Teachers shocked by closed-mindedness of new kindergarten curriculum ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Under the new bill, free kindergarten would be guaranteed to all children in Estonia.
Under the new bill, free kindergarten would be guaranteed to all children in Estonia. Source: Urmas Luik/Eesti Meedia/Scanpix

The working draft of the new national kindergarten curriculum drawn up by the Ministry of Education and Research has led to an outcry among kindergarten teachers. Kindergarten directors and teachers alike find that the new curriculum degrades them as well as children, and in it they see not a forward-looking curriculum, but rather a step backward. The ministry stressed, however, that this is an initial working draft, and that it welcomes all proposals for changes.

A working group convened a year ago consisting of nearly two dozen representatives of kindergartens, universities, parents, and various professional unions and agencies was tasked with updating the national kindergarten curriculum, which had been in force for a decade already. Many changes were made, and the group thereafter disbanded this spring.

To the surprise of many, however, the working draft of a completely new curriculum was unveiled that had been drawn up by a new working group convened under the authority of the Ministry of Education and Research. Now kindergarten teachers are saying that it does not include their proposals.

According to Evelin Sarapuu, board member at the Estonian Association of Kindergarten Teachers, the new curriculum also uses a lot of outdated terminology.

"A lot is dictated regarding how to conduct learning activities and what topics to discuss in [kindergarten] groups," Sarapuu described. "Which songs and dances children have to learn in kindergarten. This hampers teachers' creativity and autonomy, as well as children's creativity, autonomy and freedom, and the creativity and freedom of kindergartens as organizations. We see this is largely a step backward, not a step forward or development."

Some examples from the new curriculum include:

"Children are informed of the goal of a game precisely, briefly and specifically; you do not simply announce, 'Let's play!'"

"A 6- or 7-year-old child knows how to express themselves via musical and rhythmic movement, and dance the dances 'Eesti polka,' 'Labajalavalss,' and 'Kaera-Jaan.'"

Evelyn Neudorf, head teacher at the Tallinn Tammetõru Kindergarten and board member at the Estonian Early Childhood Education Association, said that a teacher takes what actually appeals to children into account.

"My own children rather like Lotte stories, but they're not included in the [new] curriculum, although I find that they are also quite educational and constructive stories," Neudorf cited as an example.

Kindergarten teachers have also banded together on social media to fight against the new curriculum drawn up by the ministry. Discussions in one Facebook group refer to the curriculum as ideological, citing examples such as,

"Children are to be directed toward folk traditions. /.../ One's native language should be cherished, and children should be taught folk customs, national holidays should be celebrated, and national heroes should be commemorated with celebrations."

and

"Bi- and multilingual families are a global problem in terms of a child's speech development."

Official: Not given political guidelines

Ministry of Education and Research Education Management Department Director Ingar Dubolazov, who himself was part of the ministry's new working group, explained that the latter was convened because the first working group had concluded its work. It remains unclear, however, why an entirely new curriculum was drawn up.

"A group of experts was convened, and everyone was unquestionably experts of their respective fields," Dubolazov said. "I am certainly not qualified enough to denounce one sentence [from the curriculum] or another."

The ministry official nonetheless stressed that nothing is set in stone yet, and those positions that attract strong opposition or are refuted altogether may not end up remaining in the curriculum.

Asked whether the working group convened under the authority of the ministry was given political guidelines for drawing up the new curriculum, Dubolazov said no.

School Educational Sciences director: Who wrote this?

Tiia Õun, director of the School of Educational Sciences at TLÜ, agreed with the kindergarten teachers who found that the new curriculum marks a step backward.

Kindergarten teachers are anxious over this step backward, she said, and concerned about how such a document was even drawn up in the first place.

"On one hand, the curriculum is lacking teaching strategies on how to understand a child's learning," Õun said in the Aktuaalne kaamera studio. "On the other, [teachers] feel as though their autonomy is being limited. There is also the matter of how research-based this is ⁠— what has this curriculum been drawn up based on?"

She observed that it feels as though the working draft was drawn up by several people, each of whom wrote their part separately.

"It is very inconsistent in terminology, and it includes a lot of definitions from various levels that do not match up with one another," Õun highlighted. "It also lacks a child-based approach. This curriculum dictates a great deal, even by topic, and in perhaps questionable terms: 'Nature helps with medicinal herbs,' and so on."

She also noted that teachers are bothered by exact requirements for the learning environment as well, such as the requirement that a spacious room with a piano, recorder and kannel is necessary for making music. "Teachers feel as though they aren't trusted anymore," she stressed.

According to Õun, the curriculum mentions studies, but does not include actual references to them.

"Some of the studies referenced, claiming for example that role-playing games encourage wickedness, hate and violence — I'd say that nowadays we do not agree with these claims at all," she said. "International research studies that we ourselves have conducted and read rather claim the opposite."

Integration Foundation director: Multilingualism not a 'problem'

"The brain is overloaded, and such children begin to speak at a later age," the working draft of the new curriculum states regarding children in bi- and multilingual families. "Such a speech environment is only suitable for healthy children with a strong nervous system."

According to Integration Foundation Director Irene Käosaar, however, this statement is inaccurate.

"All research studies indicate that early multilingualism is precisely the path that Estonia and the entire world should follow," Käosaar said. "We are talking about a unified Estonian-language school so that children can study and play together starting in kindergarten. But these statements indicate that the Ministry of Education and Research is moving in a different direction."

Kristina Kallas, chairwoman of Estonia 200 and former director of the University of Tartu Narva College, was also surprised by the new curriculum, saying it promotes 19th century attitudes.

"This curriculum says that I and my children, who have grown up in a multilingual environment, should supposedly study only in the Estonian language, and that the presence of additional languages should be treated as a problem, not as an additional opportunity," Kallas said. "This is such 19th century attitude that I was shocked to read something like this in the 21st century."

Both Käosaar and Kallas called into question the competence of the authors of the new curriculum.

"The working group that compiled this document does not refer to any scientific research, and the document does not refer to other documents, articles or statements of specialists in this field," Käosaar emphasized. "The group itself also does not include any specialists in this field."

"It seems to me as though the people who drew up this curriculum are unaware of the realities of Estonian life or practices being introduced in other parts of the world where bilingualism is encouraged, not vice versa," Kallas said, adding that the content of the curriculum seems incompetent.

Käosaar and Kallas both noted that they hope this was a mistake, and that the content of the working draft of the new curriculum does not indicate a new direction in Estonia's education policy.

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Editor: Aili Vahtla, Helen Wright

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