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The primary grades are the ﬁrst few grades of elementary school, in which students aged approximately 5–8 are socialized into the student role and taught basic tool skills. Evolving views on what constitutes appropriate curriculum and instruction during these grades have been inﬂuenced by developments in theory and research on the needs, interests, capabilities, and other characteristics of children in this age range. Emphasis has shifted from maturation of generic stages of cognitive development to learning of domain-speciﬁc knowledge networks, so that readiness to learn is now seen as dependent more on relevant prior knowledge and experience than on age or developmental level.
2. From Generic Developmental Stages To Domain-Speciﬁc Learning
The term ‘primary school education’ refers typically to the ﬁrst two or three grades of elementary school, in which curriculum and instruction emphasize basic literacy and numeracy skills. These grades also emphasize socialization into the student role: teaching children to pay attention to lessons and to work persistently on assignments; to follow prescribed conventions for participating in whole-class activities (e.g., raise hand and wait to be called on); to collaborate productively with peers in pairs and small groups; and to take good care of personal possessions and classroom equipment. In many countries, formal schooling in the primary grades is preceded by a transitional year (called kindergarten in the USA). It is a year in which students are oriented to school routines, engaged in activities that feature artwork and other multisensory representations that call for listening, speaking, counting, building vocabulary, making visual discriminations, exercising ﬁne motor skills, or in other ways developing readiness for the more formal academic learning emphasized in subsequent grades.
At all levels of schooling, curriculum development involves negotiating a reasonable balance among four general approaches: (a) equipping students with knowledge that is lasting, important, and fundamental to the human experience (emphasizing but not limited to the academic disciplines), (b) following the natural course of child development by matching content to students’ interests and learning needs at each grade level, (c) meeting society’s needs by preparing students to assume adult work roles and citizenship responsibilities, and (d) combating social injustice and promoting social change by addressing social policy issues (Kliebard 1994). The principle of meeting children’s developmental needs and interests has special relevance for the primary grades because substantial cognitive development occurs during these years. Children aged ﬁve–eight (especially ﬁve–six) are often considered to be not merely less knowledgeable, but qualitatively diﬀerent in several respects from older children and adults. Philosophers traditionally have maintained that children reach the age of reason at about age seven, when developments in their understanding of cause-and-eﬀect relationships, reciprocity and the Golden Rule, and other key concepts and principles enable them to distinguish right from wrong and engage in principled moral reasoning. Researchers studying children’s cognitive development speak of a Developmental shift that occurs between ages ﬁve and seven as children become less like animals and infants and more like older children and adults in their performance on a broad range of perceptual and cognitive tasks (Sameroﬀ and Haith 1996).
Jean Piaget (1983) described children aged two– seven as egocentric in purview and unstable in their cognitive structures and thought patterns. Within his comprehensive stage theory of cognitive development, such children were labeled as preoperational because they had not yet acquired reversibility of thinking, conservation, classiﬁcation, seriation, and other concrete operations that stabilize older children’s cognitive structures, and enable them to engage in systematic reasoning. Piaget’s work implied that progression from the preoperational to the concrete operational stage was determined primarily by maturation and thus not open to signiﬁcant acceleration through educational interventions. Consequently, primary schooling models inﬂuenced by his ideas tended to emphasize play, exploration, discovery learning, and sensorimotor activities over more formally academic and verbally mediated instruction. Ideas drawn from Arnold Gesell, Maria Montressori, and others who emphasized developmental stages or the presumed special needs and characteristics of young children similarly led to early childhood and primary-grade education models that emphasize short and varied activities, hands-on learning, concrete and integrated topical units rather than systematic treatment of disciplinary content, and attempts to be responsive to children’s learning initiatives rather than to move them through preplanned curricula in lock-step fashion. Contemporary notions of developmentally appropriate practice continue this tradition (NAEYC 1991), as do the British Infant School model and the Italian Reggio Emilia model.
In recent years, the predominant theoretical emphasis in developmental psychology has shifted from the stage theory of Piaget to the sociocultural learning theory of Lev Vygotsky (1978), and research on children’s cognition has shifted emphasis from general developmental stages to domain and situation- speciﬁc learning. Findings indicate that many aspects of cultural learning, including much of what is taught in elementary school, can be acquired through instruction, in which teachers provide modeling and explanations for students and coach and ‘scaﬀold’ their learning eﬀorts. Instead of emphasizing limitations in cognitive capacity, pending the unfolding of genetically programmed maturation of internal structures, contemporary thinking emphasizes connecting with and building on students’ prior knowledge in the domain. Instruction focuses on the zone of proximal Development: the range of knowledge and skills that students are not yet ready to learn on their own but can learn with help from teachers (Tharp and Gallimore 1988).
A related notion is that instead of being organized into hierarchical levels, knowledge is organized within networks structured around key ideas. This implies that, instead of having to begin with the lowest cognitive level (knowledge) and proceed systematically through successively higher levels (comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation), instruction can begin anywhere in the network and develop understandings from there. Initial possibilities will be limited by the extent of learners’ prior knowledge in the domain, but in principle, learners can accomplish any domain-related learning goals if they experience whatever instruction and learning opportunities may be required (without having to wait for supposed maturation of cognitive structures to occur).
Studies of children’s domain-speciﬁc knowledge have veriﬁed that children’s knowledge and learning capacities in many areas are much more advanced than previously suspected, although children ﬁnd certain concepts diﬃcult to grasp and certain misconceptions are commonly developed (e.g., that the sun rotates around the earth instead of vice-versa). It appears that Piaget’s notions about children’s learning capacities were too pessimistic and that his stage concepts are more applicable to developments in children’s mathematical and scientiﬁc thinking than to developments in their thinking about issues addressed in the humanities and social sciences. Children are able to understand historical and literary content that is encoded within narrative structures built around the goals and motives of central characters, as well as cultural comparisons or other social science content that focuses on food, clothing, shelter, transportation, or other cultural universals with which they have had personal experience (Downey and Levstik 1991).
Research supports the following generalizations about diﬃculty level of curriculum content: (a) diﬃculty increases with the number of items that must be addressed simultaneously (it is harder to compare or interpret three things than two things); (b) abstract content is more diﬃcult than more concrete content; (c) ﬁne distinctions are more diﬃcult than gross ones; (d) learning from print alone is more diﬃcult than learning from multiple media; (e) it is easier to develop skills in thinking about matters that students see as closely related to their own lives than about other matters; and (f ) providing structure, cues, and props makes thinking easier (Fair 1977)
In summary, much of what Piaget claimed about stage-related limitations in children’s cognitive capacities is incorrect or limited to certain knowledge domains. However, Piaget was correct in suggesting that young children are qualitatively diﬀerent from older children and adults in certain respects, so that it is not possible (or at least, not cost eﬀective) to teach them some of the more abstract and complex aspects of each school subject. Primary-grade children appear to be ready for certain forms of systematic instruction that go well beyond what usually are described as ‘developmentally appropriate practices,’ but not yet ready for discipline-based courses that emphasize abstract content organized conceptually.
3. Curriculum And Instruction In The Primary Grades
Children show the capacity for operational thinking at ﬁve or six, but usually do not become functionally operational (use operational thinking most of the time) until a year or two later. Thus, in eﬀect, the preoperational period extends until second or third grade for most students. Preoperational students are ready to learn about familiar experiences and observable phenomena, especially through exploration and manipulation of concrete objects. They also learn basic literacy and mathematics skills and those aspects of content area knowledge that can be linked to their experience base. Instruction in basic skills should connect with knowledge about language, print, counting, and numbers that children develop through their preschool experiences. These tool skills should be taught in an integrated way that stresses explanations for meaningful understanding and opportunities for authentic applications (Adams 1990, Hiebert and Carpenter 1992, Hooper and DeFrain 1980). Execution of basic skills should gradually become automatized, but these skills should be learned as strategies, so that procedural knowledge (about what to do and how to do it) is developed in connection with related propositional knowledge (about the nature and purposes of the skill) and conditional knowledge (about when and why to use it).
Primary-grade students require demonstration and explanation of skills, guided practice with feedback, and frequent opportunities to develop mastery through application. Good demonstrations and visual aids provide concrete models for children to watch or imitate, so that they do not have to struggle to follow purely verbal instruction. Complex tasks are broken into subtasks that children can master in sequences that gradually connect until the ultimate task is learned. When they work on their own, they may need cues, reminders, or other learning scaﬀolds that will help them overcome their limited attention spans and diﬃculty in following spoken or written directions. Models of completed tasks can be placed in learning centers and worksheets can include features such as spacing and lines to keep things separate; boxes or arrows to indicate where responses should be placed or where to go next; and division of assignments into modular units that can be presented, reviewed, and discussed separately.
Teaching in subject areas other than basic skills should either emphasize familiar content or make the strange familiar by using concrete props or other media. Actual objects are best, but substitutes such as videos or photos are also useful. Because young children have limited experience and major gaps in their vocabularies, they may need such props to enable them to understand what the teacher is talking about. They are most likely to have diﬃculty when content is organized around the conceptual structures used in the academic disciplines rather than around their own emerging knowledge structures. Children tend to learn speciﬁcs ﬁrst and build up abstract generalizations only gradually as they accumulate experience; they have trouble following the logical patterns (ﬂowing from general rules to speciﬁc examples) that adults ﬁnd helpful. They are predisposed to learn in various domains, and although they are inexperienced, they reason facilely with the knowledge they have (Bransford et al. 1999). However, it is important to focus instruction on familiar and observable events, or at least events that are easily assimilated into the students’ existing schemes. For example, children have an intuitive sense of the past and an interest in people that can provide a basis for instruction in history and social studies. However, such instruction has to reach the operative level rooted in students’ concrete experiences, e.g., by having them investigate their own family histories, explore the geography of the neighborhood, or examine photos and artifacts from another culture. If the instruction stays at a purely ﬁgurative level (associating tipis with Native Americans, sombreros with Mexicans, etc.), it will have little meaning or potential for inclusion in networks of knowledge structured around powerful ideas (and will engender stereotypes, rather than layered understandings).
There has been noteworthy cross-national variation in the age at which children begin school and in the scope of the primary-grade curriculum. As more has been learned about children’s knowledge and learning capacities, the trend has been towards earlier school initiation and more demanding curricula. Kindergarten classes in the USA, for example, now feature less sensorimotor play and more verbally mediated instruction than in the past. Even so, primary-grade teachers tend to be nurturant individuals who are oriented more toward teaching children than teaching subject matter, and who are concerned about supporting their students’ personal development and adjustment to school, along with meeting their academic learning needs. Subject matter specialization usually does not begin until at least the fourth grade, so primary-grade teachers tend to be generalists who stay with their home-room class all day and teach all subjects.
Some schools even use looping arrangements that keep intact classes together for two consecutive years with the same teacher, as part of a larger eﬀort to provide emotionally safe and supportive classroom environments for young learners. The children often work in learning centers or sit together on a rug instead of always sitting at desks or in chairs. Teacher aides, adult volunteers, or older students often assist the teacher by working with individuals or small groups. Assessment is mostly informal, without emphasis on tests or grades. Curricula often present an idealistic and optimistic view of the world, sanitized to eliminate disturbing or depressing content, in an eﬀort to ‘preserve childhood innocence’ by delaying confrontation with threatening realities. In general, most primary education approaches focus on orienting young children to school and equipping them with basic knowledge and skills, but within a relatively informal and highly supportive learning community. This ethos has persisted through developments from penpals to KIDSNET; from mathematics ﬂash cards to number lines and manipulables; from penmanship drills to authentic writing and publishing; from ﬁxed desks to ﬂexibly arrangeable children’s chairs and tables, etc., apparently because it is well-suited to the educational needs and capacities of young students.
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