The Narrative of Curriculum

The new ‘Early Adopter’ Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) for England has been published, in the last week of a tumultuous summer term. It contains many amendments that have caused a furore amongst the Early Years community. I have already raised my overall concerns with the trajectory of England’s Early Years framework towards a highly top-down emphasis in another blog on this site, so here I would like to raise a specific and more abstract concern: that of narrative.

Where the 2017 EYFS proposed that children should ‘develop their own narratives and explanations by connecting ideas or events’ (p.11), its equivalent in the 2020 ‘early adopter’ framework is ‘demonstrate understanding of what has been read to them by retelling stories and narratives’ (p.13) and ‘show an ability to follow instructions involving several ideas or actions’ (p12). And while the 2017 document considers stories as an important part of children’s education in the context of ‘experiences…stories or events.’ (p.10), the 2020 document places more emphasis upon children ‘retelling’ stories (p.13) ‘performing’ them (p.15) and more generally constructs knowledge as emergent from reading rather than from practical experience. It also ignores multi-media engagement, as technology has been completely dropped from the Early Learning Goals and, indeed, from the EYFS document entirely; it had six mentions in the 2017 iteration, but none in 2020.

The way the term ‘narrative’ is used in the 2020 document seems to indicate that those who wrote it believe that the term is interchangeable with ‘story’, but this is a grave error. While narrative is overarching, stories are more local and specific. This misunderstanding is at the heart of cultural narrowing by the most dominant echelons of society, muting less powerful voices via a mainstream focus on ‘retelling’ and ‘performance’ of their own cultural interpretation of events, pushing other communities’ interpretations to the fringe. This process is explained in detail by David Olusoga. This is highly relevant to early years practice, because one of the roles of early childhood education in a multi-cultural society reliant upon an international, technologically connected economy must be to take children on the first steps of a journey to the complex understanding that there are many stories within the shared narratives of the ‘global village’ that they will inhabit as mid twenty first century adults. It is therefore very worrying to see that the 2020 early adopter EYFS is highly likely to erode this process.

My PhD was focused upon narrative and storying. I studied rough and tumble play in children aged four to six; a spontaneous activity in children that evokes the physical play styles of earlier primate species. However, human beings add cohesive narrative to make ‘human sense’ of the activities in which they are engaged (Jarvis 2007), because we are a linguistic species whose survival depends upon making sense of the world through narrative and ‘storying.’ This is reflected in the fact that the ‘once upon a time’ concept is present within nearly every human language on Earth. Chasing and catching games are found amongst children across the world, for example in societies such as that of the Zhun-Twa (!Kung) hunter-gatherer society in the Khalahari Desert and amongst the diverse, ancient cultures in Oaxaca, Mexico. The game is familiar to generations of British children as ‘he’, ‘tig’ or ‘tag’, depending on regional origin, to Spanish children as ‘El Dimoni’ and to Japanese children as ‘Oni’, both of which translate to ‘demon’, signifying the underlying play conflict in the game.

In summary, the chasing and catching narrative endures through time and from culture to culture, but the specific story that children attach to the activity varies. For example the children I observed commonly scripted their play as ‘superheroes catching bad guys’, whilst such play I recalled from my own mid twentieth century childhood was commonly scripted with stories created around Allied and German armies fighting in the two world wars. Only one generation later, this story had entirely disappeared, but the chasing and catching narrative endured, underpinned by more contemporary stories. The process of narrative constancy amidst story fluctuation is illustrated over time in many other ways; for example, the ever-changing face of the hero within the perennial ‘hero’s journey’ tale. One of the first European written versions relates to Odysseus sailing the Aegean in wooden ships, which then moved through many guises in many cultures over the centuries to the most recent American story of Luke Skywalker traversing the galaxy in his X-Wing fighter and the Millennium Falcon, which has only just reached its conclusion in the final Star Wars film.

Given the wealth of knowledge that we have about the rich, ancient process of human storying, why would the new iteration of the EYFS seek to restrict young children to ‘retelling’ ‘following instructions’ and ‘performing’? For this we have to focus upon the ways in which it has been aligned with the current iteration of the National Curriculum, which is firmly rooted in Michael Gove’s understanding of the theories of American education academic E. D. Hirsch. This is somewhat confusing from the start as ‘the best which has been thought and said’ which is often quoted by policy makers in connection to Hirsch is in fact a quotation from the writings of the Victorian British poet Matthew Arnold whose name does not appear in the index of any of Hirsh’s most commonly referenced books. However, it is most certainly the case that Hirsch created a list of ‘what Americans need to know’ in the appendix of his book Cultural Literacy (1988, pp.152- 215). It is interesting to peruse, then to consider which elements of the content would or would not be what Britons ‘need to know’ (if indeed, ‘Britons’ can be lumped together under one umbrella in this manner). And from that premise, a fundamental problem thus emerges from narrowly specifying what counts as ‘essential knowledge’, particularly with respect to the arts and humanities.

Hirsh’s proposal created a storm in the US as soon as it was published. Estes et al., (1988) commented:

Hirsch’s major argument is based on the assumption that the foundation of literacy is the ability to recall and associate a superficial level of knowledge… Hirsch inadvertently represents the basis of literature as the pursuit of trivia… Before a person can acquire culture from information, however, that information must be set in a context.

This is particularly so for the youngest children in educational settings, who are only just emerging from the family and community into which they were born to enter the wider community. To eventually become competent adults within this milieu, it is essential that they learn about the diverse, globally connected culture that they will inherit. This process starts from a teacher engaging with the stories that are present within the environment from which the child originates, and subsequently supporting him/her to connect these to the wider narratives of national and international society. This is accomplished via a process that is known as ‘sustained shared thinking’ (SST) within early years practice, which I have explained at length in another article, also considering the problems created by the fact that SST is a term conspicuous by its absence in OFSTED documentation for early years practice.

Long before the advent of curriculums or even of schools, the Xhosa people of Southern Africa developed a process whereby people engaged in creating new stories by drawing upon underpinning narrative in their traditional oral storytelling tradition called iintsomi. The purpose of iintsomi is to create an original, cohesive, engaging story from pieces of existing folklore: ‘there is no concept of a fixed or correct text in the iintsomi tradition’ (Gough 1990, p.205). In this way, Xhosa children are supported to draw upon existing narratives and develop original stories rooted within them, from the basis of their own experiences. If only the current English curriculum was so inclusive and enlightened, rather than so tightly focused upon ‘teaching and absorbing’ (Hirsch 1988). Indeed, Hirsch’s concept of ‘validity in interpretation’ (1967) requires extreme passivity in the learner, negating the importance of creative engagement with the contents of a story.

So, the existing literature indicates that the human impetus to actively engage with story and narrative begins before children start to read and is present in oral storytelling within non-literate societies. The ability to re-interpret a narrative, to ‘story’ is a fundamental, biologically primary skill, which develops within individuals, within groups of playing children and thence within cultures as part of our unique individual and collective human development process (Jarvis 2007). The removal of this process from the national early years framework is therefore a very serious issue, because being apprenticed within the natural human capacity for storying within a community is a fundamental and ancient component of a natural human childhood.

What does Hirsch himself have to say about the way in which his theories have been utilised in the English National Curriculum? In 2015, the TES interviewed him, reporting that Michael Gove, then Secretary for Education had in fact never spoken to Hirsch during the time in which he was developing the 2014 ‘knowledge’ curriculum that has now clearly extended its tentacles into the 2020 early adopter EYFS. Most worryingly, the interviewer commented that ‘although Gove and his supporters may define their views as Hirschian… this interview with Hirsch demonstrates that is far from the case.’

Hirsch proposed to the TES that universities should be in charge of curriculums rather than governments. He is quoted as saying: ‘it would be astonishing to me if there are schools that are just pumping knowledge into kids by rote… the truth is you can have a defined curriculum and use all sorts of progressive methods to deliver it.’ He said that his list was ‘misconstrued… it was a reflection of what was known at that time, not… what should be known for all time.’ He also claimed that he was ‘appalled by the reaction’ of American educationalists in the 1980s; that he felt they too had misunderstood him. The TES reporter concluded ‘clearly Hirsch feels that the view the UK has of him- of what he stands for- is wrong, not just politically, but in a number of other ways.’ Hirsch’s final comment in the interview is to say with a shrug ‘it’s been like this from the start. What can I do?’ The evidence therefore suggests what is happening here is a similar process to that which I recently described in a TES article outlining the simplistic misappropriation of psychological theory in education, and the negative effects upon the hapless theorists who are misquoted and misunderstood by policy makers.

The Schools Minister Nick Gibb calls for ‘a society in which we all understand each other better’, but is currently pursuing a route which will lead to young children being programmed to ‘retell’ ‘perform’ and ‘follow instructions’ rather than bestowing them with the full human capacity of ‘connecting ideas and events’. It will therefore not have the result that he proposes. As Estes et al., (1988) propose:

Telling is not teaching, told is not taught… if learning is defined only as those things that objective pencil and paper tests can measure, then only teaching that produces successful scores on those tests is relevant…[but] a dictionary of associations and a test of achievement will not enable students to create a context, it will only exacerbate their inability to do so.

Story sharing in order to learn more about one another and to explore cohesive, shared underpinning narratives such as truth, honesty and justice is the route to deep social understanding. Human beings, as inherently social creatures, must be actively engaged in this process within their first years in education to feel that they belong to one another, and that all are equally valued in the wider community. This is the concept with which New Zealand began to construct its highly successful early years framework ‘Ti Whariki’ (1996), a Maori phrase which translates to ‘a woven mat on which all can stand’.

As such I implore the English Department for Education to withdraw this poorly conceived EYFS document forthwith and to reissue it in an iteration that fully recognises our rich, multi-cultural society and its intricate connections with the wider world. The very best that we can do for our youngest citizens is to bestow the gift of iintsomi upon them; the ability to independently and creatively ‘story’ within an underpinning narrative. In an increasingly uncertain world, we need to open our children’s horizons to independent, creative, problem solving thought, not narrow them to ‘retelling, performing and following instructions.’ The best way to achieve this is to listen to their voices, and those of their families and culture of origin with respect and support the development of their ability to genuinely listen to others. This will prepare them to weave their own generation’s mat upon which all will finally be able to stand as fully equal citizens, regardless of class, race, ethnicity, culture of origin, disability, belief, sexual orientation, age or gender.

References Gough, D. (1990) The principle of relevance and the production of discourse: evidence from Xhosa folk narrative. In B. Britton and A. Pellegrini (Eds), Narrative Thought and Narrative Language, pp.199-218. New Jersey: Laurence Ehrlbaum. Hirsch, E. D. (1967) Validity in Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press. Hirsch, E.D. (1988) Cultural Literacy. New York: Vintage. Hirsh, E.D. (2006) The Knowledge Deficit. New York. Houghton Mifflin. Hirsh, E.D. (2016) Why Knowledge Matters. Cambridge, MA. Harvard.

By Dr Pam Jarvis



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All views expressed are those of the individual contributors and do not claim to reflect the wider views of EdGE Thinking. 

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