1.2 What the course is about
This course is about the ways in which we come to know and make sense of the world, in particular how we do this using the media of language, mathematics and science.
There are many possible theoretical positions which can be taken towards early years curricula. Some people, for example, think of children as ‘empty vessels’ which can be ‘filled’ with knowledge that is transmitted to them by adults. This view has been associated with a behaviourist approach to teaching and learning, in which adults are seen to have control over what is learnt and children play a passive role in receiving the knowledge transmitted. In the 1960s and 1970s, school and early years curricula were heavily influenced by the constructivist approach pioneered by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980). According to constructivist theory, learning involves the interaction of thought and experience: children, who are compared to ‘active scientists’, are led by their own curiosity to explore their environment at their own pace.
The approach favoured by the course team is a social constructivist one, a perspective associated with the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934). As with constructivism, this approach highlights the importance of learners relating their experience to their existing knowledge; however, it also emphasises the role of the child’s interaction with others. Far from being lone explorers, children are seen as learning with the collaboration and support of carers and others, usually people who are more competent in the skills and knowledge they are developing. This interactive perspective links the knowledge of all the individuals within a social grouping, and the commonly held knowledge that emerges is the culture within which the child learns. The emphasis on interaction puts a high value on language, while science, mathematics and various language practices (literacy, for example) are seen as cultural products that can be used by members of the culture as frameworks in which their knowledge can develop. As well as providing a structure in which to understand subject learning, social constructivism appeals to the course team as the model that best fits our experience of young children as active and interactive constructors of their own learning. We see children as meaning makers (Wells, 1987).
Another term you will come across quite often is sociocultural. Some writers use the terms ‘sociocultural’ and ‘social constructivist’ to mean much the same thing. For others, the difference is a matter of emphasis: they use the former when considering wider social and cultural issues (e.g. the influence of gender-biased language on the way we understand the world), and the latter in relation to smaller-scale events (such as an adult scaffolding the learning of an individual child). The title of Vygotsky’s book Mind in Society (Vygotsky, 1978) reflects the psychologist’s conception of individual minds developing through their direct and indirect contact with other members of a culture. Although it is possible to take a sociocultural position without taking a social constructivist one, in this course the two approaches are seen as complementary. Moreover, by adopting the two perspectives, the course team does not favour either the role of local interactions or of wider cultural factors in their contribution to knowing and understanding; in reality, the two factors are inseparable.