Friday, 3 August 2012

Instead of just implementing "best practice", how about researching our own practice first?

Kate Greenaway Nursery School 
and Children's Centre, London
I decided the other day that I'd had enough of the sort of soul-baring pieces about Children's Centre leadership which I have previously written and listened to at events like the CWDC best practice network.  
When I had the chance to take on a piece of research in my former role as headteacher of Kate Greenaway Nursery School and Children’s Centre, I knew I did not want to write yet another of those pieces, Equally, I did not want to introduce a ‘change programme’ based on ‘best practice’ and then evaluate its impact. Important though the notion of ‘best practice’ is, it so often feels frustratingly like someone else’s practice is just being grafted on to what you do – rather than being developed from the ground up.

So, I chose instead to follow a path which was established in the 1980s by David Wood and others as part of the Oxford Pre-School Research project. Faced by an angry nursery teacher who felt strongly about how the observations from her classroom were being used by the researchers, Wood came to the striking conclusion that ‘the observations left one vital perspective unexplored – the perceptions and intentions of the adults actually working with the children’.
As a result, I set up a small research group of nursery education workers (nursery nurses) at Kate Greenaway to provide a forum for reflection and discussion about practice in their own words, and from their own perspectives. The aim of the research was to find out how they would go about talking about their work and investigating their ideas, and whether this process would lead to changes in their understanding and practice. Instead of trying to stick ‘best practice’ on to our work, we were experimenting with a collaborative approach to build on our existing ways of understanding and talking together.
I began the cycle by asking the participants to fill out a questionnaire which was adapted from the EPPE project, and which asked them to describe some aspects of their experience and their approach to working with young children and their families. I found the answers to these questions really interesting, because so much of the language seemed to echo the language of formal documents like Ofsted reports.
It was as if a questionnaire prompted the use of rather official language, and one which emphasised ‘problems’ and ‘deficits’. For example, one participant wrote that ‘many of the children on entry to nursery have insufficient language skills and/or emotional behavioural problems’, and another commented that some children had ‘insufficient language and communication skills’. These observations were not inaccurate, but they did not reflect the way that the participants usually talked about or worked with the children.
As a group, we worked on using a research tool so that each participant could gather and make use of their observational data. The tool we used was the Target Child Observation (TCO), which was used in both the EPPE and the Oxford Pre-School Research projects. The advantages of the TCO include its emphasis on naturalistic observation of children over time (ten-minute periods) and the ability to code the data and draw conclusions from it. The TCO has also been extensively used over three decades, and can, therefore, be seen as a very robust tool.
Supply and internal cover were arranged so that participants had time to observe their target children. After this phase of the project, it was very interesting to note how practitioners’ actual responses to children in context were far more positive than their generalisations about the children in the setting when viewed abstractly. They were able to find value and significance in the leadership and initiative shown by individuals, and in those individuals’ impact on others; and they were able to question what their own contribution should be.
For example, when talking about her observations, one nursery nurse discussed how two children played outside with the large hollow blocks. One child was often observed to get deeply involved in his play and to create complex structures, but the other was not. The nursery nurse noticed how the more experienced child supported and led the play of his companion: ‘Jamal decided he was going to teach him how to make a plane so you had the wings – he got the planks and got the wings and he was really explaining to James, “no, that doesn’t go there, this goes here”.
‘He measured the length how he wanted it, and the seats area, and you could really see that for James this was something – I don’t think he’d ever thought about it in that way – and they stayed together for quite a long time. So, for James it was a big learning experience. But for Jamal it was something I imagine he does quite often … James only just started to get stuck in and he really did enjoy it.’
Over the course of the project, the participants developed their own specific language. For example, there were frequent references to children ‘getting stuck in’ or engaging in ‘deep-level play’. This language prompted considerable further exploration and discussion, and helped us to focus on what we wanted to investigate through further observation. Principally, this was to look at a small number of children who did not seem to be getting ‘stuck in’.
It is too early to give more than some early indications of our findings. A series of planned observations of one child led her key person to comment that she was ‘surprised by the amount of time she was not doing anything’ and ‘surprised by what seemed to be expected by other staff’.
Because the TCO system codes the number of minutes a child is engaged with or near an adult, it raised questions about the proportion of time that adults might spend around certain children without engaging with them. The way the TCO tracks where the child is, as well as the social context, also highlighted the way that some children experienced difficulties at certain times in the day, or in particular places. One finding about a child was that there were ‘areas or patterns of movement she followed at certain times of the day, and she needed support to get involved – find things she enjoys and encourage her to take part’.
The TCO also encouraged a focus on children’s own talk, with one participant noting that ‘adults may inhibit child-to-child conversations’ after observing how a conversation between two children came to a rapid end when an adult leapt in too quickly.
Perhaps even more importantly, the participants sustained a high level of enthusiasm for this type of action research. Two of the nursery nurses have gone on to enrol in Early Childhood Studies degrees, and they found during the introductory module that their experience of using a research tool and gathering data for the project also gave them a headstart.
Looking closely and reflecting on what you observe can fundamentally change the way we approach your work. One participant commented that ‘focusing exclusively on a child for ten minutes can be quite telling. There’s more of an opportunity to notice things which would challenge our view of the child’. Another said that ‘during an activity, my focus has shifted from how the activity is running, to what the experience is like for a particular child’.
This takes me back to one of my starting points, David Wood’s research for the Oxford Pre-School Project. Wood wondered whether the nursery teacher he spoke with was so angry because she was ‘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’.
Reading about ‘best practice’, making up lists of ‘what works’ and talking always about ‘outcomes for children’ can have a positive effect of focusing what we do and making sure that we do not simply keep doing things out of custom and practice. But it can also undermine a sort of ‘wisdom of practice’, and it can leave many nursery nurses feeling like their individual way of working and making a contribution is not valued.
I believe strongly that people’s individual experiences of their work, and their perspectives, really matter. The best way to develop practice is to start right where we are, and to find ways of looking more thoroughly at what we do, using our own words.
This post is based on my Institution-Focussed Study, research I undertook at the Institute of Education. It was first published in Nursery World. I am currently working on the follow-up to this research which will form my doctoral dissertation at the IOE.
- Working with Under Fives by David Wood, Linnet McMahon and Yvonne Cranstoun (1980, Wiley-Blackwell)

I altered the opening paragraph of this piece on 1.11.2012. It previously referred to "'soul-searching biographies" written by staff in Children's Centres. Although I take responsibility for my own efforts in that genre, it isn't fair to put that on others, and I accept the implicit challenge of Margy's comment below.