Monday, October 17, 2011

Choices choices...

We had an electrician in today. His daughter attended the local Montessori centre and although he kept going on about how 'hot' the teachers were there, after observing his work for a while I began to have other ideas for his decision to choose Montessori. Red wire to the red wire, two twists and a connector carefully attached and screwed tight. Next wire. Next wire. Isn't electrical work just so precise, exact, a step-by-step progression to a clearly defined goal? No wonder Montessori appeals to his inner schema.

My sister sends her girls to a Steiner Kindergarten. Despite all my head shaking and mutterings about Steiner being the educational version of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, she thinks it's just perfect for her darlings. It's peaceful, 'alternative' and has a beautiful environment - I can see why it appeals.

I find the choice people make in centre philosophy fascinating. Or that they don't choose - it's just the closest to home and that'll do eh? Have you noticed that when parents hunt you out, cross town through shitty traffic, or fork out a few extra dollars, they engage at a deeper level than the 'drop and runners'. They engage pedagogically, they want to know what you think and do - and why. This enthusiasm is a gift we as teachers must run with...

From Swick et al (2001):parents thrive on healthy relationships with other adults, children, and supportive groups" where they gain knowledge on a wide range of child and family issues. Positive, reciprocal relationships with teachers are shown to encourage and empower parents that sees increased involvement in their child's education producing positive educational outcomes. Swick et al discuss how empowering parents/whānau as learners themselves is a way of enhancing this involvement, needs to be a major goal of early childhood professionals. 

In recognising that we are a valuable source of support and resources, 'an ecology of hope', where parents and families can become an integral part of the curriculum as empowered learners, I drew up a list of personal challenges to the notions of partnership and collaboration - the core of our pedagogy as ECEC teachers. In welcoming diversity, in challenging western notions of power, in surrendering professional power to embrace the wider ecology's of learning, ask yourself:

  • Are we able to clearly articulate the how and why of our pedagogy and practice?
  • Are we able to clearly articulate our vision of partnership and what this entails?
  • How can we create authentic partnership based on mutuality in the face of such diversity?
  • How can we move beyond a veneer of multiculturalism and open up the centre structures to allow for authentic participation?
  • Is there genuine flexibility in our pedagogy to accept other interpretations? Is there a limit to how much change is acceptable?
Hmmm, indeed. Are we stick-in-the-muds, or are we evolving...

From the Swick article and personal experience I've drawn up the following list as possible ways to engage with parents and family:

  • A strong focus on welcoming new families that includes a formal meeting, a 'parents pack' that includes a guide to the centre philosophies, and a supported, open-ended transition process.
  • Parent representatives as a formal component of any communication strategies, disputes processes, and liaising with individual parents, groups, management etc.
  • A policy of prioritising time to interact with parents and whānau.
  • To consciously create a physical sense of welcoming: space for couches, access to kitchen etc.
  • Establish a parents library of books, magazines, articles to enable self-study.
  • Re-conceptualise 'routines' to become 'ritual' and involve parents – tree planting is suggested as a birthday ritual
  • Establishment and ongoing promotion of parent support groups and mentors for young and/or first time parents.
  • Build a skill share registry to draw in 'experts'.
  • Parents and whānau displays and information board.
  • Explore and develop ideas relating to critical multiculturalism and practice.
  • Utilise pepeha (written family history that is displayed in the centre) as an integral part of building community.
  • A weekly morning play group for younger siblings and others waiting to enroll to allow for familiarisation and build a sense of belonging.
  • The active promotion of learning journals as a tool for sharing formal and informal learning.
  • A centre newsletter (print and electronic) that explores pedagogy and current issues in ECE.
  • Regular clothing and toy swaps.
  • Ongoing process of inviting grandparents and other whānau in for story-telling.
  • Ongoing critical analysis of ways to support and encourage the involvement of Fathers and other male whānau in the centre.

Many of the proposals should be established as part of an ecological view of learning and the desire to make the centre an authentic part of the learners community. They also reflect research showing that parents value daily informal interactions above structured events (Hedges & Lee, 2010). They should not be considered 'done' however, and an ongoing process of critical reflection along with wider dialogue with the community (including children) is essential.

Now, just do it. 

Swick, K., Da Ros, D., & Kovach, B. (2001). Empowering parents and families through a caring inquiry approach. Early Childhood Education Journal, 29(1), 65-71.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Learning Position...

was revealed to me at a Kindergarten yesterday when the head teacher directed the children to the mat where they were to assume their 'learning positions' in preparation for a visitor who was to talk about safety around swimming. That got my attention.

The 'learning position' was indicated by extending the thumb and forefinger to make a 'L' shape. Legs out front, bodies straight. I tried it. Ouch. No. More yoga required.

Could you learn like this? Not me, I chose to find a more comfortable position for the discussion. I wonder where this came from? I forgot to ask about it afterwards so trolled Google - no answers there. Is it based on science and/or evidence-based practice? Is it a teaching myth?

More importantly, do children not learn when they're in other positions? To be honest it just all sounds bloody ridiculous.

I know of centre in Wellington that is letting children stand and even (OMG!) lean against the wall during group mat-times. Yes! Boys especially are sticking around. Still, despite this 'success' I still find it amazing how inactive spectatorship that relies on knowledge transmission is still chugging along out there!  Will this pedagogical dead duck ever sink?

Compulsory mat-time - fail. 
Compulsory mat-time with compulsory way to sit - epic fail!!!!!

Now yoga sounds more appealing...  I know of a centre that does QiGong each day as a way of calming the children in readiness for the ritual of mealtime...  Oh I love tangents.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Professionalism and the corporate monster

The notion of professionalism comes up time and time again in the world of early childhood education. Teachers struggled for years to gain this status, even to the extent of rejecting elements of their work that were frowned upon – such as 'caring' that harps back to 'mothers work' which we all know is the polar opposite to being a 'professional'. Anyway, a recent visit by some teachers from a corporate chain (which I won't name) sparked some reflection and inquiry...

Being able to define and create ones own place in a community, to exercise agency concerning practice, pedagogy and curriculum I would consider to be a hallmark of professionalism. At the centre I work we are carving out a pedagogical niche and the process of 'becoming' is well embraced (This concept of 'becoming' is attributed to Vossler et al, 2005 which I recommend you read). Through observation, reflection, dialogue with colleagues and community, research and professional development, the teaching team here are wholeheartedly engaged in an ongoing process of learning that befits their professional status.

In contrast to this ideal, we were visited by a group of teachers from a corporate chain. Throughout the morning their enthusiasm for the curriculum is evident, but their conversation is peppered with comments about how they would never be allowed to incorporate ideas like this, and how proposals for 'change' are reframed by their mangers in economic terms and that arguments on a pedagogical basis have little impact.

Professional autonomy is widely considered as a key hallmark of professionalism. The ongoing need for professional knowledge, for critical dialogue with colleagues and the learning community, to critically critique the contexts, paradigms, discourses, values etc, that exert influence on the teaching and learning process, all require professional autonomy (Duhn, 2010; Moss, 2010 etc – actually there's a whole swag of really interesting reading just out on professionalism).

Duhn (2010) paints a lovely picture of independent owner-operator centres created through partnerships with community and able to rapidly transform to meet community needs. Of being able to critically engage with pedagogy and curriculum, to practice teaching as 'being', a process of learning where uncertainty and risk-taking is embraced with no pressure to met pre-determined external outcomes. It was in such centres that this 'critical ecology of the profession' (Dalli, 2010) helped create Te Whāriki, our early childhood curriculum.

Neoliberal reforms experienced by New Zealand in the 1980's saw changes to both the governance and mandate of education. International discourses on education saw traditional national goals of 'public good' replaced with rigid predetermined transnational targets that primarily focus on economics and the maintenance of neoliberalism (Duhn, 2010; Codd, 2008). Codd discusses how this radical shift in the purpose and intent of education has been heralded by a managerial culture preoccupied with performativity – what is produced, observed and measured, with educators now relegated to technocrats implementing the directives of political ideology. Codd further argues that this loss of autonomy is precipitating a decline in teacher commitment to the values and principles of education.

Urban (2010) positions education historically as a political practice, a “meaningful and equal interaction (that is) deeply embedded in the sociocultural, economic and historical context of human society,” and argues that such a view is opposed to the neoliberal concept of education as a “de-contextualised technocratic practices imposed on children and educators (…) as highly effective means of control, normalisation and confinement." In the face of such fundamental change to the profession of teaching, Farquhar (2008) asks if the early childhood sector is shifting from a position of professional advocacy to being an institution “subsumed within a culture of regulatory requirements” (Dalli, 2010).

According to Moss (2010) neo-liberalism has seen the nature of relationships transform from a social and political paradigm to economic and managerial constructs where early childhood education exists in a “strange balance of free-markets and central control” (p.12). Neoliberalism positions teaching as a skill that can be separated from other aspects of centre life. Teachers set and maintain bench marks for standards; quality and professionalism become terms that lead to tangible outcomes like salary rises and promotions (Duhn, 2010).

In discussing the isolation of teachers from professional decision making Woodrow (2008 ) examines the impact of corporate dominance in the ECEC sector with “many aspects of the daily curriculum that children experience and ECEC professionals implement, 'authorised' and mediated through corporate relationships designed to maximise shareholder returns”. In-house training see professional knowledge tightly controlled and ensures loyalty to the company over the profession. Centres that are absorbed into this model lose the ability to authentically reflect and respond to their immediate community. Iris Duhn (whose rather scary investigation of corporate baby-farmers ABC is worth finding) argues that teachers in corporate centres are often isolated from decision making roles and lose control over curriculum and professional development

'Professionalism' is a key neoliberal discourse as it relates to accountability, control and the notion of quality: a measurable, manageable, standardised outcome. This economic interpretation of professionalism is mirrored in recent government policy moves that include lowering the percentage of qualified teachers in a centre, cuts to professional development, and the closing of Centres of Innovation research programme, and is further entrenched in the recent ECE Taskforce review and recommendations.

Countering this corporate definition of professionalism are calls for a ground-up interpretation of professionalism that envisions the re-establishing of democratic and participatory structures and relationships, to reclaim space and ask critical questions that once again build on the radical roots of the early childhood profession. Dalli's (2008) research into teacher perceptions of professionalism is rather dry to read, but it showed that pedagogical strategies and collaborative relationships ranked at the top of desirable attributes with the notion of best practice and managerialism, ranking the least important. Faith is restored! Dalli's call for a re-conceptualisation of what it means to be a professional that reflects the reality of teaching is echoed by others (Urban, 2010; Moss, 2010) concerned that as a result of corporate dominance, the loss of professional autonomy is rendering teachers powerless.

I consider autonomy to be a critical tenet of professionalism and its loss calls into question the status of teaching – we are not technocrats at the mercy of our masters. Dalli (2010) calls for a re-emergence of the critical ecologies that once drove the transition of the early childhood workforce into a profession. Here, as a result of collaboration, critical thinking, research and advocacy, professionalism grew out of the profession rather than it being imposed from above.

Yes, activism.