How can peer dialogue and reflection influence educators’ knowledge, doing and being?
The nature and quality of teachers’ interactions with children is one of the most salient aspects of early childhood programs’ effects on children’s development, (Elliott & Australian Council for Educational Research, 2006; Hamre et al., 2012; König, 2009; Leggett & Ford, 2013; Sabol & Pianta, 2012; Williford, Maier, Downer, Pianta, & Howes, 2013) as well as their “short- and long-term wellbeing” (Fumoto, 2011, p. 19).
The teachers and children’s voices are re-constructed below, using pseudonyms.
The kindergarten is a single unit service, situated in the Dandenong Mountains of Victoria. In the kindergarten today there are 24 children with three educators. Leela is a 4-year university trained educator, currently studying for her Masters of Education. Teresa has just completed her Diploma in Children’s services; Madison has her Cert III, and is studying for her Diploma in Children’s services and is here today as an additional Aid. In addition there are two student teachers, both diploma trained, studying for their Bachelor of Education. This puts the ratio at 1 educator for every 5 children, vastly different to the current ratio of 1:15 in Victoria, Australia.
The children have left the morning meeting to play, each choosing an experience that has been pre-set up, or self-selecting their own resources available in the room. Children scatter throughout the room, spilling out onto the veranda, whilst educators and students disperse as well.
One child sits at the clay table, and others come. Soon the table is full, each child has a cube of clay, and there are tools in a basket for cutting, piercing, scrapping etc. Madison sits down with the children, taking notes and photos as she observes and responds to the children’s conversations. Leela approaches noting that each child’s cube of clay is still a cube of clay – they haven’t been deconstructed in the process of play, but left as the educators had presented them. They have marks and holes made by the children exploring the tools. The children have been working and chatting for a while, one child seems to be finishing up.
Leela listens as the child explains that she has made a dog out of her clay, and then asks when the conversation is finished, “I wonder what else you could make out of the clay?” “It’s now an alien” states the child. The educator notes that the clay has not been transformed, although the child’s thoughts have been. The educator squats down next to the child.
Child: I can make 3 or 2 (no movement is made on the clay)
Leela: How many eyes does your alien have?
Child: I can make 3 or 2 (no movement is made on the clay)
Leela: Can I help you?
Leela demonstrates how to use one of the tools available to cut the clay into smaller chunks.
Child: starts to manipulate a smaller piece of clay using both hands.
Leela: How many arms will it have?
Child: “I can’t make arms”
The child sitting next to her shows her how to make arms by pushing the tools through the block of clay
Child: Mirrors the other child with her own clay and tools
Child: tries to make a ball “it’s really hard”
Leela: Demonstrates how to make a ball
Child: “this is the body” she holds up the ball she has now made
Leela: Now sits next to her, working on a piece of clay. She has made ball for the body, and rolls the clay like a sausage to make an arm, she then makes a hole with a tool into the body, and sticks the arm in uses her fingers to close the hole around the arm.
Child: mirrors what educator has done, does both arms. She then moves onto the legs, using the same technique. She turns the clay ball (more cube shaped now), and uses the tool to make two holes, pushes the clay sausages into each hole. She stands it up.
Child: “It keeps falling off, it’s not sitting down, it has to stand up!”
Leela: has packed up her own clay creation. “What can you do?”
Child: “Smaller head?”
Leela: “How could you make the head smaller?”
Child: “can cut it”. Cut’s half the head off using the tool that was used to cut the clay at the beginning.
Child: “how does this look?” Puts it back together. It still falls down when she tries to stand it. She takes the body and head off the legs, and starts to cut the legs down. She puts it back together, tries to stand it, cuts more off, and tries again. Continues until it stands without falling. It has very short legs.
Continues working by herself as Leela moves away.
Leela returns, as the child has called her.
Child: It’s got curly hair like you.
She has now added eyes and a mouth
Child: Da, Daaaa (large vocalisation and smile)
At reflection time the child was invited to discuss her clay work. The child spoke to the children confidently about what she had made, and the steps she took to make it, and her rationale as to why she made an alien.
This is snippet of an observation from my place of work. It isn’t transcribed from a video; Madison was documenting it for the child’s records.
There are many insights that can be gleaned from this scenario; the qualifications of the educators – qualified for the position they hold, yet both engaged in further studies. An additional aide identifies that the service has at least one child that may require additional support. There are university students in attendance, demonstrating the welcoming of others into their program. The mention of ‘morning meeting’ may be indicative of a Reggio-inspired program; Madison recording and documenting the learning may also point to this. Leela’s use of closed and open questions and modelling, providing scaffolding to motivate and expand the child’s current explorations, possibly links to a socio-constructivist theory per Vygotsky.
However, it was the discussion with Madison afterwards, and the conversations that have followed that highlighted an on going tension for Early Childhood Educators (ECE). Madison agreed to write down her thoughts:
“It was great to see you do that. I observed her (the child) working the cube of clay. I took down her language and asked the occasional question, but wondered how I could get her to make her ‘dog’ look like a dog and not a cube with lines on it.
I know through my training and work this is an area I have to work on, how to interact with a child when they are at a task that is not improving. Should it matter? Do I let them discover for themselves? Do I interrupt? Will they stop and move onto something different if I do? How much do I tell/show them? Have I failed them if they do move on? Or if they follow my instructions is it my work or theirs? Have I stopped them from creating in their own way?
Because of this I can take observations and realise their importance but I’m not extending children and have trouble analysing what I’m observing. I end up just being an observer and not part of the experience. Did it matter that her dog was still a cube?
With all these questions in my head and taking notes on her language and social interactions, the cube of clay turned into an alien.” (Email from Madison, term 2 2014).
As was discussed in the 2014 EKU Class 2, group b, knowing and doing are intertwined, it is difficult to isolate one aspect to reflect on, as both are integral to ‘be-ing’ a person, or in this case ‘be-ing” an educator. Madison feels that her lack of experience impacts on her ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’ and thus her ‘being.’
A ratio of 1 adult to every 15 children prevents two educators working with the same group of children during ‘free play’, as each educator endeavours to be accessible and responsive to every child. The addition of an aide and 2 students in the environment made this scenario possible. There is generally no time/opportunity for one educator to mentor the other through demonstration with a small group. Does this highlight a need or flaw in educator training? Do students need more opportunities to shadow an experienced educator, rather than focusing on programing and planning, which is usually the expectation of a practicum? Or could there be specific professional training opportunities specifically targeting educator-child interactions, providing scripts, or videos to observe and reflect upon?
Leela has her own tension in relation to if, when and how to interact with children when they are engaged in play. Why did she intercede at this moment? Because she realised the child was finishing, so she wouldn’t be interrupting her play. She noted that the children hadn’t deconstructed the clay – they had explored it with tools, mark making, but hadn’t used their hands to mould and explore. The outcome for the clay activity was for children to explore making meaning; even without deconstructing the clay, they had done this through their narrative as they worked. Prior knowledge of the child came into play – that she seeks adult interaction – and that her fine motor strength and dexterity need to be developed. It provided an opportunity to model how to deconstruct the clay and mould with it, with peers looking on and maybe being inspired to revisit their clay play.
The Infant and Toddler Centres and Schools of Childhood, in Reggio Emilia, Italy, inspire the Kindergarten’s philosophy. It has a clear socio-constructivist, socio-cultural view of the educator, whose role is to guide, facilitate, nurture, observe, document and encourage research, working as a co-learner and collaborator with the child.
Over the last three years the program has extended to include a nature kinder program, and has explored the philosophical stance this includes. Prior to this integration, Leela attended Professional Development sessions run by Claire Warden and Nicki Buchan, and talks by advocates such as Tim Gill, Marc Artimage, and Michael Ungar, read Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods”, Tony Wagner’s book “Creating Innovators” and Paul Tough’s book “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.” There is a message that children need time, unstructured, and adult free to follow their own path, to support them as life-long learners. Lester, Russell, & Bernard Van Leer seem to capture the overreaching message from this movement within an early childhood setting:
‘We must exercise caution and not make it too much an object of adult gaze. Children’s play belongs to children; adults should tread lightly when considering their responsibilities in this regard, being careful not to colonise or destroy children’s own places for play through insensitive planning or the pursuit of other adult agendas, or through creating places and programmes that segregate children and their play.
Adults should be aware of the importance of play and take action to promote and protect the conditions that support it. The guiding principle is that any intervention to promote play acknowledges its characteristics and allows sufficient flexibility, unpredictability and security for children to play freely.’
(Lester, Russell, & Bernard Van Leer, 2010, p. 45)
The tension for Leela is that these two philosophical viewpoints are aligned in regard to the respect of the child, but where the Reggio Emilia’s socio-constructivist theory encourages interaction and dialogue, the nature philosophy seems to encourage us to take a step back, not to intrude.
Here we have two different educators with different levels of knowledge and experience, who each face a pedagogical dilemma from two different aspects of the same interaction.
One questions how they should engage more, whilst the other grapples with how to reconcile two seemingly competing theories of how much, and what type of interactions are most beneficial for the child’s experience and outcomes.
In regards to how Madison should engage more, the Australia Framework, Belonging, Being, Becoming (EYLF) provides some direction to the educator’s interaction to extend children’s learning, drawing on the term “teachable moments” to scaffold children’s learning via providing feedback, challenging their thinking, open ended questions, and guiding their learning. Stating that responsiveness, our knowledge of children’s strengths, abilities and interests enables us to stimulate and enrich children’s learning and thinking by respectfully entering their play (DEEWR, 2009, p. 15)
The ‘knowing’ when is a ‘teachable moment’, is one of the areas of concern for Madison, and for many ECE’s. What is a ‘teachable moment’? How is the identification of a teachable moment affected by an educator’s knowing, doing and being? How do experienced educators make a decision of when is a ‘teachable moment’? The framework tells us by using their knowledge of the child, which develops from careful observation and interaction, but also by considering their beliefs of what is important to teach, and their understanding of child development to interpret the observations and interactions. Hyun, reminds us that a teacher’s idea of a teachable moment may not match with the learner’s learnable moment, noting that ‘scaffolding requires individualized pedagogical adaptation for each learner in a learner-meaningful context (2006, pp. 136-137).
Intentional teaching is one of the eight key pedagogical practices in the EYLF, which explains ‘Intentional Teaching’ as thoughtful, purposeful and deliberate, with a focus on ‘knowledge-building’ that is carefully planned for. It is through interactions and conversations within a social context that learning occurs. High-level thinking skills are fostered through challenging experiences and interactions. The EYLF explains “Educators move flexibly in and out of different roles and draw on different strategies as the context changes,” using strategies not unlike those for ‘teachable moments’, modelling and demonstrating, explaining, speculating, open questioning, “engaging in shared thinking and problem solving to extend children’s think and learning” (DEEWR, 2009, p. 15).
Would Madison’s knowing-doing gap be reduced if she focused on ‘intentional teaching’, which is explained as carefully planned, rather than trying to focus on the intangible, fleeting, unplanned opportunity of a ‘teachable moment?’ Further, as Horton elaborates, “the way you really learn is to start something and learn as you go along” (Harvey, Lisman, & American Association for Higher, 2006).
Madison has finished her basic level of training to work in an Early Childhood Setting, and is now working as she studies for her diploma. Madison thus has the opportunity to put theory (knowing) into practice (doing), to “turn declarative knowledge into procedural knowledge” developing her as educator (being) (Wilson et al., 2001 cited inStemler, Elliott, Grigorenko, & Sternberg, 2006, p. 104). Madison has declarative knowledge to draw upon, but it is overwhelming her and preventing her from trusting her instincts, making her feel that to mimic the behaviours of educators is a safer course of action.
Unlike Maddison, Leela’s dilemma sprang from an apparent conflict between two aspects of her ‘knowing’ – Free Play versus Play-based Learning. The former involves unstructured, free-flowing, intrinsically motivated, child-directed learning, as per the movement encaptured within Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods”. Application of this philosophy to the clay activity would not impose specific expectations or structure to the experience, allowing the child to learn through their own exploration. Alternatively, a Play-based Learning approach would apply learning expectations upon the experience, requiring the adult to direct, model and intervene when necessary to encourage the child’s progression towards the learning outcomes discussed previously.
For Leela, the optimal learning opportunity here involved the application of both approaches simultaneously – leveraging the child’s interests and intrinsic motivation, whilst questioning to provoke, and modelling to extend, ensuring the best possible learning outcome for this child was achieved. Her ‘knowing’ was thus comprised of declarative and procedural knowledge, plus her insight into this child’s specific learning needs in terms of fine-motor, strength and dexterity.
Gurm, poses a framework for these ‘multiple ways of knowing’ in teaching and learning, identifying these five ways of knowing:
i. Empirical – empirics is the science of education
ii. Ethical – ethics is the moral of knowledge
iii. Personal – personal knowing is about knowing one’s self and the participation in the act
iv. Aesthetic – is the art of teaching and learning (2013, pp. 2-3).
Intuitively finding the correct balance though, requires the experience of ‘doing’, as this knowledge can’t be bestowed by theoretical learning alone. Knowing when to interrupt, how to seize upon a ‘teachable moment’, and when to allow the child to experience a ‘learnable moment’ by themselves is derived of experience, and when we try to describe how we go about the spontaneous intuitive actions of every day, we find ourselves at a loss, or produce descriptions which are obviously inadequate.
Educator training bestows knowledge, and placements provide practical experience in planning & delivering sessions, but child-educator ratios limit coaching and mentoring opportunities, which clearly benefit all involved, once employed. Dialogue spawned from this interaction highlighted a deficiency in one educator’s experience, providing her with an opportunity for improvement and something to focus upon. This same dialogue caused the second educator to reflect more critically upon the merits of differing approaches, concluding that in practice, a considered yet largely intuitive application of knowledge delivers the best outcomes, which can only be achieved through practice and experience.
Is there an opportunity to improve ongoing educator training by ensuring more mentoring and coaching in placements and workplaces? How can we create opportunities to coach and mentor given child-educator ratios? How also can teams promote and encourage dialogue and identification of improvement opportunities?
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