Evidence from the case studies included in this book, participants’ questionnaire responses and feedback from team leaders and the college librarian are used to evaluate the ELC professional development model and make recommendations for further improvement. The evaluation is carried out to assess how well the stated aims of the ELC were met and written under strengths and weaknesses headings. Recommendations are made to further improve the ELC model. To recap, the aims of the ELC were to: (1) build professional development connections between early childhood educators in different agencies involved with Practicum; (2) align educators’ practice in Practicum placements with NAEYC Standards (2009) used at the College; and, (3) demonstrate the impact of the ELC on the learning of team participants and on children in Practicum placements.
The Evaluation of the ELC
Evidence suggests that overall this aim was met but recommendations were made to overcome weaknesses. On the strengths side, the design of the ELC was critical in building professional development connections between early childhood educators in different agencies involved with Practicum. Early childhood faculty at the College acted as a catalyst to reach out to long-standing and trusted early childhood partners who already participated in the Practicum field experience. These partners included directors and educators in preschool agencies, professionals in the Childcare Council, plus a new connection with the librarian in the Teaching Materials Center, TMC, in the College Library. These inter-agency partners created professional connections between diverse groups that resulted in the scope of the ELC being more far reaching, and the impact of Action Research, spread consistent practice more widely among team members and the agencies in which they were each based.
The creation of inter-agency professional development teams in Practicum placements ensured the ELC operated in classrooms and focused on professional development that used an Action Research approach to investigate teaching challenges identified by educators in their classrooms. Central to the investigation was to improve the quality of educators’ and teacher candidates’ teaching, and as a direct consequence, improve the quality of learning opportunities made available to children.
Secure grant funding was one crucial factor in making the ELC function effectively. It paid for team leaders from the Childcare Council to guide teams through their Action Research. It paid preschool agencies to provide coverage to free educators in Practicum classrooms from their normal teaching duties. Those educators were then able to attend weekly, hour-long team meetings, to work collaboratively with their team leader and teacher candidate on their Action Research. Grant funding also paid for the purchase of technology that was essential to the work of the ELC, used by designated team members to accurately record data and monitor the impact of Action Research over the semester.
On the weaknesses side, the ELC design omitted to include a requirement for preschool directors to regularly participate, although some did voluntarily. It was mistakenly thought that Action Research was targeted only at improving educators’ and teacher candidates’ practice in Practicum classrooms. However, it was apparent that without directors’ knowledge and support for team Action Research, change to improve either the curriculum or teaching methods, was unlikely to be understood, supported or be sustained. Hour-long team meetings were found to be too short for teams to cover all aspects of their Action Research.
Recommendations for future improvements are:
- Require directors of preschool agencies who host teacher candidates during Practicum to routinely participate in Action Research. Directors are then more likely to understand the team rationale for new teaching approaches and support change in classrooms.
- Increase cover in classrooms to allow educators to be released from their teaching for longer time each week. When teams meet for longer at weekly team meetings, they are more likely to complete their Action Research in a timely manner.
Evidence suggests that this aim was partly met. Recommendations are made to address weaknesses. On the strengths side, ample evidence indicated that Action Research was instrumental in teams developing a wide range of analytical skills, that were highly supportive of their improved professional understanding and their related practice in their classrooms. These analytical skills were honed as teams developed a problem-solving stance to the teaching challenges they faced.
The video recordings of team members at work in their own classrooms, with their own children, enabled them to observe teaching challenges and assess what might cause them. For example, only when watching a video, did one teacher candidate notice the sensory table in the classroom and how rarely children used it. Throughout the semester, teams watched videos that showed the impact of strategies and gained new insights about their teaching. For example, preparing more active and differentiated literacy games to use during Circle time, provided educators with valuable information about what affected children’s levels of engagement during activities.
The provision of sufficient guided discussion and reflection time during team meetings was critical for teams’ improved understanding of their teaching. This pertained to the topics of the case studies, which included: diversity and ESL learners; gender and challenging behavior; uncovering hidden beliefs about children’s mathematical understanding and observing what children represented in play. Additional topics discussed during team meetings included children’s science content and evaluating classroom space.
Reflection on videos resulted in new understanding and changed roles in classrooms. Teacher assistants described changing their work from “policing” children to writing observations. This enabled teachers to plan and teach developmentally appropriate “next step” learning activities.
Teams’ reading of professional literature was a critical strength in promoting improved practice in Practicum placements. The librarian’s role in supporting teacher candidates’ searches to find relevant literature developed their ability to better understand and more precisely define teaching challenges to select beneficial journal articles for their team to read. Journal articles provided teams with proven strategies were known to work and improved teaching. Regular professional reading among teams encouraged team members to increase their teaching knowledge and skills and be current with research findings. Reading reputable child development peer reviewed journals was particularly effective in enabling teams to weave DAP into their Action Research and to understand and apply child development theory in their practice. Teacher candidates commented how reading literature helped them write better lesson plans that were DAP and reflected NAEYC standards. One teacher candidate commented how reading literature gave her firm ideas about what and how to teach children so that it was no longer guess-work.
On the weaknesses side, it was evident that to improve and align educators’ practice in Practicum placements with NAEYC Standards (2009), were two separate processes and not one. Although Action Research provided compelling evidence of improved practice, alignment of that practice with NAEYC standards was not. This was because initial ELC training focused only on NAEYC standards (2009) which were used at the college and were familiar to faculty members and teacher candidates. It was not understood that community professionals (who worked as team leaders), preschool directors and educators in Practicum placements were not familiar with NAEYC standards (2009). More surprising was that preschool agencies that hosted Practicum placements, each used one of five different sets of early childhood learning standards. The use of these other sets of standards may explain why educators were not familiar with NAEYC standards (2009) and, why teacher candidates sometimes had difficulty in completing their required assignments during Practicum. It also explained why teams were unable to align their changed practice with NAEYC Standards (2009) or were not able to fully reflect on alignment during team meetings, and why evaluation of alignment was delayed until the write-up stage of case studies.
Concerning teams’ reading literature, it was not always possible for teacher candidates to find just one journal article that provided strategies to overcome all aspects of their teaching challenges. Preschool agencies commonly were not members of NAEYC and this prevented teams from accessing NAEYC data bases themselves if needed. Teams’ lack of Internet access in classrooms also compounded this problem.
Some educators resisted change through Action Research in their classrooms because changed practice was believed to confuse children and undermine those educators’ control of teaching situations and of children’s behavior.
A lack of readiness in some teacher candidates affected how they worked in teams and carried out required tasks. Throughout the semester an important task was to complete a PowerPoint presentation of the action research at the end of the semester; the task was not completed.
Recommendations to facilitate the successful improvement and alignment of educators’ practice in Practicum placements with NAEYC Standards (2009) is:
- During initial ELC training, use a common language to familiarize all ELC participants with both NAEYC standards (2009) and with the different sets of standards used in each preschool agency.
- During initial training, use a common language to familiarize teams with standard alignment tables that enable them to evaluate how far their changed practice aligns with NAEYC standards (2009) and with the standards used in their own settings.
- Prepare teacher candidates, if necessary, to find several journal articles that provide multiple strategies to address all aspects of their one teaching challenge.
- Encourage preschool agencies to become members of NAEYC or another professional membership that will enable them to routinely access NAEYC or other professional journals.
- In the preschool building, provide teams with Internet access to support their Action Research.
- In ELC initial training, familiarize team members with change theory to help educators understand that change is often unsettling and takes time to adjust to.
- At the college prepare teacher candidates to work in teams during Practicum.
(3) demonstrate the impact of the ELC on the professional learning of team participants and on children in Practicum placements.
Evidence suggests this aim was met. The impact of the ELC in promoting the professional learning of team participants, including children, was evident. Planting agreed strategies in play was key to educators’ and teacher candidates’ improved professional learning and improved teaching during Practicum.
In the ELC, children’s play was recognized as the critical vehicle in growing educators’ professional development and occurred as educators proactively and purposefully applied strategies by embedding them into children’s play. Play incorporated everything that was important and meaningful to children and was widely accepted to effectively promote children’s learning and development in all areas that related to their families and friends, actions, intentions, use of materials, acquisition of language, representation of ideas, expression of creativity and demonstration of feelings.
Each case study in this book illustrates how teams implemented strategies, for example, the “talking time” strategy to create opportunities for children to express their own ideas for socio-dramatic play. A science area created opportunities for children to explore materials and construct scientific concepts through free-play. A physical play area in the classroom gave children new opportunities to move and explore space. A sensory table allowed children to choose and use varied materials to make up stories and play out scenarios. A guidance process and a feelings chart supported children to express their emotions appropriately in play. Games and active learning activities introduce play into Circle time.
Educators took on the role of architects of rich play as they proactively implemented deliberate, developmentally-appropriate, purposeful strategies into children’s play. This deliberate act created critical opportunities for children to explore concepts, understand content, develop new skills and exhibit learning dispositions that are relevant, interesting and challenging to children. In response to children’s demonstrated play, it was evident how educators had to use their professional analytical skills, developed through Action Research to sustain the play and children’s learning within it. This involved observing, talking, interacting as appropriate in the play and assessing children at play so educators have information to further develop it.
The ELC shows us that for educators to continue to improve their professional skills during professional development, it is incumbent on policy makers to unequivocally state in early childhood policy, learning standards and curriculum documentation, that play is the vehicle through which all children’s learning develops, and at the same time, best facilitates educators’ associated professional development.