Paintings on the wall: Intentional teaching vs traditional expectations

Guest Post by Stacey McWilliams

By embracing the National Quality Framework, and the associated documents and curriculum, learning opportunities and experiences have become richer with intent and open-ended possibilities to support children’s processes for exploring and understanding the world around them as engaged, involved learners. However, it can be challenging to communicate your intentions with parents and caregivers who may be unsure of the changes within the Early Childhood Industry.

Let’s consider this scenario: Educators in a Junior Kindy room wish to embrace autonomy and independence. In previous years, the children’s structured artwork was displayed in neat rows at adult eye level. This year, children celebrate their artwork by displaying it on the wall, themselves. They investigate how it’s going stick, where it’s going to go and what they need to display it. In turn, this validates what children have learnt and created. Despite the educator’s intentions, after a week of this new process, the walls quickly turn to a chaos of overcrowded, overstimulating clutter. Parents complain that the room looks messy and children are fighting for a space to display their work. 

As Educators explore the Early Years Learning Framework, its principals and practices, professionals are engaging in productive and meaningful conversation and inquiry. Educators and families are beginning to question more of the things we do and why we do them. As educators embrace the “reflective practice” revolution, differing lines of communication are being explored for developing partnerships with families to convey an understanding of both the EYLF and the NQF. By adopting a positive approach to explaining, “Why we do what we do”, this discourse will become more fluent, in turn, explained with more conviction and individual understanding.

The changes families are now observing may be very unfamiliar. In such a changing industry both care and understanding needs to be taken to “educate”  and work alongside families to share our practices, principals, philosophies, theories and policies which underpin the experiences children are participating in and our intent when planning their curriculum. Parents and caregivers may be challenged by the new ideas and concepts of what childcare should look like, sound like and feel like for them and their children. It is important for educators to remember that they are the educational leader and expert in the field of early childhood and to trust their own pedagogy in terms of planning and curriculum delivery. However, it is very important to remember that we, in Australia, have an industry that is relatively new to the concept of “reflective practice” which is facilitating change and quality for both parents and educators alike as educators become proficient at a true critical reflection.

Part of an educator’s duty of care is to inform families about the value of learning through play, trial and error and the importance of the process rather than the product. For example, the scientific meaning and understanding of conducting experiments, the significance of learning about capacity and measurements when playing with water, blocks, construction etc. It is important to allow for children’s creativity and sense of autonomy to be nurtured by fostering their ideas and concepts through questioning and inquiry. It is great to see children participating in their own learning and development as “little scientists” showing opinions, ideas and concepts as young investigators through their natural curiosity, wonder and amazement in everything they do and create. The question is – how do we communicate this rich learning to parents? Some families are responsive to the way the Framework is empowering confident, competent, capable learners who can problem solve, think for themselves and are socially competent. For those that are not, it will take some time to inform them. Educators must find creative ways to communicate the value in what they are striving to achieve by empowering autonomy.

Often when parents question changes, such as the environment, we need to be mindful that adjusting to what has taken place can be overwhelming. Documentation is a fantastic way of communicating to families helping to prepare them for the changes about to take place. Documentation also provides evidence of the changes that have taken place and why they occurred.  Evaluation is also an integral part of this documenting process, it allows educators the opportunity to reflect on the changes in a transparent way and continues to develop the changes to provide quality outcomes.

Some questions that may need documenting to communicate changes to children and their families may look like this:

  • What happened to instigate the changes in the environment?
  • Why are the changes happening?
  • What are the changes hoping to improve/ create/eliminate/provide?
  • Who is involved in making the change and why?
  • What learning will take place through the process?
  • How will it be documented?
  • Who will review and reflect on the changes and when?

Now let us revisit our artwork scenario: 

The educator’s intent was to foster autonomy and value children’s input with an importance placed on the task being 100% child initiated. What questions could the educator have posed to the children throughout this process to support positive outcomes; problem-solving; consideration and respect; an appreciation for aesthetics; and real-world outcomes? In finding the balance between Dependence and Independence, how can we support Interdependence? 

Finding equilibrium between child initiated and teacher directed is integral and can sometimes be hard to balance. When educators look at making environmental changes, it is necessary to consider the flow of the environment as well as provide open-ended opportunities for investigation. At the same time, we need to ensure a sense of belonging for children and their families where all children experience learning that is engaging and builds success for life (EYLF, p 4). I would like to pose these reflective questions for your contemplation and comment: How much self-autonomy is too much? At what point do Educators need to negotiate and foster the planning process? What has been noticed in terms of the learning taking place in your environment recently, and where is this interest likely to go? How much of this will be child initiated and driven? What will intentional teaching look like in response to this interest?

Adopting an approach that works takes time and experience and will eventuate through trial and error. By listening to the critical reflection of others (colleagues, children and parents alike) reflective practitioners will ultimately improve pedagogy, and in turn, improve Quality Practices which will translate to the best outcomes for children.