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Children, culture and education.

Many early childhood educators and researchers throughout the world are focusing attention on the ecology of childhood. Gura (1994) says that "... what childhood signifies at any time in history or in any society is a reflection of its demography, politics, economy, culture and spiritual life" (p. 97). Numerous researchers, as part of an ecological approach to understanding children's development, have explored family characteristics and how they interact with the community at large. In order to truly understand children, however, we must select a broader orientation. Development can only be fully understood when it is viewed in the larger cultural context.

A child's culture maybe the mainstream or dominant culture, or it may be one of many subcultures that can be found in almost any country. Children's experiences and expectations are determined by their local communities, particular political and economic strata, and specific ethnic or cultural groups. Therefore, each child needs education services that take into account their diverse cultural, economic and ethnic backgrounds.

The Benefits of International and Intercultural Dialogue

As the world becomes a global village, few countries can lay claim to a truly homogeneous population. Today, multicultural diversity characterizes most countries, a factor that has enormous implications for early childhood educators. It highlights the need for dialogue among early childhood educators, both within their own communities and with colleagues from other countries. This collegial communication deepens early childhood educators' understanding of children's similarities and differences. Much can be gained by learning about other countries' values, expectations and practices that relate to children and education. New (1994) argued that these multiple perspectives broaden educators' understanding of education and children's development, both of which are particularly important in defining early education goals and priorities for the 21st century.

Responsive Early Childhood Education for the World's Children

A high degree of universality in terms of children's development and learning emerges from contemporary research. Great diversity, however, arises from environmental conditions, personal characteristics and individualized pathways to, and processes for, learning. More than ever, those responsible for planning and developing young children's education programs must be responsive to children's diverse needs. Clyde (1994) reflected that "... we need to consider both the learners and the learning context" when considering what type of early education to provide. Zimilies (1991) suggests that early childhood educators need to provide education agendas that focus upon sameness and difference, that recognize children's uniqueness as well as their common ground, and that are rooted in each child's primary frames of reference (e.g., family, society and culture). This task looms large when we consider most countries' pluralist natures.

An increasing body of research reveals the long-term benefits derived from children's participation in quality early childhood care and education programs (Landers, 1991). Some early childhood education proponents even suggest that universal preschool education is part of a child's right to the best possible upbringing (Archard, 1993). Such education should allow children access to their national, cultural and social heritage.

Young children's overall development can greatly benefit from participation in quality, structured, early education environments (Archard, 1993). Children who have access to such environments appear to be better prepared for later education opportunities, they develop superior language skills, and they are more creative and independent while developing important nonfamilial emotional relationships. During this crucial developmental stage, children are socialized not only by their family, but also by their teachers.

Such early childhood programs, however, need to reflect and value each child's origins. This may not be an easy task for teachers, who themselves are not necessarily objective and value-free (Siraj-Blatchford, 1994). Early childhood educators must recognize that their own cultural heritage can and does influence their attitudes about young children's best interests and ideal upbringing. Consequently, the potential for conflict among teachers, parents and children can be high. To avoid this, early childhood educators must understand their own beliefs, begin to change their own prejudices and behaviors that can interfere with nurturing young children and see their own culture in relation to history and current political realities (Derman-Sparks, 1993/94). Young children need to develop positive self-concepts and group identities without feeling superior to other ethnic groups. Early childhood educators must help them achieve this goal.

While culture's important role in shaping child rearing and family interaction is well understood, its effect on education opportunities is not always recognized. Early childhood programs and curricula should reflect the idea that children, child development and learning can only be fully understood when viewed in the larger cultural context (Berk, 1994). Culture, a very powerful force in young children's lives, shapes representations of childhood, values, customs, child rearing attitudes and practices, family relationships and interactions. Culture also influences the provision of services outside the home, especially education services. The focus and philosophical basis of a culture's education programs reflect the value that culture places on children. The following generalized examples help illustrate differences in cultural orientation.

The primary curricular emphasis in England is upon children's social development until age 3, after which academic competence is stressed. Swedish educators focus on developmental issues, particularly socio-emotional development, with relatively little emphasis on specific early education goals. Israelis concentrate upon socializing children from diverse cultural backgrounds into the Jewish-Israeli community. In Asian countries (where children's physical well-being and primary health care have improved to the point where they are no longer issues), the focus is upon academic achievement and excellence. While academic achievement in the early years is not stressed in the Czech republic, young children are taught the value and importance of work and aesthetics, and they participate in cultural programs by the time they are 3 (Graves & Gargiulo, 1994).

Services for young children can be community-based, work-based, privately owned and operated, or government-funded. Such service delivery variations also reflect cultural attitudes about who bears responsibility for socializing young children, values related to family autonomy and self-reliance, and public support for young children and early childhood services. Some countries, such as Sweden, value children's right to a public upbringing by non-familial adults in early care and education services, and actually prefer it to a private family upbringing. This would be considered unacceptable, however, in countries such as Australia, where the family is perceived to be the most appropriate context for child rearing.

While many early childhood educators recognize culture's role in education, some need to remember that education settings can be unpleasant for children if cultural influence is not acknowledged, valued and acted upon in curricular decisions. The different values, expectations and attitudes held by minority cultures and those of the dominant culture can create recurrent tensions among early childhood educators, children and parents. Today's diverse, heterogeneous societies demand culturally responsive education practices and programs that can actively engage young learners and help them build upon their own sense of identity.

Creating a Culturally Responsive Approach to Early Childhood Education

Neuman and Roskos (1994) suggest that implementing a culturally responsive approach to early childhood education can affirm children's own cultural identity and help develop their understanding and appreciation of other cultures by:

* acknowledging and appreciating children's home cultures and attempting to build upon children's existing skills and knowledge

* offering opportunities for children to express individual and cultural differences

* offering opportunities for sharing cultural perspectives and constructing new knowledge through collaboration among and between children and adults

* helping children to function competently in their own and other cultures by setting the same goals for all children, but selecting different ways of meeting these goals for children from non-mainstream cultures.

Ensuring a culturally responsive approach to early childhood education can be achieved "only by making our educational values explicit and by reflecting on them as teachers make curriculum decisions, [only then] can we be sure that the values reflected in our program activities are the values that we wish children to gain" (Spodek, 1991, p. 165).

Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education: A More Global Perspective

Reconceptualization of early childhood education is a popular topic of debate, particularly when early childhood educators reflect upon the question, "What should be the nature of early education?" Although Spodek (1991) suggests that the debate indicates a growing conservative trend in early childhood education, others argue that it shows a willingness to critically analyze numerous aspects of early childhood education, including curriculum's philosophical and pedagogical bases.

Some early childhood educators from diverse backgrounds are beginning to question their present vision of what young children need to know and learn, and how they construct knowledge. With all due respect to my American colleagues, too often these debates revolve around studies undertaken in America. Findings that may be valid for white, middle-class American children in early childhood settings cannot be generalized to other countries' young children and early education systems. The range of existing social, cultural and political differences, as well as the variation in child rearing practices, makes culture-specific research, especially of non-majority cultures, essential.

Is Developmentally Appropriate Practice Valid for the World's Children?

Western values, beliefs and practices dominate much of the early childhood education literature, which reflects very much an ethnocentric orientation. In Western societies, the debate about early childhood education's scope tends to focus upon comparing the dominant models: the maturationist view, the cultural transmission view and the cognitive-developmentalist view (Jipson, 1991). To date, relatively few proponents of subject-based, curriculum driven approaches to early education exist, although their numbers appear to be increasing. At the same time, most societies want schools to increase children's abilities to eventually become part of a capable and competitive work force. In the West, such demand culminated in tension between early childhood educators who, for the main part, have endorsed and adopted the cognitive-developmental model for early education, or "developmentally appropriate practice" (Bredekamp, 1987), and the general community, which is demanding a reemphasis on basic skills training and competency-based education for children at ever younger ages.

Several writers (Clyde, 1994; Jipson, 1991; New, 1994; Spodek, 1991; Walsh, 1991) have suggested that many early childhood educators do not really understand what developmentally appropriate practice means and how to implement it. In addition, this construct fails to take into account children's and educators' cultural contexts (Jipson, 1991). Further, developmentally appropriate practice may not necessarily reflect pluralist communities' diverse perspectives, experiences, values and traditions. Neither does it prevent a hidden curriculum that may impose particular class, cultural and elitist biases on children.

Kessler (1991) suggested that early childhood educators' emphasis on developmental theory ignores curriculum issues by attending to the process of teaching rather than the content being taught. When early childhood educators perceive early education merely as development, they may obscure contextual factors, such as culture, that significantly affect classroom content. Early childhood educators should develop sensitivity to and insight about young children's backgrounds and help the children learn the knowledge and skills they need to be members of society. Educators must respect local cultural beliefs and practices and incorporate them into education settings and programs so that young children can have meaningful educational experiences.

Fundamental Global Principles for Good Practice

Early childhood educators need to look beyond any favored type of model and instead define a set of principles that are fundamental to good practice and that can be responsive to and incorporate varied cultural patterns and values. The particular approach is not as important as the need for it to be based on sound principles: established, clearly articulated aims and objectives; well-planned, stimulating and secure education environments in which play and conversation are valued; broad, balanced and child-centered curricula that include a variety of active, meaningful and enjoyable learning experiences; and warm and positive relationships with adults and peers. In addition, early childhood educators need to demonstrate a commitment to equal opportunity and social justice for all by developing curricula reflecting and valuing each child's family, home, culture, language and beliefs, and teaching children respect for and appreciation of the richness that diversity brings to our pluralistic societies.

Early childhood educators have considerable autonomy in their work, even when they are required to implement standardized curricula. They are able to make informed choices from a range of options. Consequently, early childhood educators are, in fact, creators of education, not merely implementers of a predefined curriculum. Choices should not be made in a vacuum, however, isolated from children's knowledge, needs, interests, family, culture or the local community and its concerns. Rather, choices should be based on principles derived from methodologically sound research.

Early childhood educators should engage in exhaustive research on all aspects of children, families and service provision in order to improve the quality and responsiveness of their services. Although cross-cultural research increases, many researchers still focus on examining differences among samples of children from the same culture. Much of this intra-cultural research appears to assume that all children of one culture develop in the same way. Likewise, much of the transcultural research attempts to determine if the findings from one culture are universally true for children of all cultures. Cultures' complex dimensions (including the socialization of children from a range of subcultures within a mainstream or dominant culture) need to be explored. A body of research is building (e.g. Rodd, 1993; 1995a; 1995b) that recognizes the different learning environments experienced by young children within a given culture. Such research encounters many methodological obstacles that must be acknowledged and controlled. Nevertheless, more appropriate practices and models of early childhood education will emerge only when the complex relationships among children, culture and education are better understood. Such models will allow early childhood professionals to be more responsive to the needs of all children.

Note: This article was adapted from a keynote presentation given at the 1995 ACEI World Conference in Oulu, Finland, which was sponsored by Finland Association for Childhood Education International and the University of Oulu.


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Berk, L. (1994). Infants and children. Prenatal through early childhood. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

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Derman-Sparks, L. (1993/94). Empowering children to create a caring culture in a world of differences. Childhood Education, 70, 66-71.

Graves, S. B., & Gargiulo, R. M. (1994). Early childhood education in three eastern European countries. Childhood Education, 70, 205-209.

Gura, P. (1994). Childhood: A multiple reality. Early Child Development and Care, 98, 97-111.

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Kessler, S. A. (1991). Early childhood education as development: Critique of the metaphor. Early Education and Development, 2(2), 138-152.

Landers, C. (1991). Trends in early childhood education and development programs. Perspectives from the developing world. In B. Spodek and O. Saracho (Eds.), Issues in early childhood curriculum (pp. 213-229). New York: Teachers College Press.

Neuman, S. B., & Roskos, K. (1994). Bridging home and school with a culturally responsive approach. Childhood Education, 70, 210-214.

New, R. (1994). Meeting the challenge of Reggio Emilia in realising the potentials of all children. In P. Andrews (Ed.), Proceedings of Realising the Potential of Children: The Challenge of Reggio Emilia (pp. 7-19). Melbourne, Australia: The University of Melbourne.

Rodd, J. (1993). Maternal stress: A comparative study of Australian and Singaporean mothers of young children. Early Child Development and Care, 91, 41-50.

Rodd, J. (1995a). A comparison of socialisation attitudes and practices of Korean mothers of young children living in Korea and Australia. Korean Journal of Australian Studies, 2, 52-61.

Rodd, J. (1995b). Early socialisation attitudes and practices of recently-arrived immigrant mothers in Australia: A pilot study. Journal for Australian Research in Early Childhood Education, 1, 121-130.

Siraj-Blatchford, I. (1994). The early years. Laying the foundation for racial equality. Staffordshire, UK: Trentham Books.

Spodek, B. (1991). Reconceptualising early childhood education: A commentary. Early Education and Development, 2(2), 161-167.

Walsh, D. (1991). Extending the discourse on developmental appropriateness: A developmental perspective. Early Education and Development, 2(2), 109-119.

Zimilies, H. (1991). Diversity and change in young children. Some educational implications. In B. Spodek and O. Saracho (Eds.), Issues in early childhood curriculum (pp. 21-45). New York: Teachers College Press.

Jillian Rodd is Senior Lecturer, University of Plymouth, Rolle School of Education, Exmouth, Devon, United Kingdom.
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Title Annotation:importance of culture in children's education
Author:Rodd, Jillian
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Sep 15, 1996
Previous Article:Sharing the best the world has to offer for children.
Next Article:Quality programs that care and educate.

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