In today’s educational environment many educators feel that the idea of play, to support learning, has been outplayed by the strong push on early academic learning.

Teachers of young children must become advocates for learningfiona through playful inquiry rather than deliverers of pre-prepared early academic programs, shared by Fiona Zinn.

Fiona is an Educational Consultant based in Australia and she will be speaking at the Asia-Pacific International Schools Conference (AISC) in Hong Kong on the 9th and 10th December 2016.

Recently AISC conducted an interview with Fiona to discuss ”Authentic pedagogy in the early years”. With 25 years experience in the early childhood, primary and tertiary sectors, Fiona currently collaborates with international schools and curriculum authorities to improve early years pedagogy and learning environments.

AISC : In international schools, what educational trends are currently visible early childhood education?

Fiona : The greatest challenge we are seeing of late is the increasing trend of ‘schoolification’ of the early years. In a world where education is increasingly measured and validated by test scores, normative data and an outcomes-based mentality; early childhood education finds itself in a complex and challenging place. Never before have we known as much as we do now about the way the young brain develops and the significant role of play in shaping the brain’s architecture, yet we seem to be facing a stronger and stronger push for early academic or formalized learning in the youngest years of school.

It seems that play itself has an ‘image problem’. Reinforced by a binary mindset, which often pitches ‘play’ against ‘learning’, early childhood educators often find themselves in situations where they have to ‘stand their ground’ in the defense of play as rich resource for learning. Resisting this pressure is not easy, it justifies the need for highly qualified, articulate, specialized early childhood teachers; educators who value the right of children to be recognized as authentic citizens and active agents of their own learning.


AISC : What are the biggest challenges on implementing play in Early Childhood Education and balancing academic curriculum and rich play practices?

Fiona : The obstacles are many and varied, however I think that one of the most significant challenges is the increasing pressure for the overt and didactic teaching of academic skills in the early years. The minute that this pressure enters the early childhood space, timetables are changed, days are organised according to learning priorities and play is immediately at risk.

Often stimulated by a ‘push-down’ curriculum where teachers are pressured to pre-teach academic skills that will be required in later years, this burden weighs heavily on the early years. Instead of seeing play as an alternative to learning, something that you do when you need to ‘take a break from learning’, we need to develop ways to value the rich learning that occurs within complex, challenging and engaging play.

Understanding the role of symbolic play as a foundation to later more formalized academic learning requires a major shift. Teachers of young children must become advocates for learning through playful inquiry rather than deliverers of pre-prepared early academic programs. Almon and Miller described play as the ‘engine of learning’ which is I think is a wonderful analogy; an engine is a machine that creates force and is self-propelling, such a powerful image for self-directed learning though play don’t you think?


AISC : How important “environment” is in terms of Early Childhood Education? Is this factor being well recognized by International Schools?

Fiona : Environments are crucially important at every stage of the educational journey. Learning does not occur in a vacuum; it takes the right mix of carefully designed environmental factors to enact powerful learning opportunities. We know that environments can never be neutral, theyare either nourishing active_agents_quoteor draining and they influence our experiences all day, every day.

With significant attention focused on the environment, much contemporary pedagogy takes inspiration from the educational project of Reggio Emilia where the environment is recognized as the ‘third teacher’ (Malaguzzi). To acknowledge this powerful dimension of learning we must think carefully not only about the physical spaces we provide but the social, relational, emotional, spatial, temporal and political spaces that shape the early childhood experience. When it comes to creating environments that promote agency, inquiry and collaboration; early childhood teachers are especially skilled in this area. I have found that they are often the most ‘spatially literate’ practitioners in schools today.

AISC : Early Childhood teachers in international schools often come from diverse contexts and backgrounds, how do we marry this diversity with an agreed sense of teaching and learning? 

Fiona : A lot of my work with International Schools centers around the process of ‘developing a shared pedagogy’. Working out how teaching and learning weaves together in each context takes time but is a richly rewarding and worthwhile engagement.  Coming together as a new or changing team in an International School is a unique and fascinating experience, presenting crucial time for listening, for reciprocity, for inquiry, for examining beliefs and for the co-construction of new pedagogical identities. It also brings additional challenges often due to the transitory, trans-national school population which brings a rich cacophony of cultural experiences, many of whom come with established educational traditions and many different points of view about what education ‘should be’. This dynamic demands a collaborative approach where enriching pedagogy is the central focus; digging deeper into better teaching and learning practices as we go forward together. Echoing Vygotsky’s belief that ‘we become ourselves through others’, this collaboration requires a strong sense of self but also an open-minded curiosity about our colleagues’ points of view.

AISC : Culture is surely one of the powerful forces in learning, while different cultures emerge, how do international teachers make use of the situation and foster better outcomes?

Fiona : There is no part of life that is untouched by culture;authentic-pedagogy-quote it shapes our experience, moulds our values and gives defining character to our communities. Culture is our primary filter for information. The rise of trans-nationalism now sees people moving within and between cultures frequently, giving rise to a sense of global community. This has had a significant impact on young children and their education, dramatically changing the idea of culture’s once static influence on the child. Responding to this new agenda, International Schools now centre around a set of practices and experiences that both produce and are produced by transnational identities. It is a richly intertwined process. International teachers are well placed to explore the ways that culture shapes language, identity, agency, wellbeing and social bonds, exposing new layers of important connection between culture and childhood.

Family life in this changing space brings a fresh and shifting set of challenges and opportunities too, consequently the demands on International Schools have increased significantly in recent decades. Better learning outcomes are the consequence of more intentional teaching, where international educators listen closely to children, building new shared understandings embedded in the richness of their own changing cultural contexts.

AISC : What can delegates expect from your sections?

Fiona : In the keynote session on Authentic Pedagogy we’ll be exploring some ideas around what this means and how we might move towards making the early years a place of rich authenticity, agency and cultural proficiency. We’ll unpack some of the key messages around play and the development of the young brain as well as appropriate learning trajectories for later academic success. In the workshop session on Positive Learning Environments we’ll look closely at the values that environments convey and how they both overtly and subtly shape teaching and learning practices. Delegates can expect to engage with ideas and reflect deeply on their own contexts as we collaborate to generate new understandings and ideas for practice.

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