A comparative ethnographic case study of the early years curriculum in Chinese and English settings

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This study aims to explore how similarities and differences in early years curriculum practice are constructed in selected Chinese and English settings and how this can be identified from the perspectives of the research participants. The aim of the study made an ethnographic approach the most suitable. Data collection methods used were participant observations, open-ended questionnaires, semi-structured and unstructured interviews, and informal conversations. A case study of one Chinese kindergarten and one English nursery school was conducted between August 2005 and July 2006.
The major findings have been located in three levels of analysis – the micro, meso, and macro. The micro level reveals the prevalence of direct teaching in the process of language, mathematics and arts activities in the Chinese setting whilst the English setting shows a tendency that the children play a major part in their learning process. Children’s free-flow play activities in both the settings share much more similarities than differences in that children’s dynamics, concentration, curiosity, imagination, and creativity are fully evidenced. The meso level mainly looks into the research participants’ perspectives on issues underpinning the early years curriculum such as the relationship between the curriculum, teaching and play, views of childhood and the ways for children’s learning. For example, contested childhood is strongly voiced among parents in the Chinese and English settings and is represented in their romantic idea of ‘a happy childhood’ with an emphasis on children’s play, well-being, and positive interactions with others and in their anxiety about childhood pressure with regard to children’s learning. The macro level explains that the curriculum practice in the Chinese setting is closely associated with Basil Bernstein’s concept of visible pedagogy whilst the English setting shows a strong link to his notion of invisible pedagogy. Visible pedagogy is characterised as strong classification and framing, which is identified by direct teaching, the low status of play, and a one-way direction of teacher-child interactions in the Chinese setting. Indirect teaching, the dominance of play, a two-way direction of practitioner-child interactions, and the dynamic of child-child interactions in the English setting are indicators for invisible pedagogy centring around weak classification and framing.
Date of Award2008
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorGeoff Troman (Supervisor) & Shirley Maxwell (Supervisor)

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