With the rapid developments in AI, robotics and biotechnology, among others, our children will witness jobs being created and becoming obsolete at ever-increasing speeds. Indeed, although the impact of the changes in science and technology cannot be accurately predicted and reflected in education at present, the labor market will most certainly continue to evolve and reshape.
Accordingly, education systems today must focus on teaching students how to self-learn new skills and knowledge in order to solve problems. To that end, rather than unilaterally imparting the answers, teachers should guide their students through questions and encouragement, and provide and share the necessary resources and experiences while also building on their own knowledge. In other words, it is no longer about how much you know but about how you organize, apply, and expand on what you know.
The same is true for early childhood education. Children should be allowed to lead the learning process while teachers participate as co-learners, communicating their thoughts and forming shared knowledge. In December 2017, the government announced plans to innovate early education, and mandated the implementation of the revised child-centered and play-based Nuri curriculum (2019) in all nurseries and kindergartens from March 2020. The curriculum was previously based on teacher-led education programs wherein teachers prepare contents which are introduced through play activities. The revised version, however, enables voluntarily learning through play with assistance from teachers who respect the children’s individual experiences, interests and curiosity. A child-centered curriculum is premised on the belief that children can direct their own learning and that individuality and uniqueness should be respected. Here, individuality refers to recognizing the differences between children and uniqueness to respecting their personal experiences. According to the revised Nuri curriculum, early childhood learning should aim to cultivate mental and physical health, autonomy, creativity, aesthetic sensibility, and the ability to coexist rather than merely transferring knowledge. Meanwhile, play-based education centers around play activities that do not pursue any pre-planned goals, and allow children to initiate and voluntarily enjoy learning―that is, daily play becomes the process and means of education.
In a child-centered, play-based curriculum, which emphasizes individuality, initiative, spontaneity, enjoyment, and process, teachers observe their students’ learning processes to design activities that would encourage them to explore and resolve problems that pique their interests, either on their own or with teachers and peers. Ideas can also be suggested to help expand reasoning. Teachers are invited into the children‘s voluntary learning process, and they contribute by sharing their thoughts to broaden and deepen the children’s learning. They must then develop a gradual assistance plan by observing the children’s play, and how their teaching plan is reflected.
However, introducing the curriculum will not be an easy feat. Firstly, not only do teachers lack the experience of managing such a curriculum, but there is a lack of cases to which they can refer to. Secondly, even if teachers are willing to undertake the curriculum, the response from parents may not be favorable. Parents who send their children to early education institutions expect their children to be taught the necessary study skills before they enter elementary school. As such, gaining their approval, especially when the effects of the curriculum are still unclear, will be difficult. Despite several studies proving that child-centered, play-based education has a positive effect on academic achievement in the short-term, the overriding view is that there are no effects or that it is only effective in the mid- to long-term through enhanced motivation, creativity and confidence. As aforementioned, the revised curriculum does not focus on academic achievement. Rather, it takes a comprehensive approach that involves not only a successful school life but also a successful life in general as well as problem-solving skills. In this context, children’s executive function is considered to be a significant performance indicator that can encompass the effects. Once teachers are able to receive the proper training, and when the cause-and-effect between teachers’ ability to implement the curriculum and children’s executive functions has been firmly established, more case studies and reference materials can be complied and concerns over the necessity of the curriculum will be eased.
Accordingly, this study analyzes the effects of training teachers to strengthen their ability to implement a child-centered, play-based curriculum on the level of implementation; the development of children’s executive functions and related competences and; parental burdens.
The subjects of the analysis were the children, parents and homeroom teachers of eight public kindergartens in Sejong-si. As a city with a short history, many believe that Sejong’s school districts have yet to be fully established, and all of its kindergartens are publicly funded. Moreover, because parents can enroll their children in any kindergarten in the region, there are no obvious disparities between the children’s capabilities or their family backgrounds. The Sejong City Office of Education was asked to pair kindergartens that are closely located, and have similar establishment dates and exposure to curriculum policies to minimize the heterogeneity. A briefing session was held by researchers for interested kindergartens, and only those whose teachers unanimously agreed to join the project were selected. Thanks to this process, the teachers were highly receptive, and when the samples were divided into control and treatment groups, those in the latter readily signed a confidentially agreement to prevent any information leaks to the former. The preliminary survey was conducted in June-September 2018, and the main survey in September 2018-November 2019. The study was launched in the middle of the school year to avoid any intentional allocation of teachers. A willing group of children was selected from classes for three to four year olds in 2018―and the study continued until they moved up a class (four to five year olds) in 2019. The teachers were chosen from those in charge of these classes and the parents were those whose children were already selected for the project. The teacher training (for the treatment group) was provided from November 2018 to June 2019, and data was collected immediately before and after the training program, and four months after. The two follow-up studies helped to confirm whether the effects of the training were immediate, and whether they were still evident four months after training had ended.