Cities are growing at a fast pace. Urban stress is straining public school systems around the world. With the CITIES project, VVOB and the city of Da Nang (Vietnam) are exploring ways to mitigate urban barriers to preschool learning and to help teachers rediscover the benefits of life and education in the city.
Urban opportunities vs. urban stress
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are global on paper, but local in practice. Cities are crucial to contextualise and realise the SDGs, and a key player for the achievement of SDG4 on quality education especially. Indeed, education is a local issue: it concerns learners, teachers and school leaders within a certain territory and with their own unique needs and challenges.
But this opportunity for putting SDG4 into local practice is curtailed by cities’ fast-paced growth. Urban stress creates specific social barriers to the development of young children. Vulnerable children – e.g. those from migrant families or with challenging socio-economic backgrounds – are particularly prone to urban stress factors. Urban early childhood services are faced with a huge task: how to capitalise on the privileges they hold, all the while making sure every young child is safeguarded from the negative impact of urban growth?
Within the CITIES project, teachers, school leaders and Da Nang and Son Tra officials embarked on a capacity development trajectory centred on ‘process-oriented child-monitoring’, a methodology that helps observers identify the levels of wellbeing and involvement of children, as well as the barriers to learning and participation. The methodology also informs on which actions to take to mitigate the barriers and ensure deep learning of all children (Laevers, 2012).
1. Identifying and analysing urban barriers to learning
By focusing on preschool children's wellbeing and involvement as a proxy for learning, participants identified barriers both within and outside the school environment. Most of these barriers are recognisable on a global scale, but some of them are specific to the Da Nang context and tell us something about changes in Vietnamese urban life.
- Educational barriers include: limited and unattractive learning materials; inappropriate didactics; disproportionate teacher/learner ratio; insufficient parent-teacher contact; the pressure felt by both teachers and learners from parents; etc.
- Urban barriers to learning include: parents investing too little time in their children due to work; low levels of parental wellbeing; not enough clean, green and safe spaces for playful learning; new technologies replacing meaningful interactions with others; etc.
Interestingly, this data collection was integral to the capacity development of participants. At the start of the project, there was a general lack of awareness on how growing up in a city can affect learning and participation in the classroom, and the role a school can play in mitigating these barriers. Now, the link between urban circumstances and learners’ wellbeing and involvement became abundantly clear.
2. Mitigating these urban barriers and improving teaching
Moving on from the barrier analysis, the participating teachers, school leaders and officials started to implement innovative ways of mitigating the barriers to ensure that preschool early learning contributes to children’s holistic development. A group of international and national artists exposed participants to applied artistic practices and interactive theatre methods to build socio-emotional skills and resilience.
Due to COVID19-measures, participants were exposed to the innovative methods via online sessions. Between sessions, they tried out the methods with their families and neighbours. By the time schools had reopened, teachers could apply and directly felt the benefits of the methods in welcoming children back to school in these challenging times.
Teachers have started to differentiate their practices based on the needs of the children in their class, moving away from the one-size-fits-all approach whereby one can see the same materials and activities being applied throughout the country. However, in a culture which generally values compliance, it is important that participants fully understand and buy-in to these innovative activities, and that they do not just apply them simply because they are asked to do so. Teachers need to be clear on the purpose and objectives first, before planning effective activities. Only then can these innovations contribute to the holistic development of children.
3. Informing policy implementation and moving forward
There is a high level of commitment to this project in the education system: from Ministerial level, city authorities in Da Nang, to school level. As discussed, the data collection in itself has contributed considerably to participants’ understanding of the links between urban living and classroom learning. Participants have also indicated that CITIES has helped them to better understand how to implement national directives from the Ministry of Education and Training on child-centred education and child-assessment.
In a second phase of the CITIES project, the participants will actively explore how the city can overcome certain urban barriers to learning in communities of practice. Yes, the dense neighbourhoods of Son Tra district lack green, safe and easily accessible spaces to play. But the broader city of Da Nang does offer learning opportunities if teachers can find and use them, e.g. urban art and diverse real-life resources.
While it is not without its challenges, CITIES accompanies key actors in the education system to find the opportunities of urban living to tackle the urban barriers to learning, thus attempting to reduce inequalities and benefit the most disadvantaged.