Lucy Parker, Ludwick Nursery School, UK
This article draws on findings from a small-scale research project that explored the formation of pedagogical beliefs in female Early Years teachers (Parker, 2017). The study sought to provide an opportunity to listen to Early Years teachers’ ideas, and gain a greater understanding of their pedagogy and how their pedagogical beliefs have been shaped and formed.
Pedagogy is complex and hard to define and it is only recently that this term has been used more frequently in the English education sector. Alexander (2008) argues that pedagogy is multi-faceted and made up of different related domains of ideas and values, including self, society, past, culture, community, curriculum and children.
There is evidence to show that Early Years professionals struggle to articulate their pedagogy (Moyles et al., 2002a, 2002b; Stephen, 2010). Some scholars suggest that in order to gain a greater understanding of pedagogy, providing opportunities for teachers to engage in discussion and reflection is necessary, so that their pedagogy becomes more visible and less tacit (Birmingham, 2004; Moyles et al., 2002a, 2002b). This article highlights the importance of providing Early Years teachers with the opportunity to engage in pedagogical reflection.
A two-phase life history interview method was utilised in order to provide the 12 study participants with the opportunity to discuss their personal and professional lives. The subjective nature of the life history method makes it well suited to exploring teachers’ perceptions, ideals and beliefs, as it provides an opportunity for the person telling their story to share their experiences and perceptions of their own life (Goodson and Sikes, 2001). Both phases involved an individual interview, with the second phase utilising objects and photographs chosen by the participants to represent their pedagogical beliefs. Using objects as stimuli to support reflection can be a powerful tool (Goodson and Sikes, 2001; Plummer, 2001), and possessions can be a valuable way of exploring memory and reflection (Plummer, 2001). The participants were invited to bring a selection of objects and/or photographs that they felt represented their pedagogy. Through using something visual and familiar to stimulate conversation, it was hoped that the objects and photographs would help to facilitate the exploration of the participants’ pedagogy.
The data was analysed using thematic analysis, which highlighted salient themes and the commonalities across the participants’ stories. One strong theme was the influence of the past on the participants’ pedagogical beliefs, and the strong connection that they had to their own childhood experiences. A number of the objects that they shared were biographical. For example, one participant shared her grandmother’s sewing basket. For her, this represented the importance of ‘real’ experiences, and she recalled childhood memories of exploring her grandmother’s button box and the ‘excitement and intrigue’ that this created. She now provides little boxes of objects for the children in her class to explore, and feels that this is also connected to trusting them, not only with small objects but also with things that are not necessarily ‘toys’.
I don’t want it to be plastic all the time and I want the children to have real experiences that one day they can look back on and actually think that was the start of developing life skills…when I used to go to my Nan’s there wasn’t anything like that and we used to go in the greenhouse and we used to plant seeds and we used to go with my Granddad and the woodwork and we’d have the sewing box out or we’d go baking…
Another participant also shared biographical objects to represent her pedagogical beliefs. She saw a clear link between the resources and experiences that she had as a child with the resources and experiences with which she wanted her class to engage. She remembered playing with ‘simple resources… pegs or simple shapes, shapes in tins…’. The memories of playing with simple objects as a child has made her carefully consider the resources that she provides in her setting. When reflecting on what she wanted the children she taught to have access to, she said:
I’d always say a variety of scale, so you can do small and you can do large. I do love the outside blocks… being able to play on those scales, and multiples, they love multiples of… it could be anything… it could be multiples of books or cotton reels, you know… logs…
When she reflected about choosing the objects to bring to her interview, she described the significance of a collection of bags that she had brought to represent her interest in ‘multiples’.
First of all, after I’d started looking for things and then thought, “oh I need to get a bag”, so I went to get a bag and then realised that I have hundreds, this is only a selection, it’s not about what the bags are but just that I have collections and collections of things to go, “Oh we’re doing that, oh I’ve got some of those”, so that’s an illustration of the piles of multiples of resources, multiple, multiple bags, and then these, which are bags. These are from my childhood that my mum kept…
For this participant, the importance of these resources and the ability to bring in ‘stuff’ from home to inspire and engage the children was significant. She acknowledged the positive connection between home and school, and this appeared to be an important part of her pedagogy.
These examples show that early lived experiences appeared to be significant in the construction of the participants’ pedagogical beliefs, highlighting the importance of the past as an influencing domain in pedagogical development (Alexander, 2008). The objects, which were symbolic of the participants’ past and a representation of their childhood, provided an opportunity to support them in the articulation of their pedagogical beliefs, linking their past and their present pedagogy.
What was also interesting, when analysing the objects and photographs that had been shared, was that a number of participants used objects as metaphors to describe aspects of their pedagogy.
- a kaleidoscope to represent the children’s colourful personalities and the colourfulness of Early Years (no day is the same)
- a light bulb to represent when ideas/concepts click for children and the excitement that you feel as an adult when you witness this progression in learning
- a scarf to represent warmth
- a photograph of scales to represent balance
- a heart to represent emotional connections and attachment
- a wooden block to represent building firm foundations
- a picture of children holding hands to represent The recognition of individual differences in terms of race, ... More and uniqueness.
These objects helped to articulate the participants’ pedagogy and provided a powerful way in which to articulate their beliefs. The benefits of using metaphor as a way to enrich practitioners’ thinking about pedagogy have also been highlighted in research utilising pedagogical documentation methods with trainee teachers (Flannery Quinn and Schwartz, 2011; Flannery Quinn and Parker, 2016).
One participant used a heart to represent the importance that she placed on emotional connections and attachment. She linked this to training that she had had but also to the influence of becoming a mother. When sharing the heart, she said:
Emotional connections between children and practitioners… that, I believe, is really important and kind of emotional connections between parents and their children as well, so really thinking about attachment and things like that and how important that key person is in a child’s life or whether it’s the key person here or it’s their parent as the key person, but how strong that relationship needs to be I think is really, really important for that child to feel kind of safe and secure and loved and… part of a place…
Like the biographical objects, objects as metaphors appeared to support the participants’ articulation of their pedagogy. They also confirmed and re-enforced the pedagogical beliefs that had been shared in the first interview. For example, this participant in her first life history interview had talked in depth about becoming a mother, engaging in theoretical training and also her experience working in a Children’s Centre, all of which were experiences that made her believe in the importance of attachment and strong emotional connections. She then substantiated this further when discussing the significance of the heart.
These findings demonstrate that using objects and photographs can be an effective way in which to support Early Years teachers to discuss, reflect upon and share their pedagogical beliefs. This approach can also be successfully used in a setting to support staff development and CPD (continuing professional development). In my current nursery school setting, we utilised this approach when we wanted to regroup as a staff team following the COVID pandemic. The pandemic had forced us to work separately, and when we returned to face-to-face training, we wanted the opportunity to share our pedagogy with each other in order to reconnect through discussion and reflection, but also to support the rewriting of our curriculum. Bringing pedagogical objects together to share and reflect on proved a powerful way in which to look at the similarities and differences in our pedagogical approaches, and also to consider how to develop pedagogical expertise within the staff team, as well as consider how our pedagogical beliefs fitted in with the new curriculum vision that we were trying to write.