The project makes a strong claim for originality in its insistence on trying to study what actually happens minute-by-minute in nurseries and playgroups, as opposed to oulines of programmes which “tell us much about the ‘official’ programme on offer but not much about what the children actually did while participating in it” (Sylva et al, 1980, page 8). A new research tool was developed for naturalistic observation of children at play, named the Target Child Observation (TCO), which was designed to privilege the data on children’s concentration, their capacity to sustain bouts of play and activity, and the impact of adult involvement in their play (1980, page 37). So Sylva et al (1980, page 8) are straightforward in stating the limits of their intention to record “what the children actually did”: they accept that the design of the tool and its coding means that their observation incorporates a “process of selecting and interpreting” (1980, page 37) and that it “sharpened their sights” (1980, page 44) for particular data.
- Wood et al (1980) go even further in accepting the perspectival nature of their data, having designed a model in which the data was both captured and selected by the participants, not the researchers. So not only were staff responsible for the tape-recording of conversations, they were also responsible for choosing which sections of the recording would be made available for analysis and discussion with the research team. They somewhat ruefully comment that (1980, page 17) “taking this step clearly meant we had relinquished a good deal of control over the data”; the data could not be considered representative, but it could be used to explore the understanding of the participants, and it could be used to explore the question of whether participating in the project led to any changes in understanding over time.
This makes the Oxford Pre-School Project an intriguing combination of open approaches to data collection and methodology, combined with strong implicit assumptions about what is important. Those assumptions are largely drawn from the preceding theoretical expositions undertaken by Bruner and Wood, and in this sense the Project serves the purpose of seeking data to confirm those theories. Bruner (1980, pages 202-203) summarizes the focus of research as being about “concentration, a child's capacity to deploy his attention usefully, flexibly, without excessive distractibility”.
But there are tensions to be found between the different projects and researchers. Some decades later, Kathy Sylva’s website at Oxford University is much more emphatic than Bruner was, claiming that the Project “broke new ground by questioning an unbridled ‘free play' ideology.” Bruner praises dispassion and rationality, proposing that research can allow for a “more reasoned” approach to the question of nursery education (1980, page 76), and that “change comes by the perspective one gains in observing one's own behaviour after the fact and freed of its pressures. The shift from participant to spectator may not inevitably assure fresh perspective, but it surely helps” (1980, page 80). On the other hand, Wood et al (1980) note that passion, engagement and disputation of meaning are central to their project and its findings, recording that an important training day with the teachers and other participants “did not go very well” and noting that the analysis they proposed for some of the data left a teacher “resenting the submersion of “her” children's activities into a general picture - one which lost the deeper structure of her efforts, her intentions and reasons” (Wood et al, 1980, pages 16-17).
The Froebel Educational Institute Project (schemas)
This project was directed by Chris Athey and sought, amongst other aims, to “to search for commonalities and continuities or ‘cognitive constants’ in [children’s] spontaneous behaviour and thought” (Athey, C 1990, page 49). The project directly confronts a number of the assumptions which underpin the Oxford Pre-School Project. Athey was interested in the play and behaviour which children freely chose, and in exploring the role of the children’s own choices in their cognitive development. This is an approach which Bruner (1980, page 202) questions through the Oxford Pre-School Project, referring to it as the “‘development idea” - that children must be allowed to develop in congruence with their own needs and modes of thought.” (1980, page 202). Athey’s project was, in part at least, an attempt to lay claim once more for the “development idea”, conceptualized in a way which balanced the child’s free choice, with a high degree of adult interaction with the child, and a high degree of subsequent planning arising from careful observation of the child’s choices. Athey is, to this extent, in sympathy with a tradition in English nursery education which is summarized by Lesley Webb (1974, page 64) who, drawing on the heritage of Susan Isaacs and others, states that “exploratory behaviour of itself does not tend to the development of concepts”.
Whereas Sylva (1980, page 139) proposes that there should be a “’punctuating’ of the free regime with required educational tasks”, Athey’s aim is to develop a better theoretical understanding of children’s spontaneously developed cognitive structures in order to develop a type of teaching which “facilitates and ‘fleshes-out’ spontaneous and natural concepts with worthwhile curriculum content” (Athey, 1990, page 41). A further contrast which is easily drawn between the approaches of Sylva and Athey, is that for Sylva concentration and perseverance can be evaluated by examining observations of children and seeking “bouts” of activity joined together by the same theme: she gives the example of a child constructing a plane at the woodwork table, and then painting that plane in the painting area. By contrast, where a child first makes a model out of wood, and then goes to paint something else, Sylva would record two bouts and therefore a lower level of concentration. Athey’s focus is not on the products or thematic unity of children’s play, however; instead she proposes the notion that children’s play can be categorized into “forms”, and that there could be a consistency of “form” across a number of spontaneous activities. These “forms” of physcial activity and symbolic representations (e.g. drawing, painting, making models with blocks) are dubbed “schemas” by Athey, following the Piagetian account of children’s cognitive development in the sensori-motor phase . A typical explanation of this theory can be seen in the following exposition by Dr Cath Arnold:
The 1990s: the Exe Project and Effective Early Learning (EEL)