From Themes to Emergent Curriculum: Facing the Resistance to Change with Kindness and Compassion

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. I spent a number of my formative years as an early childhood educator working in a community based child care program. I worked collaboratively with the other teachers and the administration team. We had a culture of mutual respect and I felt valued as a member of the community. However, I was frustrated with a curriculum that did not change. I was frustrated with the same themes, the same pre-cuts and the same bulletin boards year after year. When I suggested change, I encountered opposition. This surprised me as I have always viewed change as exciting. I came to realize that everyone is not the same. Change is not always easy. Change can be uncomfortable. Change can be messy. There will be resistance. When I wrote my last blog post Cut Out the Pre-Cuts: The Trouble with Themes in Early Childhood Education I was humbled by the positive response but taken aback by the strong reactions of some. I followed the shares on Facebook and read a few comments that indicated to me that some, in the early learning community, are not ready to let go of themes. I see themes as part of 20th century practice in early learning. By moving towards an emergent curriculum, we are entering the 21st century of innovative practice. Early learning professionals who are on this journey of inspiring practice will attest to the benefits for children, educators and families. Stepping out of the comfort of zone of themes to the unknown emerging curriculum inspired by the philosophy of the Reggio Emilia Approach can be a magical experience.

Where the magic happens

Beginning this journey involves acceptance of the “cognitive knots” that cause real tension in our minds, hearts and bodies. Supporting each other on this journey involves kindness and compassion. It is not about judgment or criticism. It is about encouragement and support. It is about being each other’s “critical friend”. I will admit that over the many years that I have advocated for an emergent curriculum that I have not always been sensitive to the perspective of others. I have not always recognized that for some change takes time. I hadn’t always taken the time to understand the context of the practice of others. Critical friends, while critiquing with kindness, must recognize that we need to support and encourage all voices. It means striving for democratic practice. Moss (2007) suggests that democratic practice flourishes in learning communities that exhibit the four elements illustrated in this graphic from Dietze and Kashin, 2016, Empowering Pedagogy.

The Four Elements of Democratic Practice

Welcoming uncertainty is key. It is okay not to be certain. New ideas naturally produce tension or cognitive dissonance. Transformative change, genuine learning, happens only through disequilibrium” (Jones & Nimmo, 1999, p. 8). This tension constitutes a cognitive conflict or disequilibrium occurring with the experience of new information. While disequilibrium is uncomfortable, the new information needs to be assimilated in order for learning to occur. As researchers, teachers can be in a position of uncertainty as they build their own theories from practice. Education is, according to Malaguzzi (2001), a “situation of research, and the research produces a new pedagogy.”

Pedagogy is movement, continuous movement . . .. I don’t believe that pedagogy can know, each day, where it is going and where it may go; it is a route that you discover as you travel…if the ship breaks down along the way, you repair it as you go. (p. 6)

However, the ship cannot be repaired alone. To construct or reconstruct within the field of early childhood education, we must look to others. As Vygotsky indicated “it is through others that we develop into ourselves” (1981, p. 181).

It is through others-JPG-40

Cognitive dissonance is a state of imbalance between cognitions. According to the theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957), cognitions are defined as being an attitude, emotion, belief or value, or even a mixture of these cognitions. Dissonance theory suggests that if teachers are engaged in activities that arouse dissonance then beliefs might change. One of the sources of dissonance identified by Festinger is “past experience” colliding with new cognitions. Disequilibrium can lead to change. Change implies innovation. Innovation presumes change. The two terms are interdependent. Both terms assume newness, a difference between what was and what is. There is a sense of movement to change and to innovation, which is accompanied, by a sense of excitement or apprehension. By adapting to things as they are, teachers resist embedding theory in practice and thus resist change. Why is there a resistance to change? Change is fraught with turmoil and uncertainty. Katz (2004) suggests that to bring about lasting changes, teachers need to accept the uncertainty involved in unfolding a curriculum one step at a time instead of depending on detailed advance planning. In order to advance the professionalization of the field, early childhood educators must change the image they have of themselves. Inspired by the theories of Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, and Malaguzzi, they can build their own.

John Dewey

Change is a journey not a blueprint, and as Rinaldi (1998) points out, a plan is like a compass not a train schedule. Change must come from within each early childhood educator and uncertainty of direction must be accepted. Katz (2004) challenges the early childhood educator as “responsibility for changes” is “right in our own doorsteps” (p. 67). Emergent curriculum is a micro-level opportunity for change. When presented with new information that is difficult to accommodate it may be that in the moment of confusion real opportunities exist to accept new challenges and create new possibilities for ourselves. By bringing voice to their work and offering a forum for the voices of children and families, teachers become transparent in their practice and collaboration can evolve. This can only happen if all involved are expressive instead of silent.

Teachers must leave behind an isolated, silent mode of working, which leaves no traces” (Malaguzzi, 1998, p. 69).

Collaboration is the key to leaving traces of multiple voices. It is an authentic practice that values individuals within a group context. As critical friends, teachers in the early learning community can help each other recognize the limitations of the thematic approach to curriculum. In 2008, I wrote a doctoral dissertation on emergent curriculum and was inspired to create a three-part model. At the time, the term project was commonly used. Currently, the term ‘projects’ seems to have been replaced in the vernacular by “inquiries”.

Three Part Model of Emergent Curriculum

The impetus for an individual educator to make the climb could come from his or her discovery of the Reggio Emilia approach. At the time of the writing of my dissertation I suggested that attending conferences, workshops, or reading the abundance of information found in books, articles, and on the Internet would help the process that could lead to cognitive dissonance. This new information and its availability could produce the cognitive conflict that propels the journey up the mountain. This was long before social media created online possibilities to collaborate, share and gently provoke change in others. I have found the Facebook groups that I am involved in to be so informative, so engaging and so important to my practice. I highly recommend sending a request to join The Reggio Emilia Approach group keeping in mind that this is a place to support and encourage with critical kindness.

The Reggio Emilia Approach Facebook Group

It is my hope that this online community will provide the cognitive dissonance the proponents of the theme approach may need to precede their own change of practice. Of course this is an individual choice and changing is not so easy. Moving away from themes may be dependent on a number of variables including context. I do believe however, that themes should be examined critically if used in practice. The theme approach is often pre-determined and by nature is very different from a curriculum that unfolds. Passive acceptance of a predetermined curriculum encourages the status quo. The status quo is limiting to teachers and to children. Accepting the discomfort of cognitive dissonance will elevate the status quo of our sector, as the teacher who questions and deliberates on practice takes on the attributes of a researcher. For me, the journey up the mountain was not an easy climb, but as I invited others to co-construct the path, it became clearer. By accepting collaboration and including the voice of others, I reached a point of change and transformation that had eluded me as a preschool teacher. When I was working with children, I did not have the vantage point of the mountain peak. I accepted the tightly controlled script of the thematic approach and practiced without question. The pivot point in my journey was when I began to deliberate on the practice of themes. When I planned curriculum in this way, I would choose the theme well ahead of implementation, basing my choice on a particular curriculum text that suggested what to do and when to do it. In retrospect, when I recall the matrix of activities that represented the curriculum I presented to children, it was irrelevant, meaningless, and incongruent. I remember the main challenge was to fill in the boxes so that each represented the overarching theme, paying little consequence to what or how children were learning. My blind adherence to themes brings to mind the words of Malaguzzi as eloquently expressed in the “100 Languages” poem:

The child has a hundred languages (and a hundred, hundred, hundred more). But they steal ninety-nine; the school and the culture separate the head from the body. They tell the child to think without hands, to do without head, to listen and not speak, to understand without joy, to love and marvel only at Easter and Christmas.

In my own experience with themes, no concerted effort was made to include the children’s wishes and interests. Some teachers may be able to use themes flexibly and allow for transgressions from the dominant theme, but I found it necessary to “stay on theme.” I made an assumption, every week and every day, about what the children needed to know. I acted as the transmitter of this knowledge. I was not open to hearing the voice of the children, the voice of the parents, nor even my own inner voice. The primary way I covered the theme was through the use of adult-created, pre-cut shapes that represented common symbols. Often I would also include worksheets, which satisfied a need to have an academic focus within my classroom. As a preschool teacher, I had numerous books with reproducible worksheets that were compiled according to common themes. Worksheets that involve connecting dots and matching two-dimensional objects created by adults removed opportunities for children to be actively engaged in their own learning. When children act on objects and are encouraged to think, theorize, and problem solve they are building knowledge. Worksheets remove the opportunity for children to make decisions. When the teacher corrects worksheets, the children learn that the teacher is the only one who determines which answers are right. In my practice, I was modeling a curriculum prescribed by others. I was voiceless within my own classroom. Themes only scratched the surface of possibilities and potential—my own and the children’s. However, projects do not necessarily provide all the answers; they can also be controlling. The curriculum that truly will elevate the status of early childhood education will be one where power is shared and projects or inquiries emerge through co-construction between teachers and children.

10 thoughts on “From Themes to Emergent Curriculum: Facing the Resistance to Change with Kindness and Compassion

    • What a great exercise! I have been thinking of a few defining moments myself lately. I remember being very resistant to social media and experiencing a cognitive knot when I considered adding it to my practice! I am glad I am embraced that moment of dissonance.I love hearing about the wonderful work you and Nan are doing!

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  1. Thank you Diane, you’re helping me reflect on my practice – and I’m teaching three year olds in the Middle East – the benefits of social media. You’re right about change, no one likes to feel uncertain. I believe there is a middle ground where themes become the broad plan and, like you say, some teachers are able to…” use themes flexibly and allow for transgressions from the dominant theme”. That’s where the magic happens. Thank you – I was able to see some magical moments in my classroom today.

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  2. Thank you for your thoughts!! It has really helped me reflect on my practice as a teacher! I come from a Reggio inspired background but now work in a centre that has a different vision. I have been trying to fit in and have now realised through this post that I should follow my own beliefs and values. I am scared as to how I am going to implement them but having reaffirmed that an emerging curriculum is the path I follow where there is co-construction between teacher and child will be the journey I take as a teacher.

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  3. Hi Diane, I work with 2-year-olds (18 months to 34 months). I love the idea of an emergent curriculum, but my toddlers are newly verbal and are interested in Everything! We do use themes to introduce them to different ideas every couple of weeks, but if you can suggest a real way to try emergent curriculum with toddlers, I’d love to hear it! Thanks!

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    • I can! Interests do not have to be expressed they can be observed. What are the toddlers interested in doing? Rolling, climbing, stacking, pouring, building? Give them more experiences, opportunities, invitations to play and learn. Document to make the learning visible and keep playing.

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  4. Pingback: Entry 4: My Thoughts on Emergent Curriculum | emergingeducationsite

  5. Thanks for reposting this Diane. A year later the messages are still relevant to today’s practice. Change is difficult for many for a multitude of reasons for sure. Being in a state of cognitive dissonance can be scary and not scary good which requires one to take action down roads less traveled. So many like to know where they are going but giving up certainty can be so exhilarating, for children and educators.

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  6. Yes, yes and yes! Not only do we practice emergent curriculum at our preschool, but we have also found that eliminating transitions and giving children longer periods of time for investigating and play deepens learning. (we have an hour and a half block of time for outdoor play and an hour of indoor play in our part time program)

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