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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Barr (M.A. M.Ed)

The Internalized Curriculum

Having worked in China since 2010 my opinions on the Chinese education system have changed. The truth is as such a big country it swings both sides of the spectrum. You have wonderful progressive schools, particularly kindergartens, as well as life sucking institutions that are 100% teacher directed focusing on quantity over quality. Particularly in the early years, approaches such as the Anji Play are having a very positive effect on play based education and risk play. When you think of famous early years approaches usually Montessori, Steiner Waldorf and Reggio come to mind. Anji Play is definitely showing itself to be worthy addition to the list.

There are also many wonderful Chinese early childhood theorists to learn from such as Professor Yu Yong Ping (虞永平),Mr. Chen He Qin (陈鹤琴),and Ms. Cheng Xueqin (程学琴). Although it's difficult to find their work in English (luckily my wife is Chinese) the practices they promote are in line with many of the western early education theorists. Essentially China's early years research comes to the same conclusions with the rest of the world, that early childhood education should focus on play and not a push down of primary school education.

China's ECE 3-6 Year Old Guidelines are focused on holistic play based education. The traditional academic skills that often overtake kindergartens are not promoted and if used will result in questions from the EBD (education department). My kindergarten had a visit from the EBD recently and they questioned the use of writing pencils in the classroom as "teaching primary school". That's an article for another day. Play can be difficult and the outcomes that promote play based learning can leave teachers struggling with China's ECE 3-6 Guidelines due to being,

"too vague"

"not specific"

"not meeting parents academic demands"


"not academic enough".

We are going to attempt to help identify why teachers feel this way, why their concerns are misplaced and how to improve their practice in relation to following China's ECE 3-6 Guidelines. If you suddenly realize you don't care about China's early years guidelines as you don't work in China fear not. The same principles can be applied to the EYFS, USA Common Core or any other countries guidelines/framework.

Firstly, the 3-6 Guidelines are not a curriculum. The curriculum are the specific things you teach or allow children to experience and learn from, that connect to skills, knowledge and abilities in the guidelines. This is the same for the EYFS where the Development Matters outlines what children should be doing across different domains without prescribing particularly learning topics. Teachers in China struggle with the guidelines because they don't know it well enough and don't know how to target certain 'benchmarks' as they are called. Teachers can improve this by developing what can be called the 'internalized curriculum'.

(Listen to this conversation with Jan Dubiel on how teachers develop an IC)

What is an 'internalized curriculum'?

We all have our own internalized curriculum developed from our life and work experiences. We demonstrate the strengths of our internalized curriculum through certain areas of learning we are strongest at. It could be story telling, math, science, life skills or communication etc. The strengths of our internalized curriculum allow us to connect learning and progression to the benchmarks of the 3-6 Guidelines. For example, most teachers in China have taught their students about China's National Day (in October). For this day many discuss China as a country, the colours and shapes on the national flag, sing the national anthem as well as discuss places in China such as the capitol city Beijing. Why do they teach this? No where in the guidelines does it say you need to teach about National Day and do these specific activities, yet everyone does. Teachers do this because their internalized curriculum tells them it is important. By teaching about National Day they are likely meeting a number of benchmarks from the guidelines such as;

If from this experience, which again isn't in the guidelines, teachers also discuss how many stars are on the flag they are meeting a math benchmarks in the guidelines.

There are many more connections to be made. The point is teachers need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their internalized curriculum. The strengths need to be shared and taught to others, the weaknesses need to be learned from. Two mistakes can be found in trying to fix the weaknesses in our internalized curriculum. The first is teachers thinking the answer is specifying exactly what needs to be taught i.e. a prescribed curricula. Adding mandatory elements like which characters to memorize or which shapes need to be known is a mistake. The reason why children aren't required to memorize a selection of characters is because it isn't developmentally appropriate yet. That doesn't mean children can't learn some but it should come from children's interests not a mandatory list filling in the gaps of your internalized curriculum. Also, the reason why the Guidelines don't specify exactly what shapes need to be taught... because knowing specific shapes isn't important but being able perceive different shapes in our world and understand features of shapes are. This has been determined by early childhood experts both in China and internationally. The second is adding content beyond the Guidelines that requires direct instruction. Making teachers teach specific things that are not required is a way of escaping from the process of improving our internalized curriculum shortcomings.

No matter which curriculum or framework you work in it is important to understand development and what is expected to children in your setting. The really fun part is then finding ways to get there that are unique to each child and built in collaboration with the students. From this approach teachers will find their job more fulfilling and interesting as they find new ways to do it each year or with new students rather than the dreaded teacher folder with every activity ready to go for all the set topics planned out.

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