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This chapter aims to provide an outline of the theoretical and methodological framework that underpins this study in order to address the research questions which formulate the hypothesis of the study. This is followed by a discussion of the processes involved for selecting the participants and the data collection procedures used that were based on a small-scale qualitative study. The chapter concludes by discussing ethical issues and issues of reliability and validity.
This study aims to establish the type of curriculum experiences local kindergarten children are currently exposed to and how these are supporting their development. Moreover, it aims to critically anaylse how a curriculum, that is based on a social pedagogical perspective, can be put into practice while respecting the local culture and at the same time empowering children and does justice for them. The following research questions which were inspired by Tyler's (1949 in Cohen et al., 2000) rationale of the curriculum, eminate from the study:
- What are the key elements, values and purposes of the local early years curriculum experiences?
- What is the methodology used in local kindergarten settings?
- What perceptions and philosphies guide the kindergarten assistants in their choice of activities and experiences that they expose children to?
- What type of curriculum can be suggested for the Maltese Early years context?
The hypothesis of the study claims that a social pedagogical curriculum provides children with opportunities to co-construct knowledge through relationships with others and the environment. In a process of learning through play, children have opportunities to express themselves freely, to make choices and to take decisions that will help them become independent learners. It is also hypothesised that the opposing pre-primary approach produces a deficient notion of the child who is subsequently filled with knowledge, skills and dominant cultural values and trained to conform in preparation for compulsory schooling.
Research within the local kindergarten context suggests that a pre-primary approach guides early childhood practice where frequently children are exposed to methodological practices that are not developmentally appropriate (MEYE, 2006). Evidence suggests that within some of kindergarten centres:
- the main focus is to prepare children for formal schooling
- there is an emphasis on the mechanics of reading and writing
- settings who do not expose children to literacy and numeracy activities are regarded as inferior
(MEYE, 2006; Sollars et al., 2000; Sollars, 2003)
The overall hypothesis of the study claims that the practised school-readiness approach limits the children's experiences, does not fulfil their holistic needs and hampers the development of their agency. In view of this, the current research aims to investigate how curricular practices that build on a socio-cultural approach can be more beneficial for children and how these can be recommended and implemented within the highly structured local kindergarten settings.
The Theoretical Framework Of The study: A Critical Research Stance
The study is framed by a paradigm of critical educational theory which interweaves reflection with theory and practice (Cohen, et al., 2000). This is influenced by the work and ideology critique of Habermas (1968) where through authentic interaction and mutual understanding (Kemmis & McTaggart, 2005), knowledge under the forms of theory and curricula is explained and interpreted to suggest new ways of social transformation of the early years' curriculum.
The researcher within this study takes the role of an interpretative and critical ‘bricoleur' (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005a:4) where different tools, strategies and modes of representation and interpretation will be flexibly used to ‘montage' (ibid) and fit together a complex situation in a multi-method way that provides an emergent construction of a new picture. From a post-modern, interpretative perspective, the subjective interpretation of the local world is created through shared understanding (Kincheloe & McLaren 2005; Roberts-Holmes, 2005; Cohen et al., 2000) where the researcher is aware that research is an interactive process shaped by personal history, identity, and schema as well as by those being observed (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005a) which constantly changes the study. Moreover, based on the notion that a critical ‘bricoleur' is interested in hermeneutics and in understanding others' perspectives and views, an exposure of the ideological interests at work in curricula is created to recommend a shift from a controlled system towards a more democratic environment (Cohen et al., 2000).
Taking a socio-cultural perspective, the aim of critical researcher within this study, is to analyse and understand situations of how children learn in socially and culturally constructed contexts, and to come up with new political suggestions that call on the construction, transformation and change of knowledge and curricula, and eventually of people and society itself (Kincheloe, & McLaren, 2005; Rhedding-Jones, 2005; Roberts-Holmes, 2005; Peters, Lankshear, & Olssen, 2003; Robson, 2002; Cohen, et al., 2000; Young, 1992). This is developed through Habermas' (1972 as cited in Cohen et al., 2000) four stages of critical theory, that includes a description and interpretation of an existing practice, an analysis of the reasons that brought the current situation, to providing recommendations for bringing change to the situation and an evaluation of the changes adopted.
The First Two Stages: Evaluating The Present Practice And Analysing The Reasons That Brought The Existing Situation
The first stage of Habermas' ideology (Cohen et al., 2000), involves an identification, description and an interpretation of the present curriculum situation. In this study this is inherently linked with the second stage of critical theorising, which involves the confrontation and analysis of the reasons that brought the existing situation. Connecting ontological and epistemological beliefs with methodology, the study interweaves critical theory with qualitative discourses that take a constructivist perspective (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005a; 2005b; Kincheloe, & McLaren, 2005; Robson, 2002), where the first stage of the study is carried through an interplay of a naturalistic, qualitative aspect that takes an interpretive research tradition. Similar to critical analysis, qualitative research aims to transform the practice through creating an interdisciplinary methodology that includes observing and interpreting a shared cultural understanding of the experiences where the relationship between the individuals, their contexts, and their construction of meanings and definitions of their own world is regarded as central and dynamic (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005a; Kincheloe, & McLaren, 2005; Rhedding-Jones, 2005; Roberts-Holmes, 2005; Clough & Nutbrown, 2002; Robson, 2002; Hughes, 2001). Within this study, this is developed through observing, interviewing and analysing the children's and adults' experiences, relationships and perceptions in a local kindergarten setting to provide the study with data about the type of curriculum that is being practised in the early years. Linking to Habermas' second stage, the findings are intertwined with an analysis and evaluation of what issues might have contributed and shaped the current situation where historical and educational discourses are linked to cultural, economical and socio-political decisions.
The Third And Fourth Stages: Suggestions For Transformation
The study then evolves to the third and fourth stages which are intrinsically linked to provide suggestions for transformation and change in practice. Taking the local history, context, and perceptions, vis-à-vis the early childhood curriculum, the study provides recommendations that are based on the nine principles previously analysed, where an agenda for developing and implementing a new curriculum for the local context is created. Within the limitations of the study, the fourth stage of Habermas' theory that includes the implementation and evaluation of the recommendations could not be fully developed. However, the aspiration of this study is that the provided suggestions for a transformation of the early childhood curriculum in practice will eventually be taken up by the respective stakeholders.
Data Sources: The participants
The study was conducted in a state, co-ed primary school in the northern part of the island. Four kindergarten groups, two from each level, out of a cohort of ten, were chosen on the basis of their interests and willingness to partake in the study. Participants included fifty-nine, 3-year old children at K1 level and thirty-seven, 4-year olds at K2 level together with their KGAs as well as the Head of School. The aim of choosing classes of children from different ages and hence different levels within the system was to endow the study with differences in the curriculum practiced and the type of activities experienced by the children. The KGAs who were all female, differed in their level of training, experience and age where those who had less training, had more years of experience.
The Design Of The Study: Data Collection And Triangulation
A variety of empirical material and multiple sources were used to obtain methodological triangulation of data to analyse the multidimensionality of the setting (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005a; Kincheloe, & McLaren, 2005; Robson, 2002; Cohen et al., 2000). Data for the research were collected through three measures that included narrative observations, interviews and class screening tests.
Naturalistic, narrative observations (Robson, 2002; Cohen et al., 2000), where used as the main method of data collection which provided the study with an in-depth analysis of the daily experiences children were exposed to. This was triangulated with data obtained from interviews held with the adults, to provide the study with their perceptions and experiences of curricular planning and practice. The cross-checking of data helped to analyse the curriculum in practice from a different perspective as well as to give voice to the different stakeholders (Bell, 2005). After the first few observations a need for more specific tests that could provide further information about the effect of the activities, the environment and the intervention of the adult on the children, was felt. Subsequently, ‘The Process-oriented Child-Monitoring System for Young Children, Stage: Class Screening' (Laevers, Vandenbussche, Kog, & Depondt, 2006) was used to provide the study with an indication of the level of well-being and involvement that pertained in the different classes. Moreover, an analysis of the classroom environment was carried through an adapted test from the ‘Sics, Ziko' (Laevers, 2005c) ‘Well-being and Involvement in Care Settings: A Process-oriented Self-evaluation Instrument for Care Settings' which provided the study with an insight of the quality and effects of the environment on the level of participation and the learning and play processes. The following sections will discuss and analyse the measures and procedures used for the administration of data.
Observations: Using Semi-Structured Procedures
The primary source of data collection was through semi-structured observations (Edwards, 2001; Hughes, 2001; Cohen et al., 2000), that fit well within a socio-cultural perspective as a way to study experiences (Tudge & Hogan, 2005), where open-ended, narrative in situ field notes and thick descriptive notes of events were kept. These also captured non-verbal and ad verbatim communication between the children and the adults, thus, providing the study with invaluable contextualised evidence of the children's curricular experiences.
Design And Administration Of Narrative Observations
The aim of the observations was to collect data about the children's curricular experiences, the type of interaction that took place, and the resources they were exposed to. The observation was guided by the nine principles that were identified from the five curriculum outlines (OECD, 2004), which constantly were kept into perspective. Data was recorded in a descriptive way, where all the events that took place within each kindergarten setting were recorded. Observations were held randomly on a rotation basis in each of the four classes. These were carried over a span of two months which provided the study with in-depth information of the KGAs ways and notions of planning and implementation of the curriculum. The researcher observed each class for three typical days for sixteen and a half hours, to a total of sixty-six hours spent in the four classes. During the observations, the observer sat in a corner of the class so as not to affect the normal routine while records were kept on a laptop.
As a way of triangulating data, semi-structured interviews, which are a basic method of data collection (Fontana & Frey, 2005) that lend themselves very well to support and compliment other methods of research in a multi-method approach (Robson, 2002), were used to interview the KGAs and the Head of School (Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007; Fontana & Frey, 2005; Cannold, 2001). The aim of the interviews was to acquire information about the adults' experiences, planning, perceptions and philosophy of the curriculum.
Design And Administration Of Interviews
As Cohen et al., (2000) claim, frequently the framework of the interview topics and format of questions are shaped by and emerge from the observations; this was the case with the interview questions of the study. However, these were also drawn upon the nine principles that were derived from the five curriculum outlines (OECD, 2004), which helped to translate the objective of the research into questions to make up the main body of the interview (Cohen et al, 2000).
The choice of the interview rested on a semi-structured layout, where through a selection of predetermined topics and a set of fifty-two questions, the framework of the interview was established (Bell, 2005). These guided the interview but did not dictate the path (Clough & Nutbrown, 2002) where the researcher was flexible to reshape the questions, prompt and probe, modify the sequence and wording as necessary in order to help the participants clarify and expand on their answers while remaining open to unpredictable information or points of discussion (Bell, 2005; Siraj-Blatchford & Siraj-Blatchford, 2001a; Lankshear & Knobel, 2004; Robson, 2002; Cohen et al., 2000). The same framework of questions used for the KGAs was kept for the interview held with the Head of School where however, some questions were modified and others were left out or added to make the questions more relevant for an administrative post.
Through the face-to-face verbal interchange with the adults, the interviews took shape of conversations based on a balanced rapport (Fontana & Frey, 2005) where the positive relationship established in the previous weeks was used to help the interviewees feel comfortable in the situation. At the same time, the interviewer was directive and impersonal in providing structure to ensure that the interview was concise and productive in trying to elicit the participants' subjective point of view (Cannold, 2001). Each interview took roughly two hours to a total of ten hours that were carried over three days. Full record of the interviews was kept where the researcher took ad verbatim notes of what was communicated. Although the questions were written in English these were translated and the conversation took place in Maltese as this was the language with which all the adults felt at ease to communicate with.
With an administration and analysis manual and having been tried, tested and refined, tests are frequently objective and therefore, are reliable and valid (Cohen et al., 2000). A criterion-referenced test, similar to those used in the study, requires that children fulfil a given set of criteria or to reach a predefined standard or outcome rather than be compared against each other (ibid).
Design And Administration Of ‘The Process-Oriented Child Monitoring System For Young Children'
‘The Process-oriented Child Monitoring System for Young Children' developed by Laevers et al., (2006), is based on the process variables of involvement and well-being and has the aim to get an insight of the quality within educational settings in relation to the children's behaviour to support educators in their analysis of the class. For the purpose of this study the ‘Stage1: Class screening, Variant A' (ibid) was used. The core of this class screening test includes a three-levelled rating scale where for each individual child the researcher indicates whether s/he has a low, medium or high degree level of involvement and well-being by circling the relevant indicator.
The mentioned screening test was carried on four separate days, once for each group of children where each child was tested. Forty-one, 3-year old and twenty-seven, 4-year old children, to a total of sixty-eight participated in the screening test. Each child was observed for around 5 - 10 minutes and scored in terms of their level of involvement and well-being. A second observation was carried later on during the same day to confirm or amend the score.
Design And Administration Of ‘The Evaluative Instrument For Kindergarten Classes'
As explained by Cohen et al., (2000) a published test can only be used if it demonstrates fitness for purpose. After observing and analysing the approach used, the group climate, and the affect of the environment and its organisation, it was concluded that a test needed to be devised in order to evaluate these criteria. Reference was made to Laevers'(2005c) ‘Sics (Ziko) Well-being and Involvement in Care: A Process-oriented Self-Evaluation Instrument for Care Settings, Stage 3' format, which is a criterion-test and a tool for reflection that helps educators to gain a better insight on what they can improve within their setting. The devised test which for the purpose of this study was called ‘The Evaluative Instrument for Kindergarten Classes', included the same five components as Laevers' (2005c) ‘Sics' test, and was divided into ten sections with thirty-seven statements which were modified to fit the purpose. These were scored against a five-point rating scale ranging on a continuum. The test was carried twice for each kindergarten classroom on the last day of observation, where data were recorded on the score sheet provided with a levelled rating scale.
The process of analysing qualitative data which starts by collecting raw information of what the participants do and say in their naturalistic, everyday settings, depends on the focus of the research, the intended outcomes, as well as on the sources and the way data is collected (Aubrey, David, Godfrey, & Thompson, 2000). The analysis process continued with processing the combined evidence (Edwards, 2001; Mac Naughton & Rolfe, 2001) and making sense of the data collected, where categories were developed to organise the information into prepared key themes and concepts. Description notes, content analysis and coding of field notes, were used to retain the complexity and diversity of the data and to analyse the qualitative elements of the research. The data analysed was organised around the nine common curricular principles as identified from the five curriculum outlines (OECD, 2004). However, these did not rigidly determine the results and while categorizing the data, the researcher was also guided by curricular themes that emerged from the three sources of data collection. The analysis was followed by translating, interpreting and explaining the data into findings. This was done by funnelling, reducing and summarising the data into results that provided a coherent account of the social encounters and the reason of how, why and what happened in the different situations and settings (Hammersley, & Atkinson, 2007; Lankshear, & Knobel, 2004; Robson, 2002; Aubrey et al., 2000; Cohen et al., 2000).
Reliability And Validity
Validity in qualitative research methods is acquired when the instruments and data sources used, measure what they were supposed to measure (Bell, 2005). Relying on the process of interpretation, validity is also achieved by providing authentic findings and interpreting them in a responsible way (Guba & Lincoln, 2005; Rhedding-Jones, 2005). Deep descriptive and narrative forms of social interaction and the truthful insight of the participants' perceptions and their everyday experiences (Danaher & Briod, 2005; Siraj-Blatchford & Siraj-Blatchford, 2001b), that were gathered through the triangulation of data collected, increased the wealth of information available and provided the study with valid evidence and minimised the bias (Hutchinson, 2005) to meet validity and reliability criteria.
In qualitative data, the subjectivity of the participants, their opinions, attitudes and perspectives contribute to a degree of bias. Validity then should be seen as a matter of minimizing invalidity and maximizing validity (Cohen et al., 2000), by giving equal voice to the participants whose personal involvement and in-depth responses, together with a triangulation of data (Hughes, 2001) provide sufficient level of validity and reliability in interviews (Cohen et al., 2000). This was acquired by asking different questions within the same interview, in order to analyze whether the responses are consistent, accurate and predictable and also by cross-checking the responses of the participants (Roberts-Holmes, 2005).
Reliability is created when a measurement that is repeated under similar conditions produces similar results (Bell, 2005; Aubrey et al., 2000; Cohen et al., 2000). This was attained and cross-validated by the prolonged and repeated observations within the same four classes where the same structure was used. In the semi-structured interviews, reliability was achieved through using the same guided topics and the same set of questions which were asked to the different participants. The fact that screening tests were already tried and tested in similar conditions made them a valid and reliable instrument for measuring involvement and well-being.
One of the ethical considerations that a researcher has to meet when conducting a study is to have a valid research design (Lankshear & Knobel, 2004). This is achieved by thinking through the process in order to eliminate any unethical insensitivities and by establishing a balance between the demands placed by the researcher against the rights of the subjects (Aubrey et al., 2000; Cohen et al., 2000). It was considered that although the observations and interview questions might have initially made the KGAs feel somewhat uneasy with a more-knowledgeable observer in class, on the other hand they benefited from being part of the study by sharing their perceptions, experiences and knowledge, where the KGAs were more than willing to participate as they felt that their voice was not heard enough in the local scenario. This placed more responsibility on the researcher to present a loyal and truthful analysis of the findings.
As claimed by various scholars (Hammersley, & Atkinson, 2007; Alderson, 2005; Christians, 2005; Fontana, & Frey, 2005; Roberts-Holmes, 2005; Lankshear, & Knobel, 2004; Coady, 2001; Mac Naughton & Rolfe, 2001; Cohen et al., 2000), ensuring that the study is in conformity with ethical standards is of paramount importance. Access from the respective gate-keepers, and informed consent based on comprehensive and accurate information from the participants was acquired, where as Coady, (2001) suggests, adults were informed of the nature of research. The consent of parents and guardians was asked on behalf of the children observed, who were also asked to give their personal assent to take part in the research (Alderson, 2005; Robson, 2002; Coady, 2001; Siraj-Blatchford & Siraj-Blatchford, 2001b).
Taking the small size of the country, it was regarded as crucial to ensure and respect confidentiality where specific information about the background of the setting and information provided by the participants was concealed behind anonymity so that neither the school nor the participants would be traceable or identifiable in order to respect and preserve their identity, dignity and privacy (Christians, 2005; Cohen et al., 2000; Hill, 2005).
The analysis of the study should be deception free (Bae, 2005; Christians, 2005) where ethical correctness lies within the researcher's responsibility to collect data in an accurate and sensitive manner. Ethical sensitivity lies also in the investigation of the study where the researcher has to reflect whether the analysis projects the truth or is skewed in a way that suits the study. Throughout the analysis the researcher tried to be transparent in the ways the data was interpreted, validated and analysed where she recognised areas of potential bias (Aubrey et al., 2000) and took a critical perspective on his/her own feelings, actions and analytical constructs.
This chapter described the theoretical framework that underpins the study which is based on a critical educational theory that embeds an interpretative qualitative method of research design. Description of the research process, measures, procedures and sample used in the data collection process, provided the study with triangulation of data. The next chapter presents an analysis of the findings of how and to what extent can the nine curricular principles be implemented within the local context.
Towards developing an early years curriculum framework for the Maltese context
Primary state schools, which usually incorporate the kindergarten classes, are funded by the state and are free for all children between 3 - 11 years old from EU countries.
Around two hundred children aged 3 and 4 years old attended the kindergarten centre of the study from a total of seven hundred children who attended the primary school.
The adult-child ratio in a K1 (3-years old) class is of 1:15 while for K2 (4-year olds) it is 1: 20. As there was lack of physical space available within the school, 2 groups of 15 children were accommodated into one classroom together with two KGAs.
For the purpose of the study the four groups of children are going to be identified as K1.1 and K1.2 for the two groups of K1 (Kinder level 1 for children aged 3 years old), and K2.1 and K2.2 for the two groups of K2 children (Kinder level 2 for children aged 4 years old).
Refer to Appendix 2: Table 1 for a distribution of the children by group and age.
Appendix 2: Table 2 illustrates details about the training and experience of the KGAs and the Head of School. The KGAs role varies from planning and delivering the activities, managing the classrooms and caring for the children.
Appendix 2: Table 3 provides a schedule of the data collection.
A sample of the layout of the observation sheet is found in Appendix 3: Table 1.
Appendix 2: Table 4 shows information about the day and duration of observations in each class.
Appendix 4 illustrates a copy of the interview questions designed for the KGAs, followed by the one designed for the Head of School.
The answers provided by the adults were given in a mixture of Maltese and English. For the purpose of the study, the replies were translated into English by the researcher.
This test is divided into three columns, with the first including a list of names of the children in the class, the second looks at the children's state of well-being and the third indicates the level of involvement.
In a low level of well-being children are usually unhappy, look tense, are not really aware of what they are doing, show an indication of absent-mindedness, or wander around aimlessly. Children who score at a medium level of involvement, are frequently occupied in activities but are not involved deeply and consequently are not affected by what they are doing but can be distracted easily. This is mirrored through signs of emotional discomfort that are blended with positive sigs of well-being or a neutral impression. A high- level of well-being is identified when children show full vitality, are relaxed, enjoy what they are doing, and show a fair amount of self-confidence that is illustrated by positive reactions towards learning where children are nearly always intensely and enthusiastically engaged in what they are doing and are absorbed in it, while they show an eagerness to learn and move from one activity to another.
Refer to Appendix 5: Table 1 for a copy of The Evaluative Instrument for Kindergarten Classes.
Level 1 indicates a very low or none level of participation or evidence of the statement while level 5 demonstrates a high level of activity.
Refer to Appendix 2: Table 3 for a schedule of the data collection that indicates the dates of the screening tests.