Starting Strong: what should children learn?

by Matias Egeland
Consultant, OECD Directorate for Education

In Norway, where I’m from, we believe children have the right to progress at their own speed, and enjoy a childhood of pleasure and freedom. The fundamental idea, shared by several Nordic countries, is that childhood is the time to have fun, as opposed to being in school (or anything resembling school for that matter). Admittedly, this sounds very nice, if not a bit idealistic.

While it is important for children to be just children, the early years are also especially formative and important for children to develop skills and competencies . The importance and value of good quality care and education for children is becoming increasingly clear, and have shown to impact things as diverse as creativity and life-time earnings.

As the early years represent a crucial chance to shape and impact children and their future development, the key question is which traits and abilities do we want children to acquire and harness?

The curricula that shape and guide early childhood programmes have traditionally been divided between those seen to focus on “academic” learning in specific subject areas, and those seeking a “comprehensive” approach more focused on children’s social development. The Nordic take on child care has tended towards that of the “comprehensive” approach.

The countries that tend to favour an “academic” approach usually see the child as  a young person to be formed, the child presenting an investment for society. They try to centre curricula on what is considered “useful” learning. However, what actually is “useful” for children to learn should be given some thought.

The “soft” skills favoured in a “comprehensive” approach such as self-confidence, creativity, independence and initiative are useful beyond giving children a happy childhood. Indeed, these personality traits are important for making children capable life-long learners. Initial knowledge of geography is likely not as important as confidence and willingness to learn for later academic success. For example self-control and attentional control are found to be a stronger predictor for school readiness than IQ and entry level reading or math. Moreover, these traits are proving increasingly important for later labour market success.

Soft skills that can be fostered in the early years are not just useful, they are also important from an equity perspective. They can play a key role in evening out the gap between children who are less likely to develop confidence and emotional control in their home setting. A US study showed that children from professional families experience around six positive verbal interactions (affirmations or encouragements) for each negative one (prohibitions, being told off, etc.). In contrast children in families on welfare experience two negative interactions for each positive one. Furthermore, as the Economist put it in a recent article: “the qualities that employers in the service sector want are those the middle classes acquire at home: articulacy, confidence and smartness”.

Confidence and emotional control do not develop automatically, but can be facilitated by skilled professionals by focusing on children’s perspectives and through active use of play . What goes into the curricula that guide what children learn and do in a care or education setting is of great importance. The new OECD publication “Starting Strong III: A Quality Toolbox for Early Childhood Education and Care” states clearly that curriculum matters and lessons from the Nordic, and other, countries  suggest that focusing on the “child” and effectively using  play as a learning strategy can  benefit children’s development. 

Starting Strong III will be launched in Oslo on January 24th. Having invested hugely in child care, revamped their curriculum and reformed their kindergarten staff education, the Norwegian minister of Education, Kristin Halvorsen, is hosting an OECD Roundtable on Early Childhood Education and Care. Ministers, policy-makers and stakeholders from across the world are coming together to address the challenges in achieving high-quality child care and education.

For more information about OECD’s work on early childhood education and care (ECEC):
Investing in high-quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) (PDF 1.79 MB)
OECD-Norway High-level Roundtable: Starting Strong: Implementing Policies for High Quality Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC)

Photo credit: iStockphoto, Microsoft Partner

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