Getting it right in the early years of a child’s educational journey has become widely accepted as integral to improving long-term outcomes. Perhaps due to a combination of a Confucian ethic and neo-liberal economic influence, Hong Kong’s schools have a reputation for intensive preparation from a young age, and a worrying tendency to overburden children as a result. However, many education departments are now mandating that schools shift their emphasis away from knowledge-based curricula towards a more child-centred, exploratory type of learning.
The United Kingdom’s Early Years Foundation Stages (EYFS), created in 2008 and updated in 2014, functions as guidelines for early childhood educators to monitor the holistic progress of young learners. Consequently, this approach is finding its way into many of Hong Kong’s British-influenced international schools.
Finding what works for each child
“The EYFS is an exact fit for us,” says Mr Brian Cooklin, Principal of Nord Anglia International School. “We treat each student as a unique child. And it is expected a teacher should know each child as an individual. Aside from the traditional academic development, we focus equally on social development and physical development. What we’ve built is an environment that allows that to happen. For example: looking at numbers, when they go out into the play space, we might ask students to bring us three Lego bricks, or use sand to teach measurement. It’s hands on, real learning. Here’s the problem; how would you solve it. What would you do in this situation?”
Mills International Preschool is another passionate advocate for the EYFS to guide teaching and learning, but Ms Deirdre McCloskey, School Director at Mills, takes a measured approach. “Balance is the key, with sufficient time allocated to child-initiated play and also focused adult-led activities that stimulate curiosity and a desire to explore and learn.”
To many Hong Kong parents, the principle that academic benchmarks should not necessarily drive pedagogy is a risk too great to justify, perhaps partly because they would then feel less able to influence the success of their child. So how can parents support their children in these emergent learning environments?
“Keeping in regular contact and establishing honest and respectful communications with your child’s teacher is the first step in supporting both the school’s approach and also the child’s learning,” says Ms McCloskey. “We advise parents to find out what their child is interested in, to recognise and value their individual learning style (visual, auditory, kinesthetic), and to support their love for learning by providing encouragement rather than comparison with other peers.”
Brian Cooklin from Nord Anglia says there’s a lot parents can to do to support the school’s implementation of the EYFS. “Encourage students to play,” he told Top Schools. “And practise reading, practise phonics. Read to them, even if they can’t read themselves.” Rather than dedicate time to outsourcing education to tutors and trained ‘experts’, Mr Cooklin also asks that parents commit their time to getting involved in school-related activities.
Semi-structured is still structured
Some critics of the EYFS, and similar child-centred approaches, fear they lack adequate structures to ensure students are reaching the requisite levels in numeracy and literacy. Yet Brian Cooklin has a simple defence: “It’s not actually supposed to be structured. We go from where the child is. A lot of the assessment is observation. To measure the development of gross motor skills, you could observe children climbing on playground equipment. Or, to measure fine motor skills, teachers could informally observe how the pencil is controlled while drawing. But the main value for me is the sheer enjoyment children have in learning in the curriculum. It’s a very good way to teach teamwork. You learn more when you work together.”
The Western Co-Principal at Yew Chung International School’s Early Childhood Education Section, Kate McAlister, notes the tendency in Hong Kong to over-fill young children’s schedules with formal, planned lessons to provide children with more learning. “However, supporting and encouraging children’s inborn drive to play and explore gives them the most valuable skills in living and learning,” says Ms McAlister. “Through play, children learn crucial lessons, such as the cycle of practice, fail, try again; building in them persistence and resilience. Play provides children with opportunities to build their confidence and creativity as they become risk takers and problem solvers. In this ever-changing world, these skills cannot be learned by memorisation, but are truly fostered by allowing children to test and try new experiences and ideas.
Ms McAlister continues to explain the importance of Play-based learning approach: “Children are consistently strengthening their cognitive thinking as they actively take part in their learning. These are valued skills and even today’s workplaces are not seeing enough self-initiation, critical analyses or creativity. Individual children should be valued for their strengths and differences. Too often as adults we forget about the importance of the formation of personality within a child and how it needs to be gently nurtured. When adults provide time for play, they show children that they respect and trust in their natural and authentic desire to learn and question their world. Within play, children have the opportunity to develop positive and secure dispositions, allowing stable character formation and unique personality traits. They gain strong self-identity, which carries on with them throughout life. Children may be ‘small’ but by no means should they ever be made to feel insignificant.”
The Chinese Co-Principal at Yew Chung International School’s Early Childhood Education Section, Ms Gladys Au, elaborates on their Child-centred approach, and notes that the potentially dangerous outcome of a passive mindset, heavy on a rote learning approach to education, is the ill effect of a student’s ability to self-regulate and develop intrinsic thinking skills. “With the unknown challenges of the twenty-first century ahead for our children, education should be providing a platform for children to develop the ability to plan, monitor, evaluate and implement a variety of thinking processes that are fundamental towards becoming creative and critical thinkers,” says Ms Au.
Deirdre McCloskey agrees that the EYFS is suitably equipped to meet the needs of children in those critical early years, and again preaches holism as the key to fostering a love of learning and, ultimately, sustained personal growth. “The use of balanced and varied approaches and activities, where each individual learner’s interests and experiences are valued, complements the Mills approach and belief in educating the whole child socially, emotionally, physically, creatively and intellectually, and allows them to develop and learn in different ways and at different speeds.”
Development over knowledge
Another school taking steps to implement the EYFS in Shrewsbury International School Hong Kong, which accepts students from three years old, and offers a child-driven, experiential learning environment.
“When I’m talking to parents about our program, I describe the structure as developmental,” says Mr Ben Keeling, Founding Principal of the Hong Kong campus of the renowned British school, which will open in August 2018. “Benchmarks that all children come across (rolling, head up, crawling) are windows of time when it is usual that those things happen. And it’s relatively common across the board. That’s essentially how the framework functions. It’s not knowledge-based, but developmental-based.
“For example: there are various different areas that the framework is organised into: predominantly prime and specific. The specific area is very familiar to parents, very school-like (literacy, maths, understanding the world, expressive arts and design). They are often very well understood. They ring true with their own experience of education. The prime areas, though, are slightly more difficult for parents to get a tangible feel for. These are communication and language; physical development; and – becoming more broadly accepted in Hong Kong – personal, social and emotional development – your resilience, your fortitude.
Mr Keeling is passionate about early childhood learning and the groundbreaking work done in its name. He points out that the three characteristics of a student going through the EYFS – that is, to play and explore, to problem solve, and to learn actively – are trending everywhere from white-collar conferences to university campuses and wellness retreats.
“These characteristics are now being adopted way outside early years,” he says. “These characteristics are sensible aspirations we can have for all children – to make little children into conscious little learners. These ideas are always being referenced by non-early childhood educators. But I think we are always doing it in the EYFS.”