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Teaching and learning in early childhood in German-speaking Switzerland: a case study.

Describing a typical school day in Switzerland is problematic. Politically, Switzerland is separated into 26 different states (cantons and half-cantons), each with its own school system, laws, regulations, and curriculum. Furthermore, the country has three official languages (German, French, and Italian) and four national languages (German, French, Italian, and Romansch). Most of the population speaks Swiss-German.

This study focuses specifically on early childhood care and education in the German-speaking Basel area. The experiences of one kindergarten child, Marianne, provide a glimpse into how the kindergarten functions and fits into the overall school system, community, and society of the region. A typical day in Marianne's kindergarten and family life offers insight into curriculum, teaching methodology, and the emphasis on children's learning and development.

Early Childhood Education in Basel

Swiss kindergartens vary in the emphasis they put on learning and on the age at which children enroll, and they differ in the number of hours they require children to attend. Children attend kindergarten for one year in the French-speaking region, where the emphasis is on learning to read and write. The Italian-speaking and Rhaeto-Romanic regions are similar to the German-speaking areas in the emphasis on learning (Rhaeto-Romance is a group of three Romance dialects, including Romansch). Beginning at age 3, children in the Italian-speaking area of Switzerland spend three years in kindergarten in a full-day program (with lunch provided on the kindergarten premises). Swiss-German children attend kindergarten for two years, starting from the age of 4 or 5.

In the Swiss-German Basel region (composed of the two half-cantons Basel-Land and Basel-Stadt), a Basel dialect is spoken and standard German is used for written communication. The language of instruction in kindergarten is the Swiss-German dialect. Children learn to read and write in standard German when they go to primary school. Although many children do understand German before they learn to speak it, in effect the children must learn a second language on entering school; Swiss-German is significantly different from standard German. Children from other language backgrounds also attend an extra Swiss-German class per week.

Historical and Current Contexts of Early Childhood Education in Switzerland

The present structure of preschool care and education in Switzerland has been shaped by certain societal customs. Political power has traditionally been limited to men; Swiss women have been allowed to vote in national elections only since 1971. The prevailing attitudes have not been favorable to public support for child care. One education department representative recently stated, "Child care is still a private matter today" (Schneebeli, 2001).

Hayden (2000), in her analysis of cross-national perspectives, refers to the "ideology (of motherhood) as the fundamental barrier to the development of a universal system of child care" (p. 50). This "ideology" is markedly present in many cantons in Switzerland. Many would argue that this mindset does not reflect the current needs or demands for child care in Swiss society. Many women choose to follow a career; others, due to changes in economic situation (often because of separation or divorce), must work to support themselves and their children and therefore are dependent on full-day child care and education.

Among European nations, Switzerland ranks low in terms of providing child care. Gysin (2000) states, "Switzerland is towards the bottom of the list in relation to external family child care. For children between the ages of 0-14 years, only 4% of families find suitable care" (p. 47). (For comparison's sake, 60 percent of Swedish families and 51 percent of Norwegian families can find suitable care.)

Not only do families find inadequate provision for child care, they have the added complication of needing lunchtime care for school-age children (Rothing, 2000). Kindergartens and schools close for lunch, consistent with the Swiss tradition of a midday meal. Therefore, politicians are demanding that industries and governments provide: 1) appropriate child care, 2) working hours that suit families, and 3) more part-time jobs (Rothing, 2000).

Multicultural/Integration Context

The current population of Switzerland is seven million. Over the last 10 years, immigration has increased rapidly. In 1997, 372,000 children who were living in Switzerland originally came from other countries, 40 percent more than in 1987 ("Auslanderinnen und schule," 1998, p. 42). Many of these new arrivals are refugees from war-torn areas. Asylum seekers come from Kosovo, Turkey, Bosnia, Iraq, Iran, Sri Lanka, and Colombia. Furthermore, Basel, a center for major multinational companies, attracts employers from many developed countries around the world.

As a result of these trends, the city's schools have seen a steady increase over the past several decades in the number of foreign-speaking children entering kindergarten. One local primary school has children from 20 different countries, speaking 21 different languages ("Integrationspreis fur Blasischule," 2001). In the nearby suburbs, fewer children are second-language learners (on average, second-language learners are 25 percent of the kindergarten classes).

Changes in the composition of school classes mean greater differences in the children's cognitive, social, and emotional development. It is therefore necessary for educators to plan for and accommodate individual needs and differences.

Curriculum Framework

Obviously, kindergarten classes are no longer homogeneous (Sorensen Criblez, 2001, p. 6). To cope with these changes, Basel-Land introduced a new curriculum framework (Erziehungsrat des Kantons Basel-Landschaft, 1998). The curriculum supports and coordinates education efforts within and between kindergartens and the higher grade levels.

The following translation from parts of the Basel-Land curriculum (Erziehungsrat des Kantons Basel-Landschaft, 1998) provides some insight:

The teacher is free to use her own teaching method and style, but she must orient herself to the current group of children in her class as well as to whether it is the children's first or second year in kindergarten. It is the teacher's job to promote group experiences, guide the children in their play, provide stimulating materials, and provide a secure environment. It is also a requirement that children successfully complete kindergarten before they move on to [primary] school. The curriculum (Lehrplan) is divided into four sections: an overall framework, aims, goals, and the six main subject areas of: 1) people and the environment; 2) creative work, expression, and appreciation, imitating, using simple tools, and learning to take care of materials; 3) music; 4) mathematics; 5) movement; and 6) language.

Six Characteristics of a Typical Kindergarten in Basel-Land:

* The aim of kindergarten is to add to the education of the family.

* The main goal is to prepare children for school. Children must successfully complete kindergarten before they go to school and prepare for effective formal learning.

* Reading, writing, and written numeracy are, by school regulation, not taught or encouraged in kindergarten.

* Children spend two years in kindergarten in multi-age classrooms. Each community is responsible for its own kindergarten. The state laws, governed by the Education Department of Basel-Land, are binding. Children begin kindergarten in August if they have turned 5 or will turn 5 by the following May. Some children have turned 7 by the time they complete kindergarten and enter school. Children attend kindergarten every morning for 3 hours, and for one afternoon during the first year for two hours and two afternoons in the second year (the kindergartens have a 99 percent attendance rate).

* Stamm (1998, cited in Zopfli, 2000), in a study spanning over three years in eight cantons, found that 23 percent of children can already read and/ or do arithmetic when they begin school. General reform in the overall education system, and change in the structure of the first four years of schooling, are current themes for debate among parents, teachers, the community, and politicians.

* The kindergarten is not religiously oriented; however, it is based on Christian traditions and beliefs. Other cultures and religions also have a place in kindergarten.

Comparative Context

The Swiss education system is regarded very highly around the world. Part of this success is attributed not only to the late entrance of children to school, but also to the thorough preparation for school that the children receive. A British study of European preschools (Mills & Mills, 1998) found that Swiss kindergartens are very successful: "Teaching is highly structured and progressive; attention, listening and memory skills are priorities when children enter kindergarten" (p. 4).

Some Swiss educators would like to make more allowances for individual differences; for example, they believe that children who are ready for school, and for reading and writing instruction, at age 5 or 6 should not be held back artificially (Berger, personal communication, 2001). The present law allows children who undergo a "psychological school readiness" test to go to school one year earlier.

Marianne and Kindergarten

Five-year-old Marianne lives with her parents and her 7-year-old brother in a two-bedroom apartment in a suburb of Basel. She is in her first year of kindergarten, which she attends five mornings and one afternoon per week. Marianne has a pet rabbit and a guinea pig. Her parents consider socialization at kindergarten to be the most important aspect of her development at this stage.

Marianne has learned to write her name at home. She can count to 30, complete 200- to 300-piece jigsaw puzzles, and enjoys using the family computer. Marianne was very pleased when she was finally old enough to go to kindergarten. She walks to kindergarten by herself and meets her friends along the way.

At the time of the author's observation, the kindergarten year was almost completed. Children appeared to work with confidence and with direction, and were motivated and attentive. Marianne's teacher has taught for 22 years, and holds a two-year diploma for kindergarten teaching. She has attended many professional development courses. While she follows no one theory of development and learning, she is impressed by Montessori pedagogy.

The Morning Session. The morning class begins in the stube (lounge room). The children sing a math rhyming song called "The Zipfel Man." The teacher then divides the class into five groups, and explains the requirements for the learning stations (called "par cour"). The stations, organized for a 60-minute period around the theme of ducks, offer children the following activities: 1) completing 10- to 50-piece puzzles of varying levels of difficulty, 2) constructing a small duck out of play dough, 3) coloring a Mandala of ducks, 4) sequencing pictures into the correct order and playing a dice game with shapes called "All the Ducklings" by HABA Germany, and 5) placing small flat buttons on a pre-drawn shape of a duck.

During the station work, the teacher uses verbal cues, encouragement, and explanations to help the children. Afterwards, the children join in another singing game. After their snack, the children play in an area of their choice. On the day observed, half the children finished their Mandala. Two girls chose to build with "geomix blocks." Marianne modeled with the play dough, played a board game with the second-year children, and read a book with three other children.

During story time, children are given a place to sit in the stube and are asked to retell the story from the previous day. The teacher then tells, but does not read, the story (Ostheern & Sopko, 2000). The children sing a goodbye song. On the day observed, the teacher put a pink mark on the children's hands, which indicates to the parents that the children have some important news concerning the next day. (The children were to tell their parents that they would be going swimming.) All of the children shake hands with the teacher, then walk home by themselves.

The Afternoon Session. Only half the children attend the afternoon session, allowing for more intensive individual and group work. The first half hour consists of child-initiated free play. On the day observed, all chose to play with the materials from the morning station activities.

A rhythmic drawing exercise, listed in the curriculum framework as a possible activity under language development, demonstrates integrated learning. For example, the teacher draws a rooster as she reads the verse about a rooster, drawing different body parts as the rhyme repeats. All of the children are asked to copy her, choosing a different color each time they finish a verse. As children draw and join in with the verse, they also are choosing and naming different colors.

All children then play a singing/movement game called "Rabbit in a Hole," initiated by the teacher as a warm-up for outside play. Each child chooses another child for the cooperative activity. For the remaining half hour, the children take turns playing with go-cars, hobby horses, ropes, and a sulky in the outside garden. The children sit in the foyer before going home, singing goodbye songs. As each child's name is called, they shake hands with the teacher, say goodbye, and walk home.

How and What the Children Learn. The children participated in both teacher- and child-initiated activities. However, they all were required to solve puzzles, place buttons on an outline, color, place cards in the correct order, and model play dough into the form of a duck. During station work, the children worked cooperatively to complete a task before moving onto the next station. The author observed an explicit emphasis on children using cognitive processes, fine motor skills, and mathematical concepts in the center work. During the second part of the morning, the teaching was structured. The children sang and did movement games initiated by the teacher. Later, the children could freely choose their own play activities.

Approaches to Teaching. Mixed-age groups appear to provide many opportunities for peer teaching. Several times, the author observed the older children explaining things to a younger child, or a younger child observing and asking questions (as the older children played a board game, for example). This finding is consistent with Hedges's (2000) contention that "heterogeneous pairs work best together, [providing] evidence for the promotion of mixed age rather than similar age groupings of children in the early years" (p. 19). Younger children were able to learn from their peers. The teacher was actively involved in the children's free play as she gave verbal cues, encouragement, and assisted children with problem solving.

Class circle time was highly structured, including an oral language section in which the children heard a story and were asked to retell it. Nonverbal communication also was an explicit aspect of circle time.

Although "media" is listed as part of the curriculum, the author did not observe the class using computers or the Internet. In general, computers are rarely found in kindergartens or primary school classrooms in Basel-Land, although they are widely available in the home.

Evaluation. Learning was evaluated through teacher observation. Throughout the year, a preschool special educator (heilpadagogin) also evaluates the children for learning difficulties. The children are observed in relation to their readiness for school, in terms of general physical, social, and emotional development; gross, sensory, and fine motor skills; kinesthetic awareness; emotional behavior; social contact with other children; capacity to listen; visual perception; language development; and speech and spatial orientation. Children are expected to be able to dress themselves, look after themselves and their belongings, and walk to and from kindergarten alone. A summary of the main requirements that children are expected to manage by the end of the second year is listed below:

Doing Mathematics:

* Count to 10

* Subitize ("instant recognition of a small quantity, between 1 and 4, without appearing to count how many" [Montague-Smith, 1998]) small amounts (1-6)

* Recognize and draw a circle, square, triangle, and cross

* Create and copy a pattern and sequence

* Compare, sort, and order.

Language:

* Listen to and let a partner finish speaking

* Respond to a question

* Make a request to the group and respond correctly to a request.

Creative Expression:

* Recognize basic colors

* Correctly handle and use scissors, pens, and paintbrushes.

Early Intervention

Early intervention is an important feature of Swiss-German kindergartens. Second-language children are taught Swiss-German every week, and children who need it can receive a full range of therapy for physical problems and learning difficulties. Because of early intervention, learning problems of all kinds are confronted before children move on to more formal school learning. The special educators who work in the classroom can assist the teacher with other problems and difficulties that may arise throughout the two years of kindergarten.

Kindergartners with special needs or learning differences have access to a school psychologist, psychiatrist, special educator, speech therapist, sensory motor therapist, and a Swiss-German language teacher for second-language learners. The local government finances all of these services.

Implications of the Oral Language Curriculum on Second-Language Learners and the Multicultural Challenge

Through provision of second-language teachers, children who speak languages other than German can learn to speak Swiss-German without the additional challenge of learning to read and write before they attend formal schooling. This may be a viable alternative for other countries facing the challenges of multicultural classes. Many children also have lessons in their first language. Collier (1987, cited in Tabors, 1998) stated that "educational research has found that children who maintain their home language do better in school later on" (p. 25). Some children in Basel have first-language and or cultural lessons, established by various government and non-government organizations.

Conclusion

This article describes how one state in Switzerland successfully uses the oral language approach in teaching kindergarten, and how early intervention for learning problems can be addressed before children face the pressures of formal learning in school. This investigation also has provided examples of how peer teaching benefits learning in mixed-age classrooms. Readers may find aspects from this study to be helpful when considering teaching multicultural classes in preschool. What works in one country, of course, may not work in other countries. Even so, this article may throw light on aspects of teaching and learning that could be applicable for educators around the world.

References

Auslanderinnen und schule. (Foreigners and school.) (1998). Die Zeitschrift fur Schweizer Lehrerinnen und Lehrer (The Swiss Magazine for Teachers), (1), 42.

Erziehungsrat des Kantons Basel-Landschaft. (1998). Stufenlehrplan kindergarten Kanton Basel-Landschaft. (Curriculum plan in levels for kindergarten). Liestal: Erzeihungsund Kultur direction.

Gysin, D. (2000, August 5/6). Zeilkonflilct: Kind oder beruf? (Conflicting goals: Child or profession?). Basler Zeitung, p. 47.

Hayden, J. (Ed.). (2000). Landscapes in early childhood education: Cross national perspectives on empowerment. A guide for the new millennium. New York: Peter Lang.

Hedges, H. (2000). Teaching in early childhood: Time to merge constructivist views so learning through play equals teaching through play. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 25(4), 16-21.

Integrationspreis fur Blasischule. (Integration prize for Blasi School.)

(2001, May 16). Basler Zeitung, p. 29.

Mills, C., & Mills, D. (1998). The early years. London: Channel Four Television. Broadcasting and Support Services.

Montague-Smith, A. (1998). Mathematics in nursery education. London: David Fulton.

Ostheern, I., & Sopko, E. (2000). Tim Erpet der Ausreisser. (Tim Erpet the runaway.) Zurich: Nord-Sud Verlag.

Rothing, C. (2000, August 14). Der erste schultag. (The first school day). Basler Zeitung, p. 45.

Sorensen Cribliz, B. (2001). Lehrplane--Fahrplan, gebrauchsanleitung oder vorratskammer? (Curriculum--Travel plan, user manual or supply room?). Kindergarten. Zeitschrift for Erzeihung in Vorschulalter, 2, 5-7.

Schneebeli, A. (2001, September). Information speech on public school system. Speech presented at a public meeting of the American Women's Club, Basel, Switzerland.

Tabors, P. (1998). What early childhood educators need to know: Developing effective programs for linguistically and culturally diverse children and families. Young Children, 53(5), 20-26.

Zopfli, C. (2000). Kinder lesen und rechnen fruher, als man denkt! (Children read and count earlier than one thinks!) Kindergarten. Zeitschrift fur Erzeihung in Vorschulalter, 1, 10-13.

Wendy Marti-Bucknall is a teacher, Western Sydney University, and international educational consultant in early childhood information communications technology.
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Author:Marti-Bucknall, Wendy
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Date:Sep 15, 2002
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