The early learning goals are under review, with a pilot of the Government’s proposed new EYFS framework starting in September and forming part of a consultation with the sector. The revision offers an invaluable opportunity to reflect on current practice, provision and the early years curriculum itself – what do we want children to learn in the 21st century?
The development of artificial intelligence1 and digital systems has convinced us that almost every aspect of our children’s and grandchildren’s lives will be different from ours. As these emerging technologies evolve, and are quickly replaced by as yet unimaginable new ones, society will need to become increasingly nimble and adaptable, with lifelong learning as its modus operandi. Already the need for children to learn and memorise facts is diminishing. Now more important is the ability to sieve and assess information critically for any kernel of ‘truth’.
Today’s pre-schoolers will enter the workforce around 2035. While we cannot contemplate exactly what their world will be like then, we do know that alongside the ‘basics’, they will need a greater ability to learn how to learn and be resilient in the face of fast-moving change. The focus here is not on ‘school readiness’ but ‘life readiness’.
21ST CENTURY SKILLS
Most discussions about ‘21st century skills’ emphasise the need for education to focus more on so-called ‘soft’ skills and character traits (such as creative thinking and curiosity), in addition to cognitive skills such as problem-solving, critical analysis, the attainment of core subject knowledge, and strong early literacy and numeracy.
Interestingly, early childhood education already includes a strong focus on these so-called ‘soft’ skills, and on whole-of-child development. The demand for people skills is growing faster than that for the science, technology engineering and mathematics skills which are so vital in our digital age.
There is a growing emphasis on integrated learning in early childhood education and care (ECEC), connecting the academic and the social.
Developing children’s competencies in creativity, collaboration, self-regulation and problem-solving can be undertaken through projects that harbour real-world knowledge. It can also be undertaken through problems that require young children (especially those aged three to five) to communicate and create knowledge together. Here, the important task of the educator is to emphasise, and give attention to, the learning process rather than the outcomes.
Connected to this is the importance of educators emphasising interactions that support what I termed Sustained Shared Thinking (SST). SST occurs when two or more individuals work together in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate an activity, extend a narrative. It is still rare to see SST in early years settings, but research2 shows children are more successful learners and better motivated to learn where it is practised.
Future learners will need an excellent start in early learning if they are to cope with mid- to late-21st century challenges. It is vital that early education curricula emphasise the process and outcomes of both soft and hard skills to create the most competent learners and citizens.
The family’s role is also essential in nurturing and enriching young children’s development. Any ECEC system that ignores this reality will fail to optimise children’s potential.3
Yet most systems offer less provision and funding for children under three because their care and education is very expensive. However, it is precisely these years when the family’s influence is greatest. Future ECEC systems should provide stronger support for families with younger children.
There is no reason why some of this support cannot be offered through digital technologies, streamed directly into the home.
In such a system, ECEC staff can offer more support to families living in challenging circumstances. By encouraging families to share their oral histories, for example, staff can help children to understand how others have handled and adapted to change and how to deal with the challenges and changes that they will inevitably face.
EARLY YEARS WORKFORCE
There is now growing evidence4 that high-quality training impacts children’s social and cognitive learning outcomes. Despite this, the early years generally contains the least qualified and worst paid of educators. When early education provision is genuinely high quality, it can bring lasting benefits to a population – but government investment in knowledge, capital and labour must be commensurate.
We are heading for an age that requires adaptable ‘knowledge workers’ who can work collaboratively, independently and creatively. The solution does not lie in our youngest spending long periods in front of a screen. Too much screen-time will only deflect them from developing the essential human skills they need. Plus, we already know that increased use of digital devices at an early age leads to poorer outcomes.5
Good ECEC teachers, and parents, resist the temptation to use screen-time for child entertainment and control. Rather, they show children how technology can serve our needs as tools that we turn to within our play and work.
Perhaps it is time to construct a new curriculum and create a re-envisioned ECEC system that includes a workforce that is fit for purpose, well-rewarded and well-educated. Such a system may truly provide the foundational learning that our children and grandchildren deserve and enable them to face the challenges of our brave new world.