Culture and Child Development

Sep 19th, 2017 | Category: Columns, Teaching Young Children
By Michele Gnan

Last month I was invited to speak at Northeast Normal University of Bejing, China. The audience was a group of 450 early childhood educators including teachers, professors, and administrators. I was invited to discuss how early childhood education and the childcare of young children is done in America. Specifically, they wanted to know how Concordia University Chicago, a university of which they have heard, does the high-quality early childhood education for which it is known.

Communicating Quality

In my presentation I spoke about the Early Childhood Education Center (ECEC) in the Christopher Center at Concordia University Chicago. What amazed the audience was the size of the classes and the ages of the children in our center. At the ECEC, class sizes range from 9 to 20, depending on the ages of the children in the classroom, with the infant classroom having the smallest number of children and preschool and kindergarten classrooms having the largest. In most Chinese early childhood classrooms, 30 to 35 children seems to be a norm. The ECEC enrolls children as young as 6-weeks of age. In China, early childhood education begins at age three and “what could you possibly teach a one-year old” was a continually asked question. It further amazed them that these children were exploring a variety of activities and materials throughout the room with teacher encouragement and involvement rather than teacher-directed instruction of specific activities with specific materials.

People entering the Christopher Center know that the purpose of this building is education, the education of teachers and the education of children. Our purpose is to lead teachers, future teachers, and children to learning. Our vision is to inspire a quest for learning that lasts much longer than the hours spent in our classrooms. Our mission in the early childhood center is to give children and future teachers the tools needed to open windows for all learners.

To be able to share that purpose, vision, and mission with a room filled with teachers steeped in the Chinese teacher directed culture was an exciting challenge. The teachers in my audience did not understand that such purpose could be implemented by leading rather than by indoctrination.

Quality and Efficiency

In the United States the windows of learning are the real purpose of education. Giving children of all ages the tools to discover the world and its mysteries is the inspiration those students need in order to begin their personal, life-long quest for learning.

All of us, in every culture, begin our quest for knowledge and information through mirrored lenses. We see only what is important to our immediate lives and interests. We reach out for whatever will meet our needs at the moment. We look at learning as instantaneous, individual, and personal.

In China the windows of learning are standardized so that the goals of productivity and efficiency are met, even in the worlds of young children. Classrooms for kindergarten children (ages 3 through 5 in Chinese classrooms) are organized for efficiency. There can be thirty to fifty young children in a classroom with two teachers, creating an environment requiring regimented management. Our American lenses can’t begin to fathom such an arrangement. The difference is one of culture. Young children in China are expected to follow a regimen from the time they are able to sit up on their own. Their mothers socialize them to follow rules and to minimize the size of their “footprint” in the world. This is a concept that the density of their population requires.

My comparison of U.S. and Chinese centers is not given as a discussion of high quality and low quality. It is given as a description of different definitions of quality that grow out of cultural perspectives and cultural needs.

Efficiency and Quality

As young children in the U.S. are guided toward maturity, their parents and teachers are careful to teach children independence and how to make good, appropriate choices for their goals. The ability to make wise choices is an important skill that children will take into adulthood in order to become successful adults in the workplace.

As young children in China are guided toward maturity, their parents and teachers are intent on instilling in children a respect for the rights of others, for the spaces that others occupy, and for the need to support others in their goals. The abilities to fit in, to respect the rights and spaces of others, and to follow the lead of those in charge are important as these children move toward adulthood and toward becoming successful adults in the workplace.

Efficiency and quality are goals in both cultures. Both cultures are working toward raising successful, contributing adults for the society in which they will live and work. Each culture, however, has its unique definition of what successful, contributing adults will look like. The purposes, visions and missions are as different as the cultures themselves.

Reflections on My Experience

I thought I already knew a lot about culture and cultural differences. I grew up in New Orleans as the daughter of a Cuban immigrant. I grew up living cultural differences every day. But those differences were within one city, one state, one country. The differences I experienced in China were the differences between entire countries of difference. These two cultures, while beginning to intermingle on a small scale, have a lot to learn from each other in the larger picture.

Knowing the impact of cultural assumptions on child-rearing is only a beginning step. Knowing that classroom organization and expectations must be embedded in the larger culture in which they live is a continuing step. Knowing and accepting that cultural differences dictate cultural practices is a part of the continuing walk toward respect for diversity. LEJ

Author Information

Michele Gnan, received her M.Ed. from Concordia University Wisconsin. Currently she is a doctoral student at Concordia University Chicago, and Executive Director of its Early Childhood Initiative. She oversees the Early Childhood Education Center and the outreach Initiative to bring professional and curriculum development to Christian early childhood centers in the Chicago area and beyond.