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Flowers are red

A friend linked me to this song by Dawud Warnsby. She used to use it with students of early childhood education.

It is lovely. It vividly illustrates the idea that children should be allowed to see the world in their own creative and honest ways, and not be locked into stereotypes.

I am sure none of us would recognise ourselves in the teacher that insisted flowers can only be red.

Early childhood educators in Australia are pretty strongly wedded to the idea that we want to foster creativity in children.  We are quick to produce the right language about child centred practice, about process art, about individuality.

The song is a reductio ad absurdum. It is easy not to sympathise with that stern looking teacher and her silly rules.  We would never be that teacher.

But how good are we at seeing all the other ways that we are involved in institutionalising children?

And how good are we at questioning them?

Brave New World (2)

Today all those new regulations and frameworks and systems of inspection and fines and ratios come into effect. We have the EYLF  (Early Years Learning Framework) or in Victoria the VEYLDF (Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework). We have the NQF; the Act and Regulations being brought into harmony across all states; ratios going down; qualifications going up.

Some of us are lucky enough to already be working in this way. We have to learn new language, and adjust our systems a little.  But basically we are already there.

But there are others who have a lot of work to do. They may need to upgrade qualifications in order to continue in the same (rather low paid) job they are already doing well.  They may need to answer to a whole lot of regulations that never applied to them before.  They may be facing financial hurdles as they try to provide the same service with fewer paying children.

As I join the conversation with so many other educators about implementing the changes we now face, I fear we may be heading for a Brave New World that references Aldous Huxley more than Miranda.

There are signs that educators might be oppressed by compliance regimes that add little or nothing to the quality of education, but plenty of time and frustration to the educator’s job.  There are grounds to fear that the autonomy envisaged by the EYLF will be swallowed up in long and complex mandatory protocols.

We know that middle management has its own logic.  Weber calls it instrumental rationality. We know bureaucracy tends to push paper-based tasks down onto the workers at the coalface so they can produce evidence they are doing something.

Early childhood educators are vulnerable to being caught up in a web of compliance that will leave them little time or energy to be the reflective teachers that we want.

Creative educators need autonomy.

I am worried that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.  I am worried that the good framework of the EYLF and the NQF – which ask educators to be autonomous and reflective professionals – will be suffocated by managers and inspectors and checklists and protocols that make educators scared of being punished for getting it wrong.

Fear is the enemy of creativity.

We stand now facing into a Brave New World in early childhood education. The next couple of years will determine whether we develop the kind of creative, reflective workforce envisaged by the EYLF.  Or if instead it turns into a minefield of minutiae suited only to workers who are good at following orders, but not good at thinking for themselves.

“Chapter One

A SQUAT grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State’s motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Brave New World (1)

Today is the day.  January 1 2012.

All those new regulations and frameworks and systems of inspection and fines and ratios come into effect today. Australia is undergoing a revolution in the regulation of early childhood education, and this is a watershed date.

We have the EYLF – the Early Childhood Learning Framework – which describes our goals for children’s learning in terms of the three strands of being, belonging and becoming. We have a new national Quality Framework. We have an Act and Regulations that are being brought into harmony across all states. Ratios are going down.  Qualifications are going up.

The EYLF is rooted in the notion that a well-prepared, reflective educator workforce is the best way to ensure we deliver high quality early childhood education for all. Educators are to be given high levels of responsibility, and high levels of autonomy.

There is a massive amount of change.  There is a massive amount for early childhood educators to get their heads around.  There is a massive amount of new jargon.

All of this upheaval has sparked a tidal wave of conversation.  Educators are reaching out to each other like never before. They are hungry to understand, and determined to do it well.

It is marvellous to see.

During 2011, I have emerged from my own teaching cocoon and started to pay attention to what others are doing and saying, here and around the globe.

I have found a world of rich conversations and inspiring examples.  I have found so many eloquent people. People who keep finding inspiration in children.  People who are determined to protect childhood.  People who are creative in their work.  People who think deeply about what they are doing.

I feel part of a community in a way I never did before.

“O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is!
O brave new world, That has such people in’t!”

William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Commitment is a gift freely given

Someone in a chat room passed on a question from a supervisor.  The gist of it was ‘How do I control my staff?  How do I get them to do what I want?’

I  think they were asking the wrong question.

When we teach young children, we believe they work best when we give them freedom and choices and autonomy. When we learn about behaviour management with children, we don’t get encouraged to read children the riot act and insist that they toe the line. We are encouraged to create a situation where they will want to do the right thing.

Somehow, these lessons get lost in translation to working with adults. Educators who become bosses seem sometimes to forget that much of what they have learnt about children are lessons about human nature.

Adults are people too.  They are not so different from children. People who have some control over their own situation behave more responsibly than people who are told what to do.

So my answer to the supervisor asking how to control her staff is:

Stop trying to control. Negotiate. Give staff a chance to work out their own ways of working.  Figure out what is essential so they know what the parameters are.  But leave them room to move. Let them come up with suggestions that you receive with a genuinely open mind.  Given them patches of autonomy.

You want your educators to be creative, enthusiastic, committed, responsible. These are not things that can be demanded.  They are gifts.  They must be freely given.

Give them freedom.

I am convinced they will give more in return.

 

We don’t have a history of preparing managers in early childhood services for their management role.  Traditionally, people would move from hands-on care into a supervisory role, building only on workplace experience.  Small wonder they often draw on traditional authoritarian models and ideas from folk-culture about how to be a boss.  
It is encouraging to see professional development now being offered for educational leaders.  I hope it will help them develop a modern understanding of management.  One that is closer to the philosophy of early childhood education than to the traditional image of the small business patriarch.

Just playing

Alfie  Kohn wrote an article about play that puts its finger on something that has started to bother me lately.

On the whole, I approve of the recent directions in early childhood education.  I like that play-based learning is valued and getting a higher profile.  I like having an EYLF. I like that all early childhood educators are recognised as educators.  I like a more highly trained workforce, with better pay and working conditions. I like the push to be better at describing and communicating the value of what we do with children.

But I have this niggling doubt that all this talk of identifying the learning, and documentation, and planning what the child will do next, and intentional teaching poses a danger. What if this actually has the effect of downgrading the value of play?  What if it makes us think that only play  that is leading somewhere, only play that is guided, only play with demonstrable learning outcomes that fit the parameters of some document, only play that has been subjected to adult intention is valuable?

Play is intrinsically good.

Play is intrinsically good for children.

Time that is for just playing is good time.

Kohn points out that play and work do not exhaust the options.  Learning can be something that is neither play nor work.

Playful learning can be fun.  Playful learning can allow freedom.  It can allow children to construct their own understandings as active learners. It can engage students. But if someone else has set the goals, and monitors whether you are learning the things they want you to learn, it is no longer just playing.

I could employ a builder to make something to my design and specifications.  But if I want a work of art, I have to let the artist create it.

When I offer playful learning opportunities, the child is like the builder. When I let the child just play, the child is the artist.

I want my program to have both playful learning and just playing.

I want to have the courage to let children play just because.

Thanks to Teacher Tom and Irresistible Ideas for Play Based learning for the link.

Do unto me as you would have me do unto others

Kinder fruit platter

Educators of young children are expected to reward positive behaviour in children and to praise their efforts.  We are expected to believe all children have great potential.  We are expected to believe children are powerful and intelligent.  We are expected to allow children to construct their own learning.  We are expected to protect children from bullying.  We are expected to have fair, non-judgemental approaches to behaviour management.  We are expected to make it clear to children what the rules are, and help them learn to observe them.  We are expected to allow children space and freedom to decide things for themselves.  We are expected not to make capricious or unecessary rules.  We are expected to reflect deeply on how we treat children.

We set the bar high for the respect we show the children in our care.

As an educator, I would like to enjoy the same respect. I want the people who have power over me to treat me with the understanding they expect me to show for children.

I want to be trusted as a professional to make intelligent decisions about my teaching. I want freedom to think for myself.   I want access to first-hand information.  I want constructive criticism.  I want training and materials that reflect an understanding of learning theory. I want a say in the policies I work under. I want understanding that teaching is a creative act.  I want to be inspired by the great work I see others do, and by the commitment I see in them.

I do not want to be steam-rolled. I do not want to be bullied. I do not want half-baked personal interpretations of legislation to be presented to me as rules. I do not want to be bombarded with long and incomprehensible policies that have little relationship to the real world. I do not want hierarchical decision-making.  I want understanding that a negative comment weighs ten times as much as a positive one.

We have very sophisticated theories these days about how to create a good learning environment for children. We are dedicated to learning from children. But the same enlightenment is not always shown in how educators are treated.

At this time of great change in policies and structures for early childhood education, I hope our beliefs about how to treat children can apply to educators too.

I belief the EYLF* shows a high degree of respect for educators as dedicated professionals.  The message of the EYLF is that good educational environments are created by well-trained, reflective educators who have freedom to inspire and be inspired.

Now we have to hope that the ideals that went into the EYLF can survive implementation. We have to hope that stultifying bureaucracy, and middle-management do not create a blanket of compliance documentation that fogs up the space between the educator and the EYLF. We have to hope we don’t get lost in a forest of acroymns, being preyed on by the Big Bad NQF Inspector or FDC Schemer.

I am really enjoying the professional conversations around the EYLF that are happening at the moment. I hope this is what the EYLF continues to mean.  I hope it continues to be a point of inspiration and excitement in our constant quest to teach better.

I hope it continues to belong to us educators, to interpret for ourselves and for the children we don’t just teach, but also love.

 

 

*The new Australian national early years education framework, known (rather poetically) as EYLF.

Democracy

When we put big ideas into practice with young children, it can look deceptively simple.  Often, we do things instinctively or following tradition.  But if we pause to unpack the ideas embedded in our action, they can turn out to be profound.

Teacher Tom wrote today about how democracy should be something we live all the time, not just on election day.  An approach that permeates our whole culture. As with other important ideas we wish to live by, we do well to embed democracy into the experience of early education if we want it to permeate the rest of life.

Re-reading the question posed recently on the EYLF* facebook page
‘How do you record children’s voices in curriculum decisions?’
I reflected on how this strand of the framework is about children learning a democratic cast of mind.  When children are involved in making real decisions about their education, they are not only more engaged in their learning, they are also learning about democratic decision-making.

Educators in that conversation reported a number of ways they record children’s voices. One approach was to observe (and record) children’s actions. Through their choices and conversation, we can observe children making decisions.  Our thoughtful observation of these choices is a form of communication – one of the 100 languages of children if you like.  When they choose, one of the things children are doing is telling us what they like or want.  When we build on those choices in our planning, we show that we have heard them.

The cycle of choice, observation, responsive planning becomes a conversation about curriculum.

Other educators reported a more overt approach to involving children in curriculum decisions. They actively ask children what they would like to do.  They involve them in designing and setting up play areas.

Children suggested and helped set-up this 'hairdressing salon'.

Some educators described their routines for overtly involving children in decisions – and also involving the children in documenting those decisions:

“We have a children’s program book. We sit down together and children are chosen to go into the storeroom and talk about what’s in there and what they’d like. The children who are still in the playroom talk about what they’d like (from memory/knowledge of the resources we have) and where they’d like it, and have the opportunity to draw and write their ideas in the book. This is then displayed with their name.”  (Joanne Pitronaci)

“We have a large sheet of paper each day for a brainstorm of what each person would like to do on the day. The heading is “Program’ (all the children call it the’ program’ and know what a program is). I scribe for the children and write down all the things that they suggest with their names next to it. I also draw a little picture depicting each activity. There may be several names next to one activity. By the time the brainstorm is finished it looks like a web. At rest time I glue a few little photos of children doing some of the activities and children can also write their names next to all the activities that they actually did. Children often stand next to the program and point/discuss what everyone has done. It is very much a ‘working document’ and can be added to during the day – children can draw little pictures or write their name next to activities they have done. This is children taking ownership of their own program and learning. They love it. I also add one thing that I would like to do during the day so in this way I can include any extension activities from previous observations. When I have 2 weeks worth of program sheets I make them into a big book and children love looking back at them.” (Janine Vercoe)

I am impressed.

 

(* Australia’s early childhood education framework)

Two Years in Prep

The Sunday Age this morning ran a piece on a school that set up a program for kids who are not quite ready for the first year of school. I have actually thought before that this would be a good option to add to the mix – not at every school, but here and there. According to the article, this school has been told by the Education Department that they are not allowed to continue the program.

There are some illogicalities in the story. We are told, for example, that people want this option because childcare and kindergarten cost too much, but also that this will push families into private schooling. That can’t be right. Private school fees cost about the same as childcare, and kindergarten is considerably less*.

Our system of early childhood and care has evolved over time, with various levels of government and other organizations involved. It is crusty and barnacled. Parents have to negotiate a foolishly complex set of institutions and processes.

I can see why we would not want a sudden rush of younger kids into primary schools. A huge effort is being made to properly equip all early childhood settings with well educated staff and the best approach to early childhood learning we know how to give.

I can see why we would not want that undermined by a rush of early enrolments at school. But the kids in this program are technically old enough for school, and have had their preschool year.  I might prefer other ways to address this problem – like a Prep program that has the flexibility to cater to a wider range of learners, or play-based learning across the whole Prep. But that is not what this school offers in Prep, at the moment.

If the school judges some of their students need an extra year of play-based learning, where is the harm?

This looks a bit like a demarcation dispute. Is this really how we manage child-centred education?

*  Costs of young children’s education and care in Victoria
(From memory  – haven’t checked these facts recently)

Sessional kindergarten (preschool)
About $1200 per year, in four instalments, for 10.75 hours, usually in 2-3 sessions. Free for health care card holders. The cost in sessional kindergarten lies in the difficulty of juggling working full-time, not the fees per se.

Creche/childcare
(ie long day care intended to free parents up for the working day)
Around $70 per day, but subsidized through the tax system, so the amount you pay depends on household income. Creches are usually open 5 days per week, but many children attend part-time.

Early Learning Centre is the name generally given to a kindergarten attached to a private school.  They typically run 4-5 days per week, and full attendance is expected during school hours (ie about 9.00- 3.00).  Fees are set at a similar level to crèche.

Family Day Care and a private nanny are other models, but I don’t know how much they cost.

Primary school
State primary school
Technically free. Schools issue fees – in the order of a few hundred dollars at the beginning of the year – but they are voluntary. There are no penalties for non-payment. Subsidised families get an Education Maintenance Allowance, part of which is paid direct to the school.

Private primary school
Last I heard they were around $5,000 for the early years.  Fees rise as the children get older. Some schools catering to particular tight-knit communities are considerably cheaper.

School starting age

Children in Victoria can start primary school at 4 years and 9 months – ie the rule is that they must turn 5 by 30 April.  They must start primary school by the time they turn 6, unless an exemption is granted.