Thursday, November 17, 2011

Grassroots Professionalism

I would like to continue my inquiry into professionalism if you would bare with me...

Now Carmen Dalli (Victoria University, Wellington, Aotearoa) did a research project back in 2008 where she looked at professionalism from the perspectives of teachers. So while my earlier post on professionalism focused on the encroachment of corporate values, this post will look more at what we as ECE teachers should be insisting constitutes professionalism for us. This is about reclaiming professionalism.

First there's the history:

In her article, The re-emergence of a critical ecology, Dalli (2010) describes how small, independent community-based centres, or 'critical ecologies', drove the transition of a largely invisible, ad hoc collection of early childhood centres (educational and care) into a profession. Through collaboration, critical thinking, practice-based evidence and advocacy, the sector critically engaged with the notion of 'becoming' (Vossler et al, 2005 – now I hope you have read this by now). While not dismissing the value of attaining traditional hallmarks of professionalism, many commentators are expressing concerns that 'top-down' interpretations of professionalism are increasingly shaped by social, economic and political discourses that are threatening this direct expression of professionalism within the early childhood sector as defined by its constituents (Dalli, 2010; Moss, 2010; Urban, 2010).

We have established that 'professionalism' is a key neoliberal discourse as it relates to accountability, control and the notion of quality: a measurable, manageable, standardised outcome. This economic definition of professionalism can be seen in recent government policy moves that include the increased funding of the private sector, lowering the percentage of qualified teachers required in a centre, and cuts to professional development and research programmes. With education compelled to operate within a competitive business model, the early childhood sector is facing several challenges to its professional status with the principle of autonomy being central. I wrote about this crisis of autonomy in my post Professionalism and the Corporate Monster, so go and jump to that one and get up to speed before we continue.

Okay so now that we have established this need for professional autonomy as a sector, we must balance it with the pedagogical need for collaboration within our learning community – with colleagues, management, children, parents, and whānau. This need raises questions of the sector's 'perimeter' and what this means when defining professionalism. Hedges (2010) describes how “partnership with families in children's learning is a taken for granted feature of the curriculum, philosophy, policy and practice of Aotearoa/New Zealand early childhood education”. This apparent contradiction of traditional interpretations of professionalism where power is closely guarded (and entrenched), highlights the contextual complexities in reinventing 'professionalism' in the context of ECEC.

Now in countering corporate manifestations of professionalism, there are calls for a ground-up re-interpretation of professionalism that envisions the re-establishing of democratic and participatory structures and relationships, to reclaim space and ask critical questions that once again build on the radical roots of the early childhood profession. Dalli's (2008) research into contemporary teacher interpretations of professionalism revealed three “core conceptual elements in how teachers in education and care settings defined professionalism,” that can serve to guide this re-imagining. These three themes were pedagogy, professional knowledge and practice, and collaborative relationships, and are an indicator of the fundamental challenges the sector faces from top-down interpretations of professionalism.

So I'm going to pull out aspects of professionalism from Dalli's framework that are absent from standard definitions, but I would argue are integral to ECEC.

Pedagogy of Care:

The early childhood education and care sector are fundamentally linked to families and the wider community, and this close association with “the role of mothering, and the attendant discourses of love and care, have acted to disempower early childhood practitioners from claiming professional status” (Dalli, 2008). A pedagogy of care acknowledges a growing body of knowledge foundered on ethical and philosophical discourses that the early childhood environment is a place of ethical and political encounter “which should inform all aspects of life and which includes attentiveness, responsibility, competence and responsiveness” (Tronto, 1993). This space of mutuality allows for democratic dialogue, genuine listening, to welcome diversity, and project the notion of care through practice knowing that “children watch closely what we do with each other more than they listen to what we say to each other” (Swick, 2003). Dalli argues that care as a pedagogical tool needs to be acknowledged and promoted as a valid theoretical position that is an integral part of any re-conceptualisation of professionalism in the early childhood context.

Informal Knowledge:

Dalli's research indicates that “general knowledge about children and the theory of early childhood education is central to professionalism,” a statement that almost belies the complexity of knowledge in all its pedagogical nuances. If we utilise Shulman's (1986) six categories of knowledge we can focus on pedagogical content knowledge as have particular relevance to ECEC. 'Pedagogical content knowledge' is a theoretical framework that attempts to unite the subject to the act of teaching in a way that makes it comprehensible. It consists of three factors: knowledge of a subject, knowledge of a child's existing knowledge and beliefs about the subject, and knowledge of effective ways to teach this subject. In exploring the origins of pedagogical content knowledge, Shulman touches on a source that is highly relevant to the early childhood teacher and the concept of professionalism: practical wisdom. Here, a teacher's 'funds of knowledge' that reflect lived experience, values and beliefs, support and enhance the enactment of theory-based content and curriculum knowledge (Hedges, 2010; Shulman, 1986).

Lunenberg & Korthagen (2009) and Vossler et al, (2005) propose that this informal knowledge base is integral to teacher's work within a highly individualised and responsive curriculum where it is necessary to draw upon a diverse range of knowledge and skills to respond to moment-moment learning situations. In recognising the pedagogical value of informal knowledge, Urban (2008) proposes that the early childhood sector embrace a “paradigm of professionalism that turns away from the traditional and hierarchical concept of embodying an agreed body of knowledge.”

The professional reality for teachers in early child education is that knowledge reflects personal discourses and is constantly evolving in response to the social, cultural and political contexts and discourses that an ethic of encounter generates. In further support of the pedagogical position of informal knowledge, Vossler et al (2005) bring attention to the funds of knowledge a learner contributes to a learning environment that embraces the uncertainty of co-constructing new knowledge. Together, these bodies of individualised and evolving knowledge that arise from the relational basis of learning in the early childhood context, constitute powerful arguments against linking the notion of professionalism solely to an externally constructed 'regime of truth' that is defined and controlled by those who hold power. (Vossler et al, 2005; Urban, 2008)

Teachers as Researchers:

Central to Vossler et al's (2005) support for recognising the professional value of informal knowledge is the concept of 'becoming' and reflective practice. Here the teacher exists in a state of perpetual learning with the nuances of knowledge, be it informal, content, curricular, or pedagogical, all continuing to grow and develop through the process of critical reflection. Through juxtaposing “ideas, situations, or experiences against some theory or practice in an attempt to clarify and illuminate and ultimately make change” (p.22), teachers are responding to practice-based evidence in a manner that encapsulates Dalli's (2008) notion of a 'ground-up' professional knowledge.

Goodfellow & Hedges (2007) propose that “one critical way in which early childhood practitioners can be considered as professionals is for them to systematically engage in inquiry into their own practices” (p. 187). Reflective practice was also highlighted as an indicator of professionalism in Dalli's (2008) study, yet there is criticism that reflective inquiry is limiting in that the process is not open to the wider educational community where critique and debate can prevent taken for granted “beliefs and assumptions that underpin their practice” (Goodfellow & Hedges, 2007, p.192). In advocating for ongoing inquiry, the authors challenge educators to raise the standard of their inquiry and engage in practitioner research as a means for “re-imagining a whole new foundation for early childhood education” (p. 192). In differentiating practitioner research from reflective practice, Goodfellow & Hedges (2007) detail the following hallmarks: adopting a theoretical stance; a literature base; suitable methodology; incorporating ethical considerations; and sharing the process and findings with the educational community. The authors claim that this type of active engagement with theory and practice in an environment of co-construction with colleagues and external researchers contributes to deeper understanding and significant change in teacher practice.


Cullen (2009) proposes that by adopting such a co-constructive philosophy in the wider context of day-to-day relationships with colleagues and parents, teachers will benefit from significant knowledge as a result of this collaboration. Dalli's (2008) study identifies collaborative relationships “within the teaching team, beyond the centre, with parents, and with management,” as a key component of a ground-up professionalism.

Establishing a team ethos that values and practices a distributed leadership framework and reflects a socio-cultural view of learning can ensure that all voices are heard. The plethora of skills and perspectives available generates multiple interpretations of learning that can support and enhance the ongoing journey of 'becoming' (Roder & Javanovic, 2008).

The principles and strands of the early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 1996), provide a framework for building a strong partnership with family and whānau that encourage shared decision-making, authentic participation and engagement that allows teachers to move from having information about children to deeper contextual knowledge of children (Hedges, 2010). The benefits of collaboration are reciprocal. Swick et al (2001) report that “parents thrive on healthy relationships with other adults, children, and supportive groups” (p.66) where they gain knowledge on a wide range of child and family issues. Positive, reciprocal relationships with teachers are shown to encourage and empower parents resulting in increased involvement in their child's education which produces positive educational outcomes. Educators are a valuable source of support and resources, essentially “an ecology of hope,” through which parents and families can become an integral part of the curriculum as empowered learners.

Collaborative relationships of the types described where power is intentionally dispersed to facilitate participation with the goal of enhancing the learning and well-being of learners, is a direct challenge to Western, neo-liberal interpretations of professionalism. Where instead of attempting to subsume 'other' so they become 'same' and thus entrench their power, educators welcome and embrace diversity as professionals (Moss, 2010).

Dalli's (2008) three overarching themes of professionalism - a distinct pedagogical style, professional knowledge and practice, and collaborative relationships, both incorporate and build upon the hard-won foundations of a traditional interpretation of professionalism that includes specialist training and qualifications, policy, standards and regulations etc. Yet, I would argue, there exists crucial elements to the profession of teaching that are yet to be fully recognised as desirable professional attributes. In recognising these professional 'extras' that offer a genuine representation of the uniqueness and complexity of early childhood education, Moss (2010) challenges educators “to adopt pedagogical approaches and practices that support the purposes of education, the values of diversity and democracy, the ethics of care and encounter, and an attitude of research and experimenting” (p. 16). A stance which is echoed by Dalli's (2010) call for a 're-emergence of a critical ecology of the profession' similar to the pioneers who successfully established early childhood education as a profession.

References (formatting stuffed as usual thanx Blogger:):
Codd, J. (2008). Neoliberalism, globalisation and the deprofessionalisation of teachers. In Carpenter, V. M., Jesson, J., Roberts, P., & Stephenson, M. (Eds.). Ngā kaupapa here: Connections and contradictions in education. pp. 25- 34. Melbourne, VIC, Australia: Cengage Learning.
Cullen, J. (2009). Adults co-constructing professional knowledge. In A. Anning, J. Cullen, & M. Fleer (Eds.), Early childhood education: Society and culture (2nd ed., pp. 80-90). London: Sage.
Dalli, C. (2008). Pedagogy, knowledge and collaboration: towards a ground-up perspective on professionalism. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 16(2), 175-185.
Dalli, C. (2010). Towards the re-emergence of a critical ecology of the early childhood profession in New Zealand. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood. 11(1).
Goodfellow, J., & Hedges, H. (2007). Practitioner research “centre stage”: Contexts, contributions and challenges. In L. Keesing-Styles & H. Hedges (Eds.), Theorising early childhood practice: Emerging dialogues, pp. 187-210.  Baulkham Hills, NSW: Pademelon Press.
Hedges, H. (2010). Through the kaleidoscope: Relationships and communication with parents. The First Years: Nga Tau Tuatahi/New Zealand Journal of Infant and Toddler Education, 12(1), 27-34.
Hedges, H. (2010a). Whose play, goals and interests? The interface of children’s play and teachers’ pedagogical practices. In L. Brooker & S. Edwards, (Eds.), Engaging play. Open University Press.
Lunenberg, M., & Korthagen, F. (2009). Experience, theory, and practical wisdom in teaching and teacher education. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 15(2), 225-240.
Ministry of Education (1996). Te Whāriki. He whāriki mātauranga mō ngā mokopuna o Aotearoa: Early childhood curriculum. Wellington: Learning Media.
Moss, P. (2010) We cannot continue as we are: the educator in an education for survival. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood. 11(1).
Roder, J. & Javanovic, S. (2008). More than “follow the leader”: Rethinking agency in early childhood leadership. In The first years: Ngā tau tuatahi. New Zealand journal of the infant and toddler education. 10(1), 2008.
Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4-14.
Swick, K., Da Ros, D., & Kovach, B. (2001). Empowering parents and families through a caring inquiry approach. Early Childhood Education Journal, 29(1), 65-71.
Urban, M. (2008) Dealing with Uncertainty: challenges and possibilities for the early childhood profession. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 16(2), 135-152.
Urban, M. (2010). Rethinking professionalism in early childhood: untested feasibilities and critical ecologies. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood. 11(1).
Vossler, K., Waitere-Ang, H., & Adams, P. (2005). Becoming an educator. In P. Adams, K. Vossler, & C. Scrivens (Eds.). Teacher's work in Aotearoa New Zealand. pp. 9-10, 17-28. Southbank, Vic: Thomson/Dunmore.


@ko said...

Kia ora e hoa,

These questions came via email:

"I'm interested in your thoughts about professionalism, specifically the argument that it shouldn't be defined from the top down. However that opinion is tendered by agents who as theorists and researchers could be defined as offering their opinion from 'the top down.' Does it strike you as hypocritical or perhaps ironic that they might be seen as advocating against themselves?"

Yes there are senior academics (Dalli, Hedges, Urban and Moss for instance) who are calling for a reconceptualisation of what it means to be a professional teacher and to reject top-down interpretations, but I don't consider this hypocritical at all – it rightly reflects a professionalism that grows from research/evidence. Like the teacher who strives to create an inclusive centre community by letting go of his/her privilege, we are witnessing ECE 'leaders' attempting to dismantle the hierarchy. Carmen Dalli, a leading academic in Aotearoa, takes her lead from evidence that teachers have traditionally constructed a definition of professional practice that is extremely robust and worthy of recognition when compared to outcomes resulting from a corporate-style professionalism.

It is simply good practice – as we should expect.

In the face of loss of autonomy, control of curriculum, professional development, and the obsession with economic 'quality' – could an academic who claims to be representing our sector support anything but a proven ground-up interpretation of professionalism that delivers educational success?

Yes it could be considered ironic, but only in a world where we pathologically seek power, consolidate power, abuse power. In my world, the end of hierarchies and power-over almost encapsulates the role of 'ako'. What do you think?

Te Kiira Parkinson said...

Arohamai, please accept my apoligies for the long silence. Life gets in the way doesn't it? Are you able to offer some examples of Dalli, Hedges, Urban and Moss 'letting go' of their privileges's, and what would you consider those privileges to be?

Thank you again for your blog, I consider it to be a much needed call to critique.

ako said...

Welcome back :)

I'll dig up the work I have of these academics with your questions in mind and get back to you.


ako said...

In reply to "Are you able to offer some examples of Dalli, Hedges, Urban and Moss 'letting go' of their privileges's, and what would you consider those privileges to be?

Not really unfortunately. Not knowing them personally or having info about their lives, I can only point you to their academic work and their stated positions: Reject the neo-liberal model of 'professional teachers' and rediscover the strength and solidarity that fired earlier changes for ECEC.

I think that in structuring her research, defining her pedagogy and demands for change around the voices of teachers, Dali is 'letting go' of her power to influence policy changes etc. About as close as I can get I'm afraid.

I saw her speak a few days ago. Her arguments remain radical (in my opinion anyway) and reflect what I believe is grassroots opinion based on best practice. She discussed how ideology now controls the education debates (something Ivan Snook also discusses). She is on the Taskforce advisory committee and I trust her to fight on my behalf. The report is due to be released in a few weeks so keep an ear out for it.

Does this help?


ako said...

oh you should read the Moss article 'We cannot continue as we are' where he demolishes our 'distractions' with professionalism and calls for education for survival - the world is dying and we are doing what exactly? Might have to revisit it myself for a more in-depth rant :) Later.