Preschool is a mirror of society – and where future citizens are fostered

Two of the driving forces in the project ValuEd are Senior Research Fellow Anna-Maija Puroila, University of Oulu, and Professor Eva Johansson, University of Stavanger.

Preschool is a mirror of society – and where future citizens are fostered

Everything that takes place between a preschool’s four walls lays the foundation for the values that children will take with them for the rest of their lives. Preschools are where children learn to negotiate, resolve conflicts and define the world, and where they are formed into future Nordic citizens – for better and for worse.

“The fundamental question is what type of citizen do we want children to become,” states Professor Eva Johansson. She is heading the ValuEd project, the first Nordic research project to explore the values that characterise Nordic preschools, which in essence means the values communicated between adults and children. The research group presented its results at the Nordic Council of Ministers’ seminar in Helsinki on 22 September 2016. 

“We see that people are becoming alienated and distancing themselves from societal institutions, contrasts in society are growing, and undemocratic movements are gaining strength. We have to give educators the expertise and responsibility to live out the values that we would like to see imbued in our future citizens,” says Professor Johansson. 

Everyday conflicts among preschool children often involve values. Values are difficult to discuss and define for children and adults alike, and we often act on our values in everyday situations without directly reflecting on them. Values communicated in Nordic preschools include care, democracy, competence, efficiency, individuality and the need to give regard to the collective whole.  

The objective of the research project has been both to promote change and to generate knowledge and understanding of how Nordic preschools work with values and values education. All together some 480 adults and 1 900 children from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden have taken part in the study. 

Close collaboration between researchers and practitioners

The research project has been carried out in close collaboration between researchers and practitioners, i.e. educators in Nordic preschools, with the aim of creating greater awareness of values in preschool. 

“The project is exceptional in that researchers and educators have worked so closely side-by-side,” says Åse Idsø, pedagogical leader for Solås Kindergarten. 

The practitioners’ role in the project has been to identify areas that need to be developed and to help to create change processes in preschools. The researchers’ role has been to set the wheels in motion and to challenge and encourage the practitioners to reflect on values and values education.  

“The results from our preschool are that the adult educators are more consciously present than previously and reflect more on their own behaviour. There is a more positive atmosphere in the group and the children cooperate more. We have also noted that the children are more thoughtful and considerate of each other and that they imitate the grown-ups in the group more frequently. The children speak to each other more gently,” says Ms Idsø. 

Educators involved in the research project have made “invisible” values more concrete by creating stories about the various situations that occur in their preschool. The educators at Solås Kindergarten have introduced regular meetings for reflection where they discuss and analyse a specific incident. This enables them to highlight the values underlying the adults’ actions in that particular situation. 

“We have also made room for reflection in our departmental meetings,” adds Ms Idsø. 

Shared values in Nordic preschools

“We wanted to investigate how values are prioritised and communicated at various levels of society,” explains Professor Johansson. Among other things, the researchers have analysed the values articulated in national steering documents for education policy, in the preschool sector and among preschool employees. 

Given that the Nordic countries are considered among the world’s most egalitarian, both from an economic and a gender perspective, the researchers have looked more closely at how these values are incorporated into preschool plans and activities. The result of the study shows that democratic values are formulated differently in the national educational plans of the different Nordic countries. However, the study also shows that Nordic preschool educators share certain notions and values, regardless of which of the countries they live in. 

“We have known very little about how the values have been expressed in ECED educational policies and about which values have dominated the meeting between children and the adults working in Nordic preschools,” says Professor Johansson. 

Values are expressed physically

One of the many insights gleaned by the educators who participated in the research project is that values are often expressed physically and in actions in various everyday situations in preschools. 

Åse Idsø summarises the experience of her kindergarten as follows: “We have learned to think about and analyse our own values and we have also been given tools to teach the children how to do the same.” 

The next challenge for Eva Johansson and her team is to disseminate their results to decision-makers and preschool employees. 

“The results have to be made known. Values are fundamental to the way we work at various levels and we need to become more aware of the values that guide us. Politicians and decision-makers must realise that preschools are a place where values are negotiated and defined and where the citizens of tomorrow are shaped and formed. This is a process that cannot be measured or streamlined,” stresses Professor Johansson.  

Values education could also be incorporated as a strong component of Nordic teacher training programmes, as values education takes place in all relations between teachers and children. 

“We must remember that preschool is a mirror of society and that preschool is a place where we must mobilise the forces of good,” concludes Professor Johansson. 

The research project Values education in Nordic preschools: Basis of education for tomorrow (ValuEd) (2013–2015) is funded under the NordForsk programme Education for Tomorrow

Text and photo: Mia Smeds

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