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Re-conceptualizing Early Childhood Education - From Asian View

This paper firstly will give a brief introduction of the context of early childhood education in Asian countries. It includes cultural and social changes, ECE administrative system and organizations, financial sources, costs, teacher's qualification, types of class schedules implemented in kindergarten, problems and trends, etc.
As the world is changing, our image of child and our understanding of knowledge need to be reconsidered. The concept of early childhood education also needs to be re-conceptualized. The idea of uncertainty, complexity, diversity and multiple perspectives are accepted and even welcomed. Education is now a social process that takes place in a specific context and that involves children, professionals, parents and other adults. Cultural differences, social complexity and inter-individual differences are important for the process of learning.

To illustrate the re-conceptualization of early childhood education, this paper presents the exploratory theme-based curriculum approach in Shanghai as an example. A qualitative study has been done to explore how this approach could match the Chinese culture and respond to the requirements of the new era in Shanghai. In the approach, case study method was adopted. Seven local kindergartens using themes as the basis for curriculum development were selected for investigations. The approach emphasizes on how to encourage children to explore, co-construct and express freely. Keeping balance between teacher-initiated activities and child-initiated activities is the key of this new approach. The forms and the features embedded in this approach were investigated. Suggestions and implications for exploratory theme-based curriculum were drawn.

I am very glad to have this opportunity to discuss with you the re-conceptualization of early childhood education. As I come from an Asian country, China, I would like to present my ideas from Asian view.

There are great differences among Asian countries and even among the districts within a country. The cultures, economic situations, political systems, educational policies, and people's values vary dramatically, and the races, religions, languages are multiple. (Maybe this is one of the reasons why the European countries can be united into one unit but Asian countries can not, because the situation in Asia is much more complicated and diversified than Europe.) For comparatively advanced districts, ECE focus on children's capability, creativeness, experience, emotional satisfaction, and well-being etc. As for the developing districts, ECE focus on the enrollment rate, children's academic skills etc.

In my opinion, there is no such a so-called "good" early childhood education that are suitable to all countries, all circumstances. When we re-consider the concept of ECE, we have to consider the context, the background.

As the world is becoming a global village and as we question the dominance of one particular language or ethnic identity, question the "dominating discourses", cultural differences should not be ignored but taken into account. ECE should not only includes cross-cultural aspects, but also be sensitive with regard to gender issues, age, social class, style of learning, physical characteristics, and ethnic background etc. The differences between the children should be treated as a source of enrichment and culture diversity should be actively highlighted.

Though great differences exist, there are still some similar common values, cultures in Asian countries. I will consider the re-conceptualizing ECE on these bases. Meanwhile, by considering that "raising questions are even more significant than getting answers", I would like to put forward some questions to stimulate our mind. Hope our discussion could enlighten each other.

Asian people are more group-oriented, or social-oriented. This is versus individual-oriented. In a group-oriented society, how can we apply the individualized ECE idea? Focus on children's individual characters? How can we preserve the advantages of our own culture when we learn from other cultures? How can the new concept be accepted by teachers and parents of traditional ideas?

Asian culture emphasizes more on results and goals, but pays less attention to the process. We even encourage sacrificing the process as long as we could obtain the goals. When China reformed its curricula in 1989, stressing on process, the teachers didn't know how to do. Theory and practice are separated. New concept became a vain attempt. So what is valid new concept? When is the suitable time to apply it? Recently, I lead a team, edited a set of curricula manuals for ECE teachers. Our method is to present more choices for teachers. We emphasize on the process. Our ideas are hidden in the supplied choices. Teachers can choose according to their concrete situations.

We stress on discipline, on orderliness, on obeying higher class. It seems that we are even unconscious about that, but of course the children are already influenced. When we are talking about "beyond child-centered philosophy", it comes to my mind that in many districts, their philosophy is still teacher-centered, not even child-centered. The adults are important in ECE. Child-centered philosophy implies that children are not connected with the context, we advocate beyond child-centered, that is: look children as the people live in context, which has various kinds of relations with environment and others. Can we jump to the "beyond child-centered ECE?"

Our way of thinking is often holistic, comprehensive, whereas the western way of thinking is more analytical, whether right or wrong, black or white. Well, we may have an area of gray color. We often stress on the holistic development, a whole person, keeping balance among intelligent, emotional, social, physical, esthetical aspects. Current psychologists argue that one's achievements are in fact determined by his or her individual or unique characters. Should we assign same amount attention to every aspect? What is well developed? What is the balance between achievement and happiness?

What's more, whether ECE is an educational issue or an issue of the whole society? I advocate the involvement of the whole society. If people can look upon education as his responsibility, look upon others' child as his own, the country will be prosperous. One of my friends told me that once he was walking with a German friend. They saw two children are fishing. The German friend went near and asked the children whether they know the rules of fishing. The children told him. Then he asked whether they brought ruler to measure the fish. (if the fish is less than certain centimeter, they have to put it back to river.) The children showed him the ruler. He also checked their fish. There is no problem. Then they leave. My friend asked the German, "you know the children?" "No, but I have responsibility to every child in this country." This story strikes me, ECE is not an issue that only influences our family, it does matter to our whole nation.

The economic, social and technological changes that we face today go beyond a mere transition from an industrial society to information or knowledge society. We are facing a radical revaluation of our world-view as well as a fundamental rethinking of how we see and understand ourselves in this world. Since the Enlightenment our world-view has been strongly influenced by the project of modernity. Core assumptions of this project -(history as a ) continuous and linear progress, certainty and universality, discovery of verifiable truth by means of objective methodologies -have become increasingly questioned. Today the project of post-modernism has gained importance. The idea of post-modernism accepts and even welcomes uncertainty, complexity, diversity and multiple perspectives as well as historical and context specificity.

Knowledge is no longer considered as objective, can be accumulated and be universally applied to practice. On the contrary, knowledge is viewed as having the characters of multiple perspectives, multiple meanings, closely relate to the context, not completed, paradoxical and can be get by different ways.

The child is no longer seen as the object of educational efforts of adults. On the contrary, the child is now treated as a subject and competent actor who co-constructs his or her own development, learning and education.

ECE is a social process that takes place in a specific context and that involves children, professionals, parents and other adults.
We hope children have stable self-concept, high self-esteem, self-regulatory skills, secure attachment to parents and teachers, competencies for solving interpersonal conflicts constructively, optimism, self-confidence and a sense of self-efficacy and so on.

Our children are indeed our future but only we can give them that future.

Re-conceptualizing Early Childhood Education - From Asian View. Retrieved November 9, 2005, from the World Wide Web

This document was originally presented at the "Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education" conference in Tempe, Arizona, U.S.A., January 2003.
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