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  Number 297 | Abril 2006
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Latin America

What’s Our Concept of Children and Classrooms?

In this second of four articles, Peralta compares traditional curricula, centered on the adult and the classroom, with progressive curricula, in which children are listened to, participate and are taken out of the classroom.

María Victoria Peralta

Education is always based on a curriculum: a consistent and coherent set of different factors and elements that we intentionalize and organize to foster what we want from education: desired or hoped for lessons. In Latin America we need to reflect on what a curriculum can do or undo, on the differences that different curricula can make to children’s development during initial education, during the kindergarten years.

Conceptions that need to be changed

Curricula can be defined as either traditional or progressive, which some prefer to classify as favoring a passive or an active role and others as rigid or flexible. I tend to use yet another distinction: humanizing or objectifying. In an objectifying curriculum, the child is visualized not as a person, a subject, but rather as a thing you can do what you want with. A humanizing curriculum, on the other hand, sees children as subjects and focuses on their development as human beings.

Education is always based on a determined conception of the human being. If I’m not clear about the kind of human being I want to foster in the child, I’ll select inadequate means and won’t be clear about what effect they will have. A very limited conception of small children and their learning possibilities is apparent in traditional, objectifying curricula; instead, the adults’ views take precedence. That’s why we give children a template, a model, in which the work has already been done. We adults say, “I want you to make a tiny hole with a pin in this little model.” That makes sense to us, because what we’re after is eye-hand coordination, which is objectively very valuable. But if I ask them, “Are you interested in making a little hole in the paper?” they may say yes the first time and show interest as they make the first holes, but they will soon get bored with the task.

Behind these kinds of routine activities is a conception that small children are very limited and that they don’t need to make sense out of what they’re learning. In order to improve the quality of education, we’re currently trying to develop a much clearer conception of infants and their learning possibilities. We propose listening to the children, which is why we talk about the pedagogy of listening. We’re looking for the meaning of what’s being learned, but it’s not easy to move from a traditional conception to this new one.

One of the first steps towards changing this conception is to bear in mind that all social concepts—in this case, the definition of a small child, an infant—are historically constructed. There are no permanent concepts. This is very hard for educators to grasp, because they think “I studied pedagogy ten, twenty years ago, and learned all about how small children develop.” But we learned all that at a given moment during a given period and in a given setting. But now, in this dizzying world of overwhelming new knowledge about children’s potential, where we learn something new about their enormous learning capacity every day, we have to reconstruct old concepts—which are not stable, fixed or invariable—in order to assume more dynamic ones. Some authors even tell us that there’s no such thing as infancy, that it’s something we created, a concept we’ve constructed in history, which is itself a social, political and cultural construction.

The question: The great educational resource

What concept of “child” are we building today, in this 21st century, in Latin America’s plural, mixed and diverse societies, where post-modernism has already inserted itself into our still-rural cities, while institutions of the developed world and expressions of total underdevelopment can be seen all over the place?


Our concept of “child” is crucial. In a traditional approach, it was thought that children arrived at the kindergarten ready-formed and just developed a bit more there, that no new structures were built in their brains. We now know that the neuronal connections and emotional and cognitive structures of small children are undergoing an ongoing formation process, that their entire thinking apparatus is being built and that nothing in that construction process happens spontaneously. Everything depends on the educational work we do with them.

In a traditional conception, the child’s role is to be receptive to knowledge and values. So we spoon-feed them absolutely everything. We choose the subject, the song, the story, the colors. Everything is ready-made and the child receives, receives, receives. In the new conceptions, we favor an active role for children in thinking, feeling and acting. And very importantly, we conceive of children as producers of knowledge. We don’t give them ready-made answers, but rather encourage them to think why things are the way they are: why the sky is blue and grass is green.

In a traditional conception, we compulsively tend to give children all the answers ready-made, when questions are actually the most interesting element, a great educational resource that awakens and triggers the mind. Children should be allowed to build and make their own hypotheses about things, explain to us why things are the way they are, from the point of view of their own magical world of intuition, which is also scientific in its own way. Sometimes children give explanations that astonish us and make us wonder where they learned such things, forgetting about the media and the information that reaches them via the conversations of older schoolchildren. Today’s children receive a great deal of information from many different sources, making them different from children of the not so distant past.

Questions are a great educational resource if they provoke intellectual conflict, making children think rather than just give the obvious response the teacher wants to hear, as in “What color is the banana?” followed by “The banana is yell…” prompting the child to finish the word. We impoverish children by limiting the level of their intellectual work. It’s completely different if we ask, “Why is the apple red?” It doesn’t matter what they answer, because we’re not interested in scientific correctness, but in opening the way to varied responses. They might say, “It turned red out of embarrassment.” It’s a hypothesis, and we’re interested in their hypotheses. It’s great if they start making them at the age of three, because they’ll keep on coming up with them, whether they turn out to be carpenters or astronomers. And that capacity to think is formed during the initial stage of life.

We want children who are citizens

In a traditional conception, children are passive toward their natural and social surroundings. They aren’t child citizens who participate in the environment or in social networks. We now say that children should receive civic formation from infancy, that they must learn to choose from the time they are babies. From six months of age, children should be given several toys to choose from, with the clear intention of helping them learn to choose.

We currently conceive of children playing an active part in environmental conservation. We know our ecosystems will be destroyed if Latin America doesn’t take care of its natural surroundings. Everything points to the fact that children are the best, most coherent environmental conservers. I remember a kindergarten in the Chilean mountains, a completely natural setting. The children sang to their magic tree every day, cared for the plants and raised hens. One day children from a kindergarten in the city of Santiago came to visit their garden and even Attila the Hun would have turned over in his grave! The city kids tore up the flowers, chased the hens, climbed the trees and killed bugs. What a difference! The children who tended that garden were so consistent with their project of nurturing and not destroying that they decided to become vegetarians and the educators had to trick them into eating chicken. They simply didn’t understand why they should kill what they had cared for and fed.

In a traditional curriculum, children live in a decontex-tualized bubble. That curriculum doesn’t cover subjects that interest them, even though they are part of their lives. When traditional curricula cover an issue such as family, do they include nontraditional families that have a single mother head of household, as is the case in half of all Latin American families? They don’t talk to the children about this: the family is presented as father, mother and children, in other words they present a very different society from the one the children know and never mention real families and the real society. Yet there are already many didactic materials that connect children to the reality around them: separated families, single mothers raising their children alone, divorce. There are also now stories and materials about children in situations of racial friction. Do we talk to children about racial discrimination?

All subjects are apt for children

And when do we talk to infants about death? The fact is that they already know about it through the death of a grandparent or some neighbor. And they don’t understand what happened very well. In traditional curricula, children live in an artificial world, a bubble where nothing bad ever happens. But thousands of things happen to children that nobody ever explains to them! In a more progressive approach—without turning the school into a Greek tragedy—anything that’s a part of children’s lives should be discussed with them when it happens or when they show interest in it.

We tend to eliminate the differences in the world in a traditional curriculum. We don’t talk about migrants, for example, although they’re a reality everywhere. There are lots of little Peruvian and Bolivian children in Chile; they talk differently than Chilean children and their families eat different kinds of food and have different customs. The subject’s right there in front of us and is appropriate for a curriculum, one of many contemporary issues we need to take advantage of from the human and cultural point of view. But it isn’t found in traditional curricula, where the only subjects are those we consider “children’s topics.”

Children with a very restricted vision of their immediate surroundings are not well educated. With today’s communications media, children have ample opportunities for close and distant interaction in both time and space. Why are so many children interested in dinosaurs when they’ve never seen one? Because of the media and the toys; because dinosaurs are sold in the streets. Why are they so interested in space and the bottom of the sea if they’ve never been there? We always used to say that children learn from experience in concrete situations. Today, this paradigm has become more flexible, because children take significant interest in issues that are not necessarily close at hand or concrete, because the media present them with situations and issues from the other side of the world or from the remote past or distant future, and all this interests them. The current curriculum for small children must be open to everything the children themselves are crying out to learn.

If you give children lightweight contents that don’t interest them, such as boring, outdated stories, you’re not educating well. Children in the remote mountains of Chile have told us they want to learn about dinosaurs yet the teachers are still talking to them about puppies and kittens. To find out what’s really relevant to today’s boys and girls all you have to do is listen to them.

Children can do more and know more

In a traditional conception, children always appear as dependent, needy, deprived, with no strengths. They are supposed to be calm, orderly and quiet, and do things when the teacher tells them to. The traditional curriculum emphasizes obedience above all other attitudes. In the most updated visions, children are recognized as possessing all the qualities of people who are subjects. This is a very powerful philosophical idea. Being a subject means having the capacity to act. Saying that small children are people implies they have all the human characteristics possessed by adults: they are unique, relational, creative, contingent and have the capacity to make decisions. And they were born with all of it. They don’t become a person when they grow up; they are one from the moment of birth.

And they are people with strengths as well as deficiencies and needs. Student assessments shouldn’t just look at what children lack or need, but also at everything they’re good at. And we’re all good at many things. Children should be made aware of their strengths: I’m good at running, I’m a good friend, I have good ideas. Because we don’t function through our deficiencies. We assume them, but we function through our strengths, so we have to get more out of them. The traditional curricula point out deficiencies: the child doesn’t speak well, so we work on language, language, language. Yet that child could be a fantastic inventor and we leave that side in God’s hands. But God is pretty busy so leaves educating children to us, and we end up not developing that strength.

We’re currently moving from a pedagogy based on deficiencies, on compensating for needs, to one based on strengths, opportunities and hope, as Paulo Freire advised. Freire started with a “pedagogy of the oppressed” during very rough years in Latin America, and ended up with a “pedagogy of hope.” It’s about not viewing children as poor little things with nothing but problems and limitations but about being more balanced, recognizing that they might know more than the rest of us about nature, for example. At the age of three or four, a child who fishes knows how to tie on a hook, attach the bait, scale a fish and open a clam; things that we don’t know how to do. And rural children who at the age of three can ride a horse, grabbing onto the mane, also know more than we do. All children know how to do thousands of things and we should be able to see their strengths. A girl who knows about herbs, where to find them and what they’re used for, knows more than us. All children produce knowledge and we mustn’t fall prey to the superficiality and foolishness of thinking they’re limited.

Teachers should be trained to look at children through fresh eyes, to re-conceptualize what girls and boys really are. It’s like looking at things from a different angle to discover that all boys and girls can do so much more. If the educator can make this change, all other changes come easier.

Learning to read and write
through thinking, not pen strokes

The traditional and progressive curricula are also different in that the former stresses infant education as a preparation for primary education. But even within this conception, we in Latin America still have very limited ideas when preparing children for the three Rs. We should listen more to Dr. Emilia Ferreiro, an Argentine who researched and contributed so much in this field in Mexico.

She has taught us that infants indeed have to be initiated in these areas, but as thinking, active children. It is very different for a child to learn to write by repeatedly making straight strokes on one side and curved ones on the other—which are meaningless marks—than by coming to realize that writing is part of humanity’s cultural repertoire. At the age of three or four, all children begin to invent their own writing systems and write whatever comes into their head. They invent their own combinations of signs and symbols. Based on this, you can start to engage them in situations of intellectual conflict: “OK, I’m going to tell you a very long story and I want you to write it down afterwards.” And the children, being intelligent, will come to the conclusion that if I’m going talk a lot, they will have to write a lot. Depending on the length of my story, they will either have to invent a lot of signs or just a few. They will start to establish the following relationships: many spoken signs = more written signs; and few spoken signs = fewer written signs. A child who does this is thinking.

And there will come a time when those children will want their writings, stories and letters to be read and will pass what they wrote to some teacher who will say, “I can’t read it, because to read people had to reach an agreement.” That will be the moment to teach them about the arbitrary nature of writing. Then we can teach them to write their own name based on the signs we’ve agreed upon so we can all understand what we write, and invite them to show it to someone else to see if they can read it.

In this way, children will discover writing and be stimulated to start writing words that communicate: their name, the names of household objects, what they saw when they went out. At the beginning they’ll write in big letters, then they’ll learn to control their hand and write smaller. And they’ll discover they have to write from left to right and from top to bottom. That’s what Dr. Ferreiro taught us. But, how are we still doing it? The same old traditional way, with lines on one side and curves on the other.

These pen strokes, this traditional preparation, does indeed teach motor skills, but we’re not developing this task’s intellectual plus at the same time. We’re not developing any enjoyment of reading and writing; in fact, routine copying of pen strokes ends up killing that enjoyment. Because if we take children out, so they have a good time, experience lovely things and then get to write about and draw it, that makes sense and they’ll start to love writing and reading.

Why does Latin America have such tremendous literacy problems? Why doesn’t anyone understand what they read? Why don’t small children read or write anything and do really badly in national and international tests? It’s a truly dramatic situation. The answer has something to do with all that famous practicing of strokes and curves that we use to teach reading and writing. Dr. Ferreiro is currently applying the same approach to teaching mathematics. And she’s saying basically the same thing: yes to mathematics, but through understanding, building and thinking, not just filling exercise books with numbers, as if such a routine were interesting and stimulating.

Like a play

In a traditional curriculum, the educator assumes a directing role and is at the center of all activities, telling the children where to move, where to go, what they should do, think and say. Everything is directed, thought out beforehand. They frequently say, “I’ve got to control the group,” “I have to manage the group,” “I’m not in control of the group,” “How can I control all 30 of them so they don’t move around so much?” The educator’s conception is of a very active “I” controlling a very passive “you.”

In a new curriculum, educators invite the educational community to participate. They call the children, the families, other people, the community as a whole, and do so with a concept that empowers everybody. They allow the family and community members to come to the classroom and work with the children, and facilitate their involvement in the different curricular stages, from planning and implementation to evaluation. The educator isn’t the sole center around which the actions revolve and doesn’t hog all the roles, even when socially designated as the person who convokes the educational community.

The strategies in a traditional curriculum are always group-based and very discipline centered, with all children doing the same thing the same way at the same time. The progressive curriculum stresses the quality of emotional and cognitive interactions and the strategies are oriented towards diversification.

The human environment and interaction fostered between adults and children is crucial. Putting together an educational curriculum is like putting on a play. You first need the actors, including both adults—educator, family, community members, young people and older children—and infants. And these actors need a space, a stage.

It’s very important to organize the educational space in which these actors will move. Decisions must be made about both the interior and exterior space and both have to be organized in a way that is consistent with all the other elements to favor the children’s learning. There’s also a need to organize time, both the broader term time and daily time, that of the kindergarten day, the routine of daily work. This implies planning, with all that involves: objectives, activities and resources.

So there are actors, a stage and the play’s acts and script. And you have to plan, implement and evaluate. In a play, the evaluation is up to the public: applause or boos. And if there’s a final ovation, then the play went well.

Classrooms aren’t “decorated,”
but educationally designed

In a traditional curriculum the whole concern is centered on what happens in the classroom. The classroom rules and the adult reigns within it. Classrooms that display that curriculum traditionally have a teacher working from behind the desk, a huge empty space before the rows of student seating begin, no elements within the children’s reach, no visible variety of resources (and resources doesn’t mean just a bunch of toys with ambience-building limited to Donald Duck or Pokemon), and no natural elements or disused but intended materials.

Building an ambience in the kindergarten classroom should always be intentional and add something extra to what the children habitually receive. If children see Donald Duck everywhere, why put it in the classroom? We should ask if its presence serves our curriculum’s objectives in some way. I’m talking about “ambience building” here, which we tend to distort in initial education by talking about decoration. A curriculum isn’t about decorating. That may be okay for an interior decorator who has to fill a space in a wall, but you don’t decorate in a preschool curriculum; you create ambience in line with educational intent.

The spaces are rigid in a traditional curriculum. You see the same ambience from the beginning to the end of the year. There are few if any changes. With a progressive curriculum, on the other hand, teachers work with diverse and varied settings. Anyplace can be turned into an educational space: a classroom, a vegetable garden, a market, a crafts workshop, a museum, a library. There is an intentional selection of all spaces within and outside of the classroom.

It would be disrespectful, unwelcoming and not very pleasant to have an empty classroom, but the educator shouldn’t do everything. It’s part of the educational work to have the children help create the classroom ambience. “A lot of sun comes in through that window and dazzles us. What could we do?” And so the issue of the sun becomes an activity. Some children might think of putting up curtains. So, we make curtains. “And what can we do so we don’t eat our snacks directly off the desks? Could we make little tablecloths?” It’s all about the children participating in adapting their work spaces.

The idea of the educator being responsible for everything in the classroom is a mistake. Human beings created culture by dealing with their medium: they ran the bears out of the cave, cleaned it, painted the walls and lived there. It’s is an essential part of human history, and is the same with children. They should be allowed to make the classroom their own, to appropriate it and personalize it with their own signatures. They should be involved in making or doing everything in the classroom.

Esthetic, dynamic classrooms
with materials for “inventing”

The spaces in the classroom have to be dynamic, interesting, where things happen. Somebody’s got a plant whose leaves dry up, then a little blossom comes out and it becomes a little fruit, and somebody else has worms in a clear bottle. So we talk about those things. The children should want to come to class to see what’s new. We need to foster their capacity to be amazed. Kindergartens should be interesting. Even in daycare centers for babies there should be interesting things within their reach, at their height. There should be portraits of them, plastic-covered photos they can touch and lick without ruining them.

The classroom’s esthetic should be interesting. If, for example, I put up a painting by a Latin American artist, a Mexican muralist, if I put friezes from any Latin American indigenous culture on the wall, I’m promoting the children’s interest in another esthetic, in other symbols and colors. You have to use materials that promote reflection and interest. That doesn’t necessarily mean industrially made or expensive materials. Bought puzzles, dolls or balls are all valid, but so are natural materials there to be gathered.

Bought toys are often used a lot, taken apart, worn out. In the classroom there’s a truck with no wheels and a headless doll. There are bits of things. Can they be useful for anything? And bought toys are often so expensive they’re carefully locked away in cupboards for a special day.

We have to work with other materials, disused ones: all of those objects that no longer serve their original purpose, such as a broken alarm clock or radio. Materials that can be used to “invent” things, such as lengths of hose, wire, plastic that can be transformed then made into machines or robots. We don’t call recyclable materials such as boxes, tubes and sticks “scrap,” because the children are going to turn them into other things. And these other things they create will become part of the classroom ambience.

Children should go to museums
to the opera, into the street

We shouldn’t just pay attention to the interior ambience. No matter how good it is, a 21st-century education won’t be valid as long as it stays within the four walls of the school. If we’re trying to create a contextualized education with cultural roots, reflecting on what happens in the world, the children have to get out into that world. And when they do we see that society isn’t prepared to receive them. Having society prepared for small children is a hugely important pending “issue.” Unfortunately, Latin America isn’t very prepared at all. With the exception of certain children’s museums, it has taken a lot, for example, to get our museums to provide installations that allow small children to get up close to art, science and culture.

Education ministries can pull a lot of strings in this respect. In Chile, a good pre-Colombian art museum took up the idea and organized an exhibition with reproductions of archeological pieces for children to touch and hold in their hands. One anecdote from the same exhibition: the children gathered in the museum shop to leaf through the big books with color illustrations of Mayan, Aztec and Inca pieces and were very impressed because they had seen and touched them in the museum. But the shop assistant told them, “No, that’s not for you, the children’s section is over there.” The “children’s section” contained three or four dull, colorless books, while the children remained fascinated with the “grown-up” books.

In the Children’s Museum in La Paz, Bolivia—a country with high poverty levels—I found something unique in Latin America: a room dedicated to children aged three and under, in which the people working with the children are dressed in traditional Andean costumes. It just goes to prove that this issue doesn’t depend on large amounts of resources, but rather on society’s awareness and education.

Mexico and Bogotá also now have children’s museums. In Bogotá, I found a museum with a beautiful room for children dedicated to Botero, one of Colombia’s greatest painters and sculptors, who is famous for the plump roundness of his subjects. The room not only had reproductions of his paintings that the children could get up close to and touch; there were also big jigsaw puzzles of them on the floor for the children to put together and take apart.

Latin American children should get out and go to museums, libraries, craft workshops... I’ve visited kindergartens in Italy where they take three- to five-year-old children to the municipal theatre to see rehearsals of the opera that’s going to be staged, or to an exhibition of stained glass windows in the museum of medieval art. Such initiatives express a very advanced concept of children. Why give infants junk art, music, science and technology? Why do we think that a small child won’t be interested in opera or classical art? Children have the right to good art, music, science and technology, not just the cultural garbage they are sometimes served up.

Let’s pay attention to the
hidden and annulled curricula

All of the above is curriculum, whether in its traditional, objectifying version, or its progressive or humanizing version. But the explicit written curriculum is one thing, and the hidden, annulled one quite another. Understanding these differences helps us penetrate further into the complex world of education. The explicit curriculum is one we have in a document that everybody can read. Many people think this one is enough, that it contains all the intentions and pedagogical direction. But that’s not actually the case.

The hidden curriculum is inherent to all educational processes, even if we’re not aware of it. It has to do with the expressions and gestures we use, which always have a great impact on small children. A lot of research has been done on the hidden curriculum in initial education, particularly with respect to gender. No explicit curriculum would say you have discriminate against girls, but if you’re dealing with 30 girls and boys you might address yourself more often to the boys because they move around more, thus relegating the girls to second place.

Gestures are fundamental. Sometimes a gesture is worth a thousand words. For example, if a child comes and shows me a picture he’s put a lot of effort into and I hardly look at it, I’m making a gesture that shows him I’m not interested in what he did. All of this is very subtle. You can see it in a face, the way I look at you, the way I receive you, whether I look you in the eyes or not, what I say to you and what I don’t say in words but in my facial expression, with my hands or my whole body. How are we going to end up with intelligent and lively children if an educator always has a reluctant, uninterested look? Training how to be aware of gestures is much more important than providing a lot of theoretical intellectuality.

And the curriculum we annul? In all Latin American countries there are a couple—more or less depending on the size of the country—of famous schools located in the capital city that have traditionally supplied generations of presidents, ministers, parliamentarians and other important decision-makers. In Santiago, for example, you know that one of the children from the kindergarten of a certain school from an upper-class neighborhood could end up President of Chile, minister of education or a legislator because the school’s social class and resources make it a seedbed for such top public posts.

But this school presents itself as a very democratic project. Once when I was working with the school I asked my infant education colleagues how they ensured that the pupils knew about Chilean reality: “Have you taken the kindergarten children to a marginalized urban population so they can see there are other Chilean children of the same age who speak differently, play differently, smell different, use other words, dress in second-hand clothing and do their hair differently?” They told me they’d never done this and furthermore had never invited these “different” children to visit the school.

Later, they invited me to a reflection on the curriculum and I made them see the curriculum they were annulling by showing those children, those future leaders, that Chile was a country in which all children were the same as them, that there were no other kinds of children. And that was happening in a very “progressive” educational project. I made them see that the discrimination, separation and privilege that will remain with those children for the rest of their lives can be established in the supposedly innocent world of infant education.

Nothing is innocent

Infant education is never innocent or ingenuous. It establishes tendencies and attitudes. That’s why we always have to ask ourselves what we’re stating and valuing, and what we’re annulling, or leaving out. And we must be aware that by stating certain things we are always leaving others out. Recent work has revealed the importance of the hidden curriculum, showing that it plays a part in many of education’s failures and successes. You can write anything on paper so we can use the explicit curriculum to put down the most wonderful things. But the quality of education is actually played out in the real curriculum where we may not consider everyone equal, where we privilege certain things, make gestures that send out signals and prioritize the prettiest girl or the boy leader…. 


María Victoria Peralta is a pedagogue and anthropologist who directed Chile’s National Kindergarten Board for nearly nine years. This series of articles is adapted from her seminar in Nicaragua on “Quality Education Stressing Initial Education,” sponsored by Save the Children Norway.

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