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Subject Knowledge – Yes Please!


Monday 17 May 2021

We talk a lot in Early Childhood Education, about grabbing those ‘teachable moments’, about ‘spontaneous learning’, ‘child-led learning’ and about extending children’s knowledge. We refer often to higher-order questioning and probing and eliciting feedback in order to delve deeper into childrens’ understanding and thinking. We emphasise the key role that observation plays in relation to capturing children’s interests and noticing where we can extend thinking, learning and development. But recently, while supervising students on their placement experiences, I realised that these approaches to early childhood education are wholly reliant on the educator’s knowledge of the content, the topic or the subject that the child is showing an interest in. How else can an educator know what questions to ask, or what language and vocabulary is important to model if they themselves are unfamiliar with the topic or content or subject knowledge?

Take early mathematical awareness for example. Maths is everywhere (as they say on Sesame Street!). The natural environment provides many opportunities to scaffold and supports young children in developing early mathematical skills and thinking - problem-solving, reasoning, understanding and recalling to name but a few. But the educator has to be able to ‘see’ those opportunities, to know what they look like and to understand deeply early mathematical concepts such as to measure, shape, and number. The measure is not just long and short, empty and full, heavy and light. The shape is not just circle, square, triangle and rectangle and the number is not just counting.

The skilled educator needs to be able to spot the child who is interested in finding out how tall they are, and to recognise this as a ‘teachable moment’, to recognise how they, as the educator, can facilitate learning in a way that will extend that child’s language, knowledge and understanding of length. To do that, I believe that the educator needs the ‘full picture’ of what length is all about, they need the ‘objectives’, for want of a better word, in the back of their mind - not to ‘teach’ them to the children, but rather as a ‘roadmap’ for where this learning journey could potentially go.

The skilled educator needs to know the mathematical language associated with the length that is important to model, to use and to explore with the child: long/short, tall/short, wide/narrow, longer/shorter, wider than. They need to understand that by encouraging the child to explore a range of open-ended materials to estimate and measure the length in non-standard units, the child is developing key mathematical skills. They need to know that presenting simple problems to the children – ‘How can we find out which teddy bear is the tallest? What can we use to measure them (pencil or Jaggo block)? – offers opportunities to develop problem-solving, reasoning and communication.  

While it is widely acknowledged that Early Years Education in Ireland does not involve the implementation of a prescriptive curriculum in the same way as the Infant Primary Curriculum, it is envisaged that Early Childhood educators attend to the holistic development of the child. This involves facilitating a learning environment where children’s physical development, early mathematical awareness development, early literacy development, social and emotional development, visual arts development and musical development is catered for, as well as developing concepts and knowledge in relation to the wider world – cultural identities, environmental awareness, scientific thinking and spiritual development. Early Childhood education is not about explicit ‘teaching’ - it is about being able to recognise what stage the individual child is at in relation to their conceptual knowledge and understanding and to understand how to extend that child’s learning. To me, this appears to be a highly skilled and complex task, that in fact, far outweighs the complexity of what might traditionally be referred to as ‘teaching’. And it is a skill that depends on the educator’s own knowledge of the subject area or topic.

So, my question is – why is content knowledge, or ‘professional knowledge’ viewed as a key component of teacher training education, but not early childhood education training? Surely, the skilled early childhood educator needs to have just as high a standard of subject knowledge to be able to create a learning environment that can facilitate and extend children’s thinking and development.

‘Teaching subjects or subject-specific content?’ No thank you. ‘Subject Knowledge?’ Yes, please.



Sinéad McCauley Lambe is a lecturer in education at Marino Institute of Education specialising in Early Childhood Education. Prior to joining MIE, Sinéad taught for eleven years in St. Vincent’s Infant Boys’ school in North William Street. Here, Sinéad moved into resource teaching and worked with children with ASD and those experiencing a wide range of emotional and behavioural difficulties. It was this work that ignited Sinéad’s interest in educational disadvantage, motor development and early intervention. Sinéad completed a Masters Educational Disadvantage in DCU and is currently a PhD candidate there. Her research interests include infant motor development and emergent handwriting development.

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