrated that around 80 per cent of practitioners and 50 per cent of supervisors in partner settings (private and voluntary sector) are paid less than the Living Wage.

We force people to do qualification, control their professional freedom through the imposition of top down standards, encourage them to adopt empathetic ways of working and then pay them poverty wages – what kind of a sick country do we live in? Unless we address pay levels, we will not be practicing what we preach on socially just, inclusive and sensitive pedagogy.

Caroline Martin’s (2013) thesis argued that various Scottish Governments had done little to halt the impact of consumerist and neo-liberal ideas on children’s lives (including children’s image of self). She argued that successive early years policies have failed to make a connection between early learning and childcare settings and children’s ability to: participate in outdoor space, live independent lives, interact with peers and take risks.  She argued that many children have not been able to experience well-designed, socially aware, culturally sensitive and participatory learning environments.  The recent government action plan for early years (that has announced changes to capital spend, improvements in innovative design and a skills investment plan) has finally attempted to put this right.  We wait to see the flesh on the bone of this announcement and whether the government’s strategy will enable us to develop the types of creative pedagogy highlighted in this series of blog posts (see my article on the encouraging aspects of the government’s  here).

We currently lack socio-culturally sensitive learning and play spaces because the Scottish education landscape has always been a politically and culturally divisive space. To understand the culturally insensitive tradition of Scottish education, you only have to engage with research about the persecution of indigenous languages (Gaelic, Scots, Doric, etc.). The enlightenment era promoted an idea that universal education, knowledge and learning should produce accomplished men and women (see links here and here).

It has been argued that in England, the push for education came from a wish to protect the wealthy from the behaviour of wayward children and young people (as represented by the ‘gang’ in Oliver Twist). Scots who make claims to a more enlightened approach have some evidence to back up their claims but they should also recognise that our education system has never been perfect and that Protestant, Calvinist and Lutheran promotion of universal education also enabled an a specific attack on Gaelic and Scots language speakers – because policy and practice forced people to speak English.

In a similarly socially engineered way, Owen sought to replace traditional culture – with anglicised ideas concerning appropriate behaviour. He thought it important for people to learn about posture and to be well fed.  He also developed ‘classes’ for parents to ‘improve’ their social skills and healthy behaviours  (after all, a healthy worker is a happy worker). Owen’s problematic idea, that education should lead to people learning self-control, can also be found in the work of Montessori 1870 to 1950 (American Cognitive/Child psychologist, doctor and educator trained in Germany).  Montessori saw the nursery as a community which would look after children, whilst their mothers could do other stuff – e.g. ‘house work’.  In a similar way to Froebel, she ensured her nurseries had gardens,  but, in contrast to Froebel, she saw play as a much more focused thing.

Montessori believed the child should be motivated from within but that the best way to learn was through repetition. Through repetition the professional sought to develop children’s concentration and inner discipline (Jane Read informed us that staff were referred to as the Montessori Guide or ‘Directress’). The Directress’s role was to observe, record and make decisions about children learning – acting as a link with the child and environment.  The professional’s role involved instigating and leading the learning process (children were not ‘allowed’ to try out an activity first). The Directress would only become passive when the child ‘mastered’ various sensory and foundational skills (e.g. ‘correctly’ counting, measuring, tying laces, etc.).

Jane read tells us that Montessori highlighted the importance of classroom organisation by the teacher; believing children responded to the order of their environment. In Montessori’s settings, children’s learning was more individually focussed and children were restricted from moving if they ‘interfered’ with other children’s learning, or, ‘abused’ equipment.  These concepts ‘abuse’ and ‘interference’ are problematic. They are particularly problematic, when they are connected to: notions of bodily control; class-based ideas concerning ‘the correct behaviour’; culturally insensitive approaches; and the belief that children should mimic adult’s behaviour (see here for our colleague Vinnarrasan Aruldoss’s thesis for how the Montessori approach has been misused in India and been connected with processes of shame and bodily control).

Jane Read provides this quote from Susan Isaacs text, ‘Intellectual Growth in Young Children’ to problematize the idea that learning involves us forcing children to do things correctly (see link here):

Error is indeed the price we pay for our successful truths. It is unfortunate for us that it happens to be liable to prove some time a ruinous price, destroying at one stroke more than we may have gained by a lifetime of accumulated truth – in fact destroying us. But it is a price we can only try to bate down, not one we can avoid paying. This bating down is a matter for slow and painful learning, and we – i.e., the child – thus start from a maximum liability to be carried into error by our successful truths. We are simply led on by their efficacy into carrying them too far. We go on automatically with our successes until they lead us into failure, and this is our only way at first of learning their limits.

This remind me of a blog post I wrote about shame with Christina Malervie Quarrell (see link here). Our post highlighted the mental health benefits of the idea that there is no shame in trying.  When we follow the tenants of Thomas Edison’s that there is no concept of failure (see link here), we enable life to be less about first-time perfection (correct ways to behave) and more about understanding and enjoying processes of innovation (where we invent new ways to be).  In particular myself and Christina’s post highlighted the value of collaboratively us using our hands to make new things.

The creative and more meaningful pedagogy we promote on our course might enable children to learn self-control, but, it does so by: enabling children to: ‘freely’ exploring their environment; take risks; and, if appropriate, ignore adult attempts to control their learning. In such moments, where adult power plays second fiddle to children’s rights, we encourage professionals to question their own practice and to resist the urge to use their institutional power to force the child to cow tow to their adult meanings (or professional expectation). Our approach is particularly valuable when we work with disabled, and other children, who do not see the world as professional adults might see the world.

Yet, we do not advocate an approach where children’s rights ‘trump’ adult rights.  We believe that ‘rights’ do not involve a nil-some-game.  We argue that, when two people’s perspective clash, we should: use dialogue to understand the different perspectives of both parties; explore the concepts that under pin both perspectives; and come to well thought through decisions (e.g. on how to go forward) that alienate neither party.

I have heard people argue that Montessori’s approach is child-centred, because, the adult, eventually, withdraws. But, recent research suggest that an ill-conceived Montessori approach will  place too much power in the hands of the adult.  Montessori’s approach has also been critiqued, e.g. when it is utilised by private learning providers, for promoting the idea that educational competition breads ‘success’.

Some early years providers couple the Montessori ‘brand’ with school-based top down learning and ‘attainment’ approaches – that use tests and repetition to ‘prepare’ children for school.  Such approaches encourage children to regurgitate adult defined learning outcomes – the child is then tested against this ability and hey presto, ‘attainment’ increases.  But, the child has not been enabled to learn how to think for their-selves.

Notions of meritocracy and competition have often led educational professionals to blame children when they do not achieve ‘developmentally appropriate’ learning outcomes. Such reductionist perspectives tend to encourage professionals to overlook the social and collaborative context of learning.  Susan Isaacs is particularly critical of Montessori’s over emphasis of phonics, formal subjects and curriculum (see link here).

A further theorists covered on both our Froebel and Childhood practice qualifications is Margaret McMillan, (b: July 1860 – d: 27 March 1931). MacMillan was a member of the Fabian Society; allied to the independent Labour Party; worked in areas that experience poverty (such as Bradford and Deptford); campaigned for the transformation of slum environments; and promoted the reform of child and family health (e.g. through provision of food, bathing and clean clothes).

Macmillan, who was influenced by Froebel, advocated a play-centred approach to early years and also, in a fore runner to Child at the centre type policies, promoted integrated working, home visits, social housing and increased availability of local resources. In a similar way to Froebel, she believed that the learning environment should be provocative, include the outdoors, employ sensory shapes, utilise colours, etc. She also, like Froebel, promoted notions of gender equity. My next post will seek to examine what such ideas of equity mean and how we can promote an anti-discriminatory, socially just and inclusive pedagogy see link here.