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Quality programs that care and educate.

The need to provide high quality early childhood education and care is causing international concern. Simply providing any early childhood services for children is not enough--and never has been. If we are to make the best use of every country's most precious resource, its children, we must better define what we mean by quality and, through whatever means possible, deliver the resources necessary to foster and nurture children's development. It is foolish, both in human and economic terms, to do otherwise.

Recently, the New Zealand government announced an increase in funding (NZ $38 million, or about US $25 million) for early childhood education, contingent on meeting quality criteria. Consequently, we must devise an appropriate way of defining and monitoring quality. This is a critical issue for New Zealand right now, as it is for many other countries.

For many years I have thought about what constitutes "quality," and have supported policies that provide incentives for early childhood centers to deliver quality. Come with me on a journey that asks some fundamental theoretical questions about children's development, and how we can define quality contexts for it. I will concentrate on what Bronfenbrenner (1979) calls the microsystem--that is, the child's immediate context for development. I will not talk about the wider context for development, the ecosystem and macrosystem--the things reflected in the structural qualities of early childhood settings.

In New Zealand, most children start school at or near their fifth birthday, although school is not compulsory until age 6. The country offers a variety of early childhood services for children younger than 5 through kindergartens, child care centers, play centers, family day care, Kohanga Reo and Pacific Island Language nests (the last two centers immerse children in their own language--Maori or a Pacific Island language). Quality early childhood education and care can be delivered within very differently structured settings, although structural factors do make a difference. I will discuss the principles that should underlie children's interactions with both teachers and peers, and the nature of the early childhood curriculum.


Early childhood educare is not a new concept, having been used in the United States (Caldwell, 1991), the United Kingdom (Calder, 1990; David, 1990; Moss, 1992), New Zealand (Smith, 1987,1988; Smith & Swain, 1988) and probably elsewhere. The concept of educare challenges the view that education and care are separable components of early childhood environments (either in homes or centers). "Care," with its connotations of custodial physical caregiving, supervision and affection, has been viewed quite differently from "education," which involves planned activities designed to enhance children's learning. Many cultures even assume that care is important only for children under 3 or for children who are away from their parents for a full day (in child care centers), while education is meant for older children. I believe both care and education should be a part of all early childhood services, no matter the child's age, whether the context is a center or a home, or how long the child is away from his or her parents.

Peter Moss (1992) also argued against the old distinctions between care and education. He found the word "educare" to be clumsy, but agreed that it carries the appropriate meaning. I believe that we can become accustomed to words that sound clumsy at first--that is how language evolves. If thinking needs to change, then language may need to change as well.

The prevailing view that care is somehow inferior to education ignores the fact that no meaningful distinction can be made between care and education for young children. Quality care is educational, and quality education is caring. Small children do not easily learn in environments that do not nurture their physical and emotional well-being. While warm, secure and responsive environments promote learning and development, cold, restrictive and unsafe environments retard them. Children's enhanced learning and development should be the goal of our work, whatever the setting may be (Drummond & Nutbrown, 1992).

A Sociocultural Framework for Development ,in an Educare Perspective

I have argued elsewhere (Smith, 1992) that the early childhood field must move towards a more relevant theoretical framework for early childhood educare than the traditional, predominantly Piagetian approach. The whole notion of developmentally appropriate practice (DAP), which originated in the United States but has had a strong influence all over the world, relies upon an interpretation of Piaget. DAP assumes universal, predictable changes in children's development at particular ages and stages, regardless of context. Such developmental changes form the framework within which teachers plan appropriate curricula and experiences for children (Fleer, 1994). This model asserts that curriculum materials should be introduced to children only when they have attained a particular level of mental ability (Elkind, 1989). DAP proponents assume that children learn as they spontaneously discover the world through their own self-directed play within a resource-rich environment, with as little intervention from the teacher as possible. Unfortunately, developmentally appropriate practice implies that children's development should guide early childhood education practice. In reality, early childhood education practice should guide children's development. In other words, teachers should set early childhood educare goals and implement them.

I believe that we must give much more attention to the social and cultural context of development, and less to its emergence from an individual child without adult participation. Children spontaneously discover their environment in many unique ways. Some children actively explore and find meaning in a resource-rich environment; others do not. In my view, such differences are not caused by variations in the rate of biologically determined development, but rather by the children's environment and human interactions. If children are to acquire more understanding of their environment, then they need adults and peers who engage in tasks with them.

I am uneasy with the idea of building our curricula on normatively based "developmentally appropriate practice." Therefore, I have moved much more towards a sociocultural perspective, which emerged out of Vygotsky's work more than 60 years ago. This perspective was "discovered" by Western psychologists only in the 1960s (by Jerome Bruner, David Wood and Michael Cole, among others). They sought to apply Vygotsky's theories to problems affecting education. Cazden, Forman, Gallimore, Rogoff, Tharp, Valsiner and Wertsch are among the many current researchers advocating a sociocultural view. Fleer (1991, 1992, 1994) is one of the few researchers to apply the theory to early childhood education, supported by Kathy Sylva and Tricia David.

I will try to outline the key principles of this sociocultural theory before discussing how to apply them to developing quality early childhood curricula and pedagogy.

Principles Behind Developing Quality Educare:

* All development begins with social interaction, from which social processes are internalized.

* Learning drives development, rather than being driven by it.

* Close interpersonal relationships and mutual understanding facilitates learning and development.

* The goals of development are culturally determined.

* Children have an active role in constructing their own unique understanding within the cultural context.

Social Interaction As the Basis of Development

The sociocultural approach emphasizes that children learn to think not in isolation, but rather through activities with others (Moll & Whitmore, 1993). Children learn in an interdependent sociocultural system that is jointly created by children and adults. Vygotskian theory asserts that when children participate in cultural activities with skilled partners they learn to internalize the thinking tools that they have practiced using in social situations. Vygotsky showed that children could perform much more skillfully with others than they could alone. He proposed that children require help and supervision until they have acquired competence in developing skills. One of his key educational concepts is the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD):

We propose that an essential feature of learning is that it creates the zone of proximal development; that is, learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when a child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers. Once these processes are internalized, they become part of the child's independent developmental achievement. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 90)

Vygotsky made a distinction between the child's actual developmental level and the ZPD, which he defines as

... the distance between actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86)

The ZPD is a dynamic region of sensitivity to learning, in which participation with more experienced members of the culture fosters children's development. Rogoff (1990) coined the term "guided participation" to include both the notion of guidance (or scaffolding) and participation in culturally valued activities.

"Scaffolding" is the term that describes the guidance and interactional support given by a tutor in the ZPD. Bruner (1985) explains scaffolding as permitting children to do as much as they can by themselves; when they encounter something they cannot do, they receive help from a parent or caregiver. The quantity and quality of scaffolding given to children differs (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988). Quantity refers to how high the scaffold is placed, and at what level and how long it is kept in place. Quality concerns the different ways help is offered: through directing attention, modeling, asking questions or giving encouragement, for example.

Ideally, in a learning environment, children are initially spectators and then become participants. With the support of an adult, they learn the rules, grasp the meanings and become able to help themselves and control their own behavior. In the process of learning, the tutor provides "a vicarious form of consciousness" (Bruner, 1985) that children take over for themselves after they have mastered a task. A sociocultural perspective on early childhood educare puts the emphasis right where it should be, on the teacher's role. Teachers should not take a didactic approach with children, but instead should be sensitively attuned to children's abilities, interests and strengths, and remain accessible enough to provide appropriate scaffolding.

Greenfield (1984) provided an example of scaffolding in the ZPD when describing Mexican girls learning to weave. The girls were observed weaving with a teacher (usually the mother or a close relative). The girls who were beginners produced woven material that was as skillfully made as the teacher's, but this was only possible because the teacher sensitively aided the learners where necessary. Initially, teachers assumed control over the weaving at more technically difficult parts (e.g., when selvaging). Teachers participated in the weaving about 65 percent of the time in the early learning cycles, but in later cycles, they did so only 16 percent of the time. They adjusted their verbal support to the weaver's level by giving more verbal commands to the inexperienced weavers and more statements to the experienced ones. Weavers increasingly self-regulated themselves as they became more experienced.

Learning Drives Development

Vygotsky regarded matching learning tasks to developmental levels already reached as ineffective. He thought that learning in such situations lagged behind development, rather than stimulating new development (Vygotsky, 1978). The idea of "developmental appropriateness" assumes that children's learning experiences should be designed according to appropriate stages of development.

In New Zealand, for example, some schools did not introduce numbers larger than 9 until children were at least 7, on the mistaken assumption that younger children could not cope with large numbers. Vygotsky emphasized that teaching must proceed ahead of development in order to awaken those functions in the maturation process.

Learning is not separable from development, and "good learning" is in advance of development. Teaching should lead instead of follow children's development. Children may start a task only partly understanding it, but they gradually acquire independent understanding as they engage in meaningful goal-directed activities with a more skilled partner. A teacher who is truly working in the child's ZPD is actually moving children forward in their understanding, rather than leaving them in the original state. This can only happen if the child takes an active role, and if the adult is sensitive to the child's understanding.

Intersubjectivity-Interpersonal Relationships

A caring and responsive adult-child (or child-child) relationship is necessary before children can acquire intellectual skills through social interaction. Both tutor and learner need to have a shared understanding of the task's purposes, goals, tools and contexts (McNaughton, 1991), since dialogue is the starting point of thought. Children need to feel comfortable and accepted in their early childhood settings. Rogoff argues that intersubjectivity is a shared focus of understanding and purpose (embedded in nurturing relationships), and is the foundation of cognitive development. She says that, "The traditional distinctions among cognitive, affective and social processes becomes blurred once we focus on thinking." (Rogoff, 1990, p. 9).

McNaughton (1991) believes that failure to establish intersubjectivity poses great difficulties for effective learning. Children and teachers can have very different understandings of what a task's goals are, or how people should talk together (McNaughton, 1991, p. 140). When tutor and learner achieve intersubjectivity, they understand each other and contribute reciprocally to the interaction. Children gradually become the initiators. Shared meaning for signs and symbols, which develops through interaction in joint activities, permits intersubjectivity. Children can internalize and construct their own understandings only through communication within a shared frame of reference.

I am concerned about children who receive very little teacher attention; they are the so-called "invisible children" with whom no intersubjectivity at all has been established. Waterhouse (1995) recently reported an interesting study of how early childhood teachers construct their knowledge of children's identity. Teachers demonstrated their knowledge of children's identity through a series of interviews and videos conducted over four years. Waterhouse showed that many children conformed to classroom activities to such a degree that they became invisible to the teacher. Despite a child-centered commitment to individualism, many children actually exist on the margins of teacher attention. These children are not really perceived as a problem or as special--they probably survive in the classroom, but how much do they learn? If we acknowledge the importance of adult/child intersubjectivity, teachers must get to know every child.

Developing intersubjectivity requires teachers to diagnose and observe what children understand, because it is up to teachers to bridge the gap between the known and the unknown. Teachers are usually better able to sensitively observe and interpret children's behavior when they know them well and are engaged in reciprocal activities with them, rather than in a distant, controlling, formal and hierarchical relationship. The best contexts encourage children to reveal understandings that the teachers can develop, extend, correct or improve.

Katz and Chard say, "The underlying principle is that the more informal the learning environment, the greater the teacher's access to the learners' representations, understandings and misunderstandings" (Katz & Chard, 1990, p. 44). Katz argues, however, for optimal informality. Too much informality can occur in some settings. Teachers who "supervise" large groups of children engaged in largely undirected free play are in a poor position to achieve intersubjectivity. They are unable to engage with children in the sustained way that is necessary for learning. They are too busy with other demands on their attention to achieve any kind of joint focus with children.

Teachers must be acutely observant in order to create appropriate learning activities in the ZPD. Drummond and Nutbrown (1992) review an interesting study by Prosser in which children assessed themselves and learned of other people's assessment of them. From an early age, children can contribute to the assessment process. Drummond and Nutbrown see careful observation as an essential tool for teachers, because it can help to identify "the learning that is about to take place" (Drummond & Nutbrown, 1992, p. 90)

Culturally Determined Goals

I once believed that early childhood education should have developmental goals, not curriculum goals. I was restating the DAP philosophy that by looking at what children are able to do, we should encourage them to do what "normally" comes next in the developmental stages. We have deluded ourselves, however, in thinking that the child is an isolated individual, independent of his or her social context. By looking at children within our particular cultural context, we are really looking at a version of ourselves, already strongly influenced by our joint cultural heritage.

To understand development, it is essential to understand cultures. Western cultures traditionally value skill in scientific, literate and mathematical activities. We must remember that these skills are valued within particular cultural frameworks, and are not a necessary endpoint to which all cultures must aspire. Cultures vary in their institutions, their technologies and other cultural tools. One of the most powerful cultural tools is language. As Rogoff (1990) said, however, we should not forget other, nonverbal forms of communication. Bahktin's theory (Wertsch, 1990) suggests that children learn cultural concepts, values and ideas as they learn language, but they do have their own interpretations. Bahktin described words as being "half ours and half someone else's." Vygotsky (1978) said, "Just as the mold gives shape to a substance, words can shape an activity into a structure." So language itself is an important medium for transferring cultural context.

Western early childhood education values play as a way of allowing children to explore spontaneously. Yet David (1992) points out that even play is affected by culture. She asked Danish preschool staff whether they would help children set up a "hairdresser's shop" with appointment books, invoices and other appropriate props. They told her that such activities were part of societal pressure on children into accepting literacy. Is this not an example of refusing to acknowledge that early childhood settings have a role in passing on culturally valued skills? While acknowledging that the values passed on should not always be those of the dominant culture, surely we must also acknowledge and celebrate that early childhood programs transmit cultural values.

A study of U.S. and Mayan toddlers found that Mayan children interact with adults in the context of adult work rather than in play (Rogoff, Mosier, Mistry & Goncu, 1993). Many consider play to be the domain for peer interaction, and Mayan mothers were embarrassed by the idea of playing with their children. U.S. mothers were, on the other hand, friendly and playful with their children. In New Zealand, Maori Language Nests or Nga Kohanga Reo do not accept the predominantly European emphasis on play within their centers. Their programs incorporate culturally valued styles and values, such as whanaungatanga (family values in the broadest sense--including extended family and ancestry), awhina (help and support), tuakana-teina (sibling relationships--particularly those where the younger sibling learns from the older sibling, but also referring to peer relationships), as well as the Maori language (Hohepa, Smith & McNaughton, 1991). For example, children learn about their whakapapa (ancestry), first from their immediate family and later their hapu and iwi (tribal and subtribal) link. They practice mihimihi, a formal mode of self introduction, traditional in Maori culture. The Kohanga Reo setting provides a rich context for the negotiation of shared meanings within a primarily Maori context.

I am not arguing against play being an integral part of the early childhood curriculum. Indeed, Vygotsky was a great advocate of collaborative imaginative play because he believed that play liberated children from situational constraints and allowed them to experiment with meaning. Vygotsky believed that play creates a zone of proximal development for the child. I do, however, agree with David's point that other contexts are also valuable for learning. Involvement in collaborative, goal-directed, culturally valued activities with adults or peers, such as setting the table or baking a cake, can also provide a rich context for teaming.

I believe we need to acknowledge the existence of culturally determined goals in early childhood education settings. It is time to admit that these do not come solely from within the child, and to work together with parents in making more explicit and public the shared goals that underlie our early childhood programs.

New Zealand has only recently, for the first time, codified a curriculum in a written form as a way to guide and support early childhood teachers. This curriculum is called Te Whaiki. Goals for early childhood should be flexible rather than rigid, responsive to social circumstances and parents and the community's views, and sensitive to multicultural perspectives. Leeway for variations at the local level, depending on the particular social, economic and cultural context, is also necessary.

I am opposed to the whole world following the American DAP model, although I acknowledge that much of it is valuable. The Australian Accreditation scheme, which incorporates more than 50 criteria for quality early childhood education that were developed through extensive consultation and by examining models such as the DAP, is another useful model. Individual centers in Australia are free, however, to develop their relevant criteria for themselves so not all goals are centrally determined.

Children's Active Role

The ZPD sometimes conjures up visions of children as passive recipients of an adult's didactic efforts. Internalizing social interaction does not mean that skills and information from outside are simply transferred to within the child. Children do not passively absorb adult strategies. They take an active, inventive role and reconstruct the task through their own understanding. This process has been called "guided reinvention" (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988).

Teaching is not merely the transmission of knowledge, but rather is a process of sharing meanings and understandings. Children take an important role in these negotiations about meaning (David, 1992). Rogoff (1990) also stresses children's active participation in their own development:

Children seek structure, and even demand the assistance of those around them in learning how to solve problems of all kinds. They actively observe social activities, participating as they can. I stress the complementary roles of children and caregivers in fostering children's development. (Rogoff, 1990, p. 16)

Rogoff (1990) further shows how children's creativity can develop within sociocultural contexts. She says that social processes do not necessarily foster reproduction of knowledge. The child transforms skills and information in the process of acquiring them. When children are involved in social interaction, they ignore some aspects of the situation and participate in others, and they change their participation to suit their uses. Creativity builds on existing ideas and technologies to forge new connections and reformulate old ideas. Collaboration and dialogue can build a rich context for creativity.


Teachers always have a rationale, or a pedagogy, for their activities--whether it is conscious or unconscious (Athey, 1990). I believe that a pedagogy should be conscious, and that teachers should know what they are doing, why they are doing it and be able to reflect in a collaborative way with colleagues and parents about the success of their programs. To do so is part of being a professional early childhood "educarer." I also prefer a pedagogy that acknowledges the awesome power of the teacher in affecting children's development, and an understanding that if teachers observe children, understand their cultural framework and develop close relationships with them, and informally interact with them over planned activities allowing children's active participation, positive change will be much more likely.

Second, I strongly advocate a curriculum that leads rather than follows child development. Every society needs to clarify its goals for early childhood programs. The nature of quality early childhood educare is a values issue (Moss & Pence, 1994). Infinite possibilities for development exist, but, as Katz (1990) says, just because children can do things does not mean that they should be doing them. Each society needs to carefully, consciously and inclusively consider what are worthwhile activities for children and what kinds of skills and dispositions they should have. We have started on that process in New Zealand.

The curriculum should be flexible and stimulate teachers and parents to collaboratively reflect on how to enrich children's development. I am not talking about the didactic transmission of preformulated knowledge, but rather, as Wells (1985) describes it, an attempt to negotiate shared meanings and understandings with children so that children themselves can shape the sequencing and pattern of their education.

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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Anne B. Smith is Director of the Children's Issues Centre, University of Otago, New Zealand.
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Title Annotation:quality childhood care and education
Author:Smith, Anne B.
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Sep 15, 1996
Previous Article:Children, culture and education.
Next Article:Child-centered early childhood education in Eastern Europe: the step by step approach.

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