By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. I have written before about coming to terms to terms and I find myself still grappling with all the buzzwords popping up in my news feeds on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. As another semester approaches and once again I find myself supporting early childhood education degree students in their field practicum I am searching for ways to explain, support and encourage. I anticipate being asked the same questions that early learning professionals often ask:
- What is emergent curriculum?
- What is pedagogy?
- Are projects the same as inquiries?
- How do you decide what to call your project or inquiry?
When I wrote my doctoral dissertation, REACHING THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN: The Impact of Emergent Curriculum on the Practice and Self-Image of Early Childhood Educators I defined curriculum as a course of study and made a distinction between a transactional curriculum with a traditional scope and sequence approach with an emphasis on drill and practice of isolated, academic skills, and a transformational curriculum with an emergent focus. Since the creation of curriculum is a human endeavour, it involves cultural values, beliefs, assumptions and, theories and languages of its developers in its very construction. It also involves pedagogy.
The term emergent curriculum is used to refer to an approach that emerges from the interests of the learner and is socially constructed (Jones & Nimmo,1994). However, the process of emergent curriculum assumes a higher level of effectiveness when it goes beyond interests to focus on children’s thinking, creativity and curiosities. It then assumes a transformational curriculum position. Emergent curriculum defies a narrow focus. If it is based solely on a judgement call by the educator about children’s interests and ends up being a fact-finding mission of academics it really is just a long-term theme. It becomes a linear process rather than the spiral described by Susan Stacey. In the professional development module called Understanding Emergent Curriculum in Practice five key features of emergent curriculum are listed:
- Emergent curriculum is not a linear process.
- Emergent curriculum is cyclical.
- Emergent curriculum is flexible and responsive.
- Emergent curriculum is collaborative.
- Emergent curriculum makes children’s learning and teacher’s thinking visible.
Emergent curriculum happens when you support inquiry based learning in your classroom. One form of inquiry based learning is project work which involves children investigating a question or problem over a period of time. Inquiry and projects require that the learner is active. Experiential or active learning is learning that involves active manipulation by the learner and is environmentally based. To learn something new, children must become aware, explore, inquire, use, and apply. The Progressive Education movement and the writings of John Dewey (1910) support this position of learner as active. “Only by wrestling with the conditions of the problem at hand, seeking and finding his own solution (not in isolation but in correspondence with the teacher and other pupils) does one learn” (p. 182). So while some may think that these ideas are new they have a long-standing tradition.
Under the assumption that children learn best when their interest is fully engaged and centred, the project method was used in Dewey’s Laboratory School at the University of Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century. In more recent times, project work was a central part of infant and primary education during the Plowden Years in England of the 1960s and 1970s, and in the corresponding North American open education years of the same era (Katz & Chard, 2000). A highly creative variation of the project method exists in the pre-primary schools of Reggio Emilia (Edwards et al., 1994). The Project Approach, “refers to a way of teaching and learning as well as to the content of what is taught and learned” (Katz & Chard, 1989, p. 3). It is a set of teaching strategies which enable teachers to guide children through in-depth studies of real world topics (Katz & Chard, 2000). As suggested by Katz and Chard, projects are intended to be emergent as they develop from the ongoing interests of the children. Projects therefore are an example of emergent curriculum. In contrast, themes are not considered emergent as they are often prescribed by the teacher. Topics for projects need to emerge from both the learners and the teachers so it is with careful consideration that a teacher decides the topic and the title. Is the topic different from the title? Do you need a title? Can the title be a learning question? A project topic should be worthy of investigation. To be worthy children should be engaged in critical thinking, problem solving and not just gathering facts. An inquiry inspired by a trip to the beach and a fascination with driftwood becomes more than a project entitled “Wood” when posed as a learning question; “What can I do with driftwood?” I can imagine stories about the wood’s origin and the journey it has made in the water. I can create with driftwood, count and build with driftwood. I can make up stories about what I made all while wondering about the science of driftwood. Avoid the noun and focus on a verb. The noun tends to lead us down the academic path, while the verb helps us recognize the intellectual outcomes for children. Lillian Katz discusses the differences between academic and intellectual goals in this wonderful video.
As an adult, when I have experiences with nature, I have many wonders. I am particularly fascinated with rocks and sticks. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. The theory suggests that children have an innate, genetically predisposed tendency to explore and bond with the natural world known as biophilia. Evidence of biophilia has been observed in children even younger than two. For children’s natural inclination of biophilia to develop they can be invited to have experiences with the natural world, to learn in and with nature. As I move down the path of emergent curriculum, I continue to wonder if the natural place for emergent curriculum to emerge is from nature. In testing out this theory, I look to a design for programming that Beverlie Dietze and I created for our recently published textbook. We came up with the POPPING Program Design to incorporate the concept of trial balloons. We combined the metaphor of balloons together with bubbles to conceptualize something playful that can trigger, prompt, provoke or expand curiosity. When a trial balloon is launched either by children or adults, if the idea becomes of interest to children, it has the potential to plant seeds, to germinate ideas, fertilize children’s thinking and actions and nurture new experiences or dimensions for exploration that children have not necessarily encountered before. This new programming perspective positions early learning professionals to support and promote exploratory, experiential learning, dialogue, and reflection that could lead to new knowledge creation. I thought I would play around with the concepts and used the POPPING framework to continue thinking about my interest in wood, this time in the form of sticks as a possible trial balloon that would support nature-based emergent curriculum.
There are so many possibilities with materials such as rocks, driftwood and sticks. These loose parts when intentionally chosen and used in natural environments have the potential of supporting emergent curriculum that is inquiry based and ecologically sustainable.