Saturday, 4 December 2010

Researching early childhood pedagogy from the 1970s to the present

This post is a selection from my current work towards my doctorate in education. It is a discussion of four influential research projects over the last four decades in England which focus on early childhood education. I think all four are impressive pieces of work which have, for that reason, been highly influential. But it also seems to me that a kind of top-slicing occurs, where people try and isolate a particular practice or approach and make claims for it, without really thinking about the whole research project, or where the project sits historically - what informs each project, and what each project in turn informs.

The four projects discussed are: the Oxford Pre-School Project (1970s); the Froebel Educational Institute Project (schema theory - 1980s); The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project (1997 to the present) and the EXE Project (Effective Early Learning, EEL - 1990s to the present). As usual, I am very interested by debates, discussions, disagreements and clarifications, so please use the comment box on the blog or get in touch by email to support the free circulation of ideas, opinions and information.

The Oxford Pre-School Project

The Oxford Project, directed by Jerome Bruner, aimed to examine nursery education as it was found in Oxford and to encourage a spirit of critical enquiry amongst practitioners. Bruner (1980, page 204) states that “it was not our intent to sell alternative views about nursery education, but to bring them into discussion as and when our research pointed us that way ... perhaps our hidden agenda was to raise consciousness among practitioners.” In a similar vein, three of the researchers on the project, Sylva, Roy and Painter (1980, page 2), argue that “we view our findings as the basis for further research - not the formal kind we report here but the informal methods practitioners use in evaluating what they currently do and in planning what to do next.”  Whilst this account of discussion, awareness raising and informal research is polite and optimistic in its tone, a different impression is given by another group of researchers, Wood, McMahon and Cranstoun (1980, page 15) who document the “extended, frank and sometimes argumentative relationship between three practitioners (two nursery teachers and a playgroup supervisor) and a psychologist.” 

The project makes a strong claim for originality in its insistence on trying to study what actually happens minute-by-minute in nurseries and playgroups, as opposed to oulines of programmes which “tell us much about the ‘official’ programme on offer but not much about what the children actually did while participating in it” (Sylva et al, 1980, page 8).  A new research tool was developed for naturalistic observation of children at play, named the Target Child Observation (TCO), which was designed to privilege the data on children’s concentration, their capacity to sustain bouts of play and activity, and the impact of adult involvement in their play (1980, page 37). So Sylva et al (1980, page 8) are straightforward in stating the limits of their intention to record “what the children actually did”: they accept that the design of the tool and its coding means that their observation incorporates a “process of selecting and interpreting” (1980, page 37) and that it “sharpened their sights” (1980, page 44) for particular data.
  • Wood et al (1980) go even further in accepting the perspectival nature of their data, having designed a model in which the data was both captured and selected by the participants, not the researchers. So not only were staff responsible for the tape-recording of conversations, they were also responsible for choosing which sections of the recording would be made available for analysis and discussion with the research team. They somewhat ruefully comment that (1980, page 17) “taking this step clearly meant we had relinquished a good deal of control over the data”; the data could not be considered representative, but it could be used to explore the understanding of the participants, and it could be used to explore the question of whether participating in the project led to any changes in understanding over time. 

    This makes the Oxford Pre-School Project an intriguing combination of open approaches to data collection and methodology, combined with strong implicit assumptions about what is important. Those assumptions are largely drawn from the preceding theoretical expositions undertaken by Bruner and Wood, and in this sense the Project serves the purpose of seeking data to confirm those theories. Bruner (1980, pages 202-203) summarizes the focus of research as being about “concentration, a child's capacity to deploy his attention usefully, flexibly, without excessive distractibility”. 

    But there are tensions to be found between the different projects and researchers. Some decades later, Kathy Sylva’s website at Oxford University is much more emphatic than Bruner was, claiming that the Project “broke new ground by questioning an unbridled ‘free play' ideology.” Bruner praises dispassion and rationality, proposing that research can allow for a “more reasoned” approach to the question of nursery education (1980, page 76), and that “change comes by the perspective one gains in observing one's own behaviour after the fact and freed of its pressures. The shift from participant to spectator may not inevitably assure fresh perspective, but it surely helps” (1980, page 80). On the other hand, Wood et al (1980) note that passion, engagement and disputation of meaning are central to their project and its findings, recording that an important training day with the teachers and other participants “did not go very well” and noting that the analysis they proposed for some of the data left a teacher “resenting the submersion of “her” children's activities into a general picture - one which lost the deeper structure of her efforts, her intentions and reasons” (Wood et al, 1980, pages 16-17).

    The Froebel Educational Institute Project (schemas)
    This project was directed by Chris Athey and sought, amongst other aims, to “to search for commonalities and continuities or ‘cognitive constants’ in [children’s] spontaneous behaviour and thought” (Athey, C 1990, page 49).  The project directly confronts a number of the assumptions which underpin the Oxford Pre-School Project. Athey was interested in the play and behaviour which children freely chose, and in exploring the role of the children’s own choices in their cognitive development. This is an approach which Bruner (1980, page 202) questions through the Oxford Pre-School Project, referring to it as the  “‘development idea” - that children must be allowed to develop in congruence with their own needs and modes of thought.” (1980, page 202). Athey’s project was, in part at least, an attempt to lay claim once more for the “development idea”, conceptualized in a way which balanced the child’s free choice, with a high degree of adult interaction with the child, and a high degree of subsequent planning arising from careful observation of the child’s choices.  Athey is, to this extent, in sympathy with a tradition in English nursery education which is summarized by Lesley Webb (1974, page 64) who, drawing on the heritage of Susan Isaacs and others, states that “exploratory behaviour of itself does not tend to the development of concepts”. 

    Whereas Sylva (1980, page 139) proposes that there should be a “’punctuating’ of the free regime with required educational tasks”, Athey’s aim is to develop a better theoretical understanding of children’s spontaneously developed cognitive structures in order to develop a type of teaching which “facilitates and ‘fleshes-out’ spontaneous and natural concepts with worthwhile curriculum content” (Athey, 1990, page 41). A further contrast which is easily drawn between the approaches of Sylva and Athey, is that for Sylva concentration and perseverance can be evaluated by examining observations of children and seeking “bouts” of activity joined together by the same theme: she gives the example of a child constructing a plane at the woodwork table, and then painting that plane in the painting area. By contrast, where a child first makes a model out of wood, and then goes to paint something else, Sylva would record two bouts and therefore a lower level of concentration. Athey’s focus is not on the products or thematic unity of children’s play, however; instead she proposes the notion that children’s play can be categorized into “forms”, and that there could be a consistency of “form” across a number of spontaneous activities. These “forms” of physcial activity and symbolic representations (e.g. drawing, painting, making models with blocks) are dubbed “schemas” by Athey, following the Piagetian account of children’s cognitive development in the sensori-motor phase . A typical explanation of this theory can be seen in the following exposition by Dr Cath Arnold: 
“Chris and her team challenged the traditional idea that young children 'flit' from one activity to another and have to learn to concentrate. They found that young children are not 'flitting' but are 'fitting' ideas together, based on their explorations of the environment.
Schemas have provided early years educators with insights into children's thinking. Children use their repeated actions to 'search for commonalities'. For example, an interest in 'jagged teeth', 'stairs' and the letter 'W' demonstrates a child's interest in the zig-zag form; they might also be drawn to 'stegosaurus', 'a king's crown' and a 'saw'.”

Athey’s approach has been enormously influential, both in the UK and internationally, but the findings of the project have not, one might argue, been subjected to rigorous scrutiny at a theoretical level. It is notable, for example, that both Athey and the writers and researchers who have followed her, have kept to the Piagetian theory of clear stages of development (sensori-motor, functional dependency and finally thought-level) well after the rejection of such a clear stage theory across virtually the whole field of cognitive psychology. Although Athey draws on Piaget and claims to be developing his theoretical model, she does not highlight or explain the disparity between her work and his around children’s ages at different stages; so whereas Piaget’s account of the sensori-motor stage focuses on young children under 2 years old, the children in the Froebel Educational Institute Project were all aged three and over. Athey is also vulnerable to the challenge commonly made to Piaget’s theory, that she is unable to give any account of how children’s spontaneous sensori-motor activity leads to the development of concepts. In summary, Athey’s project has exerted a substantial influence over practice in nursery education, without any correlated theory-building. Those who have followed her, have largely reiterated her theory and offered additional examples and case studies. The most notable attempt to expand and develop the theory has been Cath Arnold’s recent book (Arnold, 2010) which seeks to make links between schema theory and attachment theory; but this is an attempt at finding links, not at cross-fertilization, leaving the basic theory unaltered.

The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project
The EPPE Project, jointly directed by Kathy Sylva and Iram Siraj-Blatchford, arguably starts off from where the Oxford Project ended. It is an impressively-designed, large-scale project with a long time scale. Using the same research tool (the Target Child Observation), the project focuses on the same questions of children’s concentration and perseverance, and adults’ conversation and interaction. But unlike the Oxford Pre-School Project, the EPPE Project is unashamedly focused on finding the features of “effectiveness” (Siraj-Blatchford, I, Taggart, B), rather than aiming to foster further discussion and informal research amongst practitioners. The large scale, careful design, extended timescale and the significant financial and political support from the English government through variously-named departments for education all argue for the location of this project in the research tradition of “what works”. The discourse of the EPPE documents assumes that it is possible to identify and promote effective practice which will work across different types of settings. The long timescale of the project has enabled the researchers to develop findings about the long-term impact of different approaches to early years education.

Kathy Sylva has argued that the project “identified the practice most predictive of children's progress - sustained shared thinking” (Sylva, K, and Taylor, H, 2006 page 172). Whilst the EPPE project did find an association between Sustained Shared Thinking (SST) and good outcomes for children, which the EPPE team describe as “the ‘value added’ to children's developmental progress” (Siraj-Blatchford,I Sylva, K, Muttock, S, Gilden,R and Bell, D, 2002 page 16), it is noteworthy that even in the settings EPPE judged to be “excellent”, the proportion of SST was low and little higher than what was observed in “good” settings (Siraj-Blatchford,I Sylva, K, Muttock, S, Gilden,R and Bell, D, 2002, page 52).

The researchers drew on a “broad reading of the literature on effective practice in the early years” (Siraj-Blatchford,I Sylva, K, Muttock, S, Gilden,R and Bell, D, 2002 page 21) to “model” their ideas using NVIVO. Following this modeling, a process of data cleaning and reduction, using NVIVO, led to the development of the code “sustained shared thinking”. Kathy Sylva herself notes that the coding for SST is very close to section 7.1 (Talking and Listening) in the ECERS-E schedule that was devised for the project, describing it as “a good general definition of the principle of sustained shared thinking” (Sylva, K and Taylor, H, 2006, page 172).

The EPPE Project found that there was an association between SST and excellent settings, though, as the graph above illustrates, this appears to be a relatively weak association: there is little difference between proportions of SST in good and excellent settings. There appears to be a similar association between the proportion of direct teaching, and the effectiveness of the setting; but this is not discussed.

In summary, SST is not a finding that emerges from the data using a grounded-theory approach; instead SST was modeled in advance, drawing on the literature review, and was a feature in the evaluation schedule used in the project. Sylva and Taylor also comment that SST is closely related to what Jerome Bruner calls “joint involvement episodes” (Bruner, 1996). So whilst the rhetoric of the EPPE project suggests that it set out to find what works, based on children’s outcomes, there was considerable advance conceptualization of what constitutes effective pedagogy, which the researchers then sought in the settings. The EPPE Project is admirably open and clear about its approaches to research and theory building, so one could not reasonably claim that there was any sort of sleight of hand in this matter. However it is noticeable that whilst the EPPE reports put forward SST as a coding which is associated with excellent settings, the effect of EPPE has been to propose SST as an exceptionally effective pedagogical strategy for improving children’s learning. In effect, there has been a slip between the reseachers’ findings of an association, into a popular view of causation. So SST becomes something which is described in its own right as a “particularly effective pedagogic strategy” (Siraj-Blatchford, I, 2007, page 1), rather than simply a coding which is associated with effectiveness.

As a result, SST becomes a pedagogic strategy that practitioners can be trained in, which will lead to better outcomes for the children, a model of educational research and development which can be clearly located in the positivist tradition. This tendency to ignore the local, the personal, and the specific makes the EPPE project very different to those parts of the Oxford Pre-School Project (for example, Wood et al, 1980) which stress the importance of place, opinion and personality. It is assumed that “effective practice” can be discovered through research, is applicable to all locations, and is something that practitioners can be trained to deliver; this is an assumption which might be found problematic.

The 1990s: the Exe Project and Effective Early Learning (EEL) 
This fourth and final notably influential research project was directed by Professor Ferre Laevers in Belgium (the Exe Project), and sought to study the involvement of children in their learning as a way of measuring the quality of their early years education. In the United Kingdom, this has exerted a particular influence through the highly successful “Effective Early Learning Project” (Bertram, T and Pascal, C, 1997).

Laevers proposes that the child’s involvement in activities can be assessed through a number of observable signals: concentration, energy, complexity and creativity, facial expression and posture, persistence, precision, reaction time, language and satisfaction. By participating in the Effective Early Learning Project, practitioners learn how to hone their observational skills in order to make “an overall judgment of the child’s Involvement. The observer can use the signals to build an image of the child. By trying to establish how the child really feels, and by trying to become that child, the level of Involvement can be ascertained”  (Bertram, T and Pascal, C, no date, page 4).

In common with the approach taken by the Oxford Pre-School Project, Effective Early Learning focuses on what can be observed about the child’s behaviour using a structured observational schedule, and does not focus on the curriculum design or content. However, even a cursory analysis of the language used raises problems. Can any observer “establish how the child really feels”, for example? Beyond this, the association between involvement and learning is only stated, and no detailed theoretical model is advance to explain further. Laevers (1994, page 5) claims, in what is essentially a circular argument, that in principle, activities possessing a fair amount of the quality of “involvement” enhance development. This is guaranteed by the characteristics of involvement: an involved person uses the full potential of his capabilities and is highly motivated.”  Practitioners engaged in a 1995 Scottish project to explore “the concept of involvement as an indicator for quality in early childhood care and education” raise some serious challenges. Cornali-Engel (page 10) notes that a “child ‘tirelessly’ repeating same activity will get high involvement - creativity and reaction time will be low, but everything lese high, leading to high score”. Rayna (page 19) questions whether the involvement scale might be biased towards lone play and learning by individual children, because it is inevitable that in a group, there will be more distractions and conflicts – but would that lower level of involvement, necessarily mean that the quality of the educational experience was lower?

Significant further challenges to the use of the involvement scale as a measure of quality in early childhood education are posed by Siraj-Blatchford et al (2002, pages 33-34). They point out that the model of measuring engagement is taken from Carl Rogers’s humanistic counselling model, and so neglects matters which are important in education: no value is given to direct instruction, for example, and the prioritization of process allows for no questioning of what the educational content is, whether it is worthwhile, or whether the information is factually correct. Involvement may, in itself, be a useful measure of the quality of the child's experience; it is perhaps Pascal and Bertram's (1997) decision to title their project "Effective Early Learning"which is more questionable. 

Problems with the research findings: what does effective learning look like in the early years?

None of these four major and influential research projects, it might be argued, manages to make a convincing case for a definition of effective learning in the early years. As discussed above, the use of the Involvement Scale to measure the effectiveness of children’s learning rests of a number of assumptions, assumes a level of validity in the interpretation of a child’s facial expressions and postures which is unwarranted, and neglects important dimensions of learning and education. The EPPE Project argues that SST is a particularly effective pedagogical practice. But the data from the project does not wholeheartedly support this: there are low levels of SST overall in even the most effective settings, and there is only a small difference in levels of SST in good as opposed to excellent settings.

The EPPE and the Oxford Pre-School Project use the same schedule to distinguish between play that is high and low in cognitive challenge. Athey (1990, page 10) is highly critical of this approach:

“When the researchers in the Oxford study … found they could not interpret, to any degree of usefulness, the worthwhileness of what the children were doing, they brought in ‘experts’ to read transcripts of observed episodes and to assess them as being either ‘complex’ or ‘simple’. These are extremely general categories of evaluation and have no explanatory value.”

Athey’s reading is rather selective and, it might be argued, she is unduly withering. Sylva et al (1980, page 53) are very open about the challenges of interpreting their observational data, and describe how they “turned to experienced practitioners for advice” and asked them to go into settings other than own, and collect examples of simple and rich play. From this process, they concluded that the theoretical propositions of the team were largely consistent with the view of the experienced practitioners – that high quality play was “either sequentially organized and elaborated, or else contained symbolic transformation” (Sylva et al, 1980, page 54).

In the absence of a model like that of Sylva et al (1980), Athey (1990, page 37) relies on a Piagetian model to explain development to higher levels of activity and play, stating that “a schema … is a pattern of repeatable behaviour into which experiences are assimilated and that are gradually co-ordinated. Co-ordinations lead to higher-level and more powerful schemas.” It might be deduced that Athey would need to exemplify such co-ordinations, in order to find a solution to the difficulties of interpreting the educational value of children’s play which, she claims, defeated the researchers in the Oxford Pre-School Project. But in fact she concedes that “in this study, no way could be found to measure co-ordinations” (Athey, 1990, page 51).

In summary, therefore, it might be argued that there is no convincing theoretical elaboration of effective learning in early years education.  The field of early education, in this sense, is somewhat analogous to Kuhn’s (1996, pages 162-3) depiction of the field of philosophy, in which he argues that one cannot speak of any “progress” being made – not “because individual schools make none. Rather, it must be because there are always competing schools, each of which constantly questions the very foundations of the others”.