In Ireland, the forthcoming revised primary curriculum for Junior and Senior Infants will seek to ensure ‘greater consistency’ with Aistear (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment 2012, p14). This has many positive implications, firstly it recognises the period of early childhood as a time in and of itself and not the child as ‘becoming’, and secondly, it acknowledges children as ‘social actors’ whose well-being and development are dependent on the relationships of those adults around them.
Both of these concepts support a children’s rights perspective and support the UNCRC 1989 General comment No 7 which calls on countries to implement coordinated strategies in early childhood education.
While Aistear (NCCA 2009) has provided a framework that can support those working across early childhood education (ECE) to develop a continuum of practice for children aged between 3-6 years, it does not follow that there is a continuum of practice. A study by O’Toole et al. (2014) which looked at educational transitions in Ireland found that primary school teachers reported either not knowing much about Aistear (NCCA 2009) or not using it due to lack of time. Providing continuity for children in their learning experiences will require an exploration of how primary school teachers understand Aistear (2009).
A range of educational researchers have argued persuasively that providing continuity within and between early years settings requires a common language and understanding regarding transitions between preschool and primary school (O’Kane and Hayes 2006; Dunlop 2007; Brostrom 2011). A study by O’ Kane (2007) regarding transition from preschool to primary school in Ireland found that, while early childhood practitioners and primary school teachers were open to the idea of greater communication in order to provide a continuum of curriculum, there was little congruence in their approaches to children’s learning. There was no evidence of high levels of continuity across both settings, and there was an absence of any shared view of children as learners between both groups. Ensuring continuity in the absence of discussion and analysis of what constitutes “key elements” and how those working in ECE understand ECE is to ignore the very essence of an appropriate early childhood curriculum.
Aistear as a transitional support
As an early childhood curriculum framework, Aistear acknowledges that children learn and develop holistically, and supports the continuity of children’s learning experiences as they transition from preschool to primary school. Aistear supports a unitary approach between preschool and primary school and focuses specifically on learning throughout early childhood. The framework is set out under four themes;
- Identity and belonging
- Exploring and thinking
These four themes provide a flexible framework for early childhood settings and “conveys successfully the integrated and holistic development of the young learner and the totality of his/her learning needs” (NCCA 2004, p22). Aistear is shaped by a view that children’s interests and learning dispositions for curiosity, wonder, resilience, and playfulness are at the centre of what and how they learn (NCCA 2012). Aistear highlights the critical role of play, relationships and language for young children’s learning. The framework has both implicit and explicit links with the new primary school curriculum (Department of Education and Skills 2016).
The aim of the pilot study was to gain an understanding of how primary school teachers understand Aistear (NCCA 2009). The study which was carried out in 2015, was guided by two research questions. 15 The first key research question was: How do primary school teachers understand Aistear (NCCA 2009), Ireland’s early childhood curriculum framework?
A related sub-question was: How does their understanding of Aistear (NCCA 2009) influence their teaching practice?
The use of focus group as a data collection method facilitated a broad exploration of how the teachers understand Aistear, and how their understanding influences their teaching practice. In line with my ontological point of view, the study adopted a constructivist approach. Constructivism sees knowledge as coming from experience and interaction with others. Lincoln and Guba (2005) suggest that working within a constructivist paradigm, acknowledges that realities are constructed from multiple, intangible mental constructions that are socially and experientially based. Furthermore, they suggest that constructivism is local and specific in nature. Findings from the focus group discussion highlighted issues that were both specific and individual to the teachers. In analysing the data, the three teachers are represented as T1, T2, and T3.
The study found that there was a general consensus amongst the teachers that Aistear, as a curriculum framework, involved children learning through play. However, rather than play being integrated throughout their classroom practice, findings show that play is understood to mean something that is peripheral to the learning of academic skills, and has been introduced in a limited way with just thirty minutes a day allocated to Aistear.
Views on children as self-directed learners
There was no evidence in the teachers’ descriptions of play that it was ever initiated by the children. The findings suggest that despite the espoused views about the prevalence of play, the language used by T 1 and T 2 described their role during what they described as ‘Aistear Time’ in a very structured and teacher-led approach. Teachers’ approaches to how play based learning is incorporated into the classroom are influenced by their perspectives on the purpose of play. The findings suggest that T1 and T2 left little choice to the children in directing their own learning through play. There was no discussion in relation to the children’s interests, knowledge, or skills. T3 described a less didactic approach and described a practice that allowed the children some choice in their learning.
Strengths based approach
Aistear highlights that children become positive about themselves and their learning when adults value them for who they are. Children achieve better outcomes when their diverse strengths, abilities, interests, and cultural practices are understood and supported (Diversity in Early Childhood Education and Training 2011). Analysis of the data suggests that T1 and T2 talked about the children in their classes in a way that draws on a deficit model of children as learners. There were no references to the positive attributes that the children bring to their classroom. In contrast, there were references to what the children lacked in terms of their social skills. T2 for example spoke of the children in their class in a way that suggested that all children need to be at the same level in order to learn. The teachers identified that many of the children attending their classes did not have English as their first language and argued that this posed a difficult reality for them in implementing their curriculum. During the discussion in relation to the children who did not have English as their first language, T1, T2 and T3 made no reference to the needs of the children other than their lack of English. The emphasis during the discussion was in relation to the importance of the children learning English, their second language. The teachers did acknowledge the help they have from a language support teacher, however, the support teacher was available to support the children in developing their English. There was no discussion in relation to supporting the children to develop their first language.
Quality ECE requires respectful relationships between the primary school teacher and the child’s parents (NCCA 2009). T3 noted the importance of involving parents at the beginning of their child’s education and spoke about the importance of developing a relationship with parents from the start. T3 also suggested that building collaborative relationship between parents and teacher can facilitate a more supportive environment for the child when doing homework and promote a more comfortable relationship between teacher and parent. Findings suggest the need to look at how ECE teachers could be supported to work in partnership with parents. The teachers acknowledged the importance of parents being involved in their child’s early years in school. However, all three teachers had negative views of the parents in terms of their understanding of play, and their knowledge of how to encourage their children to play.
The findings from the pilot study highlight the need to explore how primary school teachers understand Aistear and to look at how teachers can be supported to work in partnership with parents. Primary school teachers play a critical role in laying strong foundations for ensuring the continuity of experiences for young children as they transition from preschool to primary school. Ensuring greater consistency between the revised primary curriculum for Junior and Senior Infants and Aistear (NCCA 2012, p19) will require an understanding of the contextual realities teachers face in delivering a new primary curriculum through Aistear. The findings from the pilot study will be used to inform a further study which will be undertaken as part of my Doctorate in Education. The proposed study will seek to gain an understanding of the constraints and realities that may impact on the implementation of Aistear (NCCA 2009), within the new language school curriculum for junior and senior infants (DES 2016). Primary school teachers work in different environments with different constraints and realities that impose on their day to day practice. There is a need to consider other aspects such as school intake, history, staffing, school ethos and culture, ‘material’ elements like buildings, resources and budgets, as well as external environments. The proposed study will look at how primary school teachers, perceive and implement Aistear (NCCA 2009) within their classrooms, and will examine the localised nature of how the teachers manage the implementation of Aistear (NCCA 2009).