Early Childhood Education



Pedagogy is typically defined as the art and science of teaching. The term dates back hundreds of years to the Greek word “pedagogue.” Originally, a pedagogue was a servant (often a slave) who attended to a young boy’s ancillary educational needs such as carrying books and accompanying him to school (Monroe 1913). The word is now synonymous with “teaching,” the art and science of educating others through enacting pedagogy of some form. Pedagogy therefore is not synonymous with the term curriculum, or what children should know and be taught. Pedagogy encompasses the psychological, cultural, political, and socioemotional processes of teaching young children.

Teaching young children is a dynamic process that demands not only that a teacher have a fully realized vision of the goals and content present in a curriculum but also a theoretical understanding of how best to assist students to learn. In addition, he or she must develop and become expert in using a repertoire of strategies to respond effectively to both an individual student’s learning and those of subgroups and the class as a whole. In other words, pedagogy is a teacher’s tool kit that encompasses his or her professional philosophy about teaching, learning and the purposes of early education, a knowledge base that informs these beliefs, as well as a range of methods for putting these views into action (Katz 1995). This toolkit is developed through professional preparation opportunities as well as teachers’ individual experiences of schooling.

At the same time what kinds of tools a teacher chooses to use on any given day is also shaped by the contexts in which they work. For example, a teacher in a Head Start program enacts a different kind of pedagogy than a public school teacher because of the differing curriculum goals, training opportunities, standards, and assessment procedures of their sponsoring agency. Teachers’ pedagogy is also influenced by whether they work in an urban, suburban, or rural setting and the socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds of the families they serve. Families and administrators hold particular assumptions about what it means to be a teacher, and those assumptions mediate how a teacher operates in the classroom.

Similarly, pedagogy is not limited to the classroom and school context but is also influenced by the evolution of differing ideas that over time change the ways teaching young children is defined and described. For example, the questioning of the research base underpinning the original guidelines for developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) (e.g., Mallory and New 1994) as well as wider dissemination of the theories of Lev Vygotsky led to a revised set of guidelines that address issues of culture and context (Bredekamp and Copple 1997). In addition, decisions about which research, theories and knowledges are used to inform pedagogy are also the product of politics. In the 1960s, the launching of Sputnik and a concern that students in the United States were not performing well in math and science contributed to a backlash against Dewey’s experience-based education and an increased focus on academic skills (Krogh and Slentz 2001).

Thus, early childhood pedagogy is not simply an interpersonal interaction between teacher and students but the outcome of a set of relationships between the individual understandings and biographies of teachers, the contexts in which they act, as well as sociocultural and political forces operating at the macro level of society (Luke 1996). Even when teachers subscribe to a particular form of pedagogy (e.g., constructivist), their moment-to-moment encounters with children are shaped by a number of competing forces. As a consequence, despite the field claiming to have a core set of pedagogical practices (e.g., DAP), there is much diversity in early childhood pedagogy. Some of these pedagogies include child-centered education, play, the use of materials and structuring of the environment to facilitate problem solving and inquiry, democratic pedagogy, critical pedagogy, and direct instruction.

In early childhood, pedagogy is not a widely used term, perhaps because the research base of the field has focused less on teachers and teaching and more on the application of child development knowledge (Genishi, Ryan, Ochsner, and Yarnall 2001). However, early education in the twenty-first century is one characterized by both increasing standardization and diversity. Sophisticated forms of technology and globalization have lead to a diversity of student populations and family structures that has never before been experienced. At the same time the current emphasis across the Western world to harness early education as a means of ensuring ongoing productivity is resulting in increasing standardization. Given these circumstances, it is quite probable that much more attention will need to be given to teachers and pedagogy to learn how to respond effectively to young children in these changed and changing times.

Further Readings: Bredekamp, Sue, and Carol Copple, eds. (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs. Rev. ed. Washington DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children. Edwards, C. P. (2002). Three approaches from Europe: Waldorf, Montessori, and Reggio Emilia. Early Childhood Research and Practice [Online], 4(1). Genishi, Celia, Sharon Ryan, Mindy Ochsner, and Mary Yarnall (2001). Teaching in early childhood education: Understanding practices through research and theory. In Virginia Richardson, ed., Handbook of research on teaching. 4th ed. Washington DC: American Educational Research Association, pp. 1175-1210; Katz, L. (1995). Talks with teachers of young children. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation; Krogh, S. L., and K. L. Slentz (2001). Early childhood education, yesterday, today and tomorrow. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Luke, C. (1996). Introduction. In Carmen Luke, ed., Feminisms and pedagogies of everyday life. Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 1-27; Mallory, B., and R. S. New, eds. (1994). Diversity and developmentally appropriate practices: challenges for early childhood education. New York: Teachers College Press. Monroe, P. (1913). A cyclopedia of education. New York: Macmillan.

Sharon Ryan and Amy Hornbeck