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Abstract

The title of the thesis is ‘What are four-year-olds doing at school? Reconciling current knowledge about learning in young children with early educational pedagogy.’ The study addresses the question of four-year-olds at school on two levels. On the one hand, the study describes what four-year-olds are doing at school. Using data from the IEA Preprimary Project1 the thesis provides information on parental and teacher expectations for 203 four-year-olds and presents details of the observed behaviour of the children and their teachers in school. Some of this data has been reported elsewhere (Hayes, O’Flaherty and Kernan, 1997). Additional analysis has been carried out to provide more detail on social interactions in the classrooms including matrices to allow for an examination of the degree of match between teacher planning and child behaviour. In addition to the direct question of what Irish four-year-olds actually do at school the thesis also considers the question of whether four-year-olds should be in primary school. In this connection it presents, analyses and discusses the child activities recorded, the observed adult behaviour and the management of time in the classroom in the context of an extensive review of psychological and educational research. The unique contribution of this thesis to early education in Ireland can be seen on a number of levels. In the first place it argues, by reference to research, that the case has been made for the support of quality early education as a unique and separate level of education along a continuum of lifelong learning. It further argues that there is ample research isolating those factors which constitute quality early education. Through the literature review this thesis extends beyond these conclusions by addressing why quality early education is effective and desirable for young children. Drawing on psychological research it concludes that quality early education is effective, in the short and long-term, because of the interactive nature of the pedagogy and its effect on development. It supports this assertion by reference to psychological findings on the role of interactions in development and educational research on the impact of interactions on learning. Secondly, the argument of the thesis is that educators, whether teachers, academics or policy makers should expand their consideration of what early education should provide for children by including attention to affective development and the nurturing of learning dispositions. The proposal that generative learning dispositions are critical to early and future learning is supported by reference to contemporary psychological and educational literature. In particular, the link to developmental psychology is made through the identification of the central relationship between dispositions, proximal processes (close day-to-day interactions) and the progress of development. This study proposes that generative learning dispositions can be developed within the early years setting when the teacher is sensitive to fostering and guiding their development. For this to happen, it argues, teachers need an awareness of what learning dispositions are, an understanding of why they are important to development and learning and a pedagogy that fosters their development in early learning environments through the explicit acknowledgement of the educative nature of care. To facilitate this the thesis proposes a mechanism to make psychological research more relevant to educational practice and to inform psychological research by reference to practice. In this regard the thesis proposes that the bio-ecological model of development (Bronfenbrenner & Ceci, 1994; Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998) provides a useful framework at both a theoretical and a practical level. Thirdly, in the context of the limited research base on early education in Ireland (Walsh, 2003) this thesis contributes an important addition. Using a complex research design the thesis provides comprehensive data on what parents and teachers expect of four-year-olds and details on what actually happens in the primary school classrooms these four-year-olds are attending. There is original analysis presented in this work, particularly in relation to social interactions within the classroom and the interaction between certain setting variables. Finally, this work contributes to the current debate on early education in Ireland by presenting and defending a unique integration of the literature review and empirical data at time when early education continues to be characterised as a period of preparation for school (Coolahan, 1998; Ireland, 1999a; 1999b). The thesis concludes that what four-yearolds are doing at school relies too much on the traditional view of development towards the acquisition of skills and knowledge, reflects limited active participation by children in their own learning, highlights the dominance of a traditional, didactic teaching style and indicates a limited recognition of the importance of developing skills of learning through planning for the development of learning dispositions. It provides recommendations for future research, reformed pedagogy, curriculum development and teacher education.

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