Lately everyone’s been talking about 21st century skills – what does this mean in early childhood education and how are they taught?
The concept of 21st Century Skills, in Finland, referred to as “Skills of the Future”, are widely discussed and accepted to describe the future skill sets and competencies our global society requires from its citizens. These skills and the debate about 21st Century Skills have been discussed in the early childhood education context for the past two decades – and for a good reason. As the New Sociology of Childhood shows: Children are members of society who build agency towards their active learning through participation and involvement in everyday life and environment.
The 21st Century Skills are often referred to as collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and communication. Children begin to develop these foundational skills that will help them reason, solve problems, think creatively, innovate, and work collaboratively, not only today but also in the future. These future skills are not, however, only emerging in K-12 education or college. Early experiences have a major impact on the development of brain flexibility and resilience, experienced self-competence and motivation. These are also called learning to learn skills.
In the Finnish education system, the 21st Century Learning Skills are understood as goals of education also in early childhood education. Children are supported and scaffolded to become aware of their learning potential and strengths through different practical tools and teaching methods. The rich content of pedagogical activities, classroom interaction and learning environment are especially important for holistic development and 21st century learning. All these elements are carefully designed and implemented in the FinlandWay® curriculum, lesson plans, and teaching tools.
Creativity is enabled through inquiries and play
Play is at the centre of young children’s learning
Through play, children explore their knowledge in practical and tactile ways, develop motivation through personal and shared interests, and create resilience through problem-solving assignments and inquiries.
When teachers observe children playing, they are able to offer relevant materials and support to help children develop their creative minds and skills.
In Inquiry-oriented learning and phenomenon-based approach children are interacting with concepts and challenges from the real environment. Learning is organized as projects and children develop their understanding and design skills holistically.
In play and playful learning children have opportunities to dream and imagine their own future. They create innovations and develop them further through different aspects of play. Playful learning assignments and child-centered play is part of everyday learning in FinlandWay® schools.
Communication is supported through adult interactions
Adults as part of the learning process
Adults, especially educators and teachers, are important and integral in the learning process. Teachers guide children and arrange environments to support the learning process. It’s especially important that they verbalize their thinking and give names to the concepts children are interacting with. This way they promote the development of conceptual understanding and vocabulary.
Through materials and interaction, teachers support children to identify associations and make connections to previously observed skills. This is done through a child-oriented process, in which teachers observe children’s interests, build learning around them, and extend the learning through a high-quality learning environment, and an open dialogue. This approach helps the learning “stick”, because it is more meaningful and relevant to the children.
Finally, the teachers involve children in their classes in the discussion of the learning and implementation of an intentionally planned and developmentally appropriate curriculum. In the FinlandWay® school children’s questions, ideas and initiatives are taken seriously and discussed respectively and teachers plan the implementation of the curriculum flexible enough to leave room for children’s curiosity and ideas.
Collaboration is scaffolded through peer interactions and shared learning experiences
Learning together is a joint activity
Peer interactions are another important context for learning. When engaged in peer play, children observe others and imitate or build on what they observe. It is important to see learning in early years as a joint activity. That’s why the teachers in the Finnish education system never assess individual children out of the context of the learning and social surrounding. Through peer-related learning and interaction children explore, compare, value, and elaborate their understanding. Learning is not only memorising but meaningful meaning-making.
Social and emotional skills are an important part of learning in the early years, and in the Finnish early childhood education system these skills are not separated from the academic competencies.
For example, children learn self-regulation and resilience when they play rule-based games and develop building projects and games further on. Children need opportunities to solve problems in peer interactions and negotiation situations to learn perspective and empathy.
In FinlandWay® Schools children also learn feedback skills and they participate in self-evaluation and reflection of learning daily in collaboration with their peers and teachers.
Critical thinking occurs through learning everywhere
Learning takes place everywhere
Learning occurs beyond the school. It occurs everywhere. In the early childhood education context formal and informal learning exist simultaneously. Children spend most of their time in informal rather than formal settings. When teachers have the understanding and knowledge to take advantage of these opportunities, it helps children make connections to the wider world. Learning is viewed as a holistic and dynamic process, in which the children create and grow into the culture of the society, its values and practises. Children learn to manage their thinking and act in society through participation.
To what extent a school recognises children’s knowledge from informal learning outside the school, outdoor learning environments, and through peer related interaction, is important.
In the Finnish system, teachers encourage children to describe their experiences and everyday observations. The daily discussions and dialogues together are part of the daily schedule in FinlandWay® Schools. These together with more informal moments of chats around the assignments give children opportunities to present their thinking and learning to teachers. The desire to know how to do something motivates children to learn.
The reward is relevant and enjoyable since it is based on children’s own experiences.