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Challenging traditional concepts of teaching and learning through the introduction of woodwork in early childhood education and care

Written By: Ruth Beck
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9 min read
Ruth Beck, Manager, Chagford Montessori Nursery School, UK

The revised Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) (DfE, 2021b) requires practitioners to design a curriculum addressing specific learning and development requirements. This piece investigates the developmental stage theory and sociological theory within the EYFS, with particular focus on the effects of introducing woodwork to an early childhood education and care (ECEC) setting. It shows that woodwork can offer an alternative framework for learning, embodying the characteristics of effective teaching and learning (CoETL). Woodwork provides valuable opportunities for children and practitioners as they consider the ‘intent’, ‘implementation’ and potential ‘impact’ of the activity (Ofsted, 2021). The paper concludes by reflecting on the value of the findings for the development of professional practice.

 The phrase ‘learning and development’ appears throughout the EYFS document: it stipulates that for learning to take place, ‘providers must guide the development of children’s capabilities’ (DfE, 2021b, p. 7). The epistemological construction of ‘learning’ is aligned with Piagetian ontology, where ‘development leads learning’ (Wood, 2020, p. 322). Piaget’s stage theory proposed that, through exploration and play, children construct understandings of the world (Hatch, 2010), and in doing so, their mental structures change, moving through a series of stages. This psychological learning theory sees learning as originating inside the child, who then impacts their environment (an inside-out model) (Jarvis, 2009).

Adults’ role in children’s learning is also highlighted in the EYFS: ‘[Children] also need adults to “scaffold” their learning by giving them just enough help to achieve something they could not do independently.’ (DfE, 2021a, p. 6) This aligns with Vygotsky’s social learning theory, especially the zone of proximal development (Hatch, 2010). Sociological theory proposes that culture impacts learning (an outside-in model) (Jarvis, 2009). Interaction is the primary focus of social learning theory and is essential for language development. The importance of learning language is emphasised continuously throughout the EYFS. This exemplifies Bruner’s theory of language development (1983), which sees language as the foremost requirement for thinking and thought processing: future learning relies on these mental structures being in place. The EYFS highlights the role of the adult in language learning through the explicit teaching of vocabulary that is implicitly learnt (Reber, 1993) by children during the activities that they do. Learning new vocabulary is a process of encoding information and turning concrete experiences into words, which act as symbols for meanings. Language is fundamental to developing the thought processes and thinking skills on which future learning depends. Social learning theory is utilised in the EYFS to fulfil this goal.

From Vygotsky’s social learning theory, which focused on extending an individual’s learning through interacting with more capable others, sociocultural theory evolved. This ‘acknowledges that cultural contexts influence learning trajectories, including the nature of child–adult engagement’ (Wood, 2020, p. 327), and incorporates cultural institutions, tools and artefacts (Hedges, 2021) into the learning relationship. According to sociocultural theory, the EYFS can be seen as a cultural construct that constructs children’s learning, as it impacts on interactions in ECEC settings. Bruner (2009) would agree that the EYFS is constructing a reality and meanings that adapt practitioners and children to a particular cultural system.

‘Learning leads development’ (Wood, 2020, p. 324); this statement is the antithesis of developmentalism. So how do these contrary epistemologies sit alongside each other and to what effect? The appeal of science-based child development theories is confirmed by the ‘Development matters’ document (DfE, 2021a), setting out non-statutory curriculum guidance for the EYFS and emphasising practitioners’ need for a thorough knowledge of the typical stages of child development. However, this normative ‘ages and stages’ conceptualisation has become pervasive in ECEC policy (Wood, 2020). It is enshrined in the early learning goals (ELGs), which suggest that by the end of the school year in which children turn five years old, they should all acquire the same set of knowledge and skills.

Ofsted’s inspection handbook evaluation schedule (2021) makes the learning expectations explicit. The outstanding grade descriptors for ‘behaviour and attitudes’ read as if the setting should be full of children who have already attained the ELGs for personal, social and emotional development. It states: ‘Children have consistently high levels of respect for others. Children share and cooperate with each other; children demonstrate high levels of self-control.’ (Ofsted, 2021, point 193) Here, learning is not presented realistically as being a lengthy process, whereby children will be at different stages at any one time, progressing and regressing in a non-linear manner. This expectation is especially troubling currently, when children are starting/returning to nursery after long periods of family isolation, having missed out on the usual social opportunities due to toddler groups and other facilities being closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Learning from and for life

Hedges (2021, p. 1063) warns that ‘adults often constrain children’s exploration by imposing limits’. This is significant in the EYFS, when adults ‘guide’ children towards being school-ready. Adult-led activities can overshadow peer relationships, inhibiting children’s opportunity to explore ideas in a more equal relationship (Hedges, 2021). It would be detrimental if these scenarios were not valued and permitted to flourish within ECEC settings. The EYFS employs ‘learning leading development’, an outside-in approach, to equip children with a particular set of knowledge, skills, values and behavioural norms. But this does not reflect the needs and values of a diverse society, and poses an ethical dilemma for the practitioner as they decide what to prioritise.

Dewey acknowledged that the educational process consists of psychological and sociological learning, and argued that neither should be subordinated to the other or neglected (Dewey, 1959). However, examination of the EYFS shows a bias towards psychological learning. Ring and Sullivan (2018) cite research suggesting that the development of dispositions is crucial for children’s future personal, social and economic wellbeing. This is in line with Dewey’s concept of education as the process of forming fundamental dispositions such as initiative, curiosity, risk-taking, self-confidence, engagement, persistence, concentration, participation, communication and enthusiasm. Hedges (2021) agrees that ECEC should be based on helping children to build an identity as a capable learner, with those dispositions as its core, which she equates with a sociocultural perspective of education.

Dewey (1959) proposed that to prepare children for the future, they need to experience the fullness of living in the present, and that this should be the basis for education. Rich empirical learning equips children with the self-command needed to cope with new and unforeseeable circumstances. Ring and Sullivan (2018) assert that over-emphasis on outcomes results in insufficient attention to the process of learning, with a detrimental impact on the child’s identity as a capable learner. Dewey’s concept of learning is upheld in contemporary concepts of learning based on an ‘emergent curriculum’ (Wood, 2020), whereby children and adults co-construct learning. This approach is responsive to children’s interests and needs (Ring and Sullivan, 2018), and can be equated with ‘sustained shared thinking’, where the thought processes of a child are extended through their engagement with others (Siraj-Blatchford and Sylva 2004), and with ‘learning by observing and pitching in’, where informal learning occurs when children are incorporated into family and community endeavours (Rogoff, 2014).

The CoETL (DfE, 2021b) offer an alternative framework for encouraging a positive attitude to learning. Practitioners can provide children with opportunities to investigate, develop ideas and strategies, with the emphasis on children’s active engagement in enjoyable learning experiences. These dispositions are informally learnt and become tacit knowledge. However, the one short reference to the CoETL (DfE, 2021b) suggests that these dispositions are valued less than explicit learning and knowledge. Priority is given to communication and language for attainment of the ELGs and especially for the ability to read and write; the focus of the EYFS on school readiness inhibits broader-based learning, including ‘divergent’ life skills. The limits of the EYFS could be due to its dependence upon developmentalism, which determines which milestones can be achieved according to a child’s age, as per the ELGs.

Building essential dispositions through woodworking

I own and lead Chagford Montessori in Devon, providing Early Years learning for children aged from two-and-a-half to six years old. In response to observations of children’s interests, I wanted to explore woodwork as a vehicle for the CoETL. Through discussion, I and my colleagues arrived at our aims for incorporating woodwork into our curriculum, agreeing that we would be working with ideas and concepts as much as the physical materials. To achieve strong CoETL, we made prompt cards kept in the woodworking toolbox. The cards contain open-ended questions for staff to ask children to encourage them to reflect, generate ideas, speculate and have conversations about their previous knowledge. Therefore, the adult role is to ensure safety and to encourage the CoETL.

With a risk assessment in place and the site prepared with child-sized tools, a selection of shapes and sizes of soft wood, and accessories such as beads, pieces of cloth, bottle tops and cork rounds, staff demonstrated the use of each tool safely to small groups of children. When staff ratios allow, we cordon off part of a room to create a space specifically for woodwork, where one or two children work at a time. Other children watch at a safe distance and await their turn. The children come and go as their interest dictates; some continue with a project over several weeks. Popular themes include vehicles and animals. Sometimes children paint, draw and colour their creations. All the children’s creations are just as unique as the children themselves.

The supervising adult scaffolds emerging thinking and language skills. As children create, they are encouraged to reflect on their work. We have witnessed children’s ability to express their creative intentions and processes and to describe the development of creative and critical thinking. Often, children will be deeply absorbed in their work, so we make time available for children to talk about their work afterwards. The theorisation of woodwork described here features both explicit knowledge (physical skills, new vocabulary, social skills) and implicit knowledge (problem-solving, critical thinking). Reflection and verbalisation enable the learner to become aware of the processes that they are using. We have found that creating another time for children to show and talk about their work to other staff and children, as Moorhouse (2018) suggests, has been invaluable in developing children’s metacognition.

Learning-relevant capacities such as affect, motivation, interest, working memory, self-regulatory and metacognitive strategies, play, imagination and pretence serve as relevant curriculum content for children learning to cope and succeed in the world, with all of today’s diversity (Wood, 2020). This aligns with Elkjaer’s (2009) concept of a comprehensive and contemporary theory of learning. Woodwork is just one aspect of what children do in our Early Years setting. Building on the success of the woodworking initiative, we have applied strategies in other contexts: we provide children with opportunities to participate in and observe alternative open-ended activities, giving specific feedback and inviting their thoughts, encouraging them to verbalise their implicit learning and tacit knowledge. The introduction of woodwork into the setting has provided a stimulus to examine learning and consider forms of knowledge and how they are valued.

From dispositions to identity – an ethical responsibility

Dominant educational narratives, made explicit through the EYFS, are subject to continuous revisions, responding to or directed by socioeconomic and political attitudes and goals. Nevertheless, when practitioners critically appraise the theorisation of learning in such a framework, they can engage positively with children’s emerging learning dispositions. The discovery and development of dispositions is critical for identity formation – a key but little-discussed function of education. How practitioners scaffold children’s learning thus has a major influence on identity formation, and it therefore merits careful consideration as an ethical factor. This highlights the significant responsibility of ECEC practitioners – and their potential to help children lay learning foundations that will have life-long benefits. Practitioners require proper investment to be able to fulfil those potentialities.

Creating an environment, culture and activities that enable exploration, creative play and ideation, trial and error, open dialogue and communication and, above all, which provide enjoyment will cultivate CoETL. The CoETL are important for all children –indeed, they have been for generations of children – and should be regarded as essential. In addition, the CoETL are crucial for children throughout their educational journey, whereas the ELGs are bound to a specific stage in children’s development and learning. When ECEC is viewed as socially constructed rather than ‘pre-given and fixed’ (Burr, 2015, p. 15), a post-developmental concept of learning that consists of a desirable mix of approaches or ‘constellation of cultural practices’ (Rogoff, 2014, p. 70) can manifest. However, ECEC under-funding has limited resources, preventing practitioners from receiving training and pursuing continuous professional development, both of which are necessary for critical reflection on practice. As a team, the staff at Chagford Montessori have demonstrated perseverance, creativity and problem-solving by overcoming the difficulties inherent in establishing woodwork as part of our curriculum. If funding allows, we want woodwork to become a larger part of our provision, offered to more children more of the time. We have also made a commitment to extend our own learning through reflective practice, which will become evident in everything that we do.

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