Voices of Practitioners: Teacher Research in Early Childhood Education, the online journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, has been published since 2004. Starting in July 2016, one Voices of Practitioners article will be published in each issue of Young Children as well as online.
Voices of Practitioners is a vehicle for dissemination of early childhood teachers’ systematic study of an aspect of their own classroom practice. Deeply involved in the daily lives of children and their families, teachers provide a critical insider perspective on life in their classrooms through communication of their investigations, the results, and their reflections.
Visit Voices of Practitioners to learn more about teacher research and to peruse an archive of past Teacher Research articles dating back to 2004.
Rachel Schaefer’s study of early childhood education—both her undergraduate and graduate schooling—occurred at a time of philosophical change in both the early childhood education program and the on-campus laboratory school at the midwestern university where she earned her degrees. The philosophical changes included moving the laboratory school to a more Reggio-inspired, inquiry-based program and embedding inquiry-based content and assignments into the teacher preparation courses. The lab school, with children ranging in age from 15 months to 6 years had just begun to explore Reggio-inspired practices as Rachel enrolled in undergraduate courses. During the lab school’s six years of transition to a culture of inquiry-based learning, the lab school team struggled with our perspectives on teaching by “recasting our image of the teacher and reevaluating the process of teaching and learning”—that is, defining what it means to teach using inquiry-based practices (Cutler et al. 2009, 404). Rachel’s struggle paralleled this journey as she wrestled with whether to adopt an inquiry-based mindset and then with how inquiry can “look” in a classroom setting and how to refer to inquiry—project, investigations, long-term investigation, or inquiry. While the center was building a culture of inquiry, the graduate professors were launching a culture of teacher research and challenging the graduate students to use teacher research as an approach to their thesis work. Rachel was one of the first in her cohort to accept this challenge.
As Rachel’s thesis advisor and the director of the laboratory school, I had the opportunity to watch her growth over time. Rachel’s image of the teacher when entering the undergraduate teacher education program included a very traditional methodology of teaching in which the teacher imparted knowledge and controlled how the students responded. Her first concern, as she considered using an inquiry-based learning methodology, was whether she was willing to give up the control offered by a traditional teaching approach. As she moved through her first year of graduate school, I believe her initial question “Do I want to give up this control?” was reframed as “What control do teachers have in inquiry-based learning and what does it look like?”
Observing Rachel throughout her graduate school experience was fascinating because her questions were often right there at the surface. She and her fellow graduate students began to value open dialogue and often engaged in challenging discussions with one another that shifted their perspectives toward inquiry-based practices. This ongoing dialogue also made a space to challenge some of the center’s ongoing practices that were seen as absolutes. For example, as the lab school began studying Reggio-inspired practices, the lab school teaching team questioned the role of small groups and at one point removed small groups from their schedules (Cutler et al. 2009). Then, as inquiry became more of an infused practice, small group learning was the strategy of choice for inquiry. Typically, the small groups met in smaller rooms throughout the center for focused discussions or interactions. Rachel and the student teachers, however, made a space in their dialogue to question, to examine, and to study the role of small group learning that occurred outside the classroom versus inside the classroom and began to meet as small groups within their classroom time, as well. This found freedom provided a place for inquiry both with the children’s learning and with the teacher candidates’ learning.
As Rachel established a mind-set for open dialogue and felt comfortable questioning even established practices, she engaged with inquiry-based learning and teacher research head on. She became passionate about studying inquiry-based learning and all that it had to offer. Looking back, I often wondered what it was for Rachel that brought about this change. While planning and preparing this reflection, I asked Rachel if she had any insights into what caused the shift or what had caused her to be less reserved and fully engaged. She could not pinpoint one exact time, but she recalled two events that helped spur her on. Early in her graduate career, Rachel attended a St. Louis Reggio Collaborative conference hosted by Clayton’s Family Center, the St. Michael School, and Webster College School. This conference keyed her into the many, many different ways of working with inquiry. She attended this conference with three fellow students—two graduate students from her cohort and an undergraduate student. Coming back from this conference, Rachel had the mind-set of possible change and held further conversations with her teaching team about the different aspects of inquiry-based learning.
During the summer before her second year of graduate work, Rachel attended the Boulder Journey School’s Summer Conference. That year, their summer conference presented the school’s previous years’ work with materials. Their presentations influenced Rachel’s thinking about the role of materials in the early childhood classroom in general and about how the characteristics or affordances of materials could influence the children’s experiences and the materials’ role in inquiry-based practices (Forman 1994). That experience provided a springboard for Rachel to examine closely the process of choosing materials. Her work in the laboratory school as a mentor teacher provided an ideal opportunity to study materials through a teacher research approach. As a result, Rachel completed one of the first successful teacher research studies at the graduate level for the laboratory school. She studied many aspects of materials, from place and quantity to cultivating detail using different materials.
Rachel’s work with materials is different from other studies or books about materials because these often focus on the selection and placement of materials (Curtis & Carter 2003; Curtis & Carter 2008; DeViney et al. 2010). Her work focuses on how children interact with the materials’ selection and placement, noting learning outcomes as well as her teaching team’s response to children’s interactions. Therefore, in a sense, her study takes a step beyond current work on the selection and placement of materials in the classroom. Setting up the classroom materials well is extremely important; but capturing the response cycles of children and building on their responses highlights the process beyond the initial setup.
Rachel’s study highlights the implementation of the role of participant–researcher that Schon (1983) focused on in his work of reflective-practitioner. Moving between the roles of teacher and participant–researcher is at the heart of being a reflective practitioner. Furthermore, Rachel highlighted the process of co-researching with children, rather than providing research on children. In her study, the children became co-researchers by interacting with the materials, and the teachers’ noticing the nuances of influence that material placement and selection had when used by children.
Working with Rachel throughout her graduate work was enriching for me. Her developed stance toward inquiry spurred me on to question other established practices and to have more of an open mind regarding inquiry in general. Her study of materials has influenced how the center’s teaching team uses materials and strives for children to use or create more details in their work. It mapped out how children respond to materials’ selection and placement and highlighted teachers’ need to focus on this response. It has also influenced a line of teachers studying at the laboratory school after Rachel, as her teacher research results have been woven into the undergraduate methods and materials course. Her research about materials has become a topic of study for undergraduate inquiry-based projects in the lab school.
For Rachel, I have seen a change in how she focuses on learning both in her past roles at the local Boys and Girls Club and now as a kindergarten teacher in a local school district. Inquiry-based learning and materials selection are still an important focus as she teaches. Finally, her materials study was an affirmation that the laboratory school team and graduate professors, together, had cultivated a culture of inquiry.
Curtis, D., & M. Carter. 2003. Designs for Living and Learning: Transforming Early Childhood Environments. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf.
Curtis, D., & M. Carter. 2008. Learning Together With Young Children: A Curriculum Framework for Reflective Teachers. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf.
Cutler, K., D. Gilkerson, M. Bowne, & A. Stremmel. 2009. “Change Within a Teacher Education Program and Laboratory: A Reflective Commentary.” Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education 30 (4): 404–17.
DeViney, J., S. Duncan, S. Harris, M.A. Rody, & L. Rosenberry. 2010. Inspiring Spaces for Young Children. Silver Spring, MD: Gryphon House.
Forman, G. 1994. “Different Media, Different Languages.” Paper presented at the Study Seminar on the Experience of the Municipal Infant–Toddler Centers and Preprimary Schools of Reggio Emilia in Reggio Emilia, Italy. ERIC, ED375932.
Schon, D.A. 1983. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kay M. Cutler, Ph.D., is the director of the Fishback Center for Early Childhood Eudcation, and a Professor in Teaching, Learning, and Leadership at South Dakota State University, Brookings, South Dakota. Kay has taught in higher education for 20 years, studied Reggio-inspired practices and inquiry-based learning for 16 years, and values working with new teachers who are tackling complex methods like incorporating teacher-research into their practices.