Branscombe, N. Amanda; Castle, Kathryn; Dorsey, Anne G; Surbeck, Elaine; and Taylor, Janet B. (2003). Early Childhood Curriculum: A Constructivist Perspective. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Pp. xix + 379.

$37.96            ISBN 0-618-14808-6

Reviewed by Karl F. Wheatley
Cleveland State University

July 24, 2002

What should the curriculum be in early childhood education? This is no trivial question. We may not learn everything we ever need to know in kindergarten, as one author suggested, but the foundations for all aspects of learning and development are built in the critical years between birth and age eight. In an increasing number of states, future primary grade teachers now receive their training through early childhood education programs (PK-2 or PK-3), rather than through elementary education programs. This policy shift has brought the "early childhood" traditions of play, projects, and child-initiated learning into clearer conflict with the current national emphasis on accountability and subject matter standards. Within this policy context, Early Childhood Curriculum: A Constructivist Perspectiveprovides a distinctly constructivist answer to the question of what the curriculum should be in early childhood education.

The constructivist perspective of the text is heavily Piagetian, with quotes from Piaget, as well as details of his research and theory appearing throughout the book. The theories and research of several of Piaget's followers, such as Constance Kamii, Rheta DeVries, and Lawrence Kohlberg are also discussed. Sociocultural theorists (i.e., "social constructivists") such as Vygotsky, or early childhood researchers who take a distinctly socio-cultural perspective (e.g., Janet Gonzalez-Mena, 1997) appear occasionally, but less frequently than those from the cognitive-developmental or individual constructivist tradition. The book contains a substantial number of suggestions about group processes, scaffolding, and creating classroom community—ideas that appeal to those who embrace a more social constructivist perspective on education. However, the descriptions and analysis of these processes generally reflect cognitive-developmental perspectives and research.

A central premise of the book is that constructivist theory and research—especially information about how children learn and the nature of the knowledge to be learned—provide the starting point for developing curriculum. For example, under the heading "using constructivist assumptions," the authors write, "a constructivist teacher begins with what is known about the child and the child's way of knowing rather than from curriculum or national standards" (p. 32). Similarly, they note

It is this focus on the thinking of the learners rather than on content that differentiates a constructivist approach from traditional teaching. In fact, curriculum cannot be considered to follow a constructivist approach when the focus is on content rather than the child's thinking. (p. 181)

Consistent with the writings of Piaget, Kamii, and DeVries, the broad goals of promoting children's development and autonomy are central to the authors' vision regarding the aims of early childhood curriculum. These goals are woven throughout eachchapter of the book, and are the strongest unifying theme of the curriculum ideas and teaching methods the authors advocate. Indeed, autonomy is central to their definition of constructivism, which emphasizes children creating knowledge rather than "repeating what others consider important knowledge" (p. 10).

The book has three sections: 1) What are constructivist aims and assumptions?, 2) What are key components of constructivist curriculum?, and 3) What are constructivist practices?

The three chapters in section one (i.e., What are constructivist aims and assumptions?) address the aims of constructivist curriculum (chapter 1), how constructivist assumptions guide practice (chapter 2), and learning and the three kinds of knowledge addressed within Piaget's theory (chapter 3). The discussions of how children learn emphasize learning through active physical and mental engagement with authentic tasks of their own choosing, learning from cognitive conflict, refining and coordinating olds ways of thinking, representing their knowledge, and through learning from other people. The authors also emphasize that learners revise their thinking, support one another, are responsible for their own learning, and that learning is a community activity. Descriptions of main features of constructivist curriculum highlight the way in which teachers consider the processes by which children learn, address problem-solving, organize materials, take an active role throughout the day and relate curriculum to the context in which they teach. Examples of classroom activities are woven in, as when descriptions from the Reggio Emilia approach are used to illustrate the role of cognitive conflict in learning.

Less attention is given to what curriculum is and what the goals of curriculum should be. The authors provide varied definitions of curriculum, and note that "our definition of curriculum goes beyond content" (p. 6), but do not indicate what their definition is. Among a list of five ways to use constructivist assumptions to guide practice is the suggestion to "begin your curriculum planning with what you know about the nature of the learner and the nature of what is to be learned." Judging from the remainder of the book, this largely means responding to children's interests and perceived developmental needs, allowing them to construct knowledge as they will, and providing learning opportunities that may support their movement to the next step in development.

Teachers' ideas are mentioned as a source of curriculum goals, and subject matter is mentioned a number of times throughout the book. Subject matter standards are mentioned, but briefly or sometimes skeptically, and while the authors suggest ways of indicating what standards a lesson addresses, the tone usually suggests that this is something teachers would only do if others required them to do it. The authors never suggest that teachers use the national content standards for various disciplines as a starting point for curriculum planning. Rather, the authors express strong faith that active engagement in authentic curriculum processes will lead to the appropriate student outcomes. For example, "Constructivist teachers recognize that when children are engaged in authentic tasks in which they are spontaneously interested, they will construct the knowledge necessary to meet the teachers' objectives" (p. 109). All of this is consistent with a skepticism towards subject matter and standards that is common in early childhood education.

The first section of the book concludes with a chapter that serves as a primer on Piagetian theory. The authors provide an overview of main concepts, processes and stages of development in Piaget's theory. They address Piaget's three types of knowledge, with discussion of related concepts such as action, empirical abstraction, and the role of objects. The chapter concludes with details about and examples of children's representational thought. Sprinkled throughout this chapter are numerous detailed points about the nature of children's thinking at different ages, and the sequences and processes involved in children's thinking. Relevant examples of children's activities and comments provide helpful illustrations of the content of this chapter.

The second section of the book (i.e., What are key components of constructivist curriculum?) discusses authentic tasks, choice, and decision making (chapter 4), social interaction, play and project (chapter 5), problem posing, problem solving, and reflection (chapter 6), and the role of community (chapter 7). Relevant research and Piagetian concepts are woven throughout these chapters appropriately, and some excellent—even inspiring—examples from children's play and projects enliven the text. The authors provide strong discussions of the role of problem posing and problem solving in children's education, and provide practical suggestions for games that engage children in problem solving. They examine many of the important issues in creating caring classroom communities that provide for intellectual safety and promote self-regulated morality. What distinguishes this section of the text from similar sections in other early childhood curriculum texts is the emphasis on supporting children's autonomy, and the inclusion of guidelines and teaching ideas that strongly support autonomous thinking. The ideas of leading experts in applications of Piagetian theory—such as Duckworth, Kamii, and DeVries are sprinkled throughout this section of the text.

The third section of the text (i.e., What are constructivist practices?) addresses building a constructivist curriculum (chapter 8), constructivist models of instruction (chapter 9), and constructivist documentation, assessment, and evaluation (chapter 10). A variety of practical curriculum issues are addressed, including helping children understand the expectations of constructivist curriculum, implementing constructivist curriculum gradually, and ideas for building curriculum around children's interests and developmental needs. This section also includes a very helpful discussion of dealing with students' diverse backgrounds and needs. Interesting details are provided regarding constructivist models of instruction, such as High/Scope, the Kamii and DeVries approaches, and the "constructionism" model of Seymour Papert and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Epistemology and Learning Group. The treatment of assessment and evaluation covered topics one would expect, including various types of authentic assessment and an interesting section on documentation of the type practiced in the Italian schools in Reggio Emilia and Pistoia. Some examples, such as a kindergarten teacher's analysis of samples of children's work, provided concrete insights into children's knowledge and skills.

The special features of the book include regularly appearing discussions among six teachers who represent different perspectives on constructivist curriculum. The teachers raise real issues, including a few important dilemmas and misconceptions regarding constructivist teaching. This feature adds spice to the text, while some fairly detailed descriptions of constructivist practices and classroom activities, drawn from real teachers in a variety of settings, added intriguing examples and details.

The book has three very important strengths: 1) its focus on autonomy as a central goal of education, 2) the detail and content it provided regarding children's thinking and the nature of children's knowledge, and 3) the many descriptions of "constructivist" teaching practices.

Perhaps the most important strength of the text is the focus on autonomy, which the authors define as being self-governed, in both intellectual and moral matters. While a great many conservative critics have misconstrued autonomy to imply disregard for others, the authors are careful to point out that their definition implies "consideration of the needs and desires of others" (p. 24) and an ability to co-operate with others. The emphasis on autonomy was quite refreshing. While other researchers and educators have emphasized this goal, in many texts autonomy is just another term that is presented, rather than a central commitment of an educational approach. The text would be further strengthened by more discussion of the way in which autonomy prepares individuals for adulthood and for being productive members of a democratic society.

The second major strength of the text is the detailed information provided on child development and learning, including attention to the way in which development and learning relate to curriculum goals and processes. It was helpful that these details were distributed in various parts of the text and accompanied by relevant descriptions of classroom activities. Such information is often extremely difficult for students to master if introduced all at once and in a largely decontextualized way. Similarly, incorporating additional details about "constructivist" theory and research into the various chapters helped illustrate the importance of this information for various aspects of curriculum. Because many students seem to have forgotten much of what they learned in a child psychology course by the time they get to early childhood curriculum courses, the approach of the text will provide a helpful refresher.

The third main strength of the text is the wealth of guidelines, strategies, and examples it provides about the teaching processes of constructivist early childhood curriculum. In discussing play, projects, and other components of constructivist curriculum, the authors also provided balanced attention to infants and toddlers, preschoolers, and primary-grade children.

I believe this text could be improved if it included a greater diversity of voices regarding constructivist curriculum. The text's strong emphasis on types of knowledge was helpful, but I wanted to also hear from scholars addressed other important curriculum outcomes, such as the different levels of knowledge represented by Bloom's taxonomy, or outcomes such as skills, dispositions and feelings (e.g., Katz & Chard, 1989; Meier, 1995).

Similarly, I thought the text would have been enriched by including the voices of teachers and researchers who believe in so-called "constructivist" teaching, but who also believe that subject matter and content standards should definitely influence curriculum. The authors address subject matter and standards, but their treatment of subject matter felt half-hearted in most places. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has indicated in several position statements that they believe that subject matter and standards are critical elements of effective curriculum (i.e., see Bredekamp & Rosegrant, 1992,and www.naeyc.org). Including those voices that look more favorably on subject matter and standards, and that would grant subject matter standards a more prominent role in curriculum planning, seems like an important step to take. Introducing these contrasting voices would then provide the authors with an authentic opportunity for more fully explaining some aspects of their perspectives on curriculum content and design.

The book could also be improved by providing specific curriculum suggestions and examples for each of the three age groups it addresses (infants and toddlers, preschoolers, and primary-grade children). The authors do a wonderful job of covering the vast terrain of learning theory, child development, play, projects, and other elements of curriculum from birth through age eight. However, the range of curriculum included in the age span from infancy (i.e., object permanence and diaper changes) through third grade (i.e., decimals, the scientific method and citizenship) is difficult to address well in one text. As this text moves into its second edition and beyond, as it should, either providing this additional detail regarding curriculum for specific age groups—or perhaps providing separate editions for those age groups—would be welcomed.

Regarding the pedagogy of the book, the authors stated that one of their aims was to foster the autonomy and development of those who use the book. One way in which they achieved this was through the conflicting viewpoints introduced in the discussions among the six teachers. These discussions raised important issues, and may certainly induce thought-provoking disequilibrium among many readers. Also, the authors used sparingly the official position statements from national organizations, such NAEYC. While listing NAEYC's curriculum guidelines for curriculum early in the book would have been informative, one can also argue that presenting such "received wisdom" from an authoritative organization could foreclose students' reflections on alternate perspectives on appropriate curriculum. Nevertheless, the authors themselves sometimes "tell" readers in a definitive way what constructivist curriculum is or is not. I wondered what ideas future teachers would construct from the book, if the authors simply presented many of their positions alongside some of the contrasting viewpoints described above, and left it up to readers to resolve the issues at hand for themselves.

I found the book to be enjoyable and easy to read, except where the nuances of Piagetian theory add the inevitable complexity to the text. Interesting and appropriate examples of children and classrooms from infancy through the primary grades are woven throughout the text, along with teachers' reflections on teaching, children, and learning. The text unfolded in a rather organic way, with a less linear and clear-cut structure than some texts. Arguably, this type of organization and flow reflects well the somewhat emergent properties of early childhood curriculum, and given the respectful tone of the text, reading the text was like an enjoyable journey.

This text provides a crucial contribution to current discussions of the construction of early childhood curriculum. The authors' strong focus on individual constructivism may help keep teachers' focused on individual students and the details of their personal interpretation of reality—issues that sometimes fade too far into the background when social constructivist perspectives dominate educational discussion.

By taking a strong stand for the importance of autonomy as an educational outcome, the message of this text serves to guard against the educational dangers of a too-great fascination with educational standards and accountability. As NAEYC works to revise its curriculum standards and the nation wrestles with the Bush administration's educational accountability systems, our national discussions of what the curriculum should be in early childhood education would benefit from many of the curriculum ideas the authors promote in this book.

References

Bredekamp, S., & Rosegrant, T. (Eds.). (1992). Reaching potentials: Appropriate curriculum and assessment for young children (Vol. 1). Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Gonzalez-Mena, J. (1997). Multicultural issues in child care (2nd ed.). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.

Katz, L. G., & Chard, S. C. (1989). Engaging children's minds: The project approach. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Meier, D. (1995). The power of their ideas: Lessons for America from a small school in Harlem. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

About the Reviewer

Karl F. Wheatley is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education at Cleveland State University. His research interests include early childhood curriculum, teacher efficacy beliefs, and educational reform. He can be reached at k.wheatley@csuohio.edu.

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