A critical reflective model to improve professional quality and competencies in early childhood organizations and in a context of diversity
by Ana del Barrio Saiz
Quality in Early Childhood
Childcare of high quality provides children with more opportunities in society. Conversely, low quality of childcare has mainly a negative influence on children living in poverty. How can we secure quality in early childhood institutions? Which professional competencies are needed in order to achieve this? How can training and education support professionals?
Educators are working in complex and diverse contexts. Educators deal with different family values, different values amongst colleagues and staff on a daily basis, as well as with complex changing policies regarding early childcare organizations. Consequently, practitioners can face conflicts with their own values and standards at these three levels (Anning, 2005): in the interaction with parents/families, in an attempt to unite their own pedagogical beliefs and those of the families, in the cooperation with colleagues and in implementing institutional policy or national standards. As the reality is complex, we must create a reflective and democratic community of professional learners (Urban 2006, Peeters, 2008), a community aware of the importance of developing a professional attitude, knowledge and competence towards diversity ‘as a natural part of life’ and equality, ‘ensuring equity in terms of access, participation and outcomes for all children and their families’ (diversity and equality definitions, DECET/ISSA Brochure, 2011).
Professional competencies are often seen as established standards to achieve. And professional development in early childhood is seen as part of individual development for educators. However, the international understanding on professionalism in early childhood is changing and new requirements are emerging: the professional should not only be learning individually but in interaction with the team, the whole organization and with the other parties involved (CORE 2011). This collective team learning takes place in professional learning communities (Verbiest, 2008) and critical learning communities, in which professionals can transform their practice through critical reflection (Whalley, 2001). A reflective attitude towards knowledge and practice is needed (Mac Naughton, 2005; Urban, 2008), as well as participation and a research attitude (Urban, 2008; Peeters, 2008a, b; Keulen, A. van et coll., to be published in 2012).
A critical reflective model
The new understanding on professionalism and the demands from the praxis to work on sustainable change within early childhood organizations brought us some challenging questions: How to create a critical learning community - focussing on social justice - at all levels in early childhood organizations? How to create space for personal and professional change within teams and with respect for diversity? How to create dialogue in contexts of diversity?
The model Permanent learning in teams emphasizes the educators’ reflection process, a shift from individual learning to collective learning and the necessity to involve all levels at early childhood organizations. The model was developed during a two-year action-training-research project conducted by Bureau MUTANT (2007-2008), a small Dutch independent agency that supports professionals and institutions in early childhood, welfare and healthcare with innovative methods, training and consulting. Respect for diversity is a key issue in all actions.
In the action–training–research project, the model ‘Permanent learning in teams’ was co-constructed with four childcare-providing organizations in the Eastern, Central and Western parts of the Netherlands. Three of them were situated in multicultural areas (van Keulen, 2010). In the project, 60 educators and 10 managers were trained for a period of 10 months.
Key elements of the model
In order to anchor and to secure sustainable learning in the project, interventions were planned in every section of the organizations:
- the teams of educators, including their team managers, followed a training course consisting of six sessions. The participants co-constructed several learning methods that were useful for sustainable learning;
- the team managers and coaches received feedback while exploring and co-constructing the new learning methods with their teams;
- the higher management and staff at the central level received support to develop plans for sustainable change and implementation in their organization;
- based on theory and research with regard to the reflective professional and the critical learning community (Korthagen, F. & Lagerwerf, B., 2008; Mac Naughton, 2005; Peeters, 2008a, b; Urban, 2008; Verbiest, 2008; Whalley, 2001), we distinguished three layers in the reflection process (van Keulen & del Barrio Saiz, 2010);
- self-reflection: about personal identity and the role of the professional;
- team-reflection: about the team and cooperation with other parties involved (teams, parents, children);
- critical-reflection: individually and as part of the team with the objective of creating social change at the childcare centre.
The key elements of reflective and critical learning communities (see references above) were also represented in the model ‘Permanent learning in teams. Reflective and critical learning communities’:
- learn from ‘within’ (valuing qualities, self-motivation, personal experiences and feelings of the professionals);
- are collaborative (stimulating the development of a collaborative attitude where open communication is valued and each voice is heard. Professionals learn with each other and from each other; they are aware of their interdependency in order to effectively deal with the challenges in daily praxis. The responsibility for the learning process is shared by all the stakeholders; participation of everyone is stimulated);
- are inquiry-oriented and dialogical (nurturing an inquiry-oriented attitude, where everybody is invited to ask critical questions and engage in dialogue in a safe environment);
- stimulate critical knowledge building together with parents, children and colleagues; a research attitude is promoted and disagreements are used as source of new knowledge;
- are oriented towards change, social justice and democratic values.
Based on these key elements, eight learning instruments were developed and co-constructed. As the learning instruments only have an optimal motivating effect when they are applied to something considered important and (an obvious) part of the job, we applied these with the cooperation of parents, with special attention to the diversity among parents (de Graaff & van Keulen, 2008).
The eight learning instruments that were developed are:
- Naming Qualities: Valuing, reflecting on and naming the professionals and parents’ core qualities;
- Asking Critical Questions: Valuing critical reflection and asking critical questions: how come that we act like we do? Why do we act the way we do? Who benefits? Could we do differently? How do we look at children and parents?
- Keeping a Learning Process Diary: Documenting the personal and team professional learning process in a learning process diary;
- Reflection on Thinking, Feeling and Willingness: Three sources of knowledge;
- Mapping the Context of the Childcare Centre: Encouraging and supporting contextual thinking/reflection/knowledge about the context of the childcare centre, the families and the colleagues;
- Formulating a Personal Challenge: Fine–tuning personal and professional goals with the objectives of the childcare organization;
- Cooperating with a Colleague: Carrying out assignments in cooperation with a colleague as a critical professional partner;
- A Contract of a Learning Community: Developing and concretely defining principles that describe how the team members wish to communicate with each other. Being committed in a team as a learning community.
Experiences and results
The eight learning instruments seem to have provided a specific and safe space where professional and personal development could take place along with team and organizational development. The co-construction of the learning instruments in the training and in practice contributed to strengthening the individual and team learning processes. It also led to more pleasure, enthusiasm and increased commitment towards the work of educators. The early childhood professionals were more willing to cooperate and contribute to collective tasks. They also felt a greater need to share information with each other. Sharing with colleagues increasingly became a regular part of their work. Some teams reported a collective feeling of togetherness, which was not present before the training.
‘Our team got closer and developed more support for each other... we wanted to develop the qualities of openness to new ideas, curiosity, positivity and directness.’
The new way of working was appreciated and at the same time the competence Critical reflection (DECET/ISSA Brochure, 2011) was improved at different levels in the childcare organizations. Practitioners and managers realized that they did not lean very often on their own qualities or those of other colleagues. Staff managers became aware of the importance of ‘walking the talk’:
‘If we ask educators to contact parents positively, then we must also have contact with them and with colleagues at the Central Office in a positive and constructive way’ (Staff Manager)
Educators were able to work on the competence Working towards social change (DECET/ISSA Brochure, 2011) by reflecting on the quality of their contact with parents. This had a positive impact on their new way of communicating with all the parents, especially with the ones with whom communication was not ideal, if it existed at all:
‘The question of how to deal with parents who do not conform to our ideal image is one that remains in my mind. Parents who rarely take the time to chat were not particularly appreciated by us. Since we started this project, we became aware of this. It is always important to see what qualities parents have, particularly parents with whom you have difficulties.’ (Educator)
A research attitude - as part of the competence Co-construction new practice and knowledge with children, parent and colleagues (DECET/ISSA Brochure, 2011) - was enabled in teams by working on several instruments: ‘Cooperation with a colleague as a critical friend’ and ‘reflecting on three sources of knowledge as thinking, feeling and willing’ provided educators with the possibility of reflecting on their practice together; they supported and learned from each other. With the learning instrument ‘formulating a personal challenge’ educators could explore individual targets and match them to professional and organizational objectives. The educators learned to formulate their own learning targets based on their questions and dilemmas and, systematically, to document their actions and results in a ‘Learning process diary’.
The educators worked on the competence Learning from disagreements (DECET/ISSA Brochure, 2011) by applying already known methods that support the cooperation of parents: for example, documentation of families (Doeleman, 2006), learning from conflicts (de Graaff, 2006b), and questionnaires to assess the diversity of parental participation (de Graaff, 2006a; de Graaff & van Keulen, 2008).
The competence Critical reflection (DECET/ISSA Brochure, 2011) also improved with the learning instrument ‘mapping the context of the childcare centre, families and colleagues’. Educators began to see a larger picture: the location and function of their own organization in its neighborhood. They were pleasantly surprised by the number of activities carried out in the vicinity. Through visual documentation, they engaged in critical reflection about the location of the childcare and the playground. The awareness of the context and home visits furthered cooperation with parents. They used the opportunity also to reflect on their professional role.
The developing of a Contract of a learning community enabled teams to explore (democratic) principles about the way they wanted to work together. This instrument is a good example of how to work on the competence Open communication and dialogue (DECET/ISSA Brochure, 2011). Educators had to learn to deal with emotions and thoughts related to own values. By coming together to define certain core principles – (e.g. we have respect for each other, we provide recognition and appreciation, we provide recognition for confidentiality, we encourage each other, everyone has a chance to speak, we all have our own responsibility, we try out new things), the teams created a safe place in which learning could take place.
Finally, the educators in this action research project – certified at a vocational training level in The Netherlands – were capable of self-reflection, critical reflection and reflection at a team level. However, two important dilemmas were faced during this project: The necessity to invest structural time within early childhood organizations to facilitate the reflection process, and the necessity to invest in team coaching (van Keulen, 2010). Organizations often try to introduce reflection as part of regular staff meetings, but this simply doesn’t work. As Whalley (2001) remarks: it is not possible to improve quality in early childhood institutions without devoting the requisite time needed to achieve this. Also, educators need coaching support to deal with their complex tasks; however, coaching is a neglected function in childcare organizations.
The project has been selected as a success story in the early childhood education and cares study of the global union federation Education International, executed by the University of Halle (Urban, 2009). In 2010, the experiences and the results of the project were described in a publication, which can be used for on-the-job learning courses for educators, as well as with students in professional training institutes (van Keulen and del Barrio Saiz, 2010). The book forms the basis for a nationally accredited in-service training program for educators and coaches. In 2012 two early child care providers are working with the model Permanent learning in teams as part of a national pilot project ‘Learning organisations in early childhood’ to improve quality in the sector.
What do these results and experiences imply for the training and education of professionals in early childhood education and childcare in Europe?
Teams of educators working as critical learning communities can make a significant contribution to the professionalization and democratization of early childhood educational practice. For this, structural support is needed; specifically, a systemic approach in pre-service and in-service training and coaching, participation in action research projects, multidisciplinary learning settings, more attention to (cultural, gender and intergenerational) diversity in teams and structural time to plan, reflect and document.
Training and education should focus on the following aspects:
Democratic values such as equality, respect of diversity and the right to participation: Educators need a safe learning environment to gain confidence and to freely express their opinions in order to engage in a dialogue with others who think differently. They need a safe space where democratic values are the basis of communication in order to share thoughts and feelings, to understand them better, and to reflect on the consequences of their way of thinking and acting in practice. Educators have to provide a safe space for children to learn, but they themselves also need a safe space.
Team cooperation and the development of a collaborative attitude: By stimulating learning with peers and colleagues as support systems, learning to reflect on their own role in daily praxis, their own way of interaction and communication with children, parents and other colleagues, learning from different qualities and ideas of colleagues and peers; and creating space to explore emotions and disagreements to better understand the praxis.
Empowerment of educators to become actors of change: Very often educators feel that they do not have the power to influence their praxis, because they are not involved in team, institutional or policy change decisions. Therefore, it will be necessary to promote action research, a participative method for change in daily praxis, through action, documentation and reflection. It is important to stimulate the development of a participative and research attitude where professionals dare to experiment with new behaviors, and to appreciate active participation and decision making of professionals within teams or peer groups.
The development of cultures of listening, valuing questions and critical reflection: Making possible to explore different values and to learn the value of different perspectives, valuing contextual thinking and holistic approaches, and promoting social engagement.
Preparation how to deal with uncertainty and complex situations in daily praxis.
Support a professional image of the early childhood profession: Educators are role models for children, are partners with parents in the education of children, and have many responsibilities as members of a professional team, centre and community. Educators have the potential to become actors of social change, provide that the required professional and structural support is given to them.
- CORE (2011). Competence Requirements in Early Childhood Education and Care. A Study for the European Commission Directorate-General for Education and Culture. University of East London an University of Gent.
- DECET/ISSA Brochure, (2011). Diversity and Social Inclusion - Exploring Competences for Professional Practice in Early Childhood Education and Care - developed and published jointly by DECET and ISSA.
- Doeleman, W. (2006) Documentation of Families: using visual material to work on an open and respectful climate inchild-care centres and (pre)schools. Amsterdam: SWP.
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- Whalley, M. (2001) Working as a Team, in G. Pugh (Ed.) Contemporary Issues in the Early Years: working collaboratively for children, 3rd edn. London: Sage.
Ana del Barrio Saiz, developmental psychologist, has been working since 1996 at her own consultancy in the Netherlands (focusing on Respect for Diversity and supporting teams of educators to improve quality within organizations in early childhood.