Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Written as a University assignment five years ago, but still relevant for Reflections Nursery today.

Towards a Personal Rationale of Pedagogy for 3-5 year olds
Martin Pace, January 2006


This essay proposes that the dominant pedagogy in the UK is based on a set of modernist absolutes and that the quality of our pedagogy is measured against absolutes. It is suggested that the process of measurement itself closes down paths toward meaning. It is argued that a postmodern perspective is already part of the zeitgeist in the UK and that debate about values underlying pedagogy is scarce. Values in the UK are contrasted with those in Reggio Emilia with the conclusion that debate is needed towards the creation of a better pedagogy and society.     


This essay is towards a personal rationale of pedagogy for 3-5 year olds which can apply to an early childhood institution[1] in the UK today.  I begin with the presupposition that pedagogy and socio-cultural context are inextricable and cannot be considered in isolation from each other.  

I will argue that we have made a shift from a modernist to a post-modernist perspective in our society, and show that this has implications for the construction of an appropriate pedagogy.  I will also consider differing images of the child and of childhood, and how they can impact upon pedagogy. 

A definition of pedagogy has been offered by Mortimore as, “the science of teaching and learning” (cited in Moss & Petrie, 2002:138) and by Athey as, “the art and science of teaching” (1990:23).  I will focus on some of the key ways in which children learn and consider the role of the adult in that process.

Whilst there have been considerable developments in pedagogy in the UK in recent years, I suggest that values which can influence pedagogy are not being adequately debated in spite of the concerns of some of our theorists and commentators. I do not seek to explain how any favoured pedagogy might be applied across children’s services in the UK, either locally or nationally. 

I will compare the values underlying pedagogy in the UK and in Reggio Emilia and conclude that our pedagogy is not congruent with the image of the child as an active citizen, able to contribute to the shared meanings which will help us form our future. I will show that the principles which underlie pedagogy in Reggio Emilia, and their positive approach to social constructivism, could form a practicable pedagogy in the UK today. 

A Post-modern Society?

Pedagogy does not exist independently of socio-cultural context; rather it is influenced by, and can influence, society.  A starting point towards a rationale of pedagogy is to consider what sort of society we are living in, and how that society could be in the future. 

Many commentators believe that since the 1960s our society has been engaged in profound change, from a period of ‘modernism’ towards an era of ‘post-modernism’. 

Modernism has its origins in the Enlightenment, which, “took it as axiomatic that there was only one answer to any one question” (Harvey, cited in Dahlberg, Moss & Pence, 1999:19).  It is characterised by universal truths and values, objective science, order and, “impartial uniformity” (ibid, 1999:88).  Post-modernism however, accepts the plurality of the world and can be said to be characterised by diversity, tolerance and subjectivity.

The post-modern perspective can offer a useful lens through which to consider the values which underpin pedagogy. A pedagogy appropriate for our time could be one which gives voice to multiple perspectives and attaches importance to listening to those voices, rather than engaging in absolutes and measurable ‘truths’.

Adorno & Horkheimer cited in Dahlberg et al argue that the process of measurement itself can be problematic. They suggest that, “trust in numbers” can carry risks: “It makes the dissimilar comparable by reducing it to abstract quantities” (ibid 1999:89).  Many educators might see the appeal of this process as offering some measurable reward for their efforts, but is it really meaningful.  If we engage in pedagogy which has at its roots the need to measure against a set of prescribed outcomes then it may be contended that, as Dahlberg et al suggest, “in laying down the foundations of certainty, meaning may be buried and lost.”  (ibid 1999:89)    

Concerns have been raised that, in the shift from modernism to post-modernism, we may be ‘breaking free’ from the constraints of modernity and that a covert ideology of, “at least a libertarian, and quite possibly anarchistic, kind” may be at work. (Hanfling, 1992:435).  In a post-modern society, absolute value systems will be under question and this can be unnerving. However, having come to the end of the century of greatest change and conflict in mankind’s history, the new possibilities of transformation that post-modernism offers are not to be resisted. 

If, as Berger & Luckman suggest, from a post-modern perspective there is no absolute knowledge - “instead the world and our knowledge of it are seen as socially constructed.” (Berger & Luckman cited in Dahlberg, Moss & Pence 1999:23) – then how knowledge is constructed, or the method by which it is constructed,  is significant when considering pedagogy. 

Knowledge construction and role of the adult

In order to determine the key principles towards pedagogy, some of the more influential views regarding epistemology are examined below.

There seems to be considerable consensus between theorists for the belief that children construct their own knowledge in the process of giving meaning to their environment. Piaget’s account of how children develop learning is summed up by Smith, Cowie & Blades showing children as, “‘scientists’ who formulate and test increasingly complex hypotheses about their world and about their own experiences and interactions.” (1998:425).

Edwards, Gandini & Forman make the distinction that knowledge is built, not given, stating that, “knowledge is constructed by the learner rather than being transmitted to the learner.” (1998:263). These views are consistent with the concept of the child as an active learner, a belief held by many, including Hohmann & Weikhart who espouse it as a central principle in the High/Scope approach:  “Through active learning – having direct and immediate experiences and deriving meaning from them through reflection – young children construct knowledge that helps them make sense of their world.” (1985:5).

If children are active learners then how can we best facilitate that learning?  Motivation is a key factor, cited particularly by Laevers. His project of Experiential Education, which began in the Netherlands in 1976, foregrounded well-being and involvement as fundamental in the child’s learning.  He describes involvement as, “strong motivation, fascination and total implication” when, “perceptual and cognitive functioning have an intensity.” (Laevers, in OECD 2004).

A research study conducted in the UK in 2002 echoes the view that child involvement is crucial but Siraj-Blatchford et al extend this to adults too. They assert that the role of the educator needs to include co-construction in order to arrive at a point of both learning and understanding with children:  

“If we consider learning to be the result of a process of construction, that is only achieved when the child is involved, it is entirely consistent to treat the part played by the effective educator in precisely the same way. The cognitive construction in this case is mutual where each party engages with the understanding of the other and learning is achieved through a process of reflexive ‘co-construction’”.
(Siraj-Blatchford, Sylva, Muttock, Gilden & Bell, Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years (REPEY) 2002:34)

The image of teacher as learner and co-constructor can be problematic for teachers, particularly in a society where traditionally the perception of their role has been to instruct.  The nub of this problem for the teacher working with young children is often realised in practice at the point of when or when not to intervene. Too much education, Paulo Freire argues, involves “'banking' - the educator making 'deposits' in the educatee.” (http://www.infed.org/thinkers/et-freir.htm).

This consideration of intervention is raised in another UK study conducted in 2002 by Moyles et al. In the section, ‘Practice – Key Statements’, point 10 of the ‘Teaching and Learning Interactions’ defines the effective practitioner as someone who: “knows when (and when not) to intervene in children’s learning experiences.”  (Moyles, Adams & Musgrove, Study of Pedagogical Effectiveness in Early Learning (SPEEL) 2002:50). Knowledge of when or when not to intervene is referred to consistently throughout the study; unfortunately there is little guidance as to how this knowledge might be arrived at.

Here Vygotsky’s theory of the “zone of proximal development” or ZPD, is useful. The ZPD refers to the gap between what a child can achieve alone and what they can achieve with adult guidance or with more capable peers. This concept was extended by Bruner’s idea of ‘scaffolding’, a metaphor for the idea that, “as the child becomes more independent in the mastery of a new skill, the adult is able to gradually remove the scaffolding until the child no longer needs it.” (Smith, Cowie & Blades 1998:431).

Adults seeking to provide effective learning opportunities need to be able to evaluate the child’s developmental level and capabilities.  Extensive observation, coupled with a critical ability, is crucial in developing the teacher’s understanding of when to intervene or not.  Fumoto et al sum up this consideration in relation to intervention:

“In order to capture children’s momentum towards learning, it is therefore vital that adults are able to observe what children are doing critically, and to make judgements as to whether or not they should intervene…or…allow the children more time to explore the events or phenomena on their own.”
(Fumoto, Hargreaves & Maxwell 2004:87)

Pedagogy needs to be able to support this knowledge and foster a culture of close child observation, with the teacher as co-constructor; otherwise we may fall short of the critical knowledge teachers require, and as Athey reminds us, “insecurity in knowledge leads to rigidity in teaching.” (DES, cited in Athey, 1990:27). 

Pedagogy in the UK

If it is ‘widely accepted’ (Cohen, Moss, Petrie & Wallace 2004:35) that childhood is a social construction then there will be multiple understandings of what childhood is. However, UK government documents do not take account of the diverse images of childhood or the child and his or her potential as citizen. Moss et al suggest that the following comments about the US could just as easily relate to the UK:

“Whilst much of the discussion [in the US] is about children…there is no discussion about who children might be nor about childhood or the possibility of its social construction”.
(Moss, Petrie & Poland cited in ibid, 2004:36)    

Cohen et al relate a UK government official’s observation that, “the debate about the child can be seen as a distraction”. In the absence of debate, the British media often portrays an image of the child as, “dangerous or unruly, or as dependent and weak.” (ibid, 2004:36-37) 

In the place of fundamental debate in the UK about values, there is short-term discussion about choices to be made in a practical context. West-Burnham raised his concerns on this issue at a recent conference in Sheffield, “There is a degree of conceptual illiteracy around values in education, about where they come from and how they underpin action.” (2005). It is against this background that pedagogy is currently formed and applied in the UK. 

Some debate has however ensued in recent years following the publication of the ‘National Curriculum’ (DfEE 1989) which raised concerns for a group of early years practitioners. They asserted the view that, “Early childhood is valid in itself not simply a preparation for work, or for the next stage of education.” (Early Years Curriculum Group, cited in Soler & Miller, 2003:60). Counter arguments in favour of an early years’ curriculum were made by Edwards & Knight who argued that in the past many settings had “neither been explicit, planned long term, nor coherent.” (cited in Soler & Miler, 2003:60-61). This argument was underpinned by the view that young children were entitled to a curriculum which offered them the opportunity to become literate and numerate adults.

The publication of the Desirable Outcomes for Children’s Learning on Entering Compulsory Education (SCAA, 1996) was followed by considerable criticism from the early childhood community regarding their prescriptive nature. The Desirable Outcomes were superseded by the Early Learning Goals (QCA 1999).  Nutbrown summed up concerns at this time stating that, “official requirements for providing for young children’s learning are generally narrow and often over-specific.” (1999:109).

Following general protest, the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage (QCA 2000) was put together in consultation with a wide range of representatives from the early childhood community.  Although since superseded by Early Years Foundation Stage – Direction of Travel Paper (DfES, 2000), the Foundation Stage guidance still forms the basis of our pedagogy today. Supporters of the Foundation Stage claim that it meets children’s needs and gives them, “the best possible start in their journey as lifelong learners” (Staggs, 2000:23). Staggs asserts that the guidance addressed the earlier concerns that the Early Learning Goals, “would lead to a formal approach to learning, which would at best be unhelpful and at worst harmful to young children” (Staggs, 2000:21).

The Principles laid out in the first 25 pages of the Foundation Stage guidance provide an opportunity for practitioners in the UK today to develop sound practice, provided they have the skills. It is in the interpretation of these Principles by practitioners and inspectors, and in the pre-specified nature of the Early Learning Goals, that any opportunity can be lost.

Standards in early childhood institutions have improved since 2000, however, any perusal of the Foundation Stage still leads to the assertion that UK guidance has as its goal the preparation of the child for school or later life.  This is contrary to Dewey’s view that education is part of life and that it should address what the child needs to know at that time, not prepare them for the future: “I believe that education therefore is a process of living and not preparation for future living.” (Dewey, cited in Mooney 2000:5). The process of preparation, along with how prepared the individual child might be, requires measurement; and as already discussed, measurement also involves reduction.

UK curriculum development during recent years has partly been driven by a desire for quality and quality control. Dahlberg et al offer a useful alternative to what they call the ‘discourse of quality’.  They propose a “discourse of meaning making” (ibid, 1999:87) which allows for subjective perspectives, viewed as part of a constructive, collaborative process rather than the reductive process of measurement. 

Pedagogy in Reggio Emilia

The northern Italian town of Reggio nell’ Emilia is world renowned for its “forward thinking and exemplary approach to early childhood education” (Valentine, 1999:1). Their network of early childhood institutions has developed over decades to 23 pre-schools and 24 infant-toddler centres, and growing. They have developed a system of close collaboration between the different interests who operate their pre-schools including the municipality, the state and private sectors, and more recently not-for-profit cooperatives. This alliance has not come easily and the process of resolving disputes to arrive at collaboration has itself developed closer bonds and more mutual understandings between the pre-schools, local parents and the community.

Reggio educators have gathered ideas from a wide range of sources and over time, as Thornton & Brunton point out, the work of Montessori, Piaget, Dewey, Vygotsky, Isaacs, Freire, Bronfenbrenner, Bruner and Gardner have been analysed discussed and incorporated. (2005:7).

The work of Malaguzzi, the significant inspiration behind the pedagogy of Reggio, was dedicated to understanding how children learn and to disseminating his image of the strong child, rich in potential, competent and confident. Keen to respect children as a subject of rights (rather than needs) and to recognise the collaboration between children, parents and educators, in 1993 Malaguzzi formalised a Charter of Rights. Fundamental to the rights of children was their recognition as constructors of their own learning:

“Children have the right to be recognized as the subjects of individual, legal, civil and social rights; as both source and constructors of their own experience.”
(The Hundred Languages of Children – Narrative of the Possible, 1996:214)

Supporting this learning, educators in Reggio schools, the pedagogista, atelierista[2] and teacher, are involved in a collegial network of relationships with each other. The pedagogical team co-ordinates and oversees the work of the schools at both a local and strategic level and maintains the coherence of the overall network.  They are directly involved with the teachers in the pre-schools providing a link between theory and praxis[3] and building mutual understandings. Staff in the pre-schools are referred to as ‘teachers’ and their image is one of “a learner, enthusiastically seeking new knowledge, rather than imparting received knowledge”. (Thornton & Brunton, 2005:25). 

The image of teacher as learner leads into the process of co-construction. In Reggio children and adults work alongside each other with shared curiosity, in what they call the ‘search for meaning’.  As Rinaldi explains:

“One of the first questions we ask ourselves as educators is: ‘How can we help children find meaning in what they do, what they encounter, what they experience? And how can we do this for ourselves?’”.
(Rinaldi, 2001:2)

In the search for meaning, practitioners recognise three considerations: that learning does not happen in a linear way; that construction of learning is a group process; and that children have their own ideas and theories about the world.  Teachers adopt, “multiple strategies necessary for sustaining children’s knowledge building process”, opting for the Italian word Progettazione[4] rather than curriculum to describe the, “multiple levels of action, which are definite and indefinite at the same time, carried out in dialogue between children and adults.” (Rinaldi, 2006:132) 

Planning is understood in the sense of, “preparation and organization of space, materials, thoughts, situations, and occasions for learning” (Rinaldi, cited in Edwards et al 1998:118). The process of planning involves all three protagonists – children, educators, families – as interactive partners. Teaching and learning are generated from, “questions, ideas and theories put forward by the children and supported by the skills expertise and experience of the educators working alongside them.” (Thornton & Brunton 2005:73)   

Documentation underpins the whole approach to understanding children's (and teachers’) learning in the pre-schools of Reggio Emilia. It has many purposes: as a way of listening to and respecting children’s and adults’ search for meaning, finding evidence of how learning develops, and planning for the next stages of learning on a daily basis.

Documentation as performed in Reggio provides the key for teachers learning when to and when not to intervene with children – already discussed as a vital element in practice.  A criticism of documentation was put forward by Walkerdine who suggested that it can be seen as some form of surveillance or social control. Walkerdine is cited in Johnson, suggesting that the teacher is involved in, “dispassionate observation... all knowing and all seeing… in a model of constant surveillance.” (1999:73).  This is to misunderstand the motive of the teacher for whom documentation is a vital part of his or her learning process. The teacher who knows how to observe, document and interpret will, “realize his or her own full potential as a learner – in this case learning how to teach.” (Rinaldi 2001:4).

To summarise, underlying ‘Reggio’ practice is an ideology comprising: a strong image of the child, recognition of the value of childhood as a time in itself, the image of teachers as co-constructors and learners, and a deliberate lack of measurement against absolutes.  Rebecca New highlights the lack of measurable data when she explains the significance of documentation:

“American Educators have been perplexed by the lack of empirically derived data with which to validate Reggio Emilia’s practices, and yet Reggio Emilians are persistent in their refusal to participate in this positivist tradition”
(New in Edwards et al 1998:278)

Whilst many have been dazzled by the beautiful works of children from Reggio Emilia documented in the Hundred Languages of Children Exhibition which has travelled the world since 1987, Athey is useful here when she affirms that, rather than outcomes, we should focus on the underlying systems of values in order to evaluate pedagogies: 

“As most important aspects of human functioning elude measurement, the choice between pedagogies is between systems of values rather than measured outcomes.”
(Athey, 1990:24).

The values espoused in Reggio Emilia do not need to apply to Reggio alone. In search of an appropriate pedagogy no-one is suggesting adoption of Reggio as a method. Any simplistic importation of this kind would be to misunderstand the underlying principles and ignore our own context, attempting to supplant it with, “50 years of post-war community building in Reggio; and 2000 plus years of Italian culture” (Johnson 1999:69). Rather let us reconsider our image of the child and childhood, the role of the teacher and ways of allowing children self determination towards meaning.  As Rinaldi puts it, children can be trusted to, “ask the important questions” (Rinaldi, cited in Thornton & Brunton 2005:73).

The choices we make as a society, such as whether the child is ‘weak’ or ‘strong’, or whether childhood is valuable in itself, or preparation for school and an economic future, and so on, are ethical choices.  There are risks inherent in any proposed compromise on these issues. If, for example, we take the topic of co-construction and curriculum, compromise can be a problematic option.  Soler & Miller highlight the issues in relation to the Te Whāriki experience in New Zealand:   

“Opting to define a curriculum, even in a flexible manner, could restrict the child’s active role in co-constructing and reconstructing personal meanings and limit the ability of teachers to collaborate with children.” 
(Soler & Miller, 2003:64)

In Reggio Emilia they have considered and reconsidered their values as a society. In the UK, in spite of voices raised in debate, the programmers and interpreters of the curriculum guidance which defines our pedagogy have not yet engaged deeply enough in a dialogue of values.

Commentating on modernity versus postmodernity, Dahlberg & Moss assert that, underlying modernity was a, “deep mistrust of individuals, an assumption that they cannot act ethically without codes to follow.” (2005:69).  We now have an opportunity to replace our, ‘order, rules and regulations’ with responsible ethics.  

I intend to exercise my ethical choices of what will underpin a personal rationale of pedagogy by learning from the values championed in Reggio Emilia, but I will also seek to do as Aldo Fortunati suggests:

“Trust in the richness of your own context”
(Aldo Fortunati, “Crossing Boundaries”, Reggio Emilia 2004).


Athey, C. (1990) Extending Thought in Young Children (London, Sage)

Catalogue of the Exhibit The Hundred Languages of Children: Narrative of the Possible (1996) (Coreggio, ATA)

Cohen, B., Moss, P., Petrie, P., Wallace, J. (2004) A New Deal For Children? (Bristol, The Policy Press)

Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage (2000) (QCA/ DfES)

Dahlberg, G., Moss, P., Pence, A. (1999) Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education & Care: Postmodern Perspectives (London & New York, Routledge Falmer) 

Dahlberg, G., Moss, P. (2005) Ethics and Politics in Early Childhood Education (London & New York, Routledge Falmer) 

Desirable Outcomes for Children’s Learning on Entering Compulsory Education (SCAA, 1996)

Early Years Foundation Stage: Direction of Travel Paper (2005) (DfES)

Edwards, C., Gandini, L., Forman, G., (eds) (1998) The Hundred Languages of Children, Second Edition (Westport, USA, Ablex)

Edwards, C. P (2002) “Three Approaches from Europe: Waldorf, Montessori, and
Reggio Emilia” In Early Childhood Research & Practice Spring 2002, Vol. 4, no. 1 

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Laevers, F. “The Project Experiential Education; concepts and experiences at the level of context, process and outcome” (Leuven, University of Leuven)

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Moyles, J., Adams, S., Musgrove, A. (2002) Study of Pedagogical Effectiveness in Early Learning (DfES)  

National Curriculum (DfEE 1989)

Nutbrown, C. (1994) Threads of Thinking Second Edition (London, Chapman)
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Reggio Emilia. In Innovations in Early Education Vol. 8, No.4 2001

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[1] I have chosen the word institution here in the spirit of Dahlberg, Moss & Pence (1999:7) as a “forum…where children and adults meet and participate together in projects of cultural, social, political and economic significance”.  This echoes Rinaldi’s view of the educational institution as “a system of communication and interaction among the three protagonists…children, educators and families… integrated into the larger social system.” (Edwards, Gandini & Forman, 1998:114).
[2] A practising artist or technician who may have expertise in the visual arts, music, dance, photography or technology - the inclusion of this role reflects, “the importance of creativity and imagination in the knowledge-building process.” (Vecchi, cited in Thornton & Brunton, 2005:27). 
[3] I refer to Paulo Freire’s view of praxis as, “action that is informed (and linked to certain values)” (http://www.infed.org/thinkers/et-freir.htm)
[4] Literally “projections”, although frequently translated as “projects”

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