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You may hear the word ‘pedagogy’ in educational circles, and there are many research articles which assess the effectiveness/importance of one pedagogy over another. But how do you know which ones are really relevant to the early years? In this article, we will take a look at what pedagogies are, and look at some of the most important ones for early years professionals. 

What is a pedagogy?

If you look on the web, there are varying definitions of the word ‘pedagogy’. One of the easiest to understand is from the Merriam-Webster dictionary which says it is “the art, science, or profession of teaching”. In simple terms, a pedagogy can be thought of as something similar to a theory of how to teach something, so that knowledge or skill is imparted to the child (or adult in some cases) and which takes into account the current understanding of how children learn, and other things that might affect this. But to truly understand its meaning, you need to understand the context in which it is used. 

If you look at the history of UK education, much of it was based on rote learning or the old ‘chalk and talk’ method. The teacher stood in front of the class, wrote on the blackboard and the children copied it into their books and somehow ‘learnt it’. That constituted a methodical and regimented way of learning – a pedagogy. But it didn’t work well for everyone, so teachers researched, experimented and tried different things to see if they could improve their teaching. At the same time, other scientists researched how children learn and develop, and began assessing what worked well and some more pedagogies were developed.

A recent example of a pedagogical approach coming into its own, is that of Forest Schools. They have a particular set of beliefs about how children learn best, and what adults should do to facilitate this. It’s a very practical, hands-on approach with the learning taking place in a woodland or forest environment. Teachers ensure the safety of the children whilst exploring or learning a new skill, but the children often lead the learning, choosing their activity and discovering nature in their own way – a far cry from looking at a picture of a stag beetle in a book!

Teachers many prefer or teach according to a certain pedagogy, and in choosing a school for their children, many parents will seek a school that follows a certain pedagogy (e.g. Steiner/Montessori).Sometimes pedagogies strike a resonance with the needs of the time, and so seem to become a preferred, or even a ‘fashionable’ pedagogy. Others may disagree, and the debate continues. Many early years professionals will be using a mixture of different pedagogies, sometimes without knowing the theory behind it, but they do it because it works!

So which pedagogies relate best to early years?

A review of pedagogies (1) in several OECD countries reported some strengths in the pedagogies mostly being implemented in England. These were:

  1. England’s pedagogical approach put an emphasis on age-appropriateness and play as well as  encouraging staff to employ different approaches and practices, flexibly
  2. It promoted continuous child development within its curriculum framework
  3. England was found to have favourable staff-child ratios which can positively impact the pedagogy 

It also reported that:

“Research suggests that specific pedagogical approaches do not have better outcomes than more general pedagogical ones. In general, research has revealed a mixed picture in terms of the impact on children’s outcomes of approaches with a specific pedagogical programme, such as Montessori or Steiner.”

It did report however, that certain pedagogical practices can stimulate children’s development better than others, with the “quality of the interactions between the adults and the children” scoring very highly. Some of the most important practices were where adults:

  • Are genuinely interested in what the child is doing
  • Listen to the children they care for 
  • Extend their knowledge through scaffolding the work
  • Guide children’s play to some extent so that it has a meaningful purpose
  • Use ‘sustained, shared-thinking ways’ where the children construct meaning from their experiences with the help of adults

Some commonly discussed pedagogies

It would be impossible, within the confines of one article to discuss each of these pedagogies in detail, be we have listed some of the most common ones that are used to inform early years practice. These include:

  • Athey (Chris) built on Piaget’s early work and developed his ‘schemas’ around them which are really patterns of repeated behaviours that we can recognise and work with
  • Bandura (Albert) highlights the importance of adults being good role models for children since children learn to copy the behaviour of adults
  • Bowlby (John) instrumental in developing the idea of attachment in childhood which has influenced the use of a key person
  • Dweck (Carol) developed the idea of a growth and fixed mindset which can affect whether children can surpass their own ideas and beliefs
  • Forest Schools started in Denmark where children learn through hands-on experiences in a wooded environment, developing a close relationship with nature through ‘risky play’
  • Froebel (Friedrich) invented the idea of pre-school or kindergarten stressing the importance of play as a way of experiencing the world
  • Gardner (Howard) developed his ‘theory of multiple intelligences’ such as linguistic or intrapersonal intelligences 
  • Montessori (Maria) developed her own method of teaching based on her observations, focusing on each child’s individuality, and using specific resources in 5 curriculum areas (practical life, sensorial, mathematics, language, and culture) in a mainly self-guided, hands-on approach
  • Piaget (Jean) known for developing his theory of early childhood stages and researching when children could developmentally do certain things 
  • Reggio (Emilia) developed a child-centred approach focused on understanding how children learn and communicate and emphasises that adults should embrace children’s ideas rather than try to change them
  • Steiner (Rudolph)/Waldorf offers a calm, peaceful and predictable environment in which children can learn in a homely, comfortable environment in a ‘Education for life’ program
  • Vygotsky (Lev) stressed the importance of a child’s environment and social interactions in their learning experience as well as the value of play 

Remember that some of these theories and research date back nearly 100 years, and the world is a very different place now. In addition, there are several other strategies that you could explore too, including:

  • Co-operative learning
  • Sensory learning
  • Social stories
  • Contextual learning
  • Reflective learning
  • Constructivist learning
  • Concrete, pictorial and abstract approaches

References 

  1. Early childhood education and care pedagogy review 

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