Thursday, 20 September 2018

What might a knowledge-rich curriculum mean for the early years?

I'm preoccupied at the moment by what seems to be a fork in the road in education.

There are important developments in thinking and practice going on which relate to children of compulsory school-age, especially around the idea of a “knowledge-rich curriculum”.

But Early Years pedagogy is nowhere to be heard in these discussions.

Pressure or irrelevance

That means one of two things.

There will be pressure simply to impose educational practices developed for older children, onto younger children.

Or the Early Years will increasingly retreat from the mainstream of educational thinking as practitioners and academics fight rear-guard actions to protect current notions of good practice.

Neither of those roads will take us to a good place.

So I’m going to outline, briefly, what my emerging thoughts are. I want to stress that word emerging. I feel like there is a lot of thinking and practice development that people need to get together to do, review and refine. I feel a bit like Inspector Morse when he told Lewis, “I don’t have theories. Only questions.”

Direct instruction

I’m going to begin with The Effectiveness of Direct Instruction Curricula: A Meta-Analysis of a Half Century of Research (£) by Stockard et. al. 2018.  There’s a lot to say about this journal article, and I want to make the point straight away that we shouldn’t  be uncritical “consumers” of any research. Even a meta-analysis which combines findings from studies which are not identical, to provide more robust conclusions than a single study could.

But for the purposes of a blog post, I want to focus on just one thing. Surely this meta-analysis of the research must at least leave a question mark hanging over the effectiveness of experiential and problem-solving approaches to education? And doesn't that include early education?

Working memory

A key argument the authors make is that the brainpower needed to work alongside others and solve problems to make inferences from first-hand experiences can quickly overwhelm our working memory, which can only hold onto a few items for thinking at any one time. As Kirschner et. al. (£) argue (2006, p.80):

“Sweller and others (Mayer, 2001; Paas, Renkl, & Sweller, 2003, 2004; Sweller, 1999, 2004; Winn, 2003) noted that despite the alleged advantages of unguided environments to help students to derive meaning from learning materials, cognitive load theory suggests that the free exploration of a highly complex environment may generate a heavy working memory load that is detrimental to learning. This suggestion is particularly important in the case of novice learners, who lack proper schemas to integrate the new information with their prior knowledge.”


As a result, many are arguing – perhaps most notably Dylan William  – that the evidence points more to the efficacy of direct instruction than problem-solving or experiential approaches. Examples of this include teaching in tiny increments and practising until fluency is achieved (e.g. the ‘phonics first and fast’ approach). 

When it comes to other examples, however, advocates like William have more to say about the teaching of older children, and little that I have found about the early years. 

Learning = changes in long-term memory

For example, in his tremendously engaging and thought-provoking book Creating the schools our children needWilliam persuasively argues for the benefits of teaching children new knowledge step-by-step through “worked examples” rather than by presenting real problems to be solved. He also argues for the importance of regular retrieval activities to ensure that knowledge is stored and can quickly accessed from the long-term memory. Practising a test question is found to be a much more powerful way of revising than looking over one’s notes again. The objective is to achieve fluent recall and use of information in long-term memory and to avoid over-loading short-term memory. This is consistent which what Kirschner et. al. (£) claim: "If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned."

But I don't think much of this applies very well to any sensible idea of teaching young children in the EYFS. That's not intended as a criticism: it’s a suggestion that there is work to do.

So what could this mean for early years education?

Formal learning

Probably the biggest worry for me, is that it means there will be repeated, forceful attempts to bring in more formal learning and testing - at least with regard to 4 and 5 year old children in reception in England.

But I'd argue that proponents of such approaches are skating on very thin ice indeed.

If we just stop to think developmentally about children, it’s clear that two hugely important components of effective early education are helping children to develop their communication, and helping children to develop their self-regulation and executive function.

Language development

Pretty much everything we know about language development tells us that it does not happen through repeated learning of new knowledge in tiny incremental steps. Your first language is a “biologically primary” (Geary, 2008) form of culture that you don’t need any explicit instruction to learn.

But that  learning doesn’t just “happen”. You need enough exposure and interaction with a language to learn it. As Pinker (1995) says, “Children most definitely do need to hear an existing language to learn that language…language acquisition is ordinarily driven by a grammatical sample of the target language. Note that his is true even for forms of English that people unthinkingly call 'ungrammatical', 'fractured', or 'bad English'".

"Learning Language and Loving It"

Early Years Education which promotes conversational responsiveness between adults and children would therefore seem much more likely to support children's language development than adult-directed sessions during which children are not talking for the majority of the time. For example, the well-evidenced Learning Language and Loving It programme is based around

  • Promoting every child’s language development using natural everyday activities, routines and play
  • Becoming attuned to children’s interests so you can follow their lead, which is known to foster language development
  • Adjusting the way you talk to help children develop more advanced language skills
  • Promoting interaction among the children themselves
  • Facilitating language-learning in pretend play
  • Fostering emergent literacy skills.


Likewise, the best research about self-regulation tells us that the best context for its development is high-quality early years provision with a focus on pretend play and giving children opportunities to make choices and develop their independence (Bodrova and Leong, 2007; Melhuish et al., 2015; Blair and Raver, 2015)

Leaving the research aside for a moment, my experience as an early years educator tells me that sitting children down at desks for more formal teaching and testing of their knowledge is going to be miserable for them. It is also likely to lead to regressions in confidence and self-regulation.

On the other hand, there are at least a few aspects of current early years pedagogy that I’m currently reflecting on. Firstly, how can we manage free-flowing environments to ensure, for example, that all children get a rich and challenging physical development curriculum that builds their skills, strength and stamina? I had always assumed that providing a free-flowing environment with a stimulating and inviting outdoor area was mostly the answer to this question.

Provision is not enough

Quite a few years ago, however, feedback from NCB research at Kate Greenaway Nursery School in Islington - where I was headteacher – proved quite a challenge to my assumptions. In brief, the researchers found that whilst some children were indeed highly active for much of the day, others were not. And we, the practitioners, were not reliably sure who was in which group. So it would easily be possible for a child who wasn’t very confident outdoors, or wasn’t very fit or good at balancing, simply to avoid the challenges of the lovely garden, tree-house etc. What if similar things are true for other curriculum areas?

The mere provision of facilities for physical play is not enough: children were found to be much more active when adults were active too. When adults “supervised” outside, children moved less. So, by inference, more adult movement outside, and more time dedicated to approaches which involve adult participation are effective ways to increase children’s activity levels.


Taking just those two examples - physical activity, and language - there are good reasons to advocate a style of early education that involves high levels of interaction between adults and children. At both ends of the spectrum, neither high levels of adult direction with little or no play, nor entirely "free play" approaches have much evidence to support their effectiveness.

But, the example of children's physical development also suggests a second question: might a play-based, free-flowing approach be great for children who are confident and outgoing, and willing to have a go? But rather less great for, say, a child who isn’t that dexterous at moving, or who loves to move and hasn’t yet got any interest in sitting and enjoying a book.

In other words, could this approach be best for those children who already have quite a bit of confidence, lots of skills, and an interest in having a go at new activities as a result of their early experiences and home environment? But less good for those children who haven't had those advantages? In which case, might the impact of Early Education been to accelerate the development of those children who are already doing well, and to make little contribution to those who are most in need of help?

Sparking more fires

When we respond to children’s interests, we might spark more fires; or we might narrow a child’s horizons by planning more in a restricted area of focus. If a child comes into nursery with an interest in toy cars, and spends their time pushing a toy car on a road map and riding round and round the garden on a trike, surely we need to broaden that child's horizons and interests. To do that effectively, I would argue that we need to have a plan for broad and balanced curriculum, and a belief that all children are entitled to access this. And we need not to focus our planning on more and more car-themed experiences to build on the child's interests.

Planning in the moment has been terrific for encouraging practitioners to focus on minute-by-minute interactions with children. But I am not sure whether anyone has really worked out how to balance “planning in the moment” with ensuring that children engage in a broad curriculum, and develop the early knowledge and skills they need for successful learning now, and in future years.

Some readers might be tempted to answer that many children in schools which have adopted “planning in the moment” are scoring well on their statutory summative assessment, the EYFSP. And I’ve been thinking a lot about that, too. My concern here is that the EYFSP only measures a very narrow set of skills and knowledge. As it is a pretty short scale, it isn’t that difficult to get children to make those achievements.

A broad curriculum

But does that provide evidence that the children have experienced a broad curriculum? I would say not.

Nor is it clear that the knowledge gained is sufficient as a foundation for later schooling. Like all summative assessments, it is really a “dip test” that tells us something about a little bit of learning at a particular time. We should be much more ambitious – especially as many children will have experienced at least three years of early education by the time they get to the end of the reception year.

Core knowledge sequence

One approach that builds on the definition of learning as “changes in long-term memory” is the Core Knowledge Sequence. The pre-school section of this is at least ambitious in terms of curriculum breadth - especially as I would argue that some early years provision in England is not that good at helping children to increase their store of knowledge. 
Sometimes that’s because of an excessive focus on literacy and maths, to the detriment of the wider curriculum. 

Other times, it’s because there is no real focus on knowledge at all – instead practitioners argue that the focus should be on engagement or learning how to think creatively. 

Thinking and knowledge

But, as far as I am aware, there is now evidence that thinking can be developed in the absence of knowledge - and for the same reason, too much focus on engagement is misguided. As the EPPE researchers, Siraj-Blatchford et. al. (2002) argued, such a focus "distracts attention from the sort of cognitive construction we have been discussing, as well as the influence of peers who may be encouraged to scaffold each other’s learning. It effectively excludes the possibility of recognising the value of direct instruction for some areas of teaching, and this is despite its widespread practice in the early years in e.g. teaching songs, rhymes, giving instructions in safety, hygiene, toileting etc.In prioritising process, it also provides no basis for assessing the content of the engagement e.g. to what extent the teacher’s intervention may be considered ‘worthwhile’ or, with regard to ‘content’, whether the ‘correct’ information is imparted."

A horrified shudder

But, whilst the ambition of the Core Knowledge Sequence may be laudable, I am very doubtful about the implied pedagogy it proposes in terms of the organisation of the day. The two examples given are just that – suggestions. So I guess the authors of the sequence are not prescribing these routines. All the same, I doubt whether anyone who has been a teacher or practitioner in a nursery class for three-year olds would respond in any other way than a horrified shudder at this use of time:

My experience tells me that huge amounts of time would be wasted in marshalling children, moving them from one place to another, trying to get them to sit still and listen etc. Time would be wasted by the shovel-load. And equal to this wasted time would be children's negative emotion, from boredom to distress. Little would be achieved in terms of developing children’s self-regulation, for example, or their communication.

Places I would rather not go to

So where does that leave us?

I would like to begin the other way round. Here are some some places I would rather not go to.

I’d rather not find myself in a place where advocates of play-based learning shout at advocates of structured learning, and no-one listens to anyone else. The research syntheses I have alluded too can’t simply be ignored by all of us in the early years putting wet cotton wool in our ears and shouting as loud as we can to drown out the other voices.

I’d also rather not find that the approaches to learning proposed by William and others for older children are simply given to children in the early years in a watered down version. Narrow approaches to early education which only focus on maths and literacy are no good, either. Children deserve a broad and rich curriculum from day one.

Low-paid and low-qualified practitioners

And there is one last place I definitely don’t want to be: where “proper learning” starts at the age where knowledge-rich curricular approaches have been found effective, and so everything before that point becomes “just childcare”, staffed by low-paid and low-qualified practitioners. Then we lose the whole, important idea of a high-quality Foundation Stage in education which can support children who are growing up in disadvantaged circumstances. As the EPPE Project, one of the world's biggest and best-designed longitudinal studies of the impact of Early Education, found:

"Whilst not eliminating disadvantage, pre-school can help to ameliorate the effects of social disadvantage and can provide children with a better start to school. Therefore, investing in good quality pre-school provision can be seen as an effective means of achieving targets concerning social exclusion and breaking cycles of disadvantage."

(Sylva et. al., 2004)

So, where should we go? I think we need to stop going anywhere fast and think.

Self-regulation and communication

We need to prioritise approaches which help children’s developing self-regulation and their communication. That means rich, extended pretend play, which can be supported by adults providing what Bruner et. al. (1976)  called “scaffolding” in their classic paper The Role of Tutoring in Problem-Solving.  I haven’t seen any research which suggests that there is another approach to early education which is as effective in this respect.

We also need to consider how we might help all young children enjoy and learn the sort of foundational knowledge that’s set out in the Core Knowledge Sequence. That’s going to require some careful piloting and evaluation.

Cognitive load

Trying to teach new knowledge using group, experiential, problem-solving approaches risks overloading children's working memory, argue Kirschner et. al. (£). If you have to use up some of your working memory to cope with the demands of collaborating with others, and a bit more considering the "real world" aspects of the problem, there is not much space left for new learning. There is too much cognitive load.

For example, say we introduce the concept of division by giving a small group of children a set of items and challenge them with the problem of sharing them out. The children are going to be very preoccupied with who they want to share with, who they don't, who might react angrily to non-sharing and therefore needs to be appeased, and controlling their own desire to have all the objects. That's a big load for a young brain. You could make the same argument about almost any attempt to introduce new knowledge in this sort of way.


In conclusion, my first thought is that we need to consider carefully what we are trying to do, and what the best way might be to go about this. Creating a kind of "war" between curriculum design and pedagogy will not help. If our aims are to support children's communication, collaboration and self-regulation, then play-based pedagogy is the best route to take. The sort of pedagogy implied in the Core Knowledge Sequence routine is not going to work very well for that.

On the other hand, if we want children to learn new knowledge, and practise, repeat and become fluent in certain skills, then we need to think carefully about how to avoid too much cognitive load. If we want all children to learn a foundational set of knowledge in the early years which will be a good basis for their education through Key Stage One and beyond, we need a well-designed curriculum which links to the later years in schools. We need to approach the teaching and learning in a way that works. And, fundamentally, we need to know who has learnt what - or the breadth of the curriculum will just be notional, and not an entitlement for every child.

This feels difficult. But I think we need early years practitioners and researchers to move into this difficult area, pilot new approaches, and build knowledge about what looks promising and what works.

Nature abhors a vacuum. So if we don't move in, people with little or no expertise in early years education will come pouring in where we fear to tread. And that's exactly what's worrying me right now.

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