Recognition & Response - Choosing Appropriate Curriculum: Ten Questions to Ask
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Ten Questions to Ask When Choosing Curriculum

There are many commercial preschool curricula available today. The choices can be confusing. Which do what they promise? Experts suggest you begin by asking 10 questions as you review a curriculum.

1. Is it comprehensive? A good curriculum needs to address the “whole” child. It can’t just focus on academics. According to the influential research report From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood, (Shonkoff & Phillips 2000) social and emotional development are crucial to learning. A good preschool curriculum sets goals for children’s growth in every area. There is an understanding that children don’t learn skills in a vacuum.

2. Is learning integrated? By this we mean that children learn through everything they do, not just when the teacher sits down to teach. Opportunities to learn occur throughout the day. Children learn through play and project work. Circle time and transitions provide teaching opportunities. Teachers relate previous learning to new ideas.

3. Are a variety of instructional approaches used? Each child has his own way of learning. To be effective, teachers must make use of a variety of approaches. Some information needs to be directly taught. Other information needs to be discovered by the child herself. Sometimes learning occurs in full groups. Often it happens when a child works individually or with a friend. Many times, learning activities take the form of small groups. There is not one right way to teach or learn. There are as many ways as there are children.

4. Is the curriculum developmentally appropriate? The term “developmentally appropriate” comes from NAEYC’s most celebrated publication, Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs. (Bredekamp & Copple 1997) It refers to an approach to learning that is centered on the child. To be developmentally appropriate, a curriculum must be appropriate in three ways. (a) The curriculum must be age-appropriate. This means that the leaning goals and activities must be targeted to the way preschoolers typically develop. (b) The curriculum must be individually appropriate. This means that it must meet the particular needs and interests of each child in the classroom. (c) The curriculum must be culturally appropriate. This means it must be consistent with the values and beliefs of each child’s family background. Being developmentally appropriate means that the curriculum addresses the needs of both the individual child and the group.

5. Is it based on accepted research and theory? To be effective, curriculum must incorporate what we know about how children learn best. There are a number of experts whose research and theory forms our knowledge base. Thanks to their work, we now know how children develop and learn. Abraham Maslow taught us that children need to have their basic needs for food and rest met before they can focus on learning. Jean Piaget taught us that learning develops in stages. Children construct knowledge by interacting with the world around them.  Erik Erikson taught us that children have basic needs for trust, to strike out on their own, and to feel good about themselves.  Lev Vygotsky taught us that learning is a social activity. Children learn from adults and peers who have more skills than they do.  Sara Smilansky taught us that children learn through play. Dramatic play is linked to academic learning.  An effective curriculum incorporates these important principles.

6. Is there evidence that the curriculum works? Adopting a curriculum is an expensive proposition. It costs money. It’s also an investment in children’s futures. You can’t afford to choose an ineffective program. Your best guarantee of success is to look at the curriculum’s track record. What successes have been documented? What research studies has it been involved in? What do users have to say? Effective curricula will provide evidence that they work.

7. Are there clear goals for learning? A curriculum must have stated goals and objectives so that children’s progress can be observed and measured. Goals ought to be rooted in knowledge of how children develop. They also have to reflect state standards and those developed by professional organizations such as NAEYC.

8. Does the curriculum actively involve all children? We know that children learn best when they are interested and active. There is no time to be bored if you are engaged in activity. In effective curricula, children explore and experiment. They make predictions and observations. They solve problems and create. Classrooms should hum with activity.

9. Is family involvement encouraged? Children benefit when their families are included in their education. Effective curricula want parents to be involved. They want parents and staff to discuss children’s progress. They want parents to help set goals. They want parents to consult with teachers if there are problems. They want parents to volunteer in the classroom. And they want parents to celebrate their children’s successes.

10. Does the curriculum encourage training for staff? Every curriculum works better when staff are trained on what to do. Good curricula require this. See if the curriculum you are considering emphasizes staff development. Make sure, too, that training is ongoing. Training needs to be more than a one-shot deal to be effective.

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Funding was made possible by grants from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation and the Cisco Systems Foundation.

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