Role of The Early Years Practitioner in Learning

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Background:

General Introduction to Topic: This study is two fold; firstly it relates to a personal interest as an early years practitioner and secondly a professional resolution to understand the role of the practitioner and the influence the individual can have on children’s learning.

For effective learning within early years settings, identification of how the practitioner affects children’s learning needs to be recognised (Rodd, 2000:7). How the practitioner can influence the behaviour of others, particularly staff and children, to contribute to a creative early childhood programme. It is paramount the practitioners work collaboratively together within the same organisational goals to create a community enriching children’s personal growth and progress, which enhances the practitioners’ expectations and individual standards (Rodd, 2000:8). I feel passionate concerning the recognition of the practitioner’s role influencing on children’s learning and the factors that may contribute to this.

Within the educational institution, the power of success of the student relies on the strength of the curriculum. The content of the curriculum has to entice and engage the learner, who will respond with motivation and focus. A poor, unsuccessful curriculum, is one that is unchanged over years, and will suffer unless new educationalist are pro-active in bringing current trends into play, which is normally the case. New fresh ideas and approaches to old problems bring new life into any task, for a synthesis of theory and practice is necessary because theory without practice is dead, whilst practice without theory has no direction (Bruce, 1987).

The complexity involved in learning is discussed and covered by many, and the direction of improvement is always under investigation. In 2005, the Government announced plans to merge the Birth To Three Matters Framework and the Foundation Stage, to form a single Early Years Foundation Stage covering care, learning and development in all early years settings from birth to age five. (Literacy Trust, 2006) Can this produce the desired effect on learning. There are several different styles of learning which are examined here and aspects are highlighted, including the term Learning Power (Deakin Crick et al, 2002) which sets out to explain with extensive research, observation and experimentation that a series of unique dimensions exist.

These dimensions are Changing and learning

Creativity

Critical curiosity

Fragility of dependence

Learning relationships

Meaning and making

Strategic awareness

From these dimensions and their descriptions resulted a useful language, one for the ‘naming of something’ that fills a gap within education to provide an excellent dialog of the quality between teachers and their pupils. By successful inclusion this language could enhance the learning power of the pupil by the development of self-awareness; to encourage and produce responsibility for one’s own learning; and to ultimately improve and support all the relationships of learning and assessment.

Research for this whole study involved investigating current policy and identifying up-to-date literature. Conducting this research I discovered a gap in literature concerning the specifics in my study. Examining books, journals, articles and Internet websites for archive information relating to the practitioner’s role I discovered limited data that discusses this issue. I decided to analyse the factors that can contribute to the practitioner’s role and how it has shaped the modern early years practitioner. I was interested in how the role has developed and what shaped the 21st century practitioner, this lead to the factors that attribute to this evolvement.

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Factors that may influence a Practitioners Role:

  • How the practitioner’s role has developed
  • Type of Setting; impact on practitioner’s role effecting children’s learning
  • Age and Experience of Practitioner; whether this has any bearing
  • Government Policy; the changes effecting a practitioner’s role

As my study became broader I explored factors such as the shaping of early years practitioner’s and what contributed to this, became as important as the original research question. As I researched my aims became defined, breaking down the elements to reach clear objectives for each aim.

Aims:

The principle aims of this research are:

  • To analyse the role of the early years practitioner in relation to children’s learning.
  • Explore a range of early years practitioners.
  • Investigate what they do and determine whether their role is the same or diverse in the context of various settings.
  • Examine how the profession has developed.
  • Analyse Government Policy to determine whether this affects the practitioners’ role.

The aims are intended to provide a broad indication of the purpose of the research, (Fitzpatrick, 1998:153). To clarify the criteria I aim to determine precise statements of intent by sub-dividing the aims into objectives, as follows.

Objectives:

  1. To conduct in depth, semi-structured interviews with a sample of 12 practitioners who have worked for at least 2 years (this is due to practitioner’s requiring the experience in order to respond to questions relating to their role).
  1. To conduct this research using practitioners of varying age and experience to determine whether these variables have any bearing on practitioners influence on children’s learning.
  1. To investigate a range of settings; High Scope, Montessori and The Foundation Stage to determine whether the settings curriculum model influences learning and changes the practitioner’s role.
  1. Investigate the changing role of the Early Years practitioner. Reflecting on historical and contemporary issues.
  1. Reflect on Early Years policy and practitioners role.

Research Design:

Method and Methodology: To indicate the practical ways in which my research project will be organised, including an impartial appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses that may arise. Within my study I aim to put strategies into place that will minimize the disadvantages for the methodology used and to enhance the advantages (Oliver, 2004:135).

I plan to carry out a study involving 12 participants, who work within varied early years provisions; these participants must have at least two years post qualification experience. I have chosen this length of service to establish realistic expectations and feelings of individual’s. The provisions must be varied therefore I have chosen three separate settings; High/Scope, Montessori and The Foundation Stage (learning through play), within these provisions I aim to use in-depth, face-to-face interviewing of four practitioner’s conducted at their settings. This method is appropriate as it allows for flexibility (Robson, 2002:278) and freedom with responses. Using semi-structured questions including some structured questions, such as, standard factual material. An additional reason for using a qualitative method is that individual’s insight of a particular workplace can be analysed[1]. The disadvantages are numerous; one example is the reliability of the participant’s responses and the lack of standardisation that will inevitability arise with a semi-structured interview technique.

I plan to contact the selected settings asking for permission to conduct in-depth interviews explaining the reasons for the study. To explain the reasons for the research within the setting, acknowledging the interviewee’s sense of comfort in a familiar environment. It may relevant to send a sample of the questions to allow the participants to prepare.

After the interviews and data collected and transcribed, the analysis begins. The use of content analysis may be a worthwhile method for its effectiveness when examining text materials[2]. However, there are advantages and disadvantages. Advantages include; the data is fixed and allows for re-analysis and reliability checks. Disadvantages include; limited data may be difficult to assess as the participants are casual acquaintances and therefore responses may only be reflections of an individual (Robson, 2004:358).

Another method is using a quantitative strategy after gathering the data, placing gathered information into charts, graphs etc to determine the percentage of same responses. This makes research data manageable and easy to read, in essence using methodological triangulation; combining qualitative and quantitative approaches[3]. I am aware of various epistemological positions that I could adopt reflecting a different approach to the research question (Cuba et al, 1994:99), however, these methods appear appropriate and suitable to the research question.

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Literature Review:

Although the study being conducted is fairly localised, this strengthens the research for the widening debate for exploration of the significance of the study (Oliver, 2004:98); for example, investigating Government policy and its impact on practitioner’s role. The literature is relevant to the project to make it easier to read I have sub-divided it into categories:

  • The Role of The Practitioner
  • Curriculum / Learning and Education
  • Theorists

The Role of the Practitioner

I found limited literature that dealt with the issue of the practitioner’s role in children’s education as a result I expanded my research[4]. Examining the books available (Rodd, 2000:9) suggests there is limited literature on the practical application of a practitioner’s role. This lack of information is important in relation to understanding the early childhood context and the practitioner’s role within it. The limitations in current literature need to be explored rather than omitted[5]. By this statement Rodd (2000:9) implies the role is an important one in shaping children’s learning. In agreement, Riley (2004:24) suggests, practitioner’s interaction levels are of the prime importance in children’s learning[6]. This literature signifies the importance of the practitioner’s role when involved in children’s learning. Both books detail the positive aspects of practitioner’s involvement, such as developing curriculum practice to allow spontaneous learning and free choice. Riley (2004:24) compares her findings to another study (Tizard and Hughes, 1984 as cited in Riley, 2004:24) where supporting open-ended questions provide a framework for conversation with the child. The importance of the practitioner’s role is also emphasised in (Manning-Morton et al, 2003:155) who suggest, the practitioner has a crucial role in children’s learning[7].

This application of the practitioner is quite varied including taking on the role of psychologist, for many of the assessments made with regard to entry into the present Foundation Stage is by observation.

Curriculum / Learning and Education

The second category focuses on the curriculum and the part the practitioner plays in successful implementation[8] without this a stimulating environment is not fostered and therefore hinders children’s learning. In summary the literature details the responsibility the practitioner has in shaping children’s learning in meaningful contexts that are appropriate and suitable. The authors discuss the importance of multi-professional collaboration[9]. This signifies the importance of practitioner’s working together to create an environment that enriches children’s lives. With practitioner’s that are motivational in delivering an effective learning environment supporting children to reach their full potential now that will carry on through the years, or in other words to start the pathway for Lifelong Learning. The responsibility of implementing a successful learning programme depends not just on the practitioner, nurturing minds, having a positive effect[10]. The literature supports the practitioner’s intervention for effective learning, where situations and surrounding play an important part.

The differences in our situations and surroundings that we live in are factors that influence our quality and quantity of our learning process, and this process encompasses social, moral and academic learning. (Child, 1997)

This effective learning process of Lifelong Learning, was brought into the open through employment and employers throughout the last decade of the 20th Century where changes of technology and cultural issues came about in the workplace (Crompton, Gallio, Purcell, 1996). To begin with, in 1996, the European Year of Lifelong Learning, the British government published a Policy Framework for Lifetime Learning (DfEE, 1996). Enhanced by the Fryer Report (National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning (NAGCELL) in 1997), and which surprisingly was omitted from the Dearing Report (NCIHE 1997) as sanctioned by the government with National Higher Education. Although well criticised, the report contained recommendations and targets for education and training that set out to motivate and enable learners to develop and benefit in society. Overall it outlined the aims to be sustainable, and to finally shape a democratic path. In parallel to all this was a negative that was highlighted by Elliott (1999) who stated that educationalists and the policy makers had on occasions ‘hijacked’ the phrase Lifelong Learning for other reasons. Reasons which came out from their own agendas, producing a system of their self-interest which resulted in being an obstacle and destructive to learning.

The learning process of development has been under investigation for many years. The British Cohort Study (BCS70) as far back as 1970 confirmed that a pre-school program generally increased cognitive attainment for children of 5 years of age. Yet did not prove a great difference within disadvantaged children (Osborne & Millbank, 1987). Research also found that the social adjustment and language was poor at the age of 5, and also showed that inferior reading skills were present at the age of 11. Feinstein et al (1998) showed that in education during the years of 1962-1973 the pre-school contribution made no improvement to children entering secondary school. Now some thirty years on pre-school is taken as an important part of amongst others learning the social skills to prepare for formal education.

Comparing types of provision, such as Montessori and High/Scope was by way of literature and via Internet websites[11]. Analysing these became a framework for an alternative curriculum implementation, detailing the practitioner’s role and the methods used for a successful ethos. The High/Scope regime is an “active learning” educational approach[12], the child’s interests and choices are at the heart of the programme, where the central model of learning is the ‘plan, do and review’ cycle.

The High/Scope educational approach for infant-toddler, preschool, elementary, and youth programs is a set of guiding principles and practices that adults follow as they work with and care for children and youth. These principles are intended as an “open framework” that teams of adults are free to adapt to the special needs and conditions of their group, their setting, and their community. “Active learning” — the belief that children learn best through active experiences with people, materials, events and ideas, rather than through direct teaching or sequenced exercises — is a central tenet of the High/Scope approach for all age levels.

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(High/Scope, 2005)

They construct their own knowledge through interactions, planning their activities for the day in a small group with a teacher or ‘educator’. Each small group will have a ‘keyworker’ a member of staff assigned full time to them, so although they work with different adults, the children in the group have the security of a central relationship. Later in the day the whole group will review their progress, and as language is central to learning, so children describing both plans and activities to each other becomes very beneficial.

So with the whole group being involved in undertaking the first steps in the learning process, out of high-quality early years environment come the development of feelings for high self-esteem, with high-aspirations and secure feelings of self-efficiency. Believing in their own capability to start solving problems, to understand new ideas, and develop new skills. The result being, that the children feel in control of their environment and grow in confidence with their abilities. This pattern continues in focused adult/child and child/child conversations, placing the responsibility very much on the individual child for their own learning, whilst the practitioner’s offer physical, emotional, and intellectual support. So taking on Vygotsky’s notion of ‘effective instruction within the zone of proximal development’ (1993, p.36).

Summarising the Montessori method this includes education of the senses; the aim is two-fold, biological and social[13]. The Montessori environment is solely linked with natural objects for children to explore and investigate in their first seven years. The practitioner’s role is to support children within their access of objects and environment. The DfES Foundation Stage ethos focuses on learning through play and learning intentions to support children through stages of achievements. The practitioner’s role is to support children’s progress through each stage by implementing activities and opportunities to extend their learning through a play environment. Each curriculum requires the practitioner to be motivational, enthusiastic and knowledgeable in their field.

In 1998 the introduction of a National Literacy Strategy (NLS) for school years 1-6 was undertaken, and with it came considerable pressure being placed on schools to implement this program, following which most primary schools have continued to adopt it. The National Literacy Strategy (NLS) has a central core, which is the framework for teaching that covers the statutory requirements in reading and writing within the National Curriculum. The school curriculum comprises of all learning and other experiences that each school will plan for its pupils, and the National Curriculum is an important element of that school curriculum. The NLS provides a framework of pre-specified objectives that revolve around: text, sentence and word level work which are delivered via a daily structured hour long session, which is termed ‘Literacy Hour’. Following this introduction Primary teachers are now urged to support and conform with this prescribed teaching pattern, in fact practitioner’s are now being told not only what to teach, but also how to teach it.

‘Education influences and reflects the values of society, and the kind of society we want to be. It is important therefore, to recognize a broad set of common values and purposes that underpin the school curriculum and the work in schools.

If schools are to respond effectively to those values and purposes, they need to work in collaboration with families and the local community, including church and voluntary groups, local agencies and business, in seeking to achieve two broad aims through the curriculum. These aims provide an essential context within which schools develop their own curriculum, and are outlined as follows:

Firstly the school curriculum should aim to provide opportunities for all pupils to learn and achieve.

Secondly the school curriculum should aim to promote pupil’s spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and prepare all pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of life.’

The National Curriculum, Key Stages 1 & 2. 1999 DfEE

Despite all this, a report undertaken by the Association of Head Teachers [2003] claims there is a mounting concern amongst teachers about the effects of this Literacy strategy. Arguing that formal teaching as prescribed through the Literacy Hour, is developmentally inappropriate for many 6 year olds, and therefore recommends that the principles of the Foundation Stage be extended to cover all children aged 3-7 years.

In enhancing this thinking, going back to 1996 where the Department for Educational Studies (DfES) funded the undertaking of Effective Provision of Pre-School Education a longitudinal study that was for children of 3 to 7 years of age. Where it majored on pre-school through into primary assessing from a cross-section of social backgrounds. This complimented another undertaking in Findings from the Early Primary Years (EPPE Summary 2004) that collected data from children, their parents, their home environment and the pre-school they attended. All of which went on to prove that cognitive and social effects were positive for the children going into primary school.

It was found that parent’s education and social class remained as predictors of intellectual and social development, and that very long periods of pre-school were connected with anti-social behavioural problems entering primary school and through to the end of Key Stage 1. This fact was attributed to the presence of non-parental childcare before three years of age. The education level of the child’s mother was seen to be a factor in the child’s performance. Overall, it reported that the attainment reached in reading and math’s from an effective, high quality pre-school attendance, proved a positive impact which was not depleted by the end of Key Stage 1, and that attendance before the age of 3 was very positive towards the child’s attainment.

By continual research key findings within the EPPE Summary of 2004 over the pre-school period included that disadvantaged children may benefit appreciably from good quality pre-school experience, especially when they are with a mixture of children from different backgrounds. It also went on to show that overall, disadvantaged children have a tendency to only attend pre-school for short periods of time compared to those from more advantaged groups. From this result recommendations were made: i) To develop and encourage more episodes of ‘sustained shared thinking’ with the children. Use of freely chosen play activities provides the best opportunities to extend children’s thinking. ii) Continually work towards an equal balance of child and adult initiated activity. iii) Develop staff to have both the knowledge and understanding of child development and the curriculum.

By way of a pilot scheme, in 1998 parts of England by the National Literacy Strategy (NLS), which was a direct result of nationwide poverty implications in 1966, all infant and primary schools were expected to teach English within what was termed the Literacy Hour. The hour was divided into segments to allow teaching as a whole class, as groups or individuals, with the focus for each segment also prescribed in detail: children being taught reading and writing at whole text, sentence or word level. Teaching objectives had to be included in this daily Literacy Hour with the class. The format is dictated to being the same for Year 1 through to Year 6.

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Reaction from teachers, many unprepared to teach this due to lack of time, were concerned and uneasy over several issues, and some reported that time spent in other curriculum areas were affected. A perceived lack of flexibility about the Literacy Hour was commented on unfavourably, with fears voiced of the possible negative effect resulting from six years of children being taught in the same way (Anderson & Urquhart, 2000)

The feedback on this, Hourwatch, was undertaken from the autumn of 1998 through to the summer of 1999, from a cross-section in Year 1 and Year 2 at Infant School, and reception class and year 6 in Primary School. The feedback from teachers was not favourable. Planning of group activities took a considerable extra time to prepare. Overall the framework objectives for the hour resulted in a lack of coherence, making implementation time consuming, out of all proportion to its share of the curriculum, and generally uninspiring. One such response from an experienced teacher, remarked that although Learning Hour had some good points, “it was too rigid a structure, takes too much time to plan, too analytical, not matched to children’s current level of experience and skill. It gets boring following the same format day in day out, it does not provide enough opportunities for creative and extended writing, and it results in too much unfinished work” (Anderson & Urquhart, 2000) Overall the organizational and bureaucratic demands were overwhelming the educational value.

In 2000 the Government in the UK introduced a revised National Curriculum (Curriculum 2000) and the Foundation Stage that was for the 3 to 5 year olds, giving this period in the child’s education a distinct identity and attention. Curriculum 2000 emphasized inclusion, aiming to secure learners participation and ensure appropriate opportunities for them to achieve, and offered flexibility within for schools to develop their own normal curriculum. It offered a less prescriptive approach, in which flexible allocating of time for required subjects allowed them not to taught each week, term or year, therefore allowing choice of method and the maximising of teaching and learning.

A study of the transition from infant to Primary in England: from Foundation Stage to Key Stage 1 was carried out in 2005 (Sanders et al, 2005), where it was discovered the biggest challenge to children being the move from play-based approach in the Foundation Stage to a more structured curriculum in Key Stage 1. It also noted that the Literacy Hour had proved challenging as it was difficult for young children to sit still and listen to their teacher.

The ensuring of stability, has been promised and undertaken by the Government for this transition period, in understanding and support for staff training, the child’s learning and guidance for parents (DfES, 2003).

Researching journals on the subject was also limited with only one journal; Early Childhood Research Quarterly. This research[14] discusses the aspect of practitioner behaviours in the environment and the practitioners’ application, detailing the importance of collaboration and an understanding of curriculum and learning. Reading the journal article shows a support for my research in as much that the role of the practitioner is vital in providing an effective learning environment for children to progress and grow.

In respect to how children progress and grow, a large portion learn, construct knowledge and develop skills, in today’s world of computers and computer games. The act of play for a young child is seen as being far more important, and in the past there have been successful arguments in the fore and against the time allocated for play in the early important years of a child’s education. Parents and school administrators always demand results, and yet question the value of a child playing. Educators and child development specialists endorse play as being the best way for young children to learn the ultimate curriculum for the social, physical and cognitive advancement needed to set a solid foundation for later school and life success in our increasingly complex and technological world.

The importance of play in a child’s development is shown to have various kinds of concepts (Wardle, 2000), each having their own strengths:

  • Motor/physical play – critical for the development of physical strength, and to establish a fitness regime against heath problems through being overweight in latter years.
  • Social play – interacting with others builds skills and underlines important social rules, including give and take, co-operation and sharing. All go towards moral reasoning and developing a mature sense of values.
  • Constructive play – the manipulation of the environment to experiment, build and create, resulting in accomplishment that empowers them with control of their environment.
  • Fantasy play – experimentation of language and emotions in an abstract world, where young children can stretch imaginations in a risk-free environment. This area of abstract time is believed to be so important in our growing technological society.
  • Games with rules – vitally important in a child’s development, to learn and understand that situations cannot exist without everyone adhering to the same set of rules. This concept teaches children a critically important concept, in that the game of life has rules (laws) that we all must follow to function productively (Wardle, 1987).

Government policy reflects the importance of the practitioner’s role with learning and education in early years settings. The proposed Childcare Bill introduced to Parliament on 8th November 2005 supported a link between Foundation Stage (3-5 years), Every Child Matters, Birth to Three Framework and OFSTED National Childcare Standards for nurseries; combining these four documents[15]. By placing early childhood provision on a statutory footing will assure practitioners’ of the Government’s commitment to improving early years provision. The Government recognise for the youngest children the distinction between childcare and education is indistinguishable. This supports my research by the Government recognising the important role the practitioner has in the welfare of children, in education and care.

In the UK this problem is being addressed by the Government taking on a ten-year strategy for childcare, published in 2004, which is now subject to Parliamentary Approval in 2006 (Education & Skills, 2006). It is the Government’s response to a fundamental challenge facing Britain in the need to ensure available, affordable, and high quality childcare in the 21st Century. More women are going to work than ever before, they choose to work for increased family income that can improve lifestyle (out of poverty) and improve their children’s life chances. With the emergence of this new Childcare Bill the practitioner has to ensure their role positively shapes children’s learning in meaningful contexts.

Now in 2006 discussion and assessment is well underway for the Early Years Foundation Stage that will start in 2008. In 2005, the Government announced plans to merge the Birth To Three Matters Framework and the Foundation Stage, to form a single Early Years Foundation Stage covering care, learning and development in all early years settings from birth to age five.

Are the lessons that have been learnt by the government ministers over the years now going to lay correct foundations for the practitioners to deal with? As childhood is not merely a pe

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