By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. The image of the child in the Reggio Emilia approach is one of a rich, competent, capable theory builder. This construct could be the image of the teacher as well, but to accept this image we must first embrace theory in our practice. I am here to tell you that I have spent most of my professional career being a “theory avoider”. I had an aversion to theory. As an early childhood educator grounded in the practical application of curriculum, theory was not a substantial part of my practice. I have had an aversion to, and fear of, the theoretical. I was afraid to embed theory into practice as it seemed too abstract. At the same time, the act of articulating a theory was laden with the inherent risk of coming forward to assert my voice. Dissociating fear from theory has been a profound and transformative experience. I will speculate that this process of voicing our teacher theories can be a powerful force of development for others who accept theory into their practice.
As an educator of aspiring teachers, I have heard over and over and have seen with our own eyes the disconnection between theory and practice in our teaching and learning communities. There is a huge pedagogical gap between theories taught in class and practice as it is witnessed by students in their field placements for many of our students. Beach and Flanagan (2007) found in their research that both faculty and employers expressed concern about placement processes including unclear college expectations, difficulty in finding appropriate practicum placements, and the disconnect between what the colleges are teaching and what is being practiced in the sector.
Students have the opportunity to experiment with rich materials and hypothesize about children’s potential learning; many of these materials are not available to children in early learning environments.
To become a theory builder is to accept a view of the teacher as researcher. The teacher researches by reflecting upon documentation as data and then begins to theorize. Theorizing is the “cognitive process of discovering or manipulating abstract categories and relationships amongst these categories” (LeCompte, Preissle, & Tesch, 1993, p. 239). The process calls for an abstract conceptualization of the data. It is a challenging process. It is fraught with ambiguity as it involves speculation, risk, and inference but the task of theory is to help teachers better understand the nature of their practice. We believe that all early learning professionals have the capacity to be theory builders.
A teacher explores materials while reflecting on the theory of loose parts.
So what is your philosophical/theoretical orientation? I will tell you mine. It is constructivism or more specifically social constructivism. John Dewey, an American educator, profoundly influential in the Progressive movement first espoused what is now considered constructivist theory as he emphasized the significance of experience in learning. He stated, “Education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process” (Dewey, 1916, p. 38). Jean Piaget is considered a cognitive constructivist and Lev Vygotsky; a social constructivist. It is all part of the same theory or philosophical orientation. It is the theory that now defines practice.
According to Hill, Stremmel, and Fu (2005) knowingly or unknowingly, we construct a personal philosophy or theory of teaching that is brought with us at the onset of our journey to teach. This image of who we are or will be as a teacher, combined with a view of the child as learner, forms a pedagogical orientation. The image of the child and the image of the teacher merge to create a theory of teaching and learning which we know as pedagogy. I am suggesting that we construct our own personal philosophy or theory of teaching, knowingly.
I was excited to discover John Dewey’s vacation home while on a recent trip to Key West.
When I was a practicing early childhood educator, my ability to put theory to practice was limited. What was missing for me was the knowledge of how children learn. Without an epistemological framework, I was lost. While I was eager to expose children to the wonder of new experiences and discoveries, I looked for recipes and plans without critically examining teaching practice in relation to theory. I accepted a theme approach to curriculum development. I didn’t do any harm to the children or to myself but I didn’t help either of us consciously reach higher levels of intellectual capacity. As I embraced the practice of early childhood education where theory was not dismissed, the excitement of using a curriculum based on themes quickly evaporated. I began a quest to find alternative choices.
I have made my choice. I now accept theory in practice and have an ability to articulate. I have found my voice. So what was my choice? As Moss (2005) explains, the Reggio Emilia approach is “a constant reminder that there are many possibilities” for the early learning professional, “so we have choices to make; not consumer choices, but political and ethical choices based on our answers to critical questions such as ‘what is our image of the child?’ or ‘how do we understand knowledge and learning?’ We have made our choice, they say in Reggio, now what is yours?” (p. 26). Please take a moment to read this very helpful two page article by Peter Moss, “It is your Choice”.
Children learn in the garden at Acorn School where the image of the child is rich and Reggio inspired.
I still see the role of the early learning professional as being one that embraces good practice. So yes, it is important to have a great play dough recipe and we need of course to accept developmentally appropriate practice in order to support children’s developmental progress. This is not enough. According to Spodek (1995) early childhood teachers possess an even lower level of professionalism than the primary school teacher as the field faces many barriers to increasing professionalization, including the lack of a theoretical base. The relationship between theory and practice is tenuous, with actual practice guided by each teacher’s own set of underlying principles that may or may not include a theoretical basis. Constructivism provides a framework where we can cognitively challenge ourselves, each other and the children.
We have a responsibility to deepen the connection between theory and practice. I have made my choice. It has changed my life. I now embrace social constructivism in theory and in practice. I look and listen for the voices of others. I am appreciative everyday for the opportunities to work with others as Vygotsky says, “it is through others that we develop into ourselves” (Vygotsky, 1981, p. 181).
Beach, J. & Flanagan, K. (2007). People, programs and practice: A training strategy for the early childhood education and care sector in Canada, Ottawa: Child Care Human Resource Sector Council
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: an introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: Macmillan.
Hill, L. T., Stremmel, A. J., & Fu, V. R. (2005). Teaching as inquiry: Rethinking curriculum in early childhood education. Boston: Pearson.
LeCompte, M. D., Preissle, J., & Tesch, R. (1993). Ethnography and qualitative design
in educational research (2nd ed.). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
Spodek, B. (1995). Professionalism and the early childhood practitioner. Early Childhood Development and Care, 114, 65 – 79. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service Journal No. EJ513922)
Vygotsky, L. S. (1981). The development of higher forms of attention in childhood. In J. V. Vertsch (Ed.), The concept of activity in Soviet psychology (pp. 189 – 240). Armonk, NY: Sharpe.