What Are Children Learning in Early Childhood Education in New Zealand?

By Blaiklock, Ken | Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, June 2013 | Go to article overview

What Are Children Learning in Early Childhood Education in New Zealand?


Blaiklock, Ken, Australasian Journal of Early Childhood


Introduction

Early childhood education has undergone a period of considerable growth and change in New Zealand over the past 20 years. The changes have included the introduction of the national curriculum, Te Whariki (Ministry of Education, 1996), and the implementation of a strategic plan, Pathways to the Future (Ministry of Education, 2002). The strategic plan set out policy and funding changes aimed at increasing the quality of early childhood services and participation rates, especially for children of Maori and Pasifika descent and those from low socioeconomic communities. Government funding for children in ECE has increased significantly and is now more than $NZ 9000 per child (full-time equivalent), higher than funding for primary and secondary school students (Ministry of Education, 2011a, 2012).

Given the many changes and the large amounts of funding now directed at the sector, it is timely to consider what information is available about the effectiveness of early childhood education in New Zealand. A crucial area to consider, and a legitimate question to ask is: What are children learning through their experiences in early childhood services? Although the early childhood years are a time of rapid growth in all areas of development, finding evidence about what young children are learning, and whether that learning is at least partly attributable to early childhood education, is a complex task.

Information about what children may be learning in early childhood education is available from a range of sources. The national curriculum, Te Whariki (Ministry of Education, 1996), outlines important areas of learning for teachers to consider. Relevant information is also available in the assessment documentation produced by teachers in early childhood centres and in reports made by the Education Review Office. Another source of information is the early childhood research projects that have been funded by the Ministry of Education over the past 10 years. The following discussion will examine each of these sources of information in order to evaluate the evidence that is currently available about children's learning in early childhood settings in New Zealand.

1. Te Whariki, the early childhood curriculum

Te Whariki, the New Zealand early childhood curriculum, has been widely praised since it was introduced in 1996. Praise has been given for its connections with sociocultural theory and for its holistic, non-prescriptive approach (Ritchie & Buzzelli, 2011; Smith, 2003, 2011). Fleer (2003) commented that Te Whariki has had an enormous impact on curriculum development in many countries, including Australia (p. 243) and 'has gained international prominence as an early childhood curriculum of great substance and importance' (p. 244). Cullen (1996) noted that teachers embraced the curriculum with great enthusiasm, 'to the extent that it has taken on a gospel like status' (p. 123). The enthusiastic support of teachers for the curriculum was also seen in interviews conducted by Alvestad and Duncan (2006).

Recently, Te Whariki received a strong endorsement in the report of the Early Childhood Education Taskforce (ECE Taskforce, 2011). The taskforce was set up by the New Zealand Government to review the effectiveness of funding for the early childhood sector. Among its findings, the taskforce reported that, 'Te Whariki is considered a model of best practice, nationally and internationally' (p. 106). The taskforce did note there was a need for 'a comprehensive review of its implementation' (p. 106), but made no criticism of the structure or content of Te Whariki.

What then does Te Whariki tell us about what children are learning in early childhood education in New Zealand? Te Whariki emphasises that children's learning is integrated and holistic and occurs within sociocultural settings. Areas of learning are described within the rive overlapping strands of Te Whariki (Ministry of Education, 1996, pp. …

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