Moving ECE away from academic learning

Pua Chee Ling and Sean Dolan share their views about how a holistic approach is pertinent to facilitate the whole development of a child.

While parents in the 70s and 80s considered early childhood education (ECE) irrelevant in Malaysia, today, it is a vastly different story. Present-day parents are now more aware about topics like children’s developmental theories and stages. They have become increasingly involved in their child’s early development and want to see to it that their child hit the necessary milestones. All this has led to greater emphasis on ECE in Malaysia. While it is a positive development for the country, there is concern over parents’ expectations of their children. “It is common to have parents voice their dissatisfaction if the teacher hasn’t ensured that their child can recite the ABCs within the first month of starting kindergarten,” shares Pua Chee Ling, the Chief Executive of Dika College, one of the pioneering education institutions that offer early childhood education and special needs diploma and degree courses in Malaysia.

For so long, society has perceived education as a development of academic learning where the end game is good grades. It still does. Even if there are non-academic subjects in the curriculum, scoring straight As trumps everything else in the eyes of parents, educators and certain employers. Now, it appears that this system is encroaching into pre-school. But is it beneficial to a child’s development? More so, is it advised for a child below the age of 5? If we need an idea, just consider the results of our academic-inclined education system based on the calibre of Malaysian graduates today. Based on a 2017 report from Bank Negara, 78% of multinational companies stated that it would not hire Malaysian graduates for six reasons: lack of confidence and self-esteem, communication skills, leadership traits (they are good followers but not leaders), problem-solving skills, creative and critical thinking skills.


Child-centred curriculum

According to Chee Ling, parents need to stop dictating what their children should know at a given age. “The child should take the centre role in their own education and learning and not be concerned about meeting their parents’ expectations.” This is one of the key elements of the play-based approach where a teacher essentially plans individual lessons based on their observations of the particular child. “It’s a non-prescriptive curriculum so it doesn’t demand that the child must be able to do a set of things by this time or age. It’s a holistic approach that aims to facilitate the whole development of a child. So, essentially we’re saying to the child, the curriculum has to match you and not the other way around, which is normally the case,” shares Sean Dolan, the Academic Dean of New Zealand Tertiary College (NZTC).

This shared philosophy of ‘child-centred early education’ is what brought Dika College and NZTC together. Dika recently partnered with NZTC, New Zealand’s foremost private early childhood education institution, to offer its 3+0 Bachelor of Education (Early Childhood Education) programme in Malaysia. The aim is to raise the calibre of ECE teachers in Malaysia. Through this partnership, Chee Ling says she also hopes to be able to learn more from New Zealand’s advanced early childhood education sector. “New Zealand is world-famous for ECE and has a lot to offer Malaysia in terms of knowledge and experience. Their established ECE sector is a great model of what we aspire to manifest in Malaysia,” shares Chee Ling.

For this to happen however, it is imperative for parents and stakeholders like early childhood centre operators and policymakers to realise the importance of ECE. Essentially, ECE is about the holistic development of the child. It concerns their social, physical, psychological, mental and spiritual development. Through ECE, children are taught and trained in decision-making and how to work in teams. They are encouraged to develop their imagination, creativity and leadership. And these are the very qualities that employers are seeking in prospective employees. “In fact, according to the United Nations, every dollar you invest on one child on ECE, the country saves seven dollars later on things like savings on welfare,” shares Dolan.


Embracing a child’s individuality

There is also an urgent need to shift from a structured curriculum that doesn’t embrace a child’s individuality. “Every child is different, they have unique interests, learning curve and background. A curriculum needs to be inclusive to consider these factors and accommodate the child,” says Chee Ling. This will not only require a teacher to view the child as an individual but to find ways to nurture the child as she is, help her develop holistically and grow confidence. And this is the goal of the play-based approach.

In a play-based curriculum, a teacher has a strong presence in the child’s development. “So, the teacher works with the child primarily to identify interests. It could be that the child is interested in cars. So, the teacher then develops a curriculum around his interests and builds in learning into those play-based activities as well. So this makes the child motivated. And because he is motivated in whatever it is he is doing, he is learning. And it’s because you’re not taking play away from the child,” shares Dolan.


Socio-cultural approach

When it comes to education especially early years, parents play a crucial role. “It’s a big part of the curriculum to partner with the parents. It informs the teacher on how to plan for the child’s curriculum. Especially in a multicultural society like in New Zealand and Malaysia, a teacher can’t know all the parents know about the child and what they do with the child at home. Every family is quite different depending on the culture that the child is brought up in. So partnership with parents is crucial, it’s important to learn as much from the parents to plan the ideal curriculum for the child that will encourage their holistic development.”

Dolan cites an example of a child in West Auckland, which has a strong Pacific Island community. One of the children called Hunter who was around 2 or 3 years old would just bang on everything he could get his hands on. “With the socio-cultural approach, the teacher recognised the importance of parents. She spoke to the parents and found out that drumming is a big thing in their culture and the father is actually the lead drummer of his community. After knowing all that, she could then plan for that child’s learning a lot better like promote his sense of leadership. If she didn’t have the conversation with the parents and weren’t interested in the unique contribution of that child, more than likely she would have said: be quiet, stop drumming and would take away the things he was drumming. And the boy would never be able to realise his identity as a boy from the Pacific community.”


Seeing the child as an equal

The consideration of a child’s socio-cultural background is possible because each child is not only treated as an individual but as someone who is here to make a contribution to society. “It is also about considering the child with respect and care. I think the world is gradually becoming more considerate of children’s rights. We’re starting to see children as people rather than little people training to be people.  This automatically shifts how we think about ECE as well. When we start thinking of children as having their own rights, we stop trivialising them. We understand that they should be allowed to be children and enjoy their years being children and allow them to play. And we start seeing that this is actually how children learn (through play). So, the worst thing you can do is to force the child to sit down and do what you want them to do,” states Dolan.

Dolan notes that it takes a lot of time for this shift to happen. Even in New Zealand, although a lot of people agreed about children’s rights, it took time to actually believe it and act on it. This is why he is enthusiastic about the “little” voice in Malaysia that is speaking up for children’s right to be children and not force-fed academic learning. But Chee Ling says there is more than this aspect to look into in Malaysia’s ECE sector. For now, she is focused on facilitating properly qualified ECE teachers through academic programmes at Dika College. Also, as a passionate advocate of ECE in Malaysia, she recently organised an inaugural symposium on ECE, bringing together parents, teachers and stakeholders to consider the holistic wellbeing of children.

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