Parallel Voices Commentary—International Connections Enhance Early Childhood Educators’ Understandings of Learning
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Rereading “Reflecting across Borders: Palestinian and US Early Childhood Educators Engage in Collaborative Science Inquiry” provided a delightful and rich opportunity to further my thinking on teaching science, teacher inquiry, global connections, and early childhood education’s connection to K–12. “Reflecting across Borders” focuses on the teaching of science in early childhood by teachers from San Francisco and Palestine. I was one of the group of collaborating teachers who used teacher research to help deepen our practice and understanding of science pedagogy and inquiry work more broadly. The article concentrates the discussion of science teaching and inquiry by making an international comparison that allows us to share the learning gained by both the Palestinian and US teams. The questions we posed were directly tied to our research, yet the topics and questions that arose turned out to be bigger. This speaks to the impact of teacher research because the knowledge learned in one area, such as science pedagogy, informs one’s views and teaching in general. As the article indicates, the research findings can be of use to local teachers seeking information on teacher research, as well as those seeking to partner on any level with other educators who wish to grow their understanding of children and themselves as teachers. For me, the biggest themes that arose through participating in the research—and now in reflecting on it—are those focused on international connections in terms of early childhood educators’ understandings of learning, and how our field’s understanding of learning as holistic can support K–12, or even K–20, learning.
The interactions with the Palestinian team were informative and enjoyable. I learned a great deal about Palestinian schools, their expectations of children, and the teachers’ creativity. I was left with a desire to interact with the Palestinian teachers on a deeper level, in part because the electronic translations and interpretations via video communication that we depended on were not sufficient for the subtleties that arose as we examined our thinking, understanding, and discoveries. These thoughts about international communication brought to mind another global interaction, when I was invited to share my teacher research with early childhood educators from Chihuahua, Mexico. The teachers spoke English and we were able to communicate quite well, yet as a native Spanish speaker, I was also able to support the subtle questions and clarifications that were required for them to understand my research. When the teachers communicated in Spanish, they shared more details about their reading of teacher research, their school sites, the Mexican educational system, and specifically information about the Mexican preschool system, of which I had no previous knowledge. Upon discovering that I had attended school in Mexico for a year, the Mexican educators had many new questions that helped them explore the differences between schooling in Mexico and the US. The lack of language barriers made these exchanges fruitful and engaging for all involved. I am left wanting this deeper connection with my Palestinian colleagues. If we have the opportunity to work together again, maybe we can find funding to provide professional interpreters and translators to support the subtleties of our work together.
Another aspect of education that emerged when reflecting on this article was the relationship between early childhood and the K–12 system. As an early childhood teacher and site director in the United States, I know that early childhood education is seen as preparation for children to move onto kindergarten and beyond. Early childhood educators are pressed to teach everything from social and emotional understandings to what is referred to as preliteracy, premath, prescience, and other domains. This push for school readiness misses the mark on important conceptual and developmental learning that takes place in early education and creates a disconnect in how young children’s learning actually occurs. Our educational system is linear in that one grade and the knowledge gained within that grade is expected to fold into and support the teaching and learning in the next grade. This is logical. And yet, I would like to propose that this is not necessarily a helpful framework in any grade level. When the upper grade abilities and learning do not meet the expectations, the system blames the child and/or the educators in the lower grades for lack of proper teaching. The subtleties and importance of the learning, the child’s perspective on the world, and where the child is in their understanding of concepts and learning are missed when we think of learning as linear and within a format that claims one learning step leads to the next. Learning, to some extent, does work that way, yet on another level, it requires more time to process, to review and revisit the concepts learned, to practice and explore continuously, and time for reflection. K–12 systems, nationally and internationally, ought to revisit what they already know about learning, the brain, movement, and social and emotional interactions and to move toward pedagogical and curricular frameworks used by early childhood education that support learning within a developmental framework and a more holistic view of the child.
Thirty years of experience in early childhood education has taught me that it is possible to incorporate educational research into pedagogical practices that support a broader understanding of children’s learning and development and allow us to see the learning domains through an interactive and interconnected perspective. Three fundamental understandings in early childhood that support learning—although not practiced by all teachers—include the use of emergent curriculum, the use of hands-on activities, and the child’s access to movement throughout the day. Emergent curriculum makes space for children to follow their interests and to gain agency in their learning and for their questions to be heard, their reflections to be encouraged and supported, and their ideas to be valued (Stacey 2009, 2011; Schwartz & Copeland 2010). Hands-on activities support what we know about brain processing and incorporate sensory integration needs that expand the body and mind’s abilities to learn (Wilson 1998; Williamson & Anzalone 2001; Satterthwait 2010). In addition, hands-on activities allow children to explore on various levels, as opposed to simply using their visual and auditory senses and processing skills when sitting passively (Satterthwait 2010; Bowman 2017). Movement throughout the day provides children with free choice of activities, as well as the development of their bodies and the building of physical skills and abilities necessary for learning, development, and enjoyment (Best 2010; Bowman 2017)
Many early childhood programs feel pressured to change their systems of free play, emergent curricula, and hands-on activities to systems that involve more sitting and more direct instruction to assure children’s chances to succeed in K–12. “Reflecting across Borders” is a reminder that this kind of reform is not necessary. Children’s learning of scientific concepts can be achieved by incorporating even a few aspects of hands-on learning. For example, the Palestinian team—despite the fact that they were working within a system that relies more on direct instruction and children sitting still during class time—explored hands-on activities in small groups and learned about what works for them and what does not. Their teacher research reflections were bolstered by their exchanges with the US team, which deepened their understanding of how to support children’s learning while also building teachers’ confidence in their capacities to create a rich science curriculum. On the other side of the world, I learned from the Palestinian educators that providing a bit more direct instruction was supportive to the children’s emerging ideas without as much imposition of adult concepts as I had imagined. While direct teaching is still not my preferred position, I better understand how this approach can be effective, and I’m much more open to consider this different perspective than when I was teaching in an institution that required me to use direct instruction. I propose that both educators and students could expand their learning if they were equally engaged in emergent curricula, as well as in exploring more encompassing definitions of learning within a collaborative classroom environment. This approach better provides the critical thinking and full breadth of knowledge necessary to function in school, in everyday life, and in interactions on national or international levels. I also believe that pedagogical stances and practices from early childhood should be applied to the upper grades, starting in kindergarten. Children’s increased developmental capabilities should be matched to increasingly sophisticated content material in each succeeding grade, yet the key elements of emergent curricula, hands-on activities, and freedom of movement ought to be maintained. These features would provide a stronger learning environment for children than our current system does.
In summary, this opportunity to write a commentary on the article “Reflecting across Borders” allowed me to highlight how this project that used teacher inquiry within a global frame created important questions for us to consider as educators, including the following:
- How do we support one another as educators looking to learn and discuss the subtleties of our profession?
- How do we define learning, and what is the line between emergent curriculum and traditional teaching?
- How do we create connections for educators from K–20+ to learn and reflect together?
- How do we go about making global connections with other educators?
- How can these interactions be created naturally and authentically?
- What overall role does science play in education?
- How does science connect to all other subject matter in schools?
- How can we stop sectioning learning in domains and meld knowledge in more natural and useful ways?
- And finally, how can we deepen our understanding of human learning to best support children’s development and the changing world they are a part of?
“Reflecting across Borders” provides more questions than answers, but isn’t that what inquiry is supposed to do? I thank my research partners in the US and in Palestine for supporting and furthering my learning and my questions.
Best, J.R. 2010. “Effects of Physical Activity on Children’s Executive Function: Contributions of Experimental Research on Aerobic Exercise.” Developmental Review 30 (4): 331–51.
Bowman, K. 2017. Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement. Sequim, WA: Propriometric Press.
Satterthwait, D. 2010. “Why Are ‘Hands-On’ Science Activities so Effective for Student Teaching Science 56 (2): 7–10.
Schwartz, S.L., & S.M. Copeland. 2010. Connecting Emergent Curriculum and Standards in the Early Childhood Classroom: Strengthening Content and Teaching Practice. New York: Teachers College Press.
Stacey, S. 2009. Emergent Curriculum in Early Childhood Settings: From Theory to Practice. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf.
Stacey, S. 2011. The Unscripted Classroom: Emergent Curriculum in Action. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf.
Williamson, G.G., & M.E. Anzalone. 2001. Sensory Integration and Self-Regulation in Infants and Toddlers: Helping Very Young Children Interact With Their Environment. Washington, DC: Zero to Three Press.
Wilson, F.R. 1998. The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture. New York: Vintage Books.
Martha Melgoza is a director at Skytown Preschool in Richmond, CA. She encourages educators from the K–20+ system in the US, as well as globally, to reach out to her and join forces to define new inquiry and research projects. Her main interests revolve around teacher collaboration with families, reframing early childhood to better see the child through a lens of respect, bridging the transition for children and families into kindergarten with more ease and humanity, and other topics that deeply affect educators. Please reach out at [email protected].