What comes to mind when we use the term curriculum? A framework or document that supports our practice; The EYFS or a programme of study or educational scheme? Is it subjects like maths and English or perhaps areas of learning and development; a timetable or daily routine?
Words like curriculum and pedagogy are regularly used within early childhood and education yet not always defined or interpreted from an early childhood perspective. For example, the new Ofsted Framework talks about, “…deciding what we intend children to learn and develop, how we will implement the curriculum so that children make progress in the seven areas of learning and then how we will evaluate the impact of the curriculum by checking what children know and can do.” The term curriculum is used here, but Ofsted do not define what they mean by the phrase. They do, however, state that they do not endorse one particular teaching method over another, suggesting that we are free to interpret this phrase for ourselves.
The word curriculum comes from the Latin meaning ‘to run a course’ and considers the content of the learning in terms of the knowledge, skills and values that we want children to learn. So within this definition, we would be looking at the content of the EYFS. However, when it comes to early childhood education we may also want to consider using the term pedagogy which comes from the Greek and means ‘to lead the child’. I like the thought of leading a child… but not in an authoritative manner, more in a gentle way that scaffolds their learning and presents them with opportunities to explore within a stimulating and enabling learning environment, full of curiosities.
Pedagogy thinks about what we do as pedagogues, or teachers, to lead our children. It refers to the teaching strategies we employ, the way we tap into children’s fascinations and interests and take into consideration their needs, backgrounds and strengths. So we could think about curriculum in terms of what we intend to do and pedagogy in terms of what we actually do and how we implement it!
When we think about our curriculum with the children in addition to our intended and offered curriculum, we also have the received and hidden curriculum. Our intended curriculum is what we want for children during their time with us and is demonstrated through our ethos, policies and medium and long-term plans. It might be outlined on our website and discussed with parents and carers as they visit our provision for the first time. The offered curriculum, on the other hand, is what adults actually do, so is the interpretation of plans and provision and how this translates into practice on a daily basis. Hopefully, there isn’t much difference between what we intend and offer. But do we ever stop to think about the received curriculum? That is, what the children are actually getting out of it. How they are responding to our interactions and provision and what they are learning in reality. And lastly, we have the hidden curriculum, or the messages that children receive through the way we do things. We could think about it as the things we don’t say or the messages that are implicit through our ethos, values and the way we do things.
As we are on the lead up to Christmas, I want to share a story from my past about when I got the curriculum a little wrong and worked in a way that wasn’t very mindful of the children’s own needs and wants! I had planned for children to make Christmas cards for their families. Instead of offering the children open access to the resources, I had seen a lovely idea for footprint Rudolph pictures and thought that the children would enjoy making these as they loved messy play. So my intended curriculum was for children to demonstrate their love for a family member by making them a card. The offered curriculum was about making a card and creating footprints with paint, however, the received curriculum was that the children learned to wait for their turn to walk across the paper, and they had to do it several times because the first few just looked like splodges not actual foot prints… In turn, this meant that the hidden curriculum was also actually teaching the children that it’s only the perfect footprints that were good enough and the end product is the important thing. So on reflection, I didn’t actually meet my intended curriculum at all and instead gave the children negative messages! It would have been better to offer the materials to the children and invite them to create their own card if they wanted to, which would value the process more than the end product. While we were creating, we could have had a lovely conversation about celebrations and people who are special to us which would have met my intended curriculum. Instead I ended up feeling stressed and the language I used with the children revolved around – ‘Stand here, no here!’ and ‘Don’t touch anything – you’re covered in paint!’ What a disaster!
So my first point is that our curriculum needs to be underpinned by our ethos and values. This is often how we show our hidden curriculum too and should underpin our practice and inform our policy. Our values are just that – what we hold dear and value with regard to education and also with regard to life in general. Sometimes our values are implicit in what we don’t say or don’t do as well as in what we do say and do. Our policies should reflect this and outline what we actually do in practice. So whether we like it or not, our ethos and values, which make up our pedagogical approach will impact on how we organise our provision and how we engage with the children. This is also our unique selling point!
Our curriculum should build on what children already know, can do and how they learn best; and this is also what Ofsted is really focusing on. We do this by observing the children and responding to these observations, which is often referred to as formative assessment. Our observations provide the basis for our planning their next steps – hence looking at what we intend children to learn in the future. Our observations are also part of our evaluation of the impact on the children. Have the children learned what we hoped they would (received curriculum)? Has this sparked their interest in something else? What could we provide or do to enhance their learning further?
However, this is not about ticking off what children can and can’t do – it’s not about highlighting on a copy of development matters or having a tick list; instead, it’s about starting with the child and using observations to inform our planning, instruct us about where the curriculum should be heading and how we should be interacting with the children in order for them to get there. You could think about it as opening gateways or offering opportunities within which children can flourish.
An effective early childhood curriculum also links with our statutory framework. At this point I want to mention the consultation that is currently considering the proposed changes to the EYFS. It is really important that as many early childhood educators as possible respond to this. Several early childhood sector organisations have worked together to provide a literature review of evidence relating to the changes. This is available to read here: bit.ly/35axwJP. In addition you can respond to the consultation from the foundation years website here: bit.ly/2CPynDP.
Linking with the EYFS is not just about the areas of learning and the characteristics of effective learning but also in terms of what we provide for children – our enabling environment – and how we interact with children through positive relationships. Through considering this we are keeping our children at the centre of our practice – we are holding them in mind. We are also enabling children to grow positive dispositions towards learning, like perseverance, resilience and a can-do attitude which will help to lay the foundation for future learning success.
Our curriculum must be sensitive and responsive to children’s needs, and provide a supportive emotional environment. It is really important that our provision gives children a clear message that they are loved, respected and valued for who they are. We need to provide a predictable and secure environment in which all adults support children by reflecting on and meeting their individual needs, acting as a role model and providing activities and opportunities that support children to recognise and articulate their feelings and emotions.
Lastly, an effective curriculum is a reflective one that asks how we can improve on our current best. It reviews and evaluates practice and provision, celebrating what we do really well whilst striving to be the best we can be. We can find out the views of everyone involved in our setting, from children to parents and cleaners, and ensure that everyone is clear about our curriculum and pedagogical values; and then be mindful of these different perspectives when we shape future practices.
Let’s define our curriculum and develop a pedagogy which keeps children at the heart of what we do and enables them to be confident, competent and motivated to engage in learning. We don’t know what jobs the children in our care will grow up to do, in fact, many of their jobs won’t even have been invented yet! So it is difficult to teach them the knowledge they will need to do these things. The good news is that we don’t need to, because if we can teach them to use their initiative, or to persevere when they meet a challenge, or present them with activities in which they can become fully involved, immersed and focused, they will know how to concentrate on a task. So our curriculum can teach them to be good at learning.
So when we consider the curriculum we need to think about what we intend children to learn, what we actually teach them, what they actually learn and also take into account any implicit or hidden messages arising from our pedagogical methods, ethos and values. With all of this in mind, I have come up with 5 main points of what, for me, constitutes an effective early childhood curriculum and effective pedagogy. It:
1. Should be underpinned by our ethos and values;
2. Builds on what children know, can do and how they learn best;
3. Links to the EYFS – enabling environments and positive relationships;
4. Is sensitive and responsive to children’s needs and supports children emotionally;
5. Asks how can we improve on our current best?
About the author
Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.
Tamsin has written two books – Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children and School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning.