The experts who put storytelling, language and better paid teachers at the heart of early education

Thinking ahead. Shutterstock

There are a lot of things to remember at the start of a new school term. Uniforms, sports kit, stationery equipment, activity clubs … Often forgotten are the names of the people behind the learning which actually goes on once pupils arrive in the classroom. Not the teachers who do the teaching – but the academics who worked out how children learn.

Jerome Bruner, Catherine Snow and Kathy Sylva are not familiar names you might recognise from TV panel shows. But their original ideas have become widespread and deeply rooted in early education systems worldwide. My own collaboration with Sylva and Snow taught me the importance of patient, humble and systematic research.

Bruner, who died last year at the age of 100, was a professor at Harvard and then Oxford. He believed firmly that all children can thrive in their learning if provided with the right conditions.

In the 1960s, he helped develop the US government-funded Head Start programme. The aim was to give equal learning opportunities to all pre-school children, especially those from challenging home environments. For Bruner, it was adults, rather than tools or technology, that were the key to transforming children’s learning experience. It is a principle that continues to inspire current literacy and media literacy students.

His three key books – In Search of Mind, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds and Acts of Meaning – offered an alternative account of how the human mind works.

According to Bruner:

We are storytelling creatures, and as children we acquire language to tell those stories that we have inside us.

The mind that drives science, art and sense of self, he said, is not linear and logical, but narrative. People think in stories and are able to imagine the world only through stories. It is an idea that has influenced decades of storytelling approaches to school learning, as well as entrepreneurship and art. Professional coaching companies, for example, regularly recommend that CEOs structure their presentations in a storytelling format.

Meanwhile, Snow, (who will be paying tribute to Bruner’s work in a memorial lecture a year after his death) has used her research combining linguistics and psychology to revolutionise the way we understand children’s language learning.

Back in 1977, she challenged Noam Chomsky’s idea that children’s understanding of language grammar is innate. Snow’s research noted that parents tend to speak very differently to their children as opposed to other adults. Parents’ speech is often characterised by much simpler grammar, a lot of repetition, and a higher-pitched voice, a register that has been called “motherese”.

Research showed that motherese is essential for children’s language learning and, subsequently, a number of national and international programmes have been encouraging parents to speak to their children from earliest age to stimulate children’s language development.

In 1983, Snow helped develop the Child Language Data Exchange System (known to linguists and developmental psychologists as “CHILDES”). An amazing feat of language research, CHILDES is the biggest repository of English language data in the world and includes recordings of language produced by children and their caregivers in conversation. Its audio examples of children’s speech are widely used for research projects but also for teaching undergraduate courses in language development.

Back to basics

Bruner’s former student, Oxford-based Sylva (who was awarded an OBE for her service to children and families), addressed the inequalities in children’s education and was an early advocate of investment in high-quality early childhood settings. She saw that quality is achieved through upskilling the workforce and paying them well – a key idea behind the 2011 British government initiatives Graduate Leader Fund and Early Years “Teach First” teachers.

Similarly when it comes to learning at home, parents’ qualifications and daily routines influence how well children learn. Sylva led one of the most influential studies in the history of early childhood education, which eventually became known under the title: Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE). Together with colleagues at the London Institute of Education, the EPPSE team followed 3,000 children from the age of three to 16 – their entire compulsory schooling life.

That team substantially extended the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scales to evaluate and research the quality of early years settings. In the UK, the revised scales have been used in collaboration with over 45 local authorities to monitor and improve the quality of education provision in early childhood settings.

Bruner, Snow and Sylva developed pedagogies that bridge theory and practice and laid the foundations for humanistic approaches in educational psychology. Together they developed tools for researching early childhood and established key policies in the UK and US. Anyone who has worked over the last 50 years in the field of early education will have been influenced by the generosity and crystal clear thinking of this academic trio. As, unknowingly, have millions of school children.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.