The Educational Leader Role (4)
by Kate Hodgekiss on October 31
Driving Critical Reflection-
The term ‘critical reflection’ appears repeatedly throughout the National Quality Standard (ACECQA, 2017) and yet, was something we rarely spoke about prior to its initial release in 2011. It is a term which scares many educators, and for which there is a general lack of understanding. However, with an entire element (1.3.2) and exceeding theme (2) dedicated to critical reflection, it is a concept with which we must become comfortable. Furthermore, according to the latest NQS Snapshot (ACECQA, 2019) Standard 1.3 (which includes the element on critical reflection) is the standard which has the highest levels of services rated as working towards, meaning it is something the sector needs to improve on as a whole.
Critical reflection is a term many in the sector find intimidating, but it shouldn’t be scary, it should be exciting and evoke feelings of passion, not fear. Philosopher and psychologist John Dewey, believed we do not simply learn from an experience, but through the art of reflecting on that experience, after the fact (Beard & Wilson, 2013). An idea which seemed to influence, not only critical reflection as a practice, but also the Reggio Emilia concept of the ‘teacher as a researcher’ — something which we will be discussing in greater detail in article five of this series. For the purpose of this piece we will be exploring what the term ‘critical reflection’ actually means, and how it can be used to drive quality educational programs and practice.
Defining Critical Reflection
As mentioned above, the term ‘critical reflection’ can evoke feelings of fear and discomfort in some educators due to the connotations of the word critical as meaning disparaging or judgemental. It has no such meaning when combined with other words, in terms such as ‘critical thinking’. Thus it is useful to first define critical reflection within the context of the early childhood profession. ‘Reflection’ is defined by the Oxford Dictionary (2019) as “your written or spoken thoughts about a particular subject or topic” which in the context of early childhood could mean your thoughts about children’s learning, or educator practice. ‘Critical’ is defined by Oxford Dictionary (2019) as “Expressing or involving an analysis of the merits and faults of a work of literature, music, or art” and ‘critical thinking’ (2019) as “the process of analysing information in an objective way, in order to make a judgement about it”. In early childhood the most common forms of information we would be analysing against would be “The Early Years Learning Framework” – EYLF for short (DEEWR, 2009), or theories prevalent to early childhood practice, learning and development — such as the theories of Bronfenbrenner, Vygotsky and Piaget (to name a few). Thus critical reflection, in early childhood, could be defined as the art of analysing and reflecting on our own thoughts about children’s learning and educator practice, against the information of the EYLF, theories of education and educational research.
Reflection can come in many shapes and forms. Three of the most common forms of reflection we see in early childhood services are the daily (or sometimes weekly/monthly) reflections of children’s learning, traditional self reflection journals, and platforms for discussion and debate. These are the areas we will be covering for the purpose of this article, but it is important to recognise that critical reflection can be much more than this in early childhood services, and the more high order techniques such as research and mentorship will be discussed in the final two articles of this series.
A Daily Reflection on Children’s Learning
Long before the introduction of the EYLF (2009), or the NQS in 2011, most services would complete a ‘daily diary’ to inform parents of the day, as well as a weekly evaluation of the educational programs. One of the wonderful ideas that came from the NQS and EYLF was to combine these concepts of journaling and evaluating, into regular critical reflections of learning. This allows for an analysis of learning which can also be informative to families, not only about their child’s day, but about the importance of early childhood education. Our reflections of learning which we share with families are one of our best opportunities to engage in regular advocacy. The more regularly we critically reflect on children’s learning, the more we ourselves will learn how to teach. Just as importantly, consistent critical reflection encourages meaningful, in-the-moment extensions of children’s engagement in planned experiences.
Most services appear fairly comfortable with analysing children’s learning against the outcomes of the EYLF; however to truly critically reflect we should be looking deeper than just how children progress against the outcomes (although this is important and not to be forgotten). A critical reflection instead requires us to focus, not only on what learning is taking place (outcomes), but how that learning is occurring, and how we contribute to that as educators (principles and practices). Furthermore, to critically reflect at a professional and high quality level, we should be analysing these aforementioned factors against early childhood theory and current research in to child development.
Using the Principles and Practices of the EYLF to Guide Reflection
Understanding the principles and practices of the EYLF is paramount to quality educational programs. Before educators can reflect against these, they will need to have a good understanding of what each area covers, and how the principles underpin the practices. Once, as educators, we have a good working knowledge of these guides, we can then use them to reflect against. As we describe children’s engagement in an experience it is helpful to think about and document how this experience (and the educators and children’s interactions within the experience) demonstrates the principles or practices. For example, is the experience holistic? Does it display intentionality? How were the educators responsive to the children in the moment? And then we must think about (and document) how this impacted the children’s engagement and learning throughout.
Using Theory to Guide Reflection
It is unfortunate that theory is not something which is covered more thoroughly in early childhood training, because the usefulness of a good working knowledge of theory is priceless. Theory is something which can assist us in really understanding the way in which children learn, and how important our role is, as a supporter of that learning. Furthermore, it reminds us of just how much we should also value the ‘care’ factor in early childhood. Take attachment theory, for example. A deep understanding of attachment theory assists us in valuing the bonds children make in the first few years of life and how significant this is to their future relationships, and thus learning. And anyone who knows Erikson will know how his first stage of psychosocial crisis (Trust VS Mistrust) supports attachment theory also.
Educators who have a good understanding of how theory underpins the principles and practices of the EYLF, will also be able to use theory to guide their critical reflections of learning. Using the above example of attachment theory, an educator who links to the principle of “Secure, respectful, reciprocal relationships” (EYLF, 2009, p. 13) will then be able to describe that same experience against the theories of John Bowlby and Erik Erikson.
Professional Reflection Journals
While the above approach involves some reflection on the educator themselves, it is important that they still have a private space to also critically reflect on their own practice. In most services, this seems to come in the form of a self-reflection journal, or a reflection section of an online programming system. The beauty of this technique is that there is no real right, or wrong way to engage in this sort of reflection. Some educators, who enjoy writing and journaling naturally, will take to this practice straight away. Others may prefer to mind-map their ideas or use lists and bullet points. There really is no way you can go wrong, as long as you are analysing your own practice against a theory, idea, article, or the EYLF. This should be a personal process and is something which allows us to continue to grow, question and challenge ourselves.
Providing a Platform for Debate and Discussion
Throughout the critical reflection exceeding theme of the NQS, there is the suggestion that educators should be allowed opportunities to discuss and debate current events and trends in the sector and best practice. This is something a lot of services struggle to provide, primarily due to ratios and budgets. It can be difficult to get educators together for discussion during opening hours when they are busy with their primary role of caring for and educating the children. This can lead to educators having to participate in a lot of out-of-hours work, for which they receive no renumeration. It is a sad fact, because this type of discussion is a wonderful tool for keeping educators motivated and passionate.
One of the ways in which some services overcome the issue of time is to utilise their online learning softwares. Many of the online learning programs will have forum pages or group pages to share articles and the like. Similarly, online social platforms such as Facebook, can provide connection and collaboration between educators. However, is this really enough? One of the traditional aspects to communication is the back and forth, or ‘serve and return’. For true collaboration there must be a two-way (at least) discussion, in which educators can engage in active listening, as well as the sharing of their ideas and opinions.
Affording time for educators to have non-contact together will often mean keeping your numbers down on one day, or hiring additional float staff on that day. You just need to be able to involve the room leaders, and once they have been engaged in the meetings, it is up to them to take the information back to their rooms and share with their respective teams (which could easily be achieved in quieter times of the day throughout the week). This ensures information is filtering through the whole service and engaging all educators.
The important aspect to the “Educational Leader Meetings” is that the agenda is very different to what one might expect at a typical staff meeting. There would be little to no ‘housekeeping’ on these agendas, but rather the meetings are used to discuss articles educators have been reading, areas for improvement in the service, practices being explored in Australia and throughout the world, case studies, pedagogical investigations (something we will be exploring in more depth in the fifth article of this series) and their findings, and a lot more. The meetings are used as a way of promoting professional and critical reflection of your practice within the context of theories, ideas and trends in the sector. Not only does this provide the platform for discussion and debate which is so necessary for quality improvement and promoting best practice, but it serves as a constant reminder to the educators to view themselves as intelligent and valued professionals.
Critical reflection is a huge topic, and there have been whole books dedicated to the subject. Here we have touched on just a few of the more common techniques we see employed in Australian early childhood services. Most of them are simple variations on something which we have always traditionally engaged with. The important thing to remember is that we are, essentially, analysing our thoughts against the thoughts of someone else. This is a wonderful way to grow as a professional and ensure quality improvement which leads to best outcomes for children. As previously mentioned, there are some more complex techniques which can, and should, be employed by early childhood services/educators, and that also fit in to the critical reflection category. We will be discussing these in the final two articles of the Educational Leader series, which should assist EL’s to drive a culture of critical reflection, leading to quality educational programs for all children.
ACECQA (2017). Guide to the National Quality Framework. ACECQA: Sydney
ACECQA, (2019), NQF Snapshot Q2 2019. ACECQA: Sydney
Beard, C., & Wilson, J. P. (2013). Experiential Learning: A Handbook for Education, Training and Coaching (Third Edition edition)
‘Critical’ (2019) in Oxford Dictionary Online Retrieved September 1st, 2019 from https://www.lexico.com/en/
‘Critical Thinking’ (2019) in Oxford Dictionary Online Retrieved September 1st, 2019 from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition
DEEWR, (2009). Early Years Learning Framework: Belonging, Being and Becoming. Commonwealth of Australia: Canberra
‘Reflection’ (2019) in Oxford Dictionary Online Retrieved September 1st, 2019 from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition