By: Diane Kashin, Ed. D, RECE.
When I was a teenager, my career goal was to be a high school history teacher. At a time of declining enrolment, the goal could not be achieved and instead I chose a different path after university. I found office jobs which I hated and wasn’t that good at, and when I became a very young mother, I realized that there was a magical, wonderful world of early learning out there! I returned to school to become an early childhood educator. It was one of the best decisions of my life. It has been a rewarding career, but it has also come with frustration. As a student, as an ECE in the classroom, as a professor teaching ECE and now as a consultant providing training for ECEs, I am continually dismayed when I hear that some of my fellow ECEs are not interested in ongoing professional learning. I have a number of theories as to why this is happening and some are directly related to my context here in Ontario, Canada but I think that some of the issues are shared universally. I would love to hear from ECEs provincially, nationally and internationally. Please share your thoughts on professional learning and how we can create a culture that supports continuous improvement. How can we support other ECEs who have not embraced an image that reflects co-learning, researching and innovating?
Indeed, education without research or innovation is education without interest ~ Loris Malaguzzi
On the occasion of what would have been Loris Malaguzzi’s one hundredth birthday we should heed his words. We should be embracing professional learning and research as the impetus for innovation in education. In Reggio Emilia, Italy it is a routine and expected function of teachers’ lives. Teachers learn and relearn with children through observation, reflection, speculation, questioning, and theorizing. The teacher learns alongside of the children. The teacher is a teacher researcher, a resource and guide to lend expertise (Malaguzzi, 1998). Within such a teacher researcher role, educators listen, observe, and document children’s work and the growth of a community of learners and a culture of learning emerges. In my province, How Does Learning Happen? Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years has been Ontario’s official framework to guide programming and pedagogy in licensed child care since 2014. Programs are required to be consistent with its foundations and approaches. The framework is closely connected to the Reggio Emilia Approach but this view of the teacher learning alongside children has not taken hold in everyone’s practice.
With regards to How Does Learning Happen? (HDLH?), my theory is that without mandated and consistent training opportunities, the four foundations of learning become the focal point for educators with less regard paid to the pedagogical approaches of the document. An examination of these approaches supports the image of the educator as co-learner, researcher and innovator.
In the workshops that I do, I have suggested that these approaches are the tools of pedagogical leaders. I also spend time engaging in a clearest to muddiest exercise, inviting educators to place these six pedagogical approaches on a continuum that reflects their understanding. Across the province, the outcome appears to be relatively the same. Educators seem comfortable with what responsive practices means but see them mostly from the perspective of people rather than also including the environment and materials. Educators are clearer about what play and exploration are yet struggle with understanding inquiry. Educators seem to understand what it means to be a co-learner but if they are employing a theme approach it is difficult to take a co-learner pedagogical stance in reality. Inevitably, the muddy approaches are the environment as the third teacher, reflective practice, collaborative inquiry and pedagogical documentation. After every workshop, I am left wondering why aren’t all educators eager, excited and enthusiastic to keep learning so that what is muddy becomes clear?
If we embrace an image of ourselves engaging in a process of continuing, reflective and collaborative inquiry, change is possible. If we see ourselves as already knowing, we are rigid rather than dynamic thinkers. Rigid thinkers are unlikely to see themselves as learners whose primary task is to grow. Without teachers who are committed to growth, children are destined to have static and rather boring learning experiences. There won’t be innovation or even interest. To avoid this stagnation, early childhood educators need to be active learners. Too often, they only see professional learning from a sage on the stage perspective. They listen as an expert speaks. They need to recognize that professional learning can be self-directed and needs to be anything but passive.
In Ontario, the profession of early childhood education is regulated by the College of Early Childhood Educators, which has instituted a Continuous Professional Learning Program. It seems like every day, I read a post in various ECE Facebook groups where someone is rallying against the program, complaining of a lack time and funds to attend workshops. It appears to me, that there is a misunderstanding about what constitutes professional learning which does not have to only include workshop attendance. I would like to see professional learning to be about sharing stories of practice. If this is done within an atmosphere of critical reflection, it could be image altering. The concept of communities of practice arises from the work of Wenger (1998) where mutual engagement, joint enterprise, and shared repertoire “hold the key to real transformation” (p. 85). It is my hope that a community of practice will arise from the work that the York Region Nature Collaborative is engaged in especially as a result of this upcoming full-day professional experience – The Land as Our First Teacher: Exploring the Relationship between Indigenous Storytelling and Pedagogical Documentation. The establishment of communities of practice where teachers engage together in research can empower teachers to improve and avoid top-down models of professional development. The conceptualization of the teacher as collaborator and researcher reflects a theoretical shift from a view of learning as primarily individually centred to one that is fundamentally socially and culturally situated. There are multiple issues inherent with the use of social media but in this case, for early childhood educators, it can help support a community of learners who see themselves as researchers, rich in their capacity to be program innovators. In some municipalities in our province, there are communities of practice that meet in person on a regular basis. The College of Early Childhood Educators offers a wonderful resource on communities of practice. It would be the realization of a dream to see early childhood educators, on their own initiative meeting in these types of communities on-line or face to face. Rather than seeing the process of professional learning as bothersome and something to avoid, I hope more and more early childhood educators will begin to see themselves from a different view and embrace the image of teacher as learner, researcher and innovator. As Cindy Green, my critical friend and colleague wonders, perhaps it begins with ECEs reflecting on this question, “Am I proud to be practising as an early childhood educator”?