01 SES 06 C, Professional Learning in Early Childhood Contexts
Early childhood education (ECE) has recently become established as its own field in educational research and academic scholarship (Woodrow and Newman, 2015), the emergence of which is a contrast to the more established area of primary education. The realisation that quality ECE has distinct benefits for children across the domains of their development (Melhuish et. al, 2015) has lent additional impetus to the interest in ECE. The development of ECE scholarship drawn attention to the need for continuity of the pedagogical experience between ECE and primary school for young children. This creates a need to review the issues which affect this pedagogical space, such as the ‘included as excluded’ hierarchy of educational research and the additional need to untangle the power chasm, which often privileges the primary teacher voice. The voice of early childhood educators within the research and policy space should not be silenced, but should have power to influence these agendas.
Current research from developmental psychology highlights the crucial role of interactions and relationships to positive development and supports Bronfenbrenner’s contention (2005) that proximal processes, the day-to-day interactions in the lives of children, are the engines of development (Hayes et al, 2017). It confirms that it is not simply the opportunity for interactions but the nature and quality of the interactive process itself that is important. In particular, evidence emphasizes the value of dynamic, bidirectional social interactions as crucial to early development (Hayes et al, 2017). Research has also emphasized that these bi-directional, social interactions occurring within and between competent systems, including inter-institutional, intra-institutional and at the governance level impacts the ECE experience of children (Urban et al, 2012) and locates the interacting systems as central to situating the problem. A shared orientation towards competence at governance, organizational and individual levels of the system, which identifies inter-subjectivity as central to social, political, moral and ethical issues, guided by the emerging profession of ECE, will ultimately impact positively on children’s early learning experiences.
The importance of supporting and enhancing professional development and learning among ECE educators is emphasized by Waniganayake et. al. (2008). The authors identified that professionals valued collaboration, sharing experiences, and engaging in learning that goes beyond once off events. Consistent with this, methodologies such as professional conversations (Irvine & Price, 2014) have recognised the professional status of the educator to support practice change. The professional conversations approach was designed to be open, flexible and responsive to the strengths and interests and needs of participants, yet it has a clear purpose (Irvine & Price, 2014).
The Reconceptualising Early Childhood Education Collaborative (RECEC) was established in Dublin in 2015 in response to the need for reflection on the changing landscape and realignment within the ECE field of practice and policy. It was developed to initiate a process of discussion on what ECE means and looks like for children and educators, towards identifying some implications for curriculum development and practice. To achieve these aims, diverse key stakeholders, in particular decision makers, early childhood educators and primary school teachers came together to consider key pedagogical constructs. The formation of RECEC has created an ongoing discourse which is influenced by European and international research and enhances this same literature. The RECEC approach represents a move away from hierarchical, exclusive, reform-based rhetoric through providing a platform towards research-based, inclusive, sustained dialogue. A total of four RECEC symposia have taken place to date, each focusing on relevant topics, with an inquiry and action orientation to the dialogue. Together, the symposia have converged and braided a cogent narrative highlighting a need to move towards a more culturally situated, holistic policy and practice.
The data collected at the four separate symposia has been analysed. Each symposium was based around a research topic of central relevance to ECE (curriculum and continuity, hearing under three year olds, creativity and play). These topics and questions were designed to form the basis of group discussion, which provided an opportunity for participants to discuss, debate and share observations arising from the presentation in the interdisciplinary groups to which they were assigned. There were between six and eight groups sitting together in circles for the duration of the symposium, each of which was moderated by a rapporteur. Following the group conversation, each participant documented their thoughts on a coloured card (assigned by topic) which was gathered by a rapporteur. It is this data that the present analysis is focusing upon. Topic discussions were designed to be open, flexible and responsive to the strengths, interests and needs of participants (Irvine & Price, 2014). At the same time, there was a clear purpose to the conversations which were based on a small number of pre-planned open-ended questions. The symposia were structured in a way that sought to facilitate a growth mindset (Dweck, 2010) and agency to make change (Hattie & Yates, 2014). The design of the timetable maximised participant contribution and challenged the participants towards greater understandings of focused key research themes. This has the benefit of allowing for the development of shared perspectives and thinking over time, for deeper understanding of the issues and themes within discussions, and for considering them as a whole in order to develop new meaning and learning. A qualitative interpretative methodological approach was used to facilitate a deeper, sophisticated and more complex understanding of the data, the tension points and points of agreement through an approach that is orientated towards ‘meaning, context, interpretation, understanding and reflexivity’ (Smith, 2003, p4). The aim was to interpret the comments to highlight participants’ understandings in relation to the topics, as well as to understand the tapestry of comments in conjunction with each other (Alvesson & Skoldberg, 2018). Additionally, there is a need to recognise and understand the overall value of these discussions. Second level data analysis will interpret the meaning and value of the research context in a reflexive way.
The goal of the RECEC symposia is to inform the research and policy agenda in Ireland. It was initiated to open constructive and inclusive discussion of what ECE looks like for children and educators, and consequently what implications this has for curriculum development and practice. The link between education and power recognises that education is influenced by economic, social and political factors, often having a patriarchal influence (Freire, 1970). At national, European and a broader international level, a policy agenda for ECE is being shaped (OECD, 2012, Eurofound, 2014, DCYA, 2015). Data analysis of discussions at RECEC symposia will demonstrate what those working in the sector are drawing on in terms of understandings of professionalism and professional identity which is hallmarked by uncertainty and openness, and is co-constructed through dialogue, and whose iterations become generative as this process continues (Engerstrom & Sannino, 2010). The comments will be interpreted, acknowledging the breadth of influences, from very general to specific suggestions. The comments hint at the fact that some participants at the RECEC symposia had previously felt disenfranchised in relation to where they have been situated within the dialogue. The ongoing changes in the policy context have placed complex demands on certain of those working in the sector (Hayes, 2008). Within this focus, there is a discourse with particular interest in enhancing quality ECE through professional development and alignment of early pedagogical experiences. There is a need to recognize that quality, as a concept, is a social practice and is linked to the way knowledge and power are constructed over time. Outcomes from the research will relate to key themes in pedagogical practice, in addition to higher level observations relating to the effect these discussions can have in the field of ECE, and how it may enhance broader international academic conversations.
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