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The 4th ECEC Research Conference Panel Discussion: Reviewing Japan's ECEC based on the Practice and Assessments in Other Countries

Japanese Chinese
Moderator: Yoichi Sakakihara (Professor, Graduate School of Ochanomizu University, Director, Child Research Net)
Panelists: Mari Mori (Associate Professor, St. Margaret's Junior College)
Nobuko Kamigaichi (Professor, Jumonji University)
Miwako Hoshi (Professor, Nagoya University of Arts)
Nianli Zhou (Professor, East China Normal University)
Yuto Kitamura (Associate Professor, Graduate School of The University of Tokyo)

After the individual lectures, the five lecturers and moderator Yoichi Sakakihara conducted a panel discussion. They earnestly discussed issues relating to "Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC)" indicated by the lecturers, such as the necessity of ideal methods to evaluate the quality of ECEC. These issues were identified based on a comparison of ECEC in Japan with that of other countries, namely, the cities of Reggio Emilia and Pistoia, Italy, New Zealand, and Shanghai, China, in terms of advantages, and common and different aspects.

Merits of ECEC in other countries

Sakakihara: Now, Dr. Mori, Professor Kamigaichi and Professor Hoshi, I would like to ask all of you to explain the merits of ECEC in the respective region and country you have just discussed; that is, the cities of Reggio Emilia and Pistoia, Italy, and New Zealand. Then, I will ask Professor Zhou and Dr. Kitamura to provide their opinions regarding the merits mentioned.

Mori: It is hard to generalize, but ECEC practiced in the city of Reggio Emilia, Italy has particular strength in fostering children's intellectual curiosity and sensitivity. I personally realized such strength while observing ECEC education in practice there. I also conducted an interview survey with people who had received such education in Reggio Emilia and returned to the city as residents after adulthood. The majority of them answered that they felt the same way as I did.

In contrast, the teachers answered that they could not tell the actual effects of ECEC practiced in Reggio Emilia on children. Since each child is different, it is difficult for them to definitively point out positive impact without careful study.

Kamigaichi: I think that one of the advantages of "Te Whāriki" is to develop children's "personal warmth." Reading through the "Learning Stories" used in ECEC in New Zealand, I feel that each child is growing under the loving care of teachers. In my opinion, the "disposition" assessed in the "Learning Stories" can be described as the "positive and aspiring attitude towards people and things." As children interact with teachers who respect these attitudes on a daily basis, they naturally acquire attitudes to respect others, too.

Hoshi: I cannot provide a definite answer as I do not conduct longitudinal studies, but I feel the ECEC programs conducted in Pistoia do develop positive attitudes and intellectual curiosity in children. In addition, the close relationship between childcare teachers and primary school teachers as well as their collaborative initiatives can enhance smooth transitions from preschools to primary schools.

Zhou: I think that the ECEC practiced in Reggio Emilia respects each child's interest and feeling, and effectively stimulates their curiosity to challenge things. In China, the majority of educational institutions conduct collective learning without respecting children's interest, making children to learn passively as a result. Recently, however, more kindergartens are now practicing the philosophy of respecting the self-motivation of children and encouraging them to develop intellectual curiosity. These kindergartens were inspired by the ECEC methodology in Reggio Emilia.

Kitamura: Exemplary cases of ECEC tend to have a common quality: they are well-balanced. This can be related to the previous topic of how to evaluate the quality of ECEC. The 2014 UNESCO Framework, which I have just introduced in my lecture, proposes a new method for the evaluation of ECEC quality by comprehensively taking into account various factors such as education, health, nutrition, parental support, poverty, social protection and social security. In other words, the framework does not focus on particular aspects such as education or health, but emphasizes a balanced view by comprehensively considering various aspects.

I'm very interested in the initiative taken by the city of Pistoia, which Prof. Hoshi explained in her lecture, to create an environment relaxing for children's peace of mind. In Japan, such an environment is considered important for ECEC as well as school education. When thinking what a "good classroom" is, a bustling environment is not necessarily considered favorable; rather, a quiet classroom will allow children to think deeply. Therefore, it is significant to prepare a quiet and comfortable environment for the sound development of children.

Suggestions for ECEC in Japan based on comparisons with other countries

Sakakihara: How does ECEC in Japan compare with that of Reggio Emilia, Pistoia and New Zealand? Dr. Mori, Prof. Kamigaichi, and Prof. Hoshi, please tell us your opinions.

Mori: I feel that people in the city of Reggio Emilia enjoy their life. For example, in my survey, many citizens enjoy weekends with special weekend activities such as going to the opera. And teachers are no exceptions.

Constantly finding fun and enjoyment in their daily life seems to be a traditional part of the life of the people here. This is probably one of the factors contributing to the success in Reggio Emilia of ECEC which respects children's emotions and inspires their interest and motivation.

We can learn from the way people in Reggio Emilia value their tradition. Of course, our culture has many valuable traditions as well. For example, people in Reggio Emilia, who have been in Japan, often admire wabi-sabi (simplicity and serenity that comes with age) found in traditional Japanese fittings such as shoji (paper doors) and fusuma (paper screens). I believe that Japanese people should once more recognize the value of their traditions and find ways to enjoy and respect such traditions. This will enhance the quality of ECEC in a way only Japanese people can achieve.

Kamigaichi: In Japan nowadays, most education institutions including preschools emphasize verbal expression and communication, and are focusing on the development of those skills. At the same time, however, Japanese have valued sokuin-no-jo (compassion or empathy), in which people understand and feel what others want to say through their gestures and expressions from ancient times; also a factor that led to build a compassionate society. This is one of the old good traditions of Japan and should be valued more in today's education system, in particular, in the ECEC system where children establish the foundation of emotional development.

Of course, it is important to teach children to express their opinions, and in turn, to listen to their peers' opinions in the classroom. The skill of verbal communication is critical to survive in society, and teachers should firmly support children in developing such a skill. However, we should not get one-sided by focusing only on such skills, but should also aim for an ECEC that reaches deeper into the emotions of children.

I believe that developing the two skills of verbal communication and the ability to understand implicit messages at the same time together will become a challenge for Japan's ECEC.

Hoshi: Japan's ECEC and that of Pistoia have some aspects in common, such as respecting the uniqueness of ECEC. They have differences as well, such as the way of teaching emotions to children. In Japan, teachers use words to convey messages such as "Be kind to others" and "Be gentle to others," while teachers in Pistoia try to convey the same messages to children through the environment, such as preparing a comfortable space, or suggesting plays that help children naturally understand the value of their peers.

In addition, teachers in Pistoia record the speech, facial expressions and behavior of children as well as the relationship with their peers. Then, teachers discuss with each other based on such records. In other words, they have an education system where multiple teachers comprehensively observe and take care of each child. These teachers share the data of each child and exchange opinions with each other. Such a system can be significantly advantageous to the efforts to improve ECEC practices. I hope that Japan's educationists will learn from this example of Pistoia.

Necessity to observe children from both cognitive and non-cognitive aspects

Sakakihara: Now, I would like to ask you for your opinions on how to evaluate the quality of ECEC.

Zhou: Japanese children are gentle and good at taking care of others, and at the same time, strong and vibrant. This is one of the reasons why ECEC researchers in China respect the methodologies of ECEC in Japan. Observing the physical and mental development of children is critical to evaluating the quality of ECEC.

Kitamura: I believe that it is a global challenge for today's ECEC practitioners to find a way to assess non-cognitive skills such as emotions. Economist James Heckman, whom I have just introduced in my lecture, argues the necessity of assessing the development of children based on their non-cognitive skills, which support cognitive development, and potential capacity. This is similarly important as the concept of compassion and empathy (sokuin-no-jo), pointed out by Prof. Kamigaichi.

Currently, there is a movement to develop an assessment methodology without heavily relying on the assessment of cognitive skills at the stage of elementary education. The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) under the OECD has been implementing a pilot survey in some countries. The survey is aimed for the comprehensive assessment of academic advancement, including non-cognitive skills such as communication skills and critical thinking. As they are trying to expand the scope of the target of this survey to preschool-age children, I hope that the outcome of the survey will change people's attitude towards preschool preparation which heavily relies on improving cognitive skills.

Mori: I feel that ECEC in Reggio Emilia focuses on both cognitive and non-cognitive aspects of children. I will introduce one example which I observed at a class for four-year-olds at the infant education facility in Reggio Emilia.

In the class, children were divided into groups of between four and six members for a self-portrait drawing. When a girl with glasses finished her portrait, a boy in the same group looked at the drawing and said "There is something strange about your picture." The teacher heard his words and asked him "What's wrong with it?" The boy replied after a moment's thought, looking at the portrait, "Maybe these eyes are rather small?" Then, the teacher asked the girl "He said the eyes are rather small. What do you think?" The girl replied "Even though her eyes are small, she feels happy inside." The boy said "If you don't tell me, I don't know what the girl's thinking." Then, the girl thought about his words for a while, and said "I will work on my drawing a bit more." She returned to her desk. Eventually, she finished her portrait again, and the boy immediately said to her "Now the picture looks very nice." The girl happily replied "Thank you!"

As you can see, the teacher effectively helped two children understand each other while respecting their feelings and thoughts.

Kamigaichi: I think that the cognitive and non-cognitive aspects are closely related to each other and cannot be separated clearly in the field of ECEC. As Dr. Mori said, the cognitive process (the teacher helped two children think carefully) resulted in the non-cognitive outcome (two children eventually understood other's feelings and thoughts).

When I visited the ECEC class in Pistoia, I recognized that the children in class effectively developed cognitive skills through play, which enhances their emotional development as well. At the same time, I noticed that the quiet environment, a non-cognitive factor, stimulated the cognitive capacity of children.

With respect to "Learning Stories" in New Zealand, I recognized that it attempts to comprehensively describe and visualize the development of children's cognitive and non-cognitive skills.

Sakakihara: Children's development should be comprehensively assessed without relying on a specific aspect, regardless of whether the cognitive and non-cognitive aspects of children should be separated or not. I suppose that this is the idea that all of you have in common. We also learned that ECEC in Japan and in other countries well-known for their best practice of ECEC have many things in common. I hope that all of the teachers attending this lecture are much encouraged to disseminate their own education practice to the world.

Thank you very much for your participation in this conference.

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In the panel discussion, the lecturers explained the common and different aspects of ECEC between Japan and other countries that are well-known for their best practice of ECEC. They also emphasized the importance of comprehensively assessing the development of children. In addition, the lecturers explained the advantages of ECEC in Japan such as the importance of outdoor activities with recreation in nature and respecting of the uniqueness of ECEC. They also pointed out some challenges for Japanese educationists, by comparing with the practices of ECEC in other countries, such as the importance of valuing Japanese culture and traditional educational methods that respect compassion and empathy.

These opinions are useful for us to understand and achieve ideal ECEC. We will continue further discussions in the future. Practical examples of ECEC are valuable resources. Japan's ECEC is highly recognized for its quality worldwide; therefore, I hope that teachers are encouraged to disseminate their own education practice to the world with confidence. All efforts towards ECEC will inspire international debates and lead to better ECEC practices beneficial to all children around the world.

CRN will conduct further ECEC research by expanding the scope of target countries. Please keep a lookout for our updates!

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