Soviet mentality haunting kindergartens

Kindergarten.

PHOTO: Julian Stratenschulte /AFP / Scanpix

The Ministry of Education and Research (HTM) has completed a national preschool curriculum project that experts describe as hailing from the Soviet era. The recently honored principles of involvement of the child and developing their independent capacity have been replaced with emphasis on obedience, morals and games based on rigid rules.

Ingar Dubolazov from the ministry’s education organization department said that while the draft project treats with children 3-7 years of age, the final version needs to include younger children.

“Estonian preschool education is very good. It is shocking how the authors of the new curriculum seem to have no idea what kindergartens are doing,” said Taimi Schmidt, head of training for the Hea Algus child-centered education center.

Too many proposals

The situation is made all the more peculiar by the fact the ministry procured a curriculum from preschool experts a year ago only to shelve it and put together a new working group tasked with coming up with a new project.

“The new draft curriculum took us by surprise. First of all, it remains unclear what type of document we are dealing with,” Heda Kala, chairman of the Estonian Preschool Directors’ Association, said. She explained that the project serves as poor guidance material while it’s also not a bill.

“Rather, it is reminiscent of a program from the 1990s where the teacher was handed a set of activities, topics and tools. Major changes have been introduced to the principles the curriculum is based on: learning approach, values and contents of topics,” Kala said.

In short, members of the initial curriculum’s working group find that the recent project has taken a step back in terms of development.

Asked why the ministry did not use the curriculum put together by the initial working group, Dubolazov, who was a member of the ministry’s second working group, said there were simply too many proposals there. He added that the curriculum project is only a draft at this time.

“The first working group presented almost 200 proposals based on which the second group put together the draft curriculum,” Dubolazov said, adding that the latter realized a new text was needed instead of entering 200 amendments into the existing one.

Member of the first working group, chief specialist of the University of Tartu’s education innovation center Maria Jürimäe was surprised to learn about such an interpretation as, according to her, their proposals never made it to the second draft project.

“I dare say neither our proposals nor the existing curriculum were considered and, instead, a new document sporting an entirely different paradigm was put together,” she said.

The curriculum that dictates activities to the letter feels decades old.

“These recommendations are from a bygone era. Soviet programs prescribed activities in this detail,” Jürimäe said. She feels recommendations included in the explanatory memo underestimate teachers and their training.

Adult-centered

Member of the board of the Estonian Kindergarten Teachers Union Liili Pille said that work is not planned weekly and in great detail these days.

The draft curriculum lists specific songs children must know and topics they must be able to cover. Children are expected to learn several popular children’s songs, the first verse of the national anthem, runic and newer folk songs. A six or seven-year-old is expected to have mastered the dances polka, labajalavalss and kaerajaan.

Head teacher of the Tammetõru kindergarten Evelyn Neudorf, who was also a member of the initial working group, believes the new curriculum’s approach is too adult-centered and doesn’t leave enough room for creativity.

“There is very little room for the child’s ideas next to what has been prescribed for teachers,” Neudorf said.

The kindergarten teacher said that the current curriculum treats children as active participants. “The teacher creates an environment where the child can learn, explore and discover,” she said, adding that the ministry’s teacher-centered draft curriculum concentrates on guidelines and do’s and don’ts.

Similar criticism can be found in a Facebook group urging the ministry to withdraw the draft of the national preschool curriculum that has over 1,000 members, including kindergarten employees and parents.

People who work with children find it baffling how much attention the draft project pays to game rules.

“These learning game methods are from 1960-70s textbooks,” Taimi Schmidt from the Hea Algus center explained.

Learning games instructor, retired teacher Merike Lillo said that it is more interesting for children to make up their own rules or complement or agree on existing ones.

Schmidt said that while the new curriculum project reads that children learn through playing games, it only covers those organized by adults. “The child’s role is to listen, obey and prepare for school,” she said.

Another aspect of the new curriculum that is making teachers anxious is values training where the child has been made a puppet of the adult.

“Is this really the goal – to have them take orders from grownups? What we really want are intelligent people capable of teamwork who consider each other’s needs and show tolerance,” Neudorf said.

Kindergarten teachers and education experts met with representatives of the ministry of Friday. Participants said there is still hope the project will not be approved.

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