The role of the Culture in Early Childhoold Education
By Assoc. Prof. Arve Gunnestad
Network Director, Queen Maud’s College, Norway
The Concept of Culture
In order to understand the role of culture in Early Childhood Education, I have to start to answer the following question: What is culture? Culture comes from the agricultural field – to work on and cultivate the fields and other parts of nature. To decorate or make something look beautiful is also part of the meaning of the word. It can be seen as the process of improving the nature and the circumstances. The different types of arts like painting, carving, weaving, pottery, song, music, dance, theatre, poetry are examples of how people have tried to make and develop beautiful things to share and enjoy.
But the concept of culture has grown and covers much more than this. Culture is what people have developed together, what they share and how they live together. One definition says:
Culture is the ideas, values, rules norms , codes and symbols a human being takes over from the previous generation, and which one tries to bring further – usually somewhat changed – to the next generation. (Klausen 1992).
This definition is descriptive and general; it can apply to any culture. It says that our culture is about the ideas we hold, e.g. of what is right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful or ugly. It also talks about culture as our values, e.g. love for the neighbour, honesty, righteousness, obedience, equality, friendliness etc. What values that are emphasised in each society is an important part of the culture. In some cultures competition is emphasised, in others cooperation, in some the fellowship and in others individual performance. Rules and norms – what is appreciated and what is not allowed in a society - is part of the culture. How to behave when you are happy or sad, when you meet and leave; how to act when somebody is born or has died, when you want to marry or go for a visit. It is all part of culture. What you eat and how you eat, how you meet and how you greet.
The culture represents experiences, values, behaviour, skills, traditions etc. that we have received from the previous generation, from our forefathers. Culture is what they have learned in life and found as good, workable and beautiful. And they try to pass it on to the next generation so that they should also have a good life.
A dynamic understanding of Culture
The definition points out that culture is changing. We talk of a dynamic concept of culture. Every generation receives something from their mothers and fathers, but they also do their own experiences and interpret it according to their situation, and then the ways of doing things may change: something is subtracted and something is added before we pass it on to the next generation. E.g. when I grew up I did not know what pizza was. We never ate that Italian dish in my home. But later it was introduced, and it became very popular, so that now days pizza is one of the most common Norwegian dishes in our homes. But we also have other dishes I remember from my childhood that we are still enjoying and want to keep. Our food culture has developed. Something has been added and something subtracted.
Some people tend to use the concept of culture to describe what was usual 100 or 200 years ago. We may call it traditional culture or cultural heritage. But as we see culture as something dynamic and living, culture is what we believe and make use of now as well. We may relate to culture in three different ways: 1) freeze and keep, 2) develop and keep or 3) leave it behind. In freeze and keep people tend to think and say that this is our culture, and we have to keep it just like this. We can not discuss it or try to do anything with it. Culture is holy and untouchable. We do have some people that have tried this, e.g. some religious societies in the USA – the Amish. They use horses for transport and clothing from the end o 1800. They are good and honest people, but their children get more and more problems as the society at large moves on and get more and more changed from what it was around 1800. It is like living in a museum.
Develop and keep is more like one tries to take what we are used to and use it also in new ways, to change something and keep on developing some parts. E.g. in Swaziland I have seen how some people build new hotels and other enterprises beautiful and modern, but with thatched roof and visible timber from the old Swazi building tradition. It is very different from the original Swazi beehive hut, but you still feel you are in Swaziland. This is a method of developing and thereby keeping. Then they have cultural village and other places where the old style of living is exhibited (freeze and keep). In Norway we have a music group from the North who call themselves transjoik. They use Sami music such as joik in modern forms like jazz or rock with modern instruments like synthesizer and percussion instruments. It is modern music where you clearly hear the Sámi folk sound. It has become very popular among young people, and can be seen as a way of develop and keep, it is new music built on the old musical tradition.
The third option – to leave and discharge – can be observed in groups all over the world. In third world countries some people are so eager to have development that they take all that comes from abroad and leave out one’s own traditions and culture. In western countries like Norway we also see that many pop groups prefer to sing songs in English instead of our own mother tongue Norwegian. This is according to my opinion a loss. I think we loose our identity if we discharge our own culture. The culture has values, skills, and ways of doing things that are suitable and good for that specific people and their living condition.
It seems that the changes in culture are accelerating (Klaussen 1995). The globalisation process with increased interaction between different parts of the world, the new communication technologies and the modern media could be some of the causing factors for this. Films, videos, news and adverts from all over the world are available by pressing a key. Multinational businesses influence the goods available, the films we see, the fashion that are in, the music that sells etc. One may ask what role we as individuals can play in relation to keeping our culture or in accepting changes in our culture and way of living. Forces beyond our control are having a heavy influence.
These three ways of relating to culture are seldom appearing in clear cut form. Often one will have to choose one approach as a basic idea, but combine with others where we feel it is relevant. Some things in our culture we want to keep as they are because they are beautiful and unique. E.g. some songs and dances, some nice celebrations, stories etc. But at the same time we will keep by developing some other aspects. E.g. we will encourage people also to make use of new technology in many areas. However, there will also be aspects of our culture that we want to discharge because we consider them harmful or unfair compared to our understanding of today. E.g. in Norway strict physical punishment was common 40 years ago. To day it is not even legal. Our understanding of how to bring up children in a good way has changed. In the Middle Ages we used to set children with handicaps out in the forest to get rid of them. This practice has stopped because our view of man as well as our understanding of handicap has developed. Another example is that of polygamy or circumcision of women in some African countries. These practices are defended as part of the culture, but it is a question if it is in line with our view of man and woman today and also our knowledge of healthy life.
The role of teachers and parents in cultural development
In a society of rapid changes it will be important that those in charge of upbringing and education like parents, teachers, politicians, church and other voluntary organisations join hands in trying to work together in influencing the cultural development. One should not leave only to media, multinational business or tradition to decide what parts of the culture in each country should be kept, what new should be added and what parts should one discharge.
It will be a great task to try to keep the traditions that are good, can work and is right and enjoyable as they are, then to develop some other traditions further and furthermore to let other things go. Not all of the past was good. In old days in Norway we used to build houses of big logs of trees. It was mainly one room with a fireplace in the middle and a hole in the middle of the roof for the smoke to pass out. Because of our cold climate and improved economy, we have invented better ways of building houses. But we still build some houses of bare logs (cabins), but with improved insulation and windows (develop and keep), and we also have samples of the old buildings in historical places and museums (freeze and keep).
During the 18th century we had a lot of people who decorated plates, boxes and wardrobes with nice painting called rose-painting. We still have that traditional painting, and we like it, but Norwegian painting has developed further, and today we have this and many other styles of decoration and painting.
In Swazi tradition they are quite particular in greeting by a special way of handshaking, and that children should show respect of older people. I would like to ask if it really is a progress to adopt the habit in some Western countries to just say hallow. I think they will be loosing if they do that. So in my opinion, every people need to think and consider his/her culture: what should we let go, what should we keep, and what can we adopt or learn from others.
The Preschool is a place for upbringing and education of children. Upbringing can be said to be
The purposeful efforts to let the coming generation get hold of the culture of the society so that the young person gradually shall be able to find his/her place in the history and the society (Gunnestad 1993).
The work of the preschool is to lead the young ones into the culture, the way of understanding, of behaviour, of values, of arts, of beliefs of the surrounding society, so that the child is able to find his/her place in the society. That means that the child will be able to understand his/her society, to make use of it and to contribute to the development of it. This has to do with identity – the child should learn to understand the society and it’s own role as a member and as a chain in the historical development of that society.
Culture in Preschool Curriculum
The culture is the most vital source of content in the Preschool Curriculum. We recommend that one should use a thematic approach when teaching. That means that we do not have subjects like maths, language, natural science, physical education etc. We teach in themes where all these subjects are integrated. E.g. if we have the theme of domestic animals for a week or two, we might choose to have the hen as a theme for a day or two. Then we will sing about the hen with dance and movements (music and physical education), we will tell a story about it and talk about it (language, natural science and culture), may be dramatise the story or let the children draw something from it (art). We may count the eggs of the hen, how many eggs would we have after two days if we have two hens?
If we think of Preschool Curriculum, we can look for themes from the following sources: culture – nature – society –calendar and festivals of the year.
Elements of the culture is
- Religion, how we believe and worship
- Different types of arts
- Traditions, like storytelling, ways of behaving in different occasions, songs,
- Values, norms and rules
- Ways of living, interacting, talking,
The nature is also a rich source of teaching materials:
- animals, how they live, how we hunt them, breed them, care for them, what we get from them etc.
- plants, trees, flowers, how they grow, how we plant and care for them, harvesting, food production etc.
- weather and seasons, what happens in different seasons, what do we do and make
The society as a source of content is about
- the institutions of the society: shops, markets, postal service, hospitals and clinics, bank, social security system, police, fire brigade, museums,
- the jobs in society
- the transport system
- the local structure of society
The calendar, the festivals and the seasons of the year can also give important input:
- Christian festivals like Christmas, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost
- National festivals like Liberation Day/National Day, Birthday of the King,
- Other days like Labour Day, Children’s Day, UNs Day etc.
We see that culture is related to all the other sources of content for a Preschool Curriculum.
Culture relates to the Nature around us. We have special activities linked to seasons, we have songs and stories about animals and places, we have traditions on how to make use of the nature for food, clothing and making things. Culture is reflected in the way we relate to each other and organize our society, and it is related to what festivals and celebrations we have and how we enjoy them.
As Preschool Teachers and Preschool Teacher Trainers we are cultural workers and transmitters. We are the ones who select what the children shall be taught and get interested in. We are the ones to lead the coming teachers into the cultural heritage of our society. The Preschool Teacher Training therefore has a number of subjects: Christian Education, Music, Drama, Natural Science, Social Science, Art and Crafs, Mathematics, language etc. In all these subjects the teaching has a double aim:
The coming teachers should
- develop their own experience, appreciation, insight and knowledge in these fields
- learn how to teach these themes to preschool children.
Students need to know their own culture and have a broad cultural background.
In order to be able to transfer knowledge, skills and appreciation of Art, Music, Maths, Drama, Christian Education etc. the coming teachers must themselves have insight and good experiences with these subjects and values. They need to experience them, not only hear theories about them. When we teach these subjects we need to let students explore and do things themselves, and to observe others doing the art. We should do and enjoy music, art, look at real animals etc. not only lecture about it. In Teacher Training we are culture transmitters.
In a preschool in Kalahari, Botswana
In many countries you have more cultures living side by side, often as minority and majority. In Norway we have an indigenous ethnic group called the Sami people traditionally living from keeping big flocks of reindeer, and from fishing. Also wars and ethnic antagonism has caused an increasing number of refugees and asylum seekers in the world. The number of situations with minority and majority culture is therefore increasing. Resent research on immigrants and minority cultures shows that people who master the rules and norms of their new culture without abandoning their own language, values an social support seem more resilient than those who can not adjust to their new culture or those who become highly acculturated to the new situation. Bicultural individuals seems to be at lower risk for substance abuse, other maladaptive behaviours, school difficulties and family conflicts.
Biculturalism is when a person can move with ease in two cultures: can talk the languages, knows the rules and norms, can behave according to norms and knows the way people think and feel. Real biculturalism requires that a person moves in two different environments representing the two cultures. Biculturalism can be obtained when there is a mutual respect between the cultures so that a person can be free to move in the other culture without having to hide or discharge his or her own cultural identity. An Indian should feel safe and proud as an Indian in the American society, and a Sami should not have to hide his identity to get friends, jobs or be elected leader of an organisation in the majority group in the Norwegian society.
This means that songs from the different cultural backgrounds should be sung, art from different traditions displayed, stories from different traditions told, food from different traditions served etc. in a preschool. In this way the presence of children with different background can be seen as enriching the preschool program: the children get the best from two or more traditions. In this way children from the minority will feel that they are respected and are contributing to the preschool program and those from the majority will feel they get more interesting experiences.
The positive effects of biculturalism in children were even stronger if their parents also were comfortable in both worlds. This point is important; it shows us that when we talk about culture and teaching, we can not only focus on children. We need to cooperate with the parents and the local society. Can parents support what we teach at the preschool? How will they react if children come home speaking a language parents do not understand themselves? It is important to develop a mutual trust and a common understanding between home and school on what children should learn otherwise the two institutions will combat each other, and the learning will suffer greatly.
I want to end my presentation by commenting on 3 vital areas of culture in relation to Early Childhood Education. The first area is that of Language.
Three vital cultural areas
Language and culture
Language is a very vital part of any culture. The language of a people have special words and expressions adapted to the sort of life that group is living. The mother tongue has poems, proverbs and ways of emphasising on certain values that may not be the same in another language. The Inuit people of Greenland is said to have 20 words for snow. This is relevant because they live most of the year with snow, they travel on snow, hunt on snow, build in snow etc, and they need a precise perception of snow. The Swahili language has special greetings when you greet people older than you expressing the respect that culture has for elderly people. You do not find the same expression in English. The traditional songs and stories are also best in the original language. The mother tongue is important for the identity of a people. If you take the identity and pride from a people, you also take the ability to cope, the hope for the future and thereby also strength to face difficult situations. This may be part of the reason why some minority groups have nearly been chocked in depression and alcohol.
In a situation where you have a minority and a majority culture, it is important for the minority to be able to move both in both settings. We can try to imagine how it is for a 6 years old child to start school with a lot of expectations, but to experience that he/she can not understand what the teacher is saying. How do you feel if you can not say anything when people around you are talking a lot? How is it to feel complete stupid? How will this affect the future hopes and aspiration of a child? That is why I think that bi-lingualism will be an important approach in Early Childhood Education in such societies. The aim should be that the children can be conversant and fluent in both languages.
This can not be a task for the preschool alone. I think it is only possible to obtain if one can have a cooperation between the preschool, the primary school and the parents. If the child should develop real bi-lingual skills, both parents, preschool teachers and primary school teacher has a big job to do. It will require that both parents and teachers respect and value both languages.
This applies also to all the countries in Southern Africa where one has mother tongue and English as official languages. Some of the preschools and most of the schools from grade 4 are English medium schools. Still I think such preschools should have had at least a session every day with stories, rhymes and talking in mother tongue to prove that they also respect and value that language. English medium schools also should cooperate with parents and discuss the aim of bi-lingual development. So that if the school is English medium, they should agree with parents to emphasis on mother tongue at home.
I do not have time to go into the theme of teaching a foreign language in a preschool, but what I have seen is that preschool have better methods than any other institution. Learning through daily activities, through play, songs, exciting stories etc. makes a new language meaningful and interesting, and it makes the child to like it and use it.
I know that these are very complicated questions that many of you have been struggling with for years. I have been free to give a view build on newer research and reflections on my own experiences, without claiming to have found the final solution. And you can discuss my points and modify them till you find your approach.
Art – local art in the preschool
Art is another vital part of our cultural heritage. It tells a lot about the people, the way they live and work, how they think and feel about things, how they perceive themselves and their surroundings etc. In many Preschools in Southern Africa I have seen very little of local art on the walls or shelves. I some cases I have seen more charts from Britain than local art work. This can make the child feel strange in the preschool or alienated from their own culture. It may give the feeling that what we have in our local culture is of no value for the future. I have seen a lot of interesting local art in many of these countries, e.g. wood carvings, stone carvings, basketry, paintings, wall carvings, textiles in beautiful patterns, batik etc. Some of it can be bought for a cheap price. What if we could start decorating our preschools with local art making the children proud of their own culture?
I will propose that all of us make an art project in our preschool teacher trainings this year. We may ask students and lecturers to bring one example of art each for an exhibition, and then teach local art in the teacher training for some weeks. We could do the same in our demonstration preschools. Let the children bring different art items from home. Make art the theme for at least two weeks. Let children work with drawing, painting, clay, printing etc. Tell children about arts and artists, what they use in their art, how they work, how one can develop talents through practice, what we use art for etc. If possible, arrange a trip to an art workshop or exhibition in the area, or invite a local artist to come and show how he works. Then make an exhibition of children’s work and local art, and invite parents to come and look. When we do this in the Preschool Teacher Training we may invite a preschool to look at our exhibition.
This could also be done with other types of art. E.g. one could arrange a week or two on music. Telling about the musicians, of different types of music, local music and international music, of local instruments and how to make them, how to learn to play, what we use music for, how to combine song, music and dance etc. It could end up with the preschool arranging a concert for themselves where different classes performing different types of music, traditional and new, gospel and other. Even parents could be invited.
Christianity as a cultural bridge
In Southern Africa Christianity is also a central part of the culture. Christianity was in North Africa from the beginning. Later it came to Europe. And when it came back in the 17th Century, it came via Europe. But the stories, the values and parts of the ethics of the Bible may be closer to traditional African than European thinking. E.g. the African emphasise on fellowship is closer to Biblical values than the European individualistic emphasise. But the Christian concept of love for your neighbour exceeds both the traditional African and pre-Christian European concept of love: Love for your neighbour goes beyond your own family, tribe or nationality to any person in need. Jesus used the example of a Samaritan, who was an outcast of the society.
Christianity has been a part of Southern Africa traditions at least 100 years. Christianity may have been used and misused in many ways in this region from the beginning. In many cases it was the missionaries who developed local languages into written languages and so really contributed immensely to local culture. At the same time missionaries were also children of their own time, and in some cases they were used in the colonizing process in some countries. I do not have time to go into this field in this introduction.
The traditional African world view goes to a large extent together with the Biblical World view: It is a holistic view, - God is the creator, he is in his creation and part of our everyday life. He is not just a caretaker of “religious department”. Since Christianity is widely accepted in this region both by majority and minority people, I want to ask if Christianity could be more utilized as a possible bridge between majority and minority culture.
This should be a Contextualized version where one tries to see the Biblical stories and values from a San perspective. Let the Psalms be with San melodies, the churches be built and decorated in the San way. It is interesting to see how Paul in the first Christian church struggled with the question if the new Christians needed to become Jews in order to become Christian. Paul seems to defend the right for the Greeks to be Greek and Christian. San people do not have to be like Norwegians or Swazis. In our Christian education we can make use of our culture to express our faith, and in that way live as Christians and be an integrated part of our own culture.
I think Christianity has a potential to create common ground between minority and majority societies. We have a common book with stories that are known and part of our thinking. Stories like Joseph and his brothers, Moses and liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, The Jesus stories, the Prodigal son and the Good Samaritan are stories that carry important values in human fellowship and relations. The Christian view of man as created in the image of God irrespective of sex, race, intellect or qualification, gives the same value and the same rights to minority as to majority people. The Bible tells us that all people has the same Father, that should give a good ground to respect and value others.
We have already experienced this here at our conference. At the opening or closing of our sessions we have been praising the Lord in Swahili, Bemba, Naro, English, Siswati etc. we have all joined in and we have experienced a strong fellowship.
I have tried to point out that culture is a dynamic process where changes happen in every generation. In our time changes are more rapid than ever. Three strategies can be applied in dealing with culture and cultural development: freeze and keep, develop and keep, and record and discharge. As teacher trainers we are important agents in the transfer of culture. We need insight and experiences in our own and other people’s culture to be able to make a relevant and good selection of culture to transfer to our students.
I pointed at Bi-culturalism and bi-lingualism as an approach that may make minority children more strong and able to cope in life. Parents and teachers must join hands if this shall succeed.
Art is a vital part of culture. It is important that children belonging to different tribes or cultures find that their own cultural background is respected and valued in the preschool. Christianity is a strong cultural factor in Southern Africa. I pointed out how this can be used as a tool for contact and mutual understanding between people of different ethnic or cultural background.
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