Let children be the teachers

When children are listened to and respected they will have the confidence to reveal their unique cultural capital, and this then gives them a powerful disposition to learn, says David Yates.

Hassan talks about the 'manji'
Hassan talks about the 'manji'

As part of the Government's intention to reduce social inequalities, settings need to consider their provision of high-quality education and experiences for the youngest of our citizens during the most important phase of their lives – their earliest years.

This renewed emphasis on quality is reflected in the Ofsted Inspection Framework (EIF) (2019), with providers judged on the ‘quality of education’ they offer. Inextricably linked with this is the idea of ‘cultural capital’ and how well the curriculum provides for it.

Since the introduction of the term in Ofsted's EIF, there have been anxieties about the impact its interpretation may have on practice.

The Early Years Handbook defines it as the ‘essential knowledge that children need to prepare them for future success’ (Ofsted, 2019, p. 31). Through their teaching and learning opportunities, settings are required to help children ‘experience the awe and wonder of the world in which they live, through the seven areas of learning’ (Ofsted, 2019, p. 31).

Due to the broadness of the term and its associated definition (most often associated with Pierre Bourdieu), questions have been asked regarding the types of knowledge that are, or should be, considered essential for children in the early years, and by whom.

Another question is the extent to which the early years curriculum can be the sole answer to improving inequalities and children's life chances. This relates to the equally ambiguous and continually-questioned ‘school readiness’ agenda which results in a further lack of clarity.

In the following ‘Learning Stories’ (Carr, 2001) children in Reception, at Tinsley Meadows Primary Academy in Sheffield, enjoy sharing their own examples of their heritage and community traditions. The children are of Pakistani heritage, and are now bilingual, having learnt English as an additional language. They call upon and utilise their own ‘funds of knowledge’ as they interact with adults and peers, sharing their knowledge with them. They develop their narratives further to enrich their interactions and enlighten those less knowledgeable about their ‘funds of knowledge’.

Hassan and the ‘manji’

Just before home time one afternoon, Hassan was talking about where he keeps the pictures he creates at school when he gets home. He said he kept them behind the ‘manji’. Myself (Hassan's teacher) and Miss Ward (our teaching assistant) didn't know what a ‘manji’ was. The children helped to describe what one looked like and what it was used for.

Zayaan came up with an explanation: ‘It's got four legs and it's like a bed and you can sleep on it’. Hassan shared more thoughts and confirmed this by adding, ‘Yeah, you can sleep on it like a bed. It's got cushions on it but not covers’.

The next day, we discussed the ‘manji’ again. We searched the internet and found some information about how a ‘manji’ is made. We found a video of a man making one and talking about how he did it. He spoke in Urdu, but Sania (a visiting trainee) told us that he was explaining how the material was woven and how long it took to make.

Hassan was pleased that his and Zayaan's description of the ‘manji’ was accurate after watching the video! ‘See, now you know it looks like a bed’! he said, proudly.

After discussing the revelation of the manji with Hassan and his mum, a few days later Hassan's mum brought some photographs of one on her mobile phone. Hassan was eager to show these to his teacher and he pointed out where his pictures could be seen behind the manji in the photos. Hassan's mum had also taken care to take pictures of the manji from different angles to show that Hassan's description of it was accurate!

The children enjoyed discussing this together and talked about how much of the Arabic alphabet they knew and had been practising when they went to the mosque. The discussion continued and, the next morning, Aleeza showed what she knew about the Arabic alphabet by writing the letters independently. She had written the letters from right to left, as they are written and read in Arabic.

Later that morning Aleeza decided to show what she knew about the Arabic alphabet by writing the letters from memory.

Dimensions to learning

After comparing with the printed script, it appeared that Aleeza had produced a very accurate representation! This added a whole other dimension to writing; who is the teacher and who is the learner?

She pointed to the letters she had written and read them aloud, from right to left, as she would do when she practises reading Arabic. Aleeza then decided to write down the words to a familiar song she and her friends knew from their learning at mosque. Later, Hassan returned to the photograph of the Arabic script and practised saying the letters aloud.

When they engaged in reflection on the ‘learning story’ together, both Hassan and Aleeza shared further insights into their understanding of their Islamic culture and traditions, including the further progress Hassan had made with his reading at mosque, highlighting more of their cultural capital. Hassan gave a further explanation of the new Arabic he was learning, including written clarification to help his teacher to understand more clearly what he meant, and Aleeza provided more thoughts on her appreciation of attending mosque and celebrating her faith and culture.

Once again, Hassan and Aleeza used their own cultural capital to demonstrate the characteristics of effective learning. Hassan's discussion about learning the Arabic alphabet at mosque, and the photographs he shared, sparked further interest and motivation, which encouraged Aleeza to create her own accurate representation of the alphabet.

Both Hassan and Aleeza represented their experiences of learning and reading at mosque by reciting the alphabet themselves. Their cultural capital shone through in their enthusiasm for sharing their representations of Arabic, using both talk and writing. Hassan was excited to share the photos when he came to school in the morning and used the pictures to recite the alphabet. Aleeza engaged herself in meeting her own challenge of recreating the alphabet on paper before reciting it herself.

‘After comparing with the printed script, it appeared that Aleeza had produced a very accurate representation! This added another dimension to writing: who is the teacher and who is the learner’?

Both children have cultural capital that has equipped them with the familiarity of the form of the Arabic alphabet. They know that it is read from right to left and is presented as a script, which Aleeza was able to accurately represent independently. Again, the children are the leaders of learning, which, for them, is not just about their competencies in the seven areas of learning in the Early Years Foundation Stage.

Although the areas of learning are important to recognise, it also shows that these individuals are continually using their thinking through the characteristics of effective learning. They are building on their own foundations as citizens in a multi-cultural society, within which they will always be able to call upon their wealth of cultural capital, and gather even more, as they continue to grow and develop.

What can adults do?

Being a part of experiences such as these and working with children in the early years every day highlights the privileges that practitioners and teachers enjoy. It is impossible not to be interested and fascinated in children's lives and the cultural capital they so eagerly share. It enables subsequent conversations and learning experiences to be tailored specifically to children's needs and interests, while recognising and building on the wealth of cultural capital they already have.

Building genuine, respectful and insightful relationships with children and their families helps practitioners and teachers to really get to know and understand the ‘funds of knowledge’ they bring to the setting. Parents can be welcomed regularly for as long or short a period as you, they and the children are mutually comfortable with, to enable practitioners to better understand and value their backgrounds and cultures.

Opportunities to make further links, such as taking home a class teddy bear or making home visits to share learning, enable practitioners and families to get to know each other well, helping to strengthen the connection between the setting and home. Such visits are often fondly remembered by children, parents and practitioners, and are a genuine way in which to understand each child and family's unique cultural background.

As a key person or class teacher for a child in the Early Years Foundation Stage, adults will develop a close, personal relationship with them. As such, they develop an ability to tune into their thinking. This helps them to feel valued and to develop the dispositions and attitudes upon which further learning opportunities can be shaped, through which further cultural capital can be acquired.

On reflection…

In her consideration of cultural capital in a Nursery World article, Helen Moylett posed the question: ‘How do we introduce children to as many different and rich experiences as possible, valuing the communities and cultures of which early years settings and schools are part’?

Hopefully, the examples shared here show child-centred ways of achieving this. The children's rich, expressive, conversational language helps to recognise the importance of the home culture in the development of cultural capital and how much adults can learn when the children become the teachers! Children are capable of amazingly high levels of thinking and understanding when they are listened to and respected. They are eager to share their cultural capital with others who show a genuine interest in and respect for it.

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