Integrated Theme-based Curriculum
in Shanghai Kindergartens
— Case Studies
Institute of Early Childhood Education, East China Normal University
(No.3663 North Zhongshan Road, Shanghai, China P.C.200062)
From the early 1980’s till now, the early childhood curriculum reform has been in process in China. There are a number of approaches and practices in this reform. Integrated theme-based curriculum is a new approach conducted in Shanghai, which will powerfully influence the early childhood curriculum reform in Shanghai and other developed areas in China. This approach is influenced by many theories and practices such as progressive movement, constructive theory, project approach, Reggio approach, etc.
As a base for the development of integrated theme-based curriculum, a qualitative study in which case study method was adopted has been done to explore how this approach could match the Chinese culture and respond to the requirements of the new era in Shanghai. 7 local kindergartens using themes as the basis for curriculum development were selected for investigation. The new approach emphasizes on how to encourage children to explore, co-construction and express freely. Keeping balance between teacher-initiated activities and child-initiated activities is the key of this new approach. The forms and the features embedded in this approach were investigated. Suggestions and implications for integrated theme-based curriculum were drawn.
I. The background of Shanghai early childhood curriculum reform
The approach of integrated theme-based curriculum in Shanghai kindergartens is an early approach of the second stage Shanghai early childhood curriculum reform, which is being carried on now. It provides experience and template for Shanghai early childhood curriculum reform.
In China, early childhood education has gone through more than 100 years developing course. There are 3 big early childhood curriculum reforms, happened in 1920’s-1930’s, 1950’s, and 1980’s-now respectively. Especially from 1980’s, the Reform and Opening Policy has been greatly animated the contemporary early childhood curriculum reform. Radical changes in educational theory and practice have taken place. The early childhood curriculum reform, which took place in 1980’s and has been developed until now, is based on the former two curricula development. Expounding the process of early childhood curriculum reform will be beneficial to our understanding of the integrated theme-based curriculum approach in Shanghai kindergartens.
Now, I will briefly review the changes in different historical periods and discuss the trend of curriculum development, including: (1) changes in the goals and philosophy, (2) changes in the materials and methods, (3) changes in the evaluation. I will reflect on the influence of different developmental and educational theories.
1920’s-1930’s early childhood curriculum reform.
From the establishment of the Chinese kindergarten, we had mainly copied foreign countries’ educational patterns, including educational content, educational method, equipment and toys, etc. At the beginning we imitated Japan, then imitated western countries. The thoughts of Frobel, Montessorri, and especially the thoughts of Dowey influenced the early childhood curriculum at that time.
During 1920’s-1930’s, the early childhood curriculum reform affirmed the children’s subjectivity theoretically; cognized that curriculum should come from children’s life, should include all activities of children in kindergarten; put forward that the creation and edit of curriculum should accord to children’s psychological level. For example, influenced by Dowey, Heqin Chen pointed out that the whole nature, the whole society are the core of curriculum. He also proposed to implement “unit pedagogy”, adopt play as the method of education; emphasize on children’s direct experience. It could be said that the early childhood curriculum reform after 1980’s is influenced greatly by the reform of 1920’s-1930’s.
1950’s early childhood curriculum reform
In October 1949, the People’s Republic of China was established. The government set about to develop the early childhood education on the basis of rectifying, reorganizing and reforming the former early childhood education. Guided by the policy of following the Soviet Union comprehensively, the Chinese early childhood educators totally adopted the theories and experiences on early childhood education of the Soviet Union. The ministry of education invited two experts of the Soviet Union in early childhood education to give lectures in China and spread their experience all over China. The teaching program specified contents and time, demanded kindergartens to systematically teach the children school assignment. At that time, the activities in kindergartens include physical training, language, knowledge of sience, drawing, handwork, music and calculation, but exclude learning to read. The program emphasized the scientific and logical character of the courses, emphasized the guiding function of teachers, suggested that teachers lead children to go in for purposeful and planed activities, blend teaching into children’s everyday life in kindergartens.
1950’s kindergarten curriculum reform in China was supported by psychological and educational theory in the former Soviet Union. The mature experiences of subject-dividing education on the basis of many years’ research in the former Soviet Union were used for reference. Though it rejected all the previous work, the reform was mild and smooth. This may because that the Chinese culture and politics at that time could accept the subject-dividing mode of education. Meanwhile, this may also because in the state of planned economy, the government could use administrative methods to command the lower levels actualizing policy. In 1950’s, China just cast of the trouble of war.
Hundreds of fields were expected to develop. With regard to education, it needed new normal order. This subject curriculum system met that requirements because it emphasized on results, had clear educational aim and systematic pedagogy content, and could be easily performed. In the condition of scanty educational resources and insufficient teachers, this kind of curriculum also had some advantages on improving the quality of early childhood education.
During the “Great Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976), the early childhood education withered and was severely damaged. Many kindergartens were forced to shut down. When the “Great Cultural Revolution” ended, early childhood education began to come back to the right way.
In 1978, the governments at all levels resumed their administration of early childhood education. Overhauled and reorganized the early childhood education that was damaged by the ten-years’ chaos. The governments exerted an effect on the teaching order and enhanced the quality of nursing and teaching. On the basis of the program run in 1950’s, the program specified the teaching contents of kindergartens. It included physical training, language, calculation, science, music and drawing. It emphasized that the kindergartens ought to fulfill the teaching task through games, sports, lessons, observation, labor, recreation and every day life activities. Although the program warned against schooling inclination, it actually stressed the importance of language and other subjects conducted by teachers, since taking lessons was specified as an important activity in the kindergartens.
The subject curriculum gradually formed and developed from 1950’s has ineradicable influence on Chinese early childhood curriculum. After 1980’s, against the subject curriculum system, early childhood curriculum reform put forward some curricula which stressed on children’s personal experiences such as: “integrated education”, “activity curriculum”, “unit pedagogy” etc. Some teaching materials that break through the subject system are also created and edited. The Chinese Mainland early childhood education theorists and practitioners criticize the defects of subject curriculum. They have great passionate interest in the non-subject curriculum. However, until now, the traditional subject curricula are still dominant in the kindergartens.
Early childhood curriculum reform since 1980’s
From the 1980’s, China started to carry out the Reform and Opening Policy, which greatly modified the traditional education concepts. The foreign educational theories, such as those of Dowey, Montessori, Bronfenbrenner, Bruner, especially Piaget, began to spread widely in China, and the thoughts of recent modern Chinese educationists were brought to important place again. Early childhood educators were no longer satisfied with the contemporary education, which had last for more than 30 years. They started large-scale early childhood education reform.
The kindergarten curriculum reform from the early 1980’s began with spontaneous experiments of various districts. These experiments expanded from single subject to whole curriculum, from city to village, actively propelled kindergarten curriculum reform. Among these, the experiments of kindergarten integrated theme-based curriculum etc. in Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing are influential. We can say that these experiments clearly aimed at the problems, i. e. the subject curriculum emphasizes too much on systematic single subject knowledge and skills; ignores the internal relationship among them, as well as children’s practical activity.
The most influential measure of this reform is the “Kindergarten Work Regulations and Procedures”, issued by National Education Committee (the former Ministry of Education) in 1989. The regulations reflect the original aim of the reform; that is, the early childhood education should face the wold, face the future and face the modernization. Through administrative ways, the reform content was implemented to each level of administrative organizations and each kindergarten. The spirit of the reform is mainly reflected in the following aspects:
(1) It emphasizes on the active activities of children, and providing opportunities for substantial activities.
(2) It emphasizes that education must comply with the individual’s diversity, and promote the development of each child in different levels.
(3) It emphasizes on the importance of play in early childhood education.
(4) It emphasizes on integrated education in daily kindergarten activities.
(5) It emphasizes on the process of kindergarten activities.
During the course of executing the regulations, theoretical and practical workers of early childhood education started approach, applied each reform measure and tried all educational plans. Speaking objectively, this reform greatly changed the thoughts of early childhood education workers. Many kindergarten teachers started to understand that it is necessary to respect children and meet their needs, that we should take children’s development as the start point of education, and should pay more attention to children’s daily life in kindergarten, let them study independently and actively during daily activities.
Unfortunately, however, most of these reforms failed to achieve the expected results. Chinese culture with its thousands of years’ history has always been adult-oriented, all focus on results, not process. The change of the traditional concept and practice needs a long period and requires a lot of work to be done, and the improvement of teachers’ quality takes time. What’s more, the development is very unbalanced throughout the country. As a result, the majority of Chinese kindergarten teachers were accustomed to the 30 years’ adopted way of teaching and did not understand the essence of child-oriented educational theory as well as the practical application of child- oriented activities. The early childhood curriculum reform planned to change the knowledge and skill-highlighted, subject-dividing teaching mode, underline the integrity of children’s one-day activities at the kindergarten, but they failed to shake the core of old teaching way, in which the goal was prescribed by teachers as orientation and foundation for assessment. There were a number of approaches and practice in this reform, but most of them were not successful. Till now, we are still far from our ideal situation.
In recent twenty years, the reform performed by early childhood educational theorists and practitioners always surrounds the following questions:
Discussion of Chinese culture and new ideas about ECE;
Academic skills vs. Child development;
Teacher –vs. Child – oriented;
Subject instruction vs. Integrated learning;
Process vs. Educational outcomes, etc.;
Discussion of ideal situation and teacher’s understanding;
Discussion of theories & practice.
Curriculum reform is still in process. New approaches are still growing up.
Integrated theme-based curriculum is a new approach conducted in Shanghai, which will powerfully influence the early childhood curriculum reform in Shanghai and other developed areas in China.
II. Integrated theme-based curriculum and Shanghai early childhood curriculum reform
Confronted with both challenges and opportunities of the new century, the early childhood education of Shanghai, a city of international metropolis, should not only conform to the advanced international trend but also inherit and develop Chinese educational traditions with full consideration of various social and cultural limitations. Now, with the breakthrough of the early childhood curriculum reform, a new round of early childhood curriculum reforms is taking place in Shanghai, and even all over Chinese Mainland.
More than ten years ago, Shanghai witnessed a reform of kindergarten curriculum. The reform changed the knowledge and skill-highlighted, subject-dividing teaching mode, underlined the integrity of children’s one day activities at the kindergarten. However, it failed to be adopted by kindergartens, though education administrative departments did their best to advocate its advantages.
In 1999, “the apercu of Early childhood Education in Shanghai” was enacted. The apercu, with its characteristics of emphasis on “living together” “exploring the world” and “self-expression” at the kindergarten, revealed the considerable openness of Shanghai’s early childhood education. The new round of reform must comply with that apercu. The programs should truly lay their foundations on children themselves.
As a new approach, the integrated theme-based curriculum conducted in Shanghai is based on the following starting points:
Firstly, taking children’s development as its foundation. Meanwhile, taking such elements into consideration, for instance: social cultural influences, characteristics of knowledge, etc.
The creation and edit of curriculum will be based on three factors: i.e. social culture, knowledge and the development of children. Among which none should be neglected. The new curriculum will pay more attention to the development of children. With regard to the individual child, it fixes upon the target to foster a harmonious-developed child instead of a too-early-divided partly developed one. The program will also indicate the continuity of children’s development, which will establish a foundation for their future studies and development throughout their lives.
Secondly, making balance between child-initiated activities and teacher-initiated activities.
Both child-initiated activities and teacher-initiated activities are valuable. Children make achievements in the process of self-construction through their interactions with the outside world including the peers and adults. These interactions offer children the chances for communication as well as the chances to express themselves. Meanwhile, the new program emphasizes the educational context, that is, education content should closely relate to children’s real life.
The third, integrating all the subjects.
The last reform had broken the system of subject-dividing teaching and thus established a sound foundation for the application of the new program. The new program will integrate subjects in goal setting, material selecting and organizing, evaluating, etc. It will reflect comprehensive knowledge of all subjects through “living together” “exploring the world” and “self-expression”.
The fourth, adopting process assessment as the main method of evaluation.
It must be guaranteed by an evaluation system with the same value-orientation to highlight children’s activity and to unfold program based on children characteristics, interest and need. For example, it should be paid enough attention to some factors, which are not measurable, such as the interaction between the teacher and the student during the teaching process.
The fifth, there should be considerable flexibility when implementing curriculum in kindergartens.
Curriculum should be flexible in order that different kindergartens may, considering their own actual situations, select and adjust freely to a certain extent. It should be provided for the teacher enough margin to arrange program on their own and necessary time and space for the children to have initiative activities.
In summary, the new kindergarten curriculum enlarges teachers’ independent charge over the teaching process, and what’s more important is that it enlarges children’s rights to have spontaneous, independent and free activities.
Now, I would like to analyze some advantages of this new approach.
In the first place, this new approach was greatly influenced by many theories and practices such as progressive movement, constructive theory, project approach, Reggio approach, etc.
Secondly, Shanghai is one of the most developed areas in China. People have more open mind and can accept new educational ideas easily
The third, teachers and parents are well educated in this city. Approximately all the kindergarten teachers at least have junior college educational level. About 20% of them achieved under-graduated degree or graduate degree. What’s more, educational institutions also provide inservice training for kindergarten teachers and special training for parents.
The fourth, children in this city are over educated. One child policy makes the society and families paying too much attention to the children. Educational resources coming from various origins supply many opportunities for children, even excessive opportunities.
The fifth, government supports this new approach. In Chinese Mainland, governments play an important role. Until now, governments are still able to effectively command lower levels to implement what they believe valuable by administrative way.
The sixth, this new approach is based on a lot of experiences and practices of early childhood curriculum reform conducted in China.
In order to actualize the spirit of Shanghai Early childhood Education apercu, some demonstrative kindergartens in Shanghai have done co-operative approach on “kindergarten integrated theme-based curriculum” and obtained fruitful achievements within a short period. It also influenced the early childhood education practice in Shanghai and some other districts in China.
In recent years, Chinese Mainland early childhood educators have paid much attention to the Reggio approach with great enthusiasm. This foreign early childhood education approach aroused the early childhood educational theorists and practitioners’ interest in so many countries and region, and now in large areas in Chinese Mainland. It is not a happenstance. In fact the approach of “kindergarten integrated theme-based curriculum” in Shanghai has no relationship with Reggio approach, though the Reggio approach is influential during the process of the “kindergarten integrated theme-based curriculum” approach. However, what this approach focuses on is just coincidence with the spirit of Reggio.
Reggio approach revolves various postmodernism themes. It discards modernism uniform standpoints, discards the traditionally accepted structural character, coherence, systematization, centralization, and standardization, turns to postmodernism complexity and inconsistency, grasps the great chance brought by difference, diversity, in-homogeneity and unpredictability which are already been recognized. In many years, Reggio has done much effort to seek multi-language and co-constructive educational practice, trying to create a new culture, which are characterized by participation, reflection, solidarity, happiness and miracles. Reggio educators do not look upon children as individuals that can be broke into measurable domains (such as social development, cognition development and motion development etc.), but as persons who can co-construct knowledge, personality and culture from the very beginning of life. As Malaguzzi said, “full of potentialities, powerful and competent individual”.
Reggio educators make relationships the central status among all educational system. The relationships are peer relationships among children; relationships between children and parents; children and teachers; children and the society. The social-culture backgrounds of Shanghai and Italy are quite different, as well as their educational practices. Nevertheless, early childhood education has its own development law. In nowadays, with certain history evolution and facing the same problem, various countries’ early childhood educators inevitably will have similar thoughts, especially the early childhood educators in Shanghai, as it is such an international metropolis. Early childhood education should face the future, face the world and face the modernization. In this sense, the approach of “kindergarten integrated theme-based curriculum” is trying to reflect the new era’s spirit of the world early childhood education development and innovation.
In recent years, Chinese Mainland early childhood educators become more and more rational and their thoughts are more and profound. On the basis of continuous study and reflection, we have more profound cognition and understanding of some essential early childhood educational issues, such as: children’s development; children’s play; the relationship between develop and teaching; the role and effect of teachers; interaction between teachers and children; organization and administration of early childhood education institutions; setting up and utilizing the environment of institutions; curriculum plan and evaluation; parents’ participation and community involvement; etc. These are the backgrounds for “kindergarten integrated theme-based curriculum” approach. The issues that the approach tried to figure out meet our early childhood educators’ requirements to deepen the reform. The approach also provides a model that can be used for reference for our country’s current early childhood educational reform and development
The approach of “kindergarten integrated theme-based curriculum” emphasizes on the integrity of curriculum. However, this integrity is not only external integrity. It focuses on children’s experience and interest. Guided by educational general goal, it also focuses on the balance between children’s spontaneous emergent activities and teachers prearranged activities. This approach emphasizes on children’s own exploration, letting the children learn how to live together and express freely in the process of exploring the world. This kind of exploration does not pay much attention to whether they obtained the right answer. What it cares is whether children participate independently and actively in the process. It cares that children are creative on the basis of their own experience. This approach emphasizes that children learn how to adapt to society, how to become unique individual in the background of “collective learning” through social communication which is beneficial to resolving cognitive conflict, and through the process of co-construction. The “kindergarten integrated theme-based curriculum” approach emphasizes that teachers should “listen children’s voice respectfully”, should study children by communicating with children, question and challenge children when it is appropriate.
The approach of “kindergarten integrated theme-based curriculum” supplies pioneer consideration and practical material to deepen the new round early childhood curriculum reform in Shanghai. It made explorative tryout for Shanghai’s early childhood curriculum reform.
III. Case studies of kindergarten integrated theme-based curriculum
Now, I will expound the approach of kindergarten integrated theme-based curriculum from various aspects through some case studies to illustrate how the new approach encourage children to explore, co-construct and express freely, especially how to keep balance between teacher-initiated activities and child-initiated activities.
Case 1: Projects about Mouth, Ants etc. (General description about the approach)
Case 2: Two projects: Supermarket: What’s the Difference Between Supermarkets and Shops? & Civil Sign (Children’s representation)
• Encouraging children to express their thoughts and feelings freely in different ways.
• Understanding children’s own expression, even though it is wrong.
• Encouraging children to communicate with peers and adults by using their own “language”.
• Emphasizing on children’s creation.
Case 3: A Long Term Project of Crab (Making the balance between child-initiated activities and teacher-initiated activities)
Based on observation on children’s activities and understanding of children’s development. Teachers design a theme web.
Creating an abundant learning environment about crabs according to the plan, let children select the activities on their own and attend the activities in small groups.
Creating learning environment or bringing up the open-ended questions, provoke children to emergent their own activities
Catching meaningful moment in the learning process and creating new sub-topic, teacher create chance to provoke children’s motivation of learning.
Teacher suggested if we could create a sands, we might know more about crabs and something else.
Teacher asked if you would like to know the inside of a crab’s shell.
Children raised a couple of questions, such as: Why the crab had no blood? What’s the difference between fish’s gill & crab’s gill?
Case 4: A Project of Earth (Co-construction)
4.Dahlberg, G. , Moss, P. & Pence, A.(1999), Beyond quality in early childhood education and care: Postmodern perspectives. Routledge Falmer.
5.Chinese Early Childhood Education Association. (1999) Early childhood Education in People’s Republic of China (government documents), Beijing Normal University Press.
6.Jiaxiong Zhu. (1998) Apply Piaget to Early Childhood Education Program, World Publishing Company.
7.Edwards, C.（1998）, Gandini, L. & Forman, G., The Hundred Languages of Children, Ablex Publishing Corporation.