This past year I have been fortunate enough to be a teaching assistant (TA) for some of the early learning courses I took in my undergraduate degree. This has provided me with an opportunity to revisit many of the topics I learned previously, and engage with them on a deeper level. Simultaneously, I have been mentored by knowledgable and wise educators, as was highlighted in my graduate practicum with the Region of Waterloo. During this placement I was tasked with learning about and summarizing information regarding measuring quality in diverse early learning programs, and considering how to support programs in meeting their goals to elevate quality. This opportunity not only led me to acknowledge the many competing priorities that early learning staff face, but to reflect upon how learning happens for adults and how change occurs in workplace culture.
This learning was not just a typical kind of maturation or response to exposure; rather, I believe it was some intentional growth after being challenged and engaging deeply with my work. Below I outline and synthesize some things I have learned and experienced within this practicum happening in tandem with my learning as a TA. I also consider what might be necessary to evoke change, learning, growth and transformation in other educators.
Quality learning environments: what is quality, how can it be measured in various settings, and how can it improve?
This is an inherently complex and contextual question, and reflecting on this has often led me in circles rather than to an answer. The longer I ponder these questions, the less clear I become on how to define, capture, and enhance quality. Something I keep coming back to, though, is that quality is not static. While outside funding providers may want statistics or quantitative evidence that quality is improving, I have realized that measuring quality is not as objective as it appears. It depends on the relationships that exist, the training of the staff, and the support staff receives for trying new things. Many systemic factors influence quality and yet we expect staff to work with the resources and within the parameters they have to still provide quality care. From this perspective, the “standard” for quality moves in response to what occurs in settings, and I do not yet know how to articulate that in a consistent way in order to measure it. This responsiveness implies that to be a quality learning environment means that it improves. It means that adults are supported to engage in data collection (observation and assessment) of things like their program plans and pedagogical documentation, their responses to the children, the opportunities available to children, and the circumstances of the families and communities that are served by the program. Data collection and review should prompt the adults and staff to then reflect upon what is going well and what can improve. This data can be shown and shared so that many stakeholders can have their perspectives considered (i.e., going public with these ideas in order to get additional feedback and perspectives). Like pedagogical documentation, this data can prompt a conversation to spark further curiousity, not certainty. Therefore, with everyone’s perspectives considered, next steps and scaffolded goals can be created to address the curiosities or improve areas of need. Without consulting parents, educators, supervisors, parent boards, and administrative staff, there is no guarantee that all stakeholders have the capacity to reach the goals, that everyone can be committed to the goals, and that the goals can/will be shared appropriately.
But this process should be more than consultation, I have realized. To truly foster a democratic culture that is open to supporting development, learning, and growth, this needs to be a community conversation. This kind of community conversation is not just a one-time “check-in” between a supervisor and an educator, but rather, an on-going dialogue where each individual feels connected to, inspired by, and committed to the process. How do we foster this kind of thing in early learning when pay isn’t great, educators are exhausted, and under the current circumstances of the additional complexities of operating during a pandemic? I have some thoughts from my observations in practicum.
Creating Cultures for Change.
Similarly to how it is difficult to give feedback to families unless we have strong relationships with them, it is difficult to give our colleagues feedback unless we have relationships with one another. Workplace culture must support staff wellbeing (as I am learning about in my thesis). In order to create spaces where adults feel safe to come forward with their concerns, and where leaders are in a position to hear these concerns, hold space to grapple with these concerns, and make offerings to resolve these concerns collaboratively, these spaces must be an extension of supportive relationships that already exist between staff. (The high turn over of staff in early learning programs does not just influence staff-child-family relationships, but affects staff-staff relationships, workplace culture, and larger visions for programs.)
Without fostering supportive spaces and relationships, how can we expect educators and supervisors to share their honest opinions? Goal-setting is a messy and non-linear process, and it creates a disequilibrium between what is currently happening and what will occur in the future (Ministry of Education, 2014a; Robinson et al., 2009). Admitting that change needs to occur is often uncomfortable and therefore requires that staff feel empowered to be brave. This bravery can be supported by a move from fostering safe spaces to fostering brave spaces (Pelo & Carter, 2018, p. 86; Arao & Celemens, 2013), and this disequilibrium, Carter articulates, is a space to linger in, and even set up camp (Pelo & Carter, 2018, p. 220). This brave, discontented space, when used for goal setting, can be motivating and lead groups to create higher expectations and improve their performance (Ministry of Education, 2014a).
Transformative Learning (for children and adults).
Lingering in generative space (Pelo & Carter, 2018) is, arguably, where learning happens for adults and children. As I implied above, being able to linger in generative space has some prerequisites in terms of relationships and support for one another. We know that learning happens when the foundations of well-being, expression, engagement and belonging are upheld (Ministry of Education, 2014b). Through attending the Block meetings with the Region, I have realized that facilitating generative space and the lingering within it, can happen in a few ways, and it is not so different from fostering nurturing learning environments with young children (as mentioned by Pelo and Carter (2018)).
- For example, explicitly celebrating success, authenticity and growth can create a sense of community and connection, even in a brief meeting. This means taking time to reflect the good things you’re hearing in your encounters with staff and children even if it is slightly off-topic.
- Fostering a culture of inquiry can be achieved by promoting the sharing of ideas, questions and resources by everyone, not just those in hierarchical positions. Like supporting children in their inquiry by offering meaningful questions and materials, staff can be supported with similar offerings (e.g., “I wonder what would happen if…” questions). Engaging with educators as you’d hope they engage with children not only provides role modelling for the educators, but promotes their unique journeys (Pelo & Carter, 2018).
- Similarly, administrative or pedagogical leaders can be co-learners by standing side-by-side and walking with educators and supervisors on their individual and collective learning journeys (Pelo & Carter, 2018). This involves meeting each person or program where they are, currently, and scaffolding support in a meaningful way. Inherently, this requires collaboration, compromise, and a willingness to listen to one another in a “meeting of the minds” (Pelo & Carter, 2018).
- Relationship building operates on unique time, and sometimes prioritizing the relationships above other goals is necessary to achieve long-term change. Fostering trust and confidence is likely the foundation (of brave spaces) that is required prior to expecting people to be comfortable being authentic and honest with their needs and desires for change. It is also likely required to journey to the roots/sources of problems to then resolve them.
In summary, I have realized that these are all skills and considerations I would like to continue to foster for myself to support both children and my fellow educators on paths that not only lead to learning, but transformation.
So far, I have resisted in discussing transformative learning, I am hoping that I am leading you to a place of pondering what it might mean. What does it mean to be transformed? When have you felt yourself pass through a threshold into a new way of understanding or integrating knowledge? As identified by Mezirow, transformative learning occurs through problem solving and communication, and is a process whereby individuals or groups move through a state of disequilibrium and critical self reflection, engage in goal-setting that identifies resources required to meet the goals, and into a willingness and bravery to try out the new roles/strategies/tools (Western Governors University, 2020). Next, I explore how I might use this knowledge in three specific ways after my experience with observing transformation and being transformed by my practicum.
The role of community.
Despite being a fairly independent, reflective, student/employee, I had a huge light-bulb moment when I realized that I am so limited by my own mind when I don’t “go public” with my ideas in a community space. For most of my life, I have been a reflective observer, an introvert, a highly sensitive person who has required space and time to decompress in private. But there came a point in time where I realized I need more information than what my own mind and readings can provide me. Learning happens in relationships; I need to actively experiment with my ideas in the moment and get feedback on them. Similarly, I love to support others in their idea-grappling as well. It has only been through my experience of supportive relationships that I have learned what it feels like to be respectfully challenged in my thinking, in a way that upholds my agency, integrity, and curiousity. Framed differently, having experience being supported as a capable, competent, and curious learner on my own journey is what has allowed me to become a brave student/employee who will bring forward concerns and ideas.
Prior to being able to offer support to other adults, I needed to feel supported in my own journey, and I needed to feel a sense of trust, respect, and familiarity in this process. I have realized that a benefit of entering into relationship with others is that I can grapple with ideas in a way that disrupts my own dominant ideas, can prompt a state of disorientation, and can begin or resolve my search for alternative ideas or perspectives prior to feeling confident in trying out my next steps to address the ideas I had.
The role of resources.
Additionally, despite feeling like I am a competent researcher/ knowledge-seeker, there is something absolutely magical about being given learning materials/quotations/alternative perspectives in-the-moment in response to what I am grappling with. It is not just the freedom of choice and my autonomy that bolstered my learning and transformation, but it was the deep listening of my mentors who then responded with a resource for me to explore. This is similar to the feedback supervisors had after the Block 2 meetings with QI: that having the PRC provide resources in the moment was useful and meaningful. There is nothing quite like the feeling that you are heard and that your peers are brainstorming solutions with you.
Therefore, I aim to be a responsive peer armed with useful or meaningful resources. This means I pay attention to my own learning journey and to questions, “aha” moments, and cognitive knots that I have – and what readings, conversations, or webinars moved me from a place of discontent into a new understanding. Clearly, encounters with materials, whether I unearth them on my own or am given them by a trusted peer, are a powerful source of learning that sparks and extends inquiry into resolution.
The role of reflective practice.
A final way I have noticed transformation during practicum has been through my commitment to and engagement with using reflective practice as a means to grow. For me, reflective practice includes moving through a critical reflection cycle (Gibbs’, Brookefield’s, Schön’s; or some combination of these) to describe my observations, to articulate and evaluate my reactions/behaviour/ideas, to actively visit perspective(s) where I am wrong, and then to explicitly consider what I will do differently with this newfound knowledge and insight. In this way, I continue to revisit my epistemological orientations and to refine my axiological and pedagogical commitments. My teaching philosophy statement is in a state of flux; and yet, I do not aim to be extractive in my moves towards self-improvement. I consider knowledge as something we enter into relationship with (Wilson & Hughes, 2019), and something that I sometimes need to respect as a whole (i.e., not to always just extract the most useful pieces). Therefore, I have realized that documenting my reflections, keeping track of those resources and community conversations that have pushed me in my own journey, and going public with my new insights keeps me accountable to the knowledge sources I am learning from. What I mean by this is that I do not want to become a resource; rather, I want to continue to be a responsive human. I want to pass on whole resources for others to consult as they need, not to gate-keep access to these sources, take credit for them, or misrepresent the use of sacred teachings.
A Transformative Learning Environment.
My encounters with knowledge is something that feels intimate to me, and by challenging that very notion it has sparked a learning journey beyond any that I could have predicted a few years ago. In 2018 I re-entered undergraduate education with modest hopes of upgrading marks, with the clear intention of becoming a RECE as a “stepping stone” for my career, and with a fierce vision to capitalize upon the experiences. By happenstance, this meant that I deeply engaged in the learning process which forever changed what I consider to be the purpose of education and care. I hold educators to a high standard because I believe in their vast potential, and I believe that there is nothing wasted in terms of developing pedagogical practices.
I believe transformative learning environments foster community, offer resources at varying levels of engagement, and nurtures self-reflection. It does not impose any particular worldview or approach, but supports each learner in developing their own. The environment should have natural learning consequences built in: dead-ends, responsive curriculum, and further questions to consider. It should support the creation of a brave space through its avenues of participation, active learning, private reflection, and responsiveness to inquiry. These spaces are built collaboratively with the instructors and learners, and they reflect all the things I have mentioned in this post so far. As I move forward in my identity as a RECE and as a hopeful future educator, I have intentionally decided to include “fostering transformative learning environments” in my teaching philosophies for working with young children, undergraduate students, and in-service educators.
In the preface of From Teaching to Thinking Ann Pelo writes about the feedback people gave her about getting graduate level training and working as an early childhood educator, which suggest that further education is wasted if one is working with young children. This section (along with the explanation of some of the history of Reggio Emilia and the connections to the first chapter, The Heart of Education) has moved me to tears both times I’ve read it. “What reality does this weave”? Ann asks. What a contradiction to not value the education of educators. What a contradiction to undermine their professional development. When I first read these pages a year ago for my Pedagogical Leadership practicum at the CCLC, I was in a different place: not yet a RECE, not yet enrolled in a Masters program, not yet convinced I belonged in early learning. Yet after lingering in the questions I had about early learning I realized that those were the questions that most excite and motivate me. I wandered and wondered my way back to reading these same pages in response to my own reflections and as next-steps for myself in this practicum. I revisited these ideas, by going deeper and with a new lens as a researcher, on my own accord upon craving further questions to my questions – and ended up going so deep that I planted roots. To be able to spiralize my own learning is not a skill I would ever would have thought I could come out of my ECE training with. What a privilege to have enough authors names, books, webinars, blog posts, and articles to last me the next several years to think through. Little did I realize a few years ago that I would feel at home in early learning because of the disequilibrium and disorientation I was supported in grappling with. I lingered so long that I set up camp and stayed, without it being my intention, which, in many ways, is the essence of what it feels like to be transformed by problems, discussion, experience, environment, and community.
Ministry of Education (2014a). Exploring five core leadership capacities. Setting goals: The power of purpose. IdeasIntoAction. http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/policyfunding/leadership/IdeasIntoActionBulletin4.pdf
Ontario Ministry of Education (2014b). How Does Learning Happen? Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years. http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/childcare/howlearninghappens.pdf
Pelo, A., & Carter, M. (2018). From teaching to thinking: A pedagogy for reimagining our work. Exchange Press.
Western Govern’s University (July 17, 2020). What is the transformative learning theory?https://www.wgu.edu/blog/what-transformative-learning-theory2007.html#close
Wilson, S., & Hughes, M. (2019). Why research is reconciliation. In Wilson, S., Breen, A. V., & DuPré, L. (Eds.), Research and reconciliation: Unsettling ways of knowing through Indigenous relationships (pp.6 – 19). Canadian Scholars.