Matthew Savage Educational Consultant and Trainer (Previously: School Principal), Savage Education (Previously: International Community School: Amman)

Matthew Savage explains why international schools should look to Early Years pedagogy and practice in reimagining the form and function of education - being fed by our students’ innate curiosity and feeding their insatiable hunger to learn.

What to do next with the ‘Candle of Curiosity’ flickering in Early Years classrooms worldwide?

Before I embraced the joys and challenges of whole school leadership and principalship, I was a Secondary trained educator, senior leader and Head for many years. I say this to evidence my long and strong roots in Secondary education, and, in so doing, partially to puzzle the readers of an article presented as promoting Early Years practice.

In our typically government-driven strife for improved education and outcomes, we have disadvantaged an entire generation

However, like the late, great Ken Robinson, I believe we have got something desperately wrong in mainstream schooling. In our typically government-driven strife for improved education and outcomes, we have disadvantaged an entire generation. In 2014, I was privileged to be introduced to some of the very best global Early Years pedagogy and practice by Fran Paffard, Senior Lecturer in Early Years and Primary Education at the University of East London. Her inspirational presentation started a fire in me (this metaphor will continue, by the way), and shaped much of my leadership, consultancy and training ever since.

The 'Candle of Curiosity'

I speak frequently of what I call the ‘Candle of Curiosity’. What is one of the most common words you will hear from most 3-year-olds? “Why?” (of course). It is, in the Early Years classroom just as in the family home, a word burgeoning with beautiful curiosity, and emblematic of an insatiable hunger to discover, make sense of, shape and transform the world around them. It is also a beacon of hope, infused with happiness, a foundation for positive wellbeing and a thriving future. However, when many a 13-year-old asks us, “Why?”, they want to know why they cannot 'meet their friends at the mall tonight', 'snapchat at the dinner table' or 'go to that party at the weekend'.

Where is my TARDIS when I need it?

If I were able to go back twelve months and ask Sir Ken what had happened to these teenagers, he would tell me they had been 'schooled'; if I could go back nine years and posit the same inquiry to Illich, he would, similarly, bemoan the 'schooling' of students 'to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new' (Illich, 1971). Take me back sixteen years for a fireside chat with Freire, and he would talk of students as 'critical co-investigators' in dialogue with the teacher, 'unfinished, like [their] reality', and able 'to affect the world around [them] through [their] conscious transformations of it and of [their] consciousness of it' (Freire, 1971).

Armed with these answers, where better to turn for the solution than to the remarkably similar and simple, but life-changing, principles of Aistear in Ireland and Te Whāriki in New Zealand; to the footfall, foraging or fires of many a Forest School, or the beach or jungle schools that have followed in their wake; or to the Reggio approach. Loris Malaguzzi’s “image of the child” was as “rich in potential, strong, powerful, competent”: “as subjects of individual, legal, civil, and social rights; as both source and constructors of their own experience; and as active participants in the organisation of their identities, abilities, and autonomy, through relationships and interaction with their peers, with adults, with ideas, with objects and with the real and imaginary events of intercommunicating worlds.” (Malaguzzi, 1993)

What matters most in the Early Years classroom?

As a storymaker who loves data, I am proud to be something of an anomaly.

I have been working recently with Wellington College China on how we can meld and mould #themonalisaeffect to reflect and inform their own, pioneering Early Years metrics, at the heart of which are the Leuven Scales of Wellbeing and Involvement, Professor Ferre Laevers’ inspirational mechanism through which to assess what matters most in the Early Years classroom. The more I work with the Leuven scales; the more I reflect upon the pedagogies that so innervate and excite the educator inside me; and the more I allow myself to listen to Uncles Paolo, Ivan and Ken - the more I want to share something huge.

It is probably now clear that I believe it is in the Early Years classrooms of the world that we invariably get things right, provided we remain alert and immune to the demands that we ensure our youngest children become ‘Year 1 ready’, meet ‘age-related expectations’, and pass their ‘phonics screener’. However, I believe, and there is a growing number of us moving down the same tracks, that the very same theory and thought, pedagogy and practice, apply with equal relevance and impact throughout the Primary and Secondary journey and beyond.

Fanning the flames of curiosity

We have a choice, when marvelling at the magic of that ‘candle’: do we fan the flames and render it a conflagration of curiosity through adolescence and beyond? Or do we let the candle go out, in our resignation to the perceived inevitabilities of how education was, is and must always be?

Of course none of this can be simple as long as universities persist in selecting undergraduates based on a narrow set of arbitrary criteria, governments kick the PISA tests around like some sort of political football, or we continue to believe every 11-year-old should be an identikit of skills, knowledge and understanding. However, many of those I respect the most in the noble and necessary world of education are talking more and more of a post-pandemic paradigm shift, another candle we could fan and inflame. Or will we, actively or passively, extinguish it instead. Since I was in the mood for turning back the clock a decade or two earlier in this article, did you know that producer, Liam Howlett, said The Prodigy’s most famous song was as much a call to action as a song to which for people to say, “Yeah”? Therefore, maybe, now, more than ever, it is time for each educator reading this article to take that ‘Candle of Curiosity’ and become their very own Firestarter.

References

Freire, P. 1971. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.

Illich, I. 1971. Deschooling Society. New York: Harper & Row 

Malaguzzi, L., 1993. A Charter of Rights. Reggio Children. Available at: <https://www.reggiochildren.it/assets/Uploads/RC-100LM-CartaDiritti-3.pdf> [Accessed 17 May 2021].