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Early childhood education focusing on natural science: The Project Approach and designing CLIL materials.

Monika Jakubicz

 

  

The aim of the study is to investigate how CLIL materials have influenced my lessons in both Magic Fish preschool in Warsaw, Poland and Gräsåkers preschool in Stockholm, Sweden. The aim of the classes conducted is creating projects on natural science or, more precisely, amphibians. In the research, I compare the two settings, which means pedagogical space in the two preschools, pupils’ motivation and their attitude towards learning, the amount of help offered to me by mentor teachers and, finally, knowledge and experience I gain during my teaching practice in the two educational contexts.

 

CLIL materials

Designing CLIL materials is growing in popularity nowadays. The aim of CLIL teachers is to find something connected to real life and, then, adapt it to learners’ level and needs at the same time. Sometimes, or rather usually, materials influence the flow of a lesson. In fact, colourful authentic ones could be much more memorable than pale coursebook pages. I decided to use photos of amphibians, apart from pictures, during my teaching practice. What is more, if it was possible, I would organize a trip to a place where the amphibians live in.

 

What happened?

This year, I started my experience in preschool. In fact, in preschools in two countries: Poland and Sweden. In April and May 2015, I conducted CLIL lessons about amphibians in the two settings in order to compare pedagogical space in the two preschools, pupils’ motivation and their attitude towards learning, the amount of help offered to me by mentor teachers and, finally, knowledge and experience I gained during my teaching practice.

 

What was my aim?

While working with young learners, I was teaching them how to live with each other and the world. In fact, they were learning from their own experience, exploring. I listened to children and challenged them into learning more, through their curiosity. I was thinking of young learners as little scientists; therefore, I was helping them touch the world. During my teaching practice, I realized how children understand and see nature. I focused on the importance of places children live in, such as playgrounds, gardens, forests etc., and asked myself “What can they learn in those places?” Also, I asked myself “How to talk about the nature and the issue of sustainability?.”

 

How did I teach them?

Although the focus was definitely on learning, not on free play, learning happened through playing, and the way of teaching appeared to be very effective. In fact, you learn what you enjoy or what you find fun! I decided to introduce the Project Approach and meaning-making in my teaching science to young learners (YL). Since children have a strong disposition to explore and discover, the Project Approach builds on natural curiosity, enabling children to interact, question, connect, problem-solve, communicate, reflect, and much more. This kind of authentic learning extends beyond the classroom to each student’s home, community, nation, and the world. It essentially makes learning real life; therefore, children become active participants in and shapers of their worlds. The Project Approach, a specific kind of project-based learning, brings a number of advantages to any classroom and represents best practices in 21st-century education. It fits securely within both a long history of innovative teaching and learning practice, dating back, at least, to the 16th century, and within the framework of today’s growing body of research on what students need to find success and fulfillment in the current, and future, world. I conducted two project-based lessons during my teaching practice: about the life cycle of a frog and about the differences between amphibians.

 

What did I do exactly?

In my teaching practice, I introduced ‘collaborative learning with and from each other’ rather than ‘comparison and competition with others’ (Harlen, 2013: 79). I motivated YLs to use self-assessment of what they have learned and discouraged them from dependence on other’s judgement of what they have learned. Also, I allowed for children’s mistakes and learning from them. Last but not least, I did not discuss whether students reached the right answers but discussed pupils’ own ideas and meaning derived from activities; thus, I evaluated their effort rather than outcomes. During my teaching practice, I did a lot of pedagogical documentation, which was listing children’s words and actions. In fact, the pedagogical documentation become pedagogical when I used it, which means I discussed it with both YLs and their parents. I informed them of children’s efforts, the learning process and pupils’ engagement in doing activities. When I was documenting their learning process, I captured it without any interest in the outcomes. The things which were important were the following:

 

  1. Utterances – the children’s verbal speech
  2. The doings – what they were doing
  3. Reflection about the process

 

The questions pupils asked were crucial since most of them were a source of further investigation. While observing YLs, I was thinking both retrospectively, which means looking back, and prospectively, in different words – looking forward.

 

What motivated me?

I decided to be a CLIL teacher; thus, to focus on both the English language and science, with the use of technology due to the fact that “[o]ur interactions with technology and science are both profound and lifelong. Every part of life is affected by the results of scientific investigation and the product of technology. Our earliest sensory experiences involve teaching, tasting, smelling, listening to, or looking at the products of scientific and technological activity. Our natural inclinations to explore and to try things out play a profound role in our early learning (Siraj-Blatchford, 2003: 1).  Also, I used the Project Approach in my teaching because “[a]s a way of learning, the project approach emphasizes children’s active participation in the planning, development and assessment of their own work; children are encouraged to take initiative and responsibility for the whole work that is undertaken (Kratz, 2003: 3).

 

Magic Fish

The preschool in Warsaw is a bilingual one, which means there is the ‘two teachers, two languages’ approach present. One of them is, indeed, the Polish-speaking one while the second is the English-speaking teacher. The class I was teaching and observing during my teaching practice was grade 0. The 6-year olds are really fluent English speakers thanks to immersion, through which they were taught for 3 years since now. Their understanding of the foreign language is more than satisfactory since they answered all the questions I asked them in English during my teaching practice. In fact, there was no need to adapt the language to typical 6-year old English learners’ level due to the fact they are extraordinary!

 

Gräsåkers

The preschool in Stockholm is Swedish; thus, all the teachers and caretakers working there are supposed to communicate with children in the official language of Sweden. Although Swedish is the mother tongue for the majority of preschoolers, some of them learn, or rather acquire, it as a second language. What struck me the most was the fact that the first day I came there I met a native English speaker, who was expected to learn Swedish in order to talk to pupils in their home language! From my experience, I would say that in Poland such a situation is highly improbable due to both the need for English-speaking English native speaker teachers and the belief in the benefits of bilingual education observed nowadays.

 

The children I was teaching there in April and May 2015 were of similar age than those from Magic Fish since they were between 3 and 6 years of age. However, I cannot call them fluent English speakers, which has its roots in only little or no English input in the monolingual preschool.

 

Pedagogical space

“‘What does it mean to be in this place?’. It is a question which reveals insights into thinking, as well as into the subject matter of the environment (Clark, 2010: 11).” In Magic Fish there are an active board, a CD-player, an overhead projector and a computer in the classroom. However, still, the preschool lacks in a board to write on and a TV set. In Gräsåkers, on the other hand, there is no sign of ICT. Instead, we can observe a lot of Art there in the form of pictures hanging on the colourful walls. The desk arrangement in the two settings is similar and very meaningful, which means children can sit near huge tables in the way they are able to see each other and communicate with the whole group.

 

Learners’ motivation and attitude

The pupils from Magic Fish seems to be highly motivated to learn both English and content. It is normal for them to communicate with one of the class teachers in the foreign language and they do not treat the everyday talk as obligation or a learning process. Their attitude towards the English-speaking teacher and the language itself appears to be really positive; however, among fifteen children, there are two disruptive boys not always willing to participate.

 

Mentor teachers’ help

The mentor from Magic Fish helped me a lot while conducting my CLIL lessons in the preschool. In fact, she helped me find and prepare CLIL materials. Also, she provided me with sample lesson plans to base mine on. What is more, she was eager to advise me both face-to-face and via e-mail.

 

            In Gräsåkers there was a supervisor as well. She helped me with a lot of different things during my two-week-practice there. I was not only conducting English lessons, bat also, and mostly, managing the class in everyday situations.

 

New knowledge and experience – the curricula of Swedish and Polish preschools and pedagogical documentation

I conducted my 5 classes on amphibians in two preschools in two different countries. The knowledge I got in the two educational setting is the comparison between them: the classrooms, the pupils, the teachers and the influence of CLIL materials on my lessons. However, the two most important things I learned were both the curricula of Poland and Sweden and the documentation of the classes conducted by myself.

 

According to Ministry of Education and Research, Swedish preschool curriculum “takes a holistic view of children and their needs and is designed so that care, development and learning come together to form a whole. Pre-school is intended to promote a broad spectrum of contacts and social community, and to prepare children for continued education.”

 

Similarly, the aim of Polish curriculum, as claimed by Foundation for the Development of the Education System, is “to create suitable conditions for the child’s individual development and preparation for school education. Pre-school pupils learn occasionally and spontaneously while playing.”

 

While doing the pedagogical documentation in the two settings, I realized that Swedish children are much more talkative than the Polish ones. On the other hand, Polish preschoolers seem to be much more fluent English speakers than the ones from Sweden. Such a situation may have its source in the fact that in Poland I was conducting my lessons in English as a second language without translating anything into children’s mother tongue when in Sweden I was communicating with pupils in Swedish apart from the CLIL lessons about amphibians. During my lessons conducted in English in the Swedish preschool, I was supported by the Swedish-speaking supervisor of mine translating things, though. In fact, the only language the Swedish children were accustomed to was their native one. Therefore, it was extremely difficult for me to focus not only on content, but also on the target language, which was English. When I asked pupils What is this?, my supervisor translated in into Swedish immediately, which resulted in learners answering in Swedish, which was not the aim of the CLIL lessons. Therefore, I decided to repeat things in English and make pupils drill them with me. Also, I elicited the answers in their foreign language, at least. I totally understand the fact that Gräsåkers is a monolingual Swedish preschool while Magic Fish is bilingual Polish-English one, which makes a huge differences in the possibilities to communicate with children in English.

 

The influence of CLIL materials on my lessons

Thanks to songs about frogs, children were more motivated to learn. Authentic materials also boosted their curiosity. They became even more interested in natural science thanks to project work they were engaged in.

 

What is even more important, the pupils learning through CLIL developed the 4Cs: content, communication, cognition and culture. While singing the song “Five little speckled frogs”, they learned the natural science content:

  • the habitat of frogs is water,
  • frogs eat bugs

as well as Math, when doing the subtraction from 1 to 5 with the use of worksheets and acting out the content of the song, jumping one by one to the pool, or phonics, spelling the names of amphibians and tracing the first sounds of them: ‘F’ for ‘frog’, ‘T’ for ‘toad’ and ‘S’ for ‘salamander’, both in the air and on paper.

 

During my teaching practice I was communicating with children and they were talking to me and to each other. While in the Magic Fish I was speaking English all the time, in Gräsåkers, Swedish was the language of instruction and communication, apart from a few English lessons.

 

As far as cognition is concerned, I made learners understand the life cycle of a frog or the connection between the five little speckled frogs from the song jumping into a pool one by one and subtraction from 1 to 5.

 

In order to teach them about culture, I mentioned the existence of frogs, toads and salamanders in their home countries and asked if they have already seen those amphibians. Moreover, I compared the difference between the song in Swedish the Swedish children have already known to the English one prepared by myself.

 

Children from Gräsåkers were exploring the appearance of amphibians: a frog, a toad and a salamander by making them out of clay, with the se of worksheets. In Magic Fish, on the other hand, clay was replaced by plasticine.

During the teaching practice I aimed at making pupils explore the appearance of amphibians and the differences between them as well as the stages of the development of frogs. Also, I introduced songs about frogs. However, I must admit I did not manage to bring real animals to the classroom. That is why I decided to use ICT, a tablet, to show them the amphibians and discuss how they look, and guess why frogs, toads and salamanders look like that.

 

What would happen if I chose differently?

If I chose differently, I would try to find songs about more amphibians and more information about their growth. To challenge the children in their explorations even more, I would find the real amphibians during a walk by the river. Unfortunately, the two preschools were not situated near the places the amphibians live in.

 

The children in both preschools were highly interested in animals. Firstly, the learners were activating their schemata, which means associating the knowledge gained previously with the new one. Secondly, they were learning the English vocabulary. Thirdly, they were focusing on the content and making meaning.

 

If I carried out a similar project in a group of adolescents, I would introduce much more scientific vocabulary describing the process of the growth of a frog. Also, I would show the habitat of frogs, toads and salamanders on the map. In fact, I would make them explore by finding the places on the map themselves, with the use of the Internet or an encyclopedia.

 

Nevertheless; I would not change the topic of my lessons, which was ‘amphibians’ since the theme seems to be suitable for any age group. I believe that while preparing CLIL materials for his or her lessons, the teacher should take into consideration the fact that the topic and materials should be adapted to specific learners needs.

 

References:

Clark, A. (2010).

Transforming children’s spaces: children’s and adults’ participation in designing learning environments.Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge (221 s.)

 

Harlen, W. (20 06). Teaching, Learning and Assessing Science 5-12. Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore: SAGE Publications (246 s.)

 

Katz, L. & Chard, S. (2000). Engaging Children’s Minds: The project approach, 2nd edition, Alex Publishing Corporation, Stamford, Connecticut (200 s.)

 

Siraj-Blatchford, J. & MacLeod-Brudenell, I. (1999). Supporting science, design, and technology in the early years. Buckingham: Open University Press (141 s.)

 

http://www.frse.org.pl/sites/frse.org.pl/files/publication/1273/system-education-poland.pdf

http://www.government.se/sb/d/7172

 

 

 



Published: 2015-06-19