Saturday, November 26, 2011

Pikler and Co-construction: bridging a theoretical divide

This post continues my series on Pikler's learning principles and the need to take a critical social-constructivist view of its developmentalist foundations. I'm a staunch advocate for Pikler. I must confess that I was initially attracted to Pikler because it seemed to bypass the complexities of the learner/teacher relationship. Just as I was getting a handle on co-construction and such, bam – Pikler seduces me, pulls me across this chasm of messy theory and lets me take on a 'wants nothing' position (thank you Janet Gonzalez-Mena for making this role sound so bloody nice!).

Now however it is the image of the child as a free and empowered learner that I find most appealing about Pikler and, paradoxically, what I don't like is its association with constructivist ideas on development which see learning as an individual journey that requires no 'interfering' with by teachers. We are products of our cultural and social worlds – there's no denying that and socio-cultural views of learning reflect this. Do we have an unbridgeable chasm here? In my last post I explored content knowledge – go read it now if you already haven't (in fact go right back to Pikler Revolution 1 so you get the whole picture – and my evolution of thought). Now I want to keep going with this inquiry and explore possible ways of imparting new knowledge to learners while respecting their rights.

First up: a central tenet of my personal philosophy is an image of the child as being an active, self-initiating learner with the fullest of human rights who wants and needs to engage in play. I consider play to be a human right, a cultural right and the right way to learn. No teacher-led transmission of knowledge stuff like in a classroom – and sadly in many centres. Play is the vehicle for learning.

Contemporary theories of learning have evolved from Piagetian constructivism to focus on Vygotsy's social-constructivism which recognises that all learning occurs within a social and cultural context – we are not isolated, nor 'coded' to learn as constructivism would have us believe. Learning and learners are not moving on a linear path to a homogenised universal truth. Everything is inter-related. Evolving from this recognition of social interactions as the basis of learning, social-constructivism envisions a different role for teachers in considering children can perform more challenging tasks when assisted by more advanced and competent individuals through both informal and formal interactions (Hedges, 2010). Unfortunately, while Te Whāriki (New Zealand's early childhood curriculum) fully embraces this line of thinking in that it “emphasises the critical role of socially and culturally mediated learning and of reciprocal and responsive relationships for children with people, places, and things,” it hits a brick wall of traditional free-play practice that is compounded by teachers failing to fully understand social-constructivist strategies and interpreting them as being about teacher-led. This confusion results in teachers returning to a default constructivist-orientated practice – our happy place :)

What a fuck up right? And it just goes on and on. So we have a legacy of constructivist inspired free-play environments and a social-constructivist curriculum that rightly reflects the incredible diversity we experience. Throw into the mix the need to introduce new knowledge.

Tina Bruce (1991) describes how too often educators attempt to teach through play, where the teacher cuts into play situations in order to teach a concept that may have emerged as the children played. This interventionist approach to teaching devalues play, renders it useless by dragging the children back into a reality constructed by the adult. Play, and thus meaningful learning, is effectively suspended. This is just major theoretical/practice confusion and you can see it happening all the time at kindergartens.

Isenberg and Quisenberry (2002) describe play as a means for children to facilitate the understanding of skills and concepts, and to take ownership of new knowledge, that it is both a process and a product. The importance given to play as the leading factor in learning and development owes much to developmental psychology: Vygotsky considers play to be the space where children operate at their highest level of functioning and where they apply all they have experienced – their working theories, their funds of knowledge (Bruce, 1991; Hedges, 2010). According to Bruce (1991), what we broadly refer to as 'play' is actually an inter-connected process with foundational learning processes like struggle, manipulation, exploration, and discovery leading to competence and a sense of control. This control builds self-confidence, autonomy, intrinsic motivation, the desire to have a go, to takes risks and solve problems. Thus, rich and varied experience is a prerequisite to play where wallowing in ideas, experiences, feelings, and relationships, transforms the actual into the possible with new, meaningful knowledge the result. In pulling apart our concept of play and recognising that within play there are periods where more direct support is needed, Wood (2004) argues that teachers are better positioned to introduce discipline-based knowledge skills and understandings. My question is: how?

Children at play naturally behave like scientists in that they learn by doing things and asking questions. Children's questions are often fundamental, complex and not easily answered, and as a result, they provide a natural learning context for enquiry-based education (Jordan, 1982). Questions also serve as a useful guide to determining what is significant and interesting to them. Hedges (2010) refers to a child's funds of knowledge, their “unique family and community experiences” (p.28) as a possible framework for teachers to recognise and understand a learner's motivation for inquiry in everyday activities and interests. The pedagogical challenge is to move from “having information about children, to knowledge of children at a deeper level” (Hedges, 2010, p.35).

A socio-cultural view of learning places a great emphasis on culturally and socially mediated interactions and clearly defines a role for teachers in children's learning with the zone of proximal development highlighting the difference in independent problem-solving versus collaboration with more knowledgeable peers or adults. Hedges (2010) describes this adult-child relationship as intersubjective, in that it has “a mutual or shared understanding, a sharing of purpose or focus,” that allows for constructing new knowledge not predetermined or defined.

Can you see it? Space grows from respect and mutual interest (the child's inquiry and the teacher's response) and allows for new learning that is mutually constructed.

Hedges (2010) discusses three pedagogical strategies within the socio-cultural framework to guide teachers within this space: Scaffolding, Guided participation, and Co-construction.

Scaffolding refers to the technique of providing temporary guidance and support as a learner masters independence. Hedges (2010) claims that while often misinterpreted as direct teaching, the weight of control does remain with the adult. Guided participation sees children cast as apprentices, “active in learning through observing, participating with peers and adults to develop skills and knowledge” (Hedges, 2010). Again there is a gradual shift of power to the learner, but often involves outcomes that are predetermined by the expert. Co-construction however, “holds a potentially empowering approach to encouraging both adults and children to have an active role in the teaching and learning process” (Hedges, 2010, p.18) and it is this equity that elevates co-construction as a key strategy for teaching through play.

Bernstone (2009) claims that “teaching strategies are about the different degrees of control of power” (p. 6) and that teachers need to question ownership of knowledge. With co-construction, a shared approach to meaning-making is possible that is empowering for all. By acknowledging cultural and social forces that both shape and influence a learner, by engaging with inquiry processes and accommodating shared meaning-making, co-construction aligns with the goals and intent of Te Whāriki, as well as respecting the deeper drive for free-play.

Can you see the process that differentiates this strategy from others? It's not about learning to use the scissors or climb the big ladder, it's new ideas and concepts that fundamentally challenge and change. We build a community of inquiry that recognises the importance of children's funds of knowledge, activities and interests and the real questions that grow from this base. In responding to this inquiry - participation, intersubjectivity, shared purposes and goals - we co-construct new meaning.

Co-construction provides a pedagogical framework to guide the process of inquiry and I see this role of the teacher alongside a learner at play as an empowering one – principally because it does not seek power and this makes my little anarchist heart skip with joy :)

Well after all that I have to say that it's still all a bit vague. There is simply too little accessible and practical information out there for the average teacher to study. In an attempt to remedy this, a mate is dropping of Fleer's new book 'Early Learning and Development' for me to read over the holidays – apparently it's the latest and greatest on social-constructivism. We'll see where it takes us eh? As you were.


Bernstone, H. (2009). An exploration of teacher power and its place in negotiation as a
teaching strategy in early years. New Zealand Journal of TeachersWork, 6 (1), 20-27.
Bruce, T. (1991). Time to play in early childhood education. London, England: Hodder and Stoughton.
Cahill, A., & Fleer, M. (2001). I want to know: Learning about science. Canberra: Australian Early Childhood Association.
Cullen, J. (2003). The challenge of Te Whāriki: catalyst for change? In Nuttall, J. (ED.), Weaving Te Whāriki: Aotearoa New Zealand's early childhood curriculum document in theory and practice pp. 161-187. Wellington: NZCER.
Hedges, H. (2000). Teaching in early childhood: Time to merge constructivist views so learning through play equals teaching through play. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 25(4), 16-21.
Hedges, H. (2010). Whose play, goals and interests? The interface of childrens play and teacherspedagogical practices. In L. Brooker & S. Edwards (Eds.), Engaging play. Open University Press.
Isenberg, J., & Quisenberry, N. (2002). Play: Essential for all children. Childhood Education: Infancy Through Adolescence, 79(1), 33-39.
Nuttall, J. (2003). Exploring the role of the teacher within te whāriki: some possibilities and constraints. In Nuttall, J. (ED.), Weaving te whāriki: Aotearoa New Zealand's early childhood curriculum document in theory and practice (pp. 161-187). Wellington: NZCER.
Wood, E. (2004). Developing a pedagogy of play. In Anning A, Cullen J, Fleer M Early Childhood Education: Society and Culture. pp. 19-30. Uk: Sage Publications.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Grassroots Professionalism

I would like to continue my inquiry into professionalism if you would bare with me...

Now Carmen Dalli (Victoria University, Wellington, Aotearoa) did a research project back in 2008 where she looked at professionalism from the perspectives of teachers. So while my earlier post on professionalism focused on the encroachment of corporate values, this post will look more at what we as ECE teachers should be insisting constitutes professionalism for us. This is about reclaiming professionalism.

First there's the history:

In her article, The re-emergence of a critical ecology, Dalli (2010) describes how small, independent community-based centres, or 'critical ecologies', drove the transition of a largely invisible, ad hoc collection of early childhood centres (educational and care) into a profession. Through collaboration, critical thinking, practice-based evidence and advocacy, the sector critically engaged with the notion of 'becoming' (Vossler et al, 2005 – now I hope you have read this by now). While not dismissing the value of attaining traditional hallmarks of professionalism, many commentators are expressing concerns that 'top-down' interpretations of professionalism are increasingly shaped by social, economic and political discourses that are threatening this direct expression of professionalism within the early childhood sector as defined by its constituents (Dalli, 2010; Moss, 2010; Urban, 2010).

We have established that 'professionalism' is a key neoliberal discourse as it relates to accountability, control and the notion of quality: a measurable, manageable, standardised outcome. This economic definition of professionalism can be seen in recent government policy moves that include the increased funding of the private sector, lowering the percentage of qualified teachers required in a centre, and cuts to professional development and research programmes. With education compelled to operate within a competitive business model, the early childhood sector is facing several challenges to its professional status with the principle of autonomy being central. I wrote about this crisis of autonomy in my post Professionalism and the Corporate Monster, so go and jump to that one and get up to speed before we continue.

Okay so now that we have established this need for professional autonomy as a sector, we must balance it with the pedagogical need for collaboration within our learning community – with colleagues, management, children, parents, and whānau. This need raises questions of the sector's 'perimeter' and what this means when defining professionalism. Hedges (2010) describes how “partnership with families in children's learning is a taken for granted feature of the curriculum, philosophy, policy and practice of Aotearoa/New Zealand early childhood education”. This apparent contradiction of traditional interpretations of professionalism where power is closely guarded (and entrenched), highlights the contextual complexities in reinventing 'professionalism' in the context of ECEC.

Now in countering corporate manifestations of professionalism, there are calls for a ground-up re-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 contemporary teacher interpretations of professionalism revealed three “core conceptual elements in how teachers in education and care settings defined professionalism,” that can serve to guide this re-imagining. These three themes were pedagogy, professional knowledge and practice, and collaborative relationships, and are an indicator of the fundamental challenges the sector faces from top-down interpretations of professionalism.

So I'm going to pull out aspects of professionalism from Dalli's framework that are absent from standard definitions, but I would argue are integral to ECEC.

Pedagogy of Care:

The early childhood education and care sector are fundamentally linked to families and the wider community, and this close association with “the role of mothering, and the attendant discourses of love and care, have acted to disempower early childhood practitioners from claiming professional status” (Dalli, 2008). A pedagogy of care acknowledges a growing body of knowledge foundered on ethical and philosophical discourses that the early childhood environment is a place of ethical and political encounter “which should inform all aspects of life and which includes attentiveness, responsibility, competence and responsiveness” (Tronto, 1993). This space of mutuality allows for democratic dialogue, genuine listening, to welcome diversity, and project the notion of care through practice knowing that “children watch closely what we do with each other more than they listen to what we say to each other” (Swick, 2003). Dalli argues that care as a pedagogical tool needs to be acknowledged and promoted as a valid theoretical position that is an integral part of any re-conceptualisation of professionalism in the early childhood context.

Informal Knowledge:

Dalli's research indicates that “general knowledge about children and the theory of early childhood education is central to professionalism,” a statement that almost belies the complexity of knowledge in all its pedagogical nuances. If we utilise Shulman's (1986) six categories of knowledge we can focus on pedagogical content knowledge as have particular relevance to ECEC. 'Pedagogical content knowledge' is a theoretical framework that attempts to unite the subject to the act of teaching in a way that makes it comprehensible. It consists of three factors: knowledge of a subject, knowledge of a child's existing knowledge and beliefs about the subject, and knowledge of effective ways to teach this subject. In exploring the origins of pedagogical content knowledge, Shulman touches on a source that is highly relevant to the early childhood teacher and the concept of professionalism: practical wisdom. Here, a teacher's 'funds of knowledge' that reflect lived experience, values and beliefs, support and enhance the enactment of theory-based content and curriculum knowledge (Hedges, 2010; Shulman, 1986).

Lunenberg & Korthagen (2009) and Vossler et al, (2005) propose that this informal knowledge base is integral to teacher's work within a highly individualised and responsive curriculum where it is necessary to draw upon a diverse range of knowledge and skills to respond to moment-moment learning situations. In recognising the pedagogical value of informal knowledge, Urban (2008) proposes that the early childhood sector embrace a “paradigm of professionalism that turns away from the traditional and hierarchical concept of embodying an agreed body of knowledge.”

The professional reality for teachers in early child education is that knowledge reflects personal discourses and is constantly evolving in response to the social, cultural and political contexts and discourses that an ethic of encounter generates. In further support of the pedagogical position of informal knowledge, Vossler et al (2005) bring attention to the funds of knowledge a learner contributes to a learning environment that embraces the uncertainty of co-constructing new knowledge. Together, these bodies of individualised and evolving knowledge that arise from the relational basis of learning in the early childhood context, constitute powerful arguments against linking the notion of professionalism solely to an externally constructed 'regime of truth' that is defined and controlled by those who hold power. (Vossler et al, 2005; Urban, 2008)

Teachers as Researchers:

Central to Vossler et al's (2005) support for recognising the professional value of informal knowledge is the concept of 'becoming' and reflective practice. Here the teacher exists in a state of perpetual learning with the nuances of knowledge, be it informal, content, curricular, or pedagogical, all continuing to grow and develop through the process of critical reflection. Through juxtaposing “ideas, situations, or experiences against some theory or practice in an attempt to clarify and illuminate and ultimately make change” (p.22), teachers are responding to practice-based evidence in a manner that encapsulates Dalli's (2008) notion of a 'ground-up' professional knowledge.

Goodfellow & Hedges (2007) propose that “one critical way in which early childhood practitioners can be considered as professionals is for them to systematically engage in inquiry into their own practices” (p. 187). Reflective practice was also highlighted as an indicator of professionalism in Dalli's (2008) study, yet there is criticism that reflective inquiry is limiting in that the process is not open to the wider educational community where critique and debate can prevent taken for granted “beliefs and assumptions that underpin their practice” (Goodfellow & Hedges, 2007, p.192). In advocating for ongoing inquiry, the authors challenge educators to raise the standard of their inquiry and engage in practitioner research as a means for “re-imagining a whole new foundation for early childhood education” (p. 192). In differentiating practitioner research from reflective practice, Goodfellow & Hedges (2007) detail the following hallmarks: adopting a theoretical stance; a literature base; suitable methodology; incorporating ethical considerations; and sharing the process and findings with the educational community. The authors claim that this type of active engagement with theory and practice in an environment of co-construction with colleagues and external researchers contributes to deeper understanding and significant change in teacher practice.


Cullen (2009) proposes that by adopting such a co-constructive philosophy in the wider context of day-to-day relationships with colleagues and parents, teachers will benefit from significant knowledge as a result of this collaboration. Dalli's (2008) study identifies collaborative relationships “within the teaching team, beyond the centre, with parents, and with management,” as a key component of a ground-up professionalism.

Establishing a team ethos that values and practices a distributed leadership framework and reflects a socio-cultural view of learning can ensure that all voices are heard. The plethora of skills and perspectives available generates multiple interpretations of learning that can support and enhance the ongoing journey of 'becoming' (Roder & Javanovic, 2008).

The principles and strands of the early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 1996), provide a framework for building a strong partnership with family and whānau that encourage shared decision-making, authentic participation and engagement that allows teachers to move from having information about children to deeper contextual knowledge of children (Hedges, 2010). The benefits of collaboration are reciprocal. Swick et al (2001) report that “parents thrive on healthy relationships with other adults, children, and supportive groups” (p.66) 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 resulting in increased involvement in their child's education which produces positive educational outcomes. Educators are a valuable source of support and resources, essentially “an ecology of hope,” through which parents and families can become an integral part of the curriculum as empowered learners.

Collaborative relationships of the types described where power is intentionally dispersed to facilitate participation with the goal of enhancing the learning and well-being of learners, is a direct challenge to Western, neo-liberal interpretations of professionalism. Where instead of attempting to subsume 'other' so they become 'same' and thus entrench their power, educators welcome and embrace diversity as professionals (Moss, 2010).

Dalli's (2008) three overarching themes of professionalism - a distinct pedagogical style, professional knowledge and practice, and collaborative relationships, both incorporate and build upon the hard-won foundations of a traditional interpretation of professionalism that includes specialist training and qualifications, policy, standards and regulations etc. Yet, I would argue, there exists crucial elements to the profession of teaching that are yet to be fully recognised as desirable professional attributes. In recognising these professional 'extras' that offer a genuine representation of the uniqueness and complexity of early childhood education, Moss (2010) challenges educators “to adopt pedagogical approaches and practices that support the purposes of education, the values of diversity and democracy, the ethics of care and encounter, and an attitude of research and experimenting” (p. 16). A stance which is echoed by Dalli's (2010) call for a 're-emergence of a critical ecology of the profession' similar to the pioneers who successfully established early childhood education as a profession.

References (formatting stuffed as usual thanx Blogger:):
Codd, J. (2008). Neoliberalism, globalisation and the deprofessionalisation of teachers. In Carpenter, V. M., Jesson, J., Roberts, P., & Stephenson, M. (Eds.). Ngā kaupapa here: Connections and contradictions in education. pp. 25- 34. Melbourne, VIC, Australia: Cengage Learning.
Cullen, J. (2009). Adults co-constructing professional knowledge. In A. Anning, J. Cullen, & M. Fleer (Eds.), Early childhood education: Society and culture (2nd ed., pp. 80-90). London: Sage.
Dalli, C. (2008). Pedagogy, knowledge and collaboration: towards a ground-up perspective on professionalism. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 16(2), 175-185.
Dalli, C. (2010). Towards the re-emergence of a critical ecology of the early childhood profession in New Zealand. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood. 11(1).
Goodfellow, J., & Hedges, H. (2007). Practitioner research “centre stage”: Contexts, contributions and challenges. In L. Keesing-Styles & H. Hedges (Eds.), Theorising early childhood practice: Emerging dialogues, pp. 187-210.  Baulkham Hills, NSW: Pademelon Press.
Hedges, H. (2010). Through the kaleidoscope: Relationships and communication with parents. The First Years: Nga Tau Tuatahi/New Zealand Journal of Infant and Toddler Education, 12(1), 27-34.
Hedges, H. (2010a). Whose play, goals and interests? The interface of children’s play and teachers’ pedagogical practices. In L. Brooker & S. Edwards, (Eds.), Engaging play. Open University Press.
Lunenberg, M., & Korthagen, F. (2009). Experience, theory, and practical wisdom in teaching and teacher education. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 15(2), 225-240.
Ministry of Education (1996). Te Whāriki. He whāriki mātauranga mō ngā mokopuna o Aotearoa: Early childhood curriculum. Wellington: Learning Media.
Moss, P. (2010) We cannot continue as we are: the educator in an education for survival. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood. 11(1).
Roder, J. & Javanovic, S. (2008). More than “follow the leader”: Rethinking agency in early childhood leadership. In The first years: Ngā tau tuatahi. New Zealand journal of the infant and toddler education. 10(1), 2008.
Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4-14.
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.
Urban, M. (2008) Dealing with Uncertainty: challenges and possibilities for the early childhood profession. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 16(2), 135-152.
Urban, M. (2010). Rethinking professionalism in early childhood: untested feasibilities and critical ecologies. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood. 11(1).
Vossler, K., Waitere-Ang, H., & Adams, P. (2005). Becoming an educator. In P. Adams, K. Vossler, & C. Scrivens (Eds.). Teacher's work in Aotearoa New Zealand. pp. 9-10, 17-28. Southbank, Vic: Thomson/Dunmore.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The art of political deception: government plans for ECEC

Elections are depressing spectacles. We get the candyfloss coated greed from one side and apathy and knee-jerk ignorance from the other. Such is 'democracy'. The resulting tragedy will be a National-led government – there really is no point dreaming otherwise. Childforum has done the homework in pining down each party's policies for the early childhood sector. The full summary is here if you need to feel good about what your fav party is proposing. However, this is what we (most likely) face from National:
  • Sector advisory groups will be set up to work with the Government on:
    • Identifying and improving the practice of low-quality services
    • Developing new and improved policies for ECE for children under two years old
    • Improving the transition for children from ECE to primary school
  • A national evaluation of Te Whariki will be carried out
  • Develop web-based tools to help parents choose the right ECE service
  • A new funding system to be developed in consultation with the sector
  • 20 hours scheme will remain in place
  • No decisions about Kohanga Reo will be made without consulting the Te Kohanga Reo National Trust Board.

They don't sound too bad eh? Nothing too radical for the core of National voters really and I'm sure at face-value this will please the voters. While it does mention a look at funding - which usually means budget cuts, it's almost a bit touchy-feely in a way with all this 'consultation' about to happen. I especially love the neoliberal rhetoric about 'choice' – we love our freedom of choice in Aotearoa. Hell I could almost vote for this :)

There is however more to this picture. These proposals are the product of the final report of the ECE Taskforce, entitled 'An Agenda for Amazing Children', which was released in June 2011. The Taskforce's brief was to undertake a “full review of the value gained from the government investment in early childhood education in New Zealand” (p.176). Principal concerns cited by the Minister of Education, Anne Tolley, were the rising cost of ECE, no guarantee of improved outcomes for learners in return, and the low participation rates among some groups.

The majority of the recommendations made by the Taskforce are centred around notions of quality and the implement of a new funding system to target specific groups with low participation rates. Other recommendations included the endorsement of 80% qualified staff, the removal of compliance costs, mandatory performance reports, transferring more costs onto parents, the need to provide professional development, and promote leadership from within the sector. So while some of it was just rubber-stamping what they were already doing, there were plans afoot.

The Taskforce was set up by the Minister of Education, Anne Tolley, who also framed the Terms of Reference without the knowledge or input of the wider ECE sector. There were nine members on the ECE Taskforce and despite the premise of independence all the members were selected directly by the Minister of Education. Despite the brief that members “should not represent any particular organisation or voice” (p.177), their were representatives from teacher-led centre based interests. Overall, membership of the group was biased toward people with managerial experience. Not represented were small community-based services, children’s interests, parents, home-based ECE providers, Playcentre, Nga Kohanga Reo, and Pacific Island Language Nests. Who actually wrote the report is not stated and critics raise the question about the unusual practice of seeking endorsement from 'three foreign academics' and education ministry officials (Childforum, 2011) as opposed to opening the document up for wider peer review. Understandably there were widespread concerns that the Taskforce was “a thinly veiled cost cutting exercise” (Te Tari Puna Ora o Aotearoa, 2010).

Concerns such as those raised above express the vulnerability being experienced by the ECEC sector following significant cuts to funding, policy changes, and the impression that with Government debt at a critical level, further cuts were likely: the Taskforces' primary mandate was to expand ECE services while maintaining existing funding levels. This bit is not particularly clear in the election policy brief - buried in the fine-print perhaps?

Public 'consultation' took place in the period leading up to Christmas and the January break when all the teachers were on holiday and this limitation was reflected in only 439 submissions being made of which 72% “appeared to originate from the New Zealand Educational Institute” (p.180). Significant effort is made to differentiate submissions on a standardised union form and other individuals/groups in a manner that implies a value on the concerns raised. Political bias? F'sure.

Among the many recommendations, some of which are extremely positive, the more contentious ones include a new performance measure for the sector, a view that home-based services are of low quality and in need of urgent review, ratification of recent policy changes that saw the level of qualified staff cut back to 80%. However, a proposal to change existing funding structures and extend subsidies to include two-year-olds and target groups with low participation rates while maintaining fiscal neutrality is widely condemned. These proposals shape the government's election policies for ECEC but, significantly, they fail to reveal that in extending services to include two-year-olds and those assessed as being 'at-risk', they will be shifting the money about rather than increasing the ECEC budget to cater for this expansion.

Here's what some say about this tinkering with the funding system:

Taskforce member Anne Smith, in distancing herself from a funding system linked to specific children, discusses how it is already possible for children from disadvantaged groups to attend ECE free with the current subsidies and questions the risks of introducing a new funding system whereby remaining fiscally neutral “seriously disadvantages some families, which is unjust and inequitable” (Smith, 2011).

Labour Party candidate David Clark (2011) argues that the proposed funding mechanisms will see service providers responsible for deciding just which child qualifies for which subsidy, a judgemental position which will seriously damage teacher-parent relationships. Can you imagine having to approach a parent with your check-list of poor attendance = poverty? Hmmm.

Opposition to targeted funding while maintaining fiscal neutrality is also voiced by a group of Waikato University academics who claim it “will inevitably undermine the 20 hours ECE policy that provides free or very affordable early childhood education for 3 to 5 year-old children” (2011). They express further concerns around the outcomes of targeted funding such as the setting of criteria, the pressure on teachers to assess families, those who just fail to meet criteria, and the potential 'ghettoising' of identified children and communities.

That the principle of universal access to ECE is potentially under threat with the likelihood of further costs being passed onto parents of 3-to-5 year old children that may prove to be a barrier to access, is raised by several commentators. According to the Kindergarten Association (2011), “maintaining universal funding to services will be important. We know the benefits of high quality ECE extend all the way up the income ladder and for all socio-economic groups” (p.1).

I find myself agreeing with the prognosis offered by Childforum (2011) in that the report really offers no more than propaganda to “provide ‘independent’ backing of current government policy directions” (2011). The trend towards a corporate user-pays system with neoliberal interpretations of quality in the educational context that focus on homogenised economic-orientated outcomes are, in my opinion, reflected in the report. And now they're back.

The admission by the Taskforce that,

“In New Zealand, we do not undertake any research that considers the differential effects of different types of initiatives in early childhood education. We do not collect data on outcomes in a considered or systematic way, and we do not have a strong understanding of the effects of our early childhood education system. Instead, we rely on generalisations from international literature” (p. 54).

is pretty damming really and indicates that the ECEC sector is unfortunately at the mercy of political ideology rather than evidence-based practice and that as a country we have a long way to go if we are serious about early childhood education. 

On the surface what they propose reads well: extend the services, review those struggling, and most importantly – consult with the sector, just like last time.

Wow, some people are going to have a nasty surprise eh?

Edit: The question of reviewing Te Whāriki concerns me. It concerned me at 2am for quite a while - so I'm going to look into this a bit. If you have any relevant info/thoughts then please get in touch!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Pikler, Constructivism and Content Knowledge...

In exploring the learning principles of Pikler I've found that there are several stumbling blocks with its alignment with elements of constructivist theory, principally developmentalism. One of these issues is the introduction of new knowledge to children: essentially good-old-fashioned teaching, but in a manner that respects the reality of how children learn. As I have discussed in earlier posts (Pikler Revolution; Introducing Emmi Pikler) the central tenet of Pikler is that teachers adopt a 'wants nothing' position that allows the learner freedom to learn and develop at their own pace and direction. Teachers do not interfere in this process. While this stance clearly links with developmentalism where a learner is left alone to allow natural coded development to progress through set stages, I don't believe this aspect of a rigid and linear individualism that seeks a universal 'truth' is the intent of Pikler when we consider the image of the child and the emphasis on respect, equality, and empowerment. Constructivism leads to the reproduction of the status quo. It is individual and insular. It means that dominant discourses remain dominant at the expense of other views on development, learning, and the world about us. How does a class of white kids learn about other cultures? About gay families? Poverty? About science or mathematics or Monet and Rembrandt?

If we are serious about using Pikler's ideas with older children where cultural and social interactions become the basis of learning (with play the vehicle), we need to look at how we can introduce new ideas into a learners world in a way that respects their right to initiate and direct their learning journey. Yes we listen to the child, but is there space for them to listen to us?

For this post I will first look at content knowledge. Next will be how we 'share' this knowledge.

A central tenet of my personal philosophy is an image of the child as being an active, self-initiating learner with the fullest of human rights who wants and needs to engage in play. I consider play to be a human right, a cultural right and the right way to learn. When Hedges (2010) says that while free-play has the capacity to promote deeper learning, teachers must be actively involved for this to occur, as a neophyte teacher, I swing between the sacredness of free-play and knowing that research is highlighting a lack of deep, sustained inquiry within these environments (Lillemyr, 2003). That's a bit sad eh? Hate it when things I like don't really work out :(

Anyway, researching the teaching of content knowledge has revealed just how contentious a subject this is: from its pedagogical relevance, what content knowledge teachers need, and most importantly, how to pass this knowledge onto a child at play.

Traditionally, New Zealand has favoured a free-play approach to learning, a position that drew upon Piaget's constructivist theories of a naturally occurring, individualistic process of development and learning that saw teachers adopt a 'hands-off' approach to teaching. This discourse of learning through free-play remains powerful today despite serious critique from a perspective of community, culture, and social relationships (Nuttall, 2003). Alongside this discourse is the concern that any emphasis on subject knowledge is supporting the 'schoolification' of early childhood education (Moss, 2010). Hedges & Cullen (2005) claim that “these philosophical beliefs appear to have left teachers without clear guidelines for content selection in curriculum and excused them from the responsibility to be knowledgeable about childrens interests(p.11).

Cullen (2003) claims that the typical play-based curriculum that develops from children's interests, “while justifiable in socio-cultural terms, has also inadvertently served to de-emphasise the significance of content and skills in children's learning” (p.281). Te Whāriki is a descriptive document in that its principles and strands act to guide programme planning rather than specify content. Yet if Te Whāriki's central goal is for children “to grow up as competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body, and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society”, Hedges & Cullen (2005) are right to ask that “if functioning as an adult member of society requires a body of knowledge, then what might that knowledge consist of?” One might also ask how children get this knowledge.

According to Shulman (1986) the divide between content knowledge and teacher practice has grown from a century of research about learners cognitive development, yet fails to consider where teacher explanations come from. While New Zealand's Graduating Teacher Standards are led by the statement that teachers will have 'content knowledge appropriate to the learners', there remains a powerful legacy that a “subject-based approach to curriculum is inappropriate as it is contrary to the ways children think and learn” (Hedges & Cullen, 2005, p.11) - a position reflected by research into teachers’ responses to children’s scientific questions that found scientific knowledge (70% of the replies in fact) to be inaccurate and insufficient (Hedges & Cullen, 2005).

One of the main critiques of the constructivist / developmental position is that it totally ignores the reality of living within a social and cultural context. Achievement is both individual and collective. We are not taught culture, we are culture. Yes we learn by doing, but we also learn by observing and imitating others who have greater knowledge and skills. This is the Vygotskian / Brunner idea of the Zone of Proximal Development and it can't be ignored. Constructivism must be critically analysed if we are to genuinely respect and support a child's learning journey. Maintaining a 'hands off' position is to deny the child access to new knowledge.

With access to content knowledge positioned as an integral part of learning, how can we as educators teach content in ways that align with holistic socio-cultural principles and an image of the child that sees them as competent, capable learners in control of their learning journey? How do we bridge our respect for the empowered constructivist with living in a diverse, dynamic, ever-changing social and cultural world? Perhaps it is as Hedges & Cullen (2005) suggest, that it's “not subjects per se, but how teachers assist children to construct subject knowledge that is the central pedagogical issue for early childhood education to resolve."

Stay tuned folks for part 2 and how to resolve this issue!