A reflective early years learning environment is not only conducive to achievement, but it is also required by the EYPS and the EYFS. Cathy Williamson describes how a pre-school aimed to create one as part of a school action research project
St Joseph’s Pre-school, based within an increasingly diverse socio-economic community in the suburbs of Bristol, is a busy voluntary-sector group operating in a church hall, where equipment and resources have to be set up and packed away every day. It has expanded over several years – from three pre-school sessions a week ,to nine sessions plus lunch clubs, a toddler group and two ‘drop in’ sessions – and now serves the needs of more than 50 families.
Over the past 15 years, the staff team has striven to keep up with developments in the early years sector. The centre manager has recently gained Early Years Professional Status and of the six other staff, all but one are qualified to Level 3 and one is also currently working towards a Level 5 foundation degree. Most staff work part-time but their commitment and enthusiasm has been crucial in creating a learning environment that offers children the best opportunities available.
Fulfilling statutory requirements
Standard 22 of the requirements for Early Years Professional Status (EYPS) states that practitioners need to ‘give constructive and sensitive feedback to help children understand what they have achieved and think about what they need to do next and… to think about, evaluate and improve on their own performance.’ (CWDC, 2006, p10).
It is also a requirement of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), under Personal, Social and Emotional Development, that we help children to ‘know themselves and what they can do’ (DfES, 2007, p22). The EYFS Profile also highlights that ‘the importance of involving children in the assessment process is to enable them to develop their ability to express preferences and make choices, begin to understand that their views are respected and develop as autonomous learners’ (QCA, 2003, p103).
These are all worthy expectations, but staff often need practical examples of how to achieve them.
Engaging in an action research project
While studying for a foundation degree, the manager of St Joseph’s Pre-School had been influenced by the child-centred teaching ideas that had originated in Reggio Emilia in Italy, and by the ‘Te Whariki’ approach from New Zealand. These were a source of inspiration that challenged thinking and practice in the setting. Initially, the manager modelled the implementation of some of the ideas herself, while making gradual changes to the pre-school’s planning, assessment and documentation systems, as well as to the environment and the daily routine offered.
Action research, through funding from the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC) Practitioner Led Research Programme, then proved to be the ideal tool to help shape and develop practice in an involving, democratic way, by encouraging self-reflection and evaluation from the staff. This approach, combined with the reflective self-evaluation framework provided by the Bristol Standard (2000), enabled the creation of an environment in which the potential and capabilities of each individual child would be recognised and nourished. At the same time, the successes of the staff team were acknowledged and affirmed, building confidence and further commitment from everyone involved.
The aim of the action research was to develop practical ideas and opportunities to help young children to reflect more on their learning, and to contribute actively to what they wanted to do next to enhance their learning. To achieve this, it was intended that the opportunities and resources provided through a more ‘enabling environment’ would also help to provoke and stimulate the children’s interests and create a learning atmosphere where exploration, sustained shared thinking, and problem-solving could become commonplace.
The new EYFS framework emphasises the importance of children’s dispositions and attitudes, defining them as being ‘about how children become interested, excited and motivated about their learning’ (DfES, 2007).This fitted well with the setting’s recent adoption of the ‘Learning Stories’ format (Carr, 2001) for observations, which focus on dispositions as a way of recording children’s learning.
At the same time, the use of ‘project work’ was promoted to help children explore and experiment within their fields of interest in more depth. Children were also encouraged to start to document their discoveries and learning for themselves using video and other ICT equipment. This was supplemented with further video recordings made by staff, plus the ‘Learning Story’ observations. The video and photographic evidence provided opportunities to revisit activities and record the children’s reflections on them through ‘the child’s voice’ – sometimes quite different to the previously anticipated outcomes.
All this required ongoing reflection by practitioners on the language used to describe ‘learning’ and ways to model this, and how to support children in their disappointments as well as their successes. And having the necessary ICT equipment available for the children and staff to use when and where they needed it, required organisation and some technical expertise.
Using ‘Learning Story’ observations has helped to show real depth in the children’s learning as well as high levels of involvement in projects that interest them. Really listening to the children and recording their conversations and comments has helped an understanding of the children’s thought processes and the connections they are making in their learning.
Projects have also extended and progressed, through the children’s suggestions, in many different directions – not necessarily where the adults alone might have taken them. For example, one group of children moved from talking about Christmas… to exploring the weather… to examining shadows… to using the light projector to write their names on the wall. Another group changed from playing a memory game… to a sound guessing game… to making their own tape recording of improvised ‘sounds’. All of these were the children’s own ideas. Using ‘projects’ and ‘interests’ has been a better approach to meeting the individual needs of each child because they can all have very different experiences of a project and take from it what is significant to them.
Visible learning, flexible planning
Throughout the action research project, documenting the children’s learning in new ways has been a key instrument in making the learning visible and has helped children to revisit, review and consolidate their learning. It has also provided a stepping stone to greater parental involvement and understanding, and has helped the collaborative process of change as staff saw their efforts recognised and appreciated.
Over a relatively short period, the setting has also moved through several changes in planning styles: from very detailed, inflexible, themed medium-term plans, to the current practice of planning at two-weekly intervals from the interests of the children. This creates a framework of ideas or possible lines of direction for projects, a system that is endlessly flexible and endlessly inspiring.
These changes alone have had a strong impact on the children, staff and parents. Children have become more deeply involved and motivated, staff are excited and refreshed by the new way of doing things and parents are showing more interest and talking together about what is happening in pre-school.
Creating an enabling environment
Focusing on the interests of the children has resulted in the ‘temporary space’ being more creative. To accommodate an interest in hiding and to create ‘children’s places’, mosquito nets are hung from the walls, with tables beneath to make dens; wheeled storage trolleys are used to divide areas up but keep resources accessible; and the use of natural and open-ended resources has been extended. As the children developed their interests, it was essential that they could access resources they needed and that staff responded to support them, while encouraging autonomy. Bi-weekly planning and reflection at staff meetings assisted this process and helped overcome some, though not all, of the technical problems that always seem to accompany new ICT resources.
Supporting professional development
Managing staff professional development and their continued involvement in the changes has required the use of various strategies:
- creating a shared understanding or vision
- modelling behaviour and new ways of working
- using collaborative self assessment tools, such as the Bristol Standard (2000)
- building on existing ideas and good practice and affirming staff skills and abilities
- using statutory changes to reinforce other changes
- placing a high priority on staff development and training, including regular in-service training days.
Key findings from the action research
Advice on creating a more reflective learning environment
- Bristol EYCP (2000) The Bristol Standard – A Self Evaluation Framework for Early Years (2nd Ed.) Bristol
- Carr, M (2001) Assessment in Early Childhood Settings: Learning Stories, Effective Early Learning London: Paul Chapman Publishing
- CWDC (2006) Early Years Professional National Standards Leeds: CWDC
- DfES (2007) Practice Guidance for the Early Years Foundation Stage Nottingham: DfES Publications
- QCA (2003) Foundation Stage Profile: Handbook London: QCA