Associate Professor Bev Flückiger presented at Research Conference 2017 in Melbourne this morning. Her session, titled Leading age-appropriate pedagogies in the early years of school, explored the research she has conducted into effective pedagogies in the early years. In this Q&A, the Griffith University academic discusses the importance of play in the early years and recognising the agency of children.
What is the Age Appropriate Pedagogies Program?
The Age Appropriate Pedagogies program (AAP) is an initiative designed to refocus attention on the importance of age appropriate pedagogies for teaching children in Queensland early years classrooms (Department of Education and Training, 2016). The purpose of the program is to identify effective pedagogies from the research literature and empower teachers through professional learning and coaching to expand their repertoire of practices and make informed curriculum and teaching decisions (in a range of school and community contexts).
The Griffith research team was commissioned to undertake a review of the research literature on pedagogical practices that are age-appropriate for the early years of school. The review identified key informing messages, effective pedagogical approaches, and a range of characteristics of effective early years' pedagogies. The Griffith research team designed a program of support across 2015-16 that consisted of professional learning workshops for leaders and teachers, the development of professional learning communities, and a suite of resources to further support practices. Additional support was provided by regional pedagogical coaches.
The design of the program was innovative – being both research-informed and research-led. Whilst the literature review ensured the program and practices were research-informed, reports on the site-based action research that was being undertaken by each school contributed to its ongoing design and refinement.
What was the motivation behind conducting this research?
In the seven years since the introduction of the Preparatory Year (Prep) in Queensland there has been a change in the pedagogies employed in early years' classrooms. Anecdotal evidence from teachers suggest this has been a response to the crowded nature of the curriculum, pressure for improved performance and teacher perceptions that play-based learning has been devalued as a valid pedagogy for young children at school. As a result, teaching methods employed by many teachers have become more formal and narrow, with fewer opportunities for children to engage in active learning.
You've said that teachers need to employ a repertoire of pedagogies that take into account the interests, capabilities and characteristics of individual learners. How do teachers ensure they are responsive to learners while also fulfilling teaching goals?
Teachers are responsive to learners when their teaching is personalised, responds to the diverse abilities of individual children and actively engages them. To be responsive, teachers get to know each child well – and understand what interests him or her, where they are up to in their learning, the next conceptual step in learning and a child's individual learning preferences. It requires teachers to limit thinking of ‘teaching a class' and ‘delivering a curriculum' and become more learner focused. It encourages teachers to reconsider a deficit mindset dominated by ‘needs' and ‘gaps', and embrace a strengths mindset focused on building children's strengths and capabilities.
Responsive teachers also recognise the importance of children's holistic development and the integrated nature of the way young children learn. They understand, for example, how development in social and emotional competencies supports cognitive and academic learning. In order to be learner-focused and responsive, teachers develop a thorough knowledge of the curriculum content across year levels in order to scaffold children's conceptual understanding and ensure they are continually learning. Responsive, learner-focused teaching ensures that a child is not left behind because they do not have the prerequisite knowledge, skills and conceptual understanding; nor should they be marking time in their learning, waiting for the class to catch up to them.
One of messages from the Literature Review was that playfulness should pervade learning and teaching interactions. Could you please expand on this a little?
When teachers employ playful learning pedagogies they create warm classroom environments characterised by humour and fun. Sometimes it is the teacher who injects humour and fun, and sometimes they ensure opportunities for children to do so. Such an atmosphere can engage children and ensure a relaxed environment in which they feel secure to experiment, have a go, and take risks when learning.
Playful learning may be planned or spontaneous and incorporate both free and guided play activities. The teacher's demeanour will entice children to make connections using their imagination and creativity and explore alternate worlds and ways of thinking. These fictional and imaginative worlds that children create, offer children the freedom they need to innovate and enact new possibilities (Department of Education and Training, 2015) thus promoting academic, socio-emotional, and cognitive development.
Another message was that a balance is needed between child-initiated and adult-initiated learning experiences. Why is it important to recognise children's agency?
Agency (James, 2009) refers to the ability of children to actively seek and make meaning of the world, have a say, share ideas, take purposeful action, show initiative, and make decisions about things that affect them. Children can only exercise agency if they are given the opportunity to do so and their questions, ideas and opinions are welcomed, and responded to thoughtfully and respectfully.
Providing opportunities for agency requires teachers to share some of the power and control in the classroom, recognise and cultivate positive dispositions towards learning (such as curiosity and imagination) and support children to make autonomous choices, whilst making space in the curriculum for inquiry, experimentation and investigation. By doing so, it creates a more positive and cooperative relationship between teachers and children.
Children start to realise that their ideas matter and they often become more responsible in making choices and decisions. When children have opportunities to contribute to and shape their learning experiences and have some control of things around them they become more independent learners and thinkers. This further develops their self-esteem, identity and wellbeing.
Why is it important to ensure that everyone is on board – the principal, teachers and support staff – when managing change or improving classroom practices?
There are several reasons why it is important to ensure that everyone in the school community is aware of, and supporting pedagogical change. First, some specific, strong and consistent leadership actions facilitate teachers to use age-appropriate pedagogies in the early years. Such actions include alignment and inclusion of the AAP conceptual framework, approaches and characteristics within the school's pedagogical framework to ensure that it is seen as part of the school's strategic plan and is a priority. Another leadership action involves the establishment of a learning culture that encourages innovation, as well as provides lead-in time for teachers to experiment and change – empowering teachers to make decisions and expand their repertoire of practices.
Ensuring they acknowledge and respond to teachers' requests for physical and human resources, flexible timetables, as they innovate and change, demonstrates this leadership support. Leaders who engage with teachers in planning, action and reflection around the innovation at both classroom and year level as well as a whole school, position early years teachers as experts, which further engages them in innovation and change.
A change in pedagogies has a flow-on effect throughout the school. Children (and their parents) who experience a range of creative and experiential pedagogies in Prep, including opportunities to exercise agency, expect engaging pedagogies to continue in Year 1 and beyond. Ancillary staff, including teacher aides, specialists, and support teachers who use the classroom pedagogies ensure consistency of teaching practices for children beyond their classroom teacher.
You've just finished presenting at Research Conference 2017 in Melbourne. Could you share with Teacher readers some of the highlights from your session?
The session reported on the design and leadership of the pilot phase of the Age Appropriate Pedagogies program. Findings from the pilot, conducted in 45 state schools across three regions, illustrate the positive effects that can be generated when systems, schools and universities work together in a research and professional learning partnership. Effective leadership and collective capacity building were seen as key to the success of the program as these increased the engagement of teachers and children leading to improved learning outcomes.
Seven premises that inform Fullan's (2007) theory of action for leading educational change were used to frame discussion of the Age Appropriate Pedagogies program. Motivation, capacity building, learning within the classroom, changing/transferring changes to other contexts, reflective action within an inquiry cycle, engagement at all levels of the system, persistence, and flexibility were all attributed to its success.
The Age Appropriate Pedagogies program was initiated and funded by the Queensland Department of Education and Training, which owns the program and the associated intellectual property rights. The program involved teachers and leaders in 45 state schools during 2015, 115 state schools and eight Independent schools in 2016. Griffith University researchers were commissioned to review the contemporary research literature, design the program, support its implementation and gather feedback from teachers about their pedagogical decision-making (Department of Education and Training, 2016).
Department of Education and Training. (2015). Advancing education: An action plan for education in Queensland. Brisbane: Queensland Government.
Department of Education and Training. (2015). Foundation paper: Age-appropriate pedagogies for the early years of schooling. Brisbane: Queensland Government.
Department of Education and Training. (2016). Age Appropriate Pedagogies Program: Progress Report 2016. Brisbane: Queensland Government.
Department of Education and Training. (n.d.) Supporting successful transitions: School decision-making tool. Brisbane: Queensland Government.
James, A. (2009). Agency. In J. Qvortrup, W. Corsaro & M.S. Honig (Eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Childhood Studies (pp. 34-45). London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Bev Flückiger says when teachers employ playful learning pedagogies they create warm classroom environments characterised by humour and fun. In what ways do you inject humour and fun into your classroom? What impact does this have on student engagement?
When implementing pedagogical change, how do you ensure everyone in the school community is aware of, and supporting, this change? How do you communicate this message with parents?