Theories into Practice - A voice for young children

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Theories into Practice - A voice for young children

Transcript Of Theories into Practice - A voice for young children

Theories into Practice
Understanding and Rethinking Our Work with
Young Children

Published in 2015 by Teaching Solutions PO Box 197, Albert Park 3206, Australia Phone: +61 3 9636 0212 Fax: +61 3 9699 9242 Email: [email protected] Website: Copyright © Andrea Nolan & Bridie Raban 2015
ISBN 978-1-925145-04-5
Illustrated by Tom Kurema Cover design by Tom Kurema Printed in Australia by Five Senses Education
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (for example a fair dealing for the purposes of study, research, criticism or review), no part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission. Copyright owners may take legal action against a person or organisation who infringes their copyright through unauthorised copying. All inquiries should be directed to the publisher at the address above.
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Chapter 1: Theories and perspectives


The impact of theories on practice


Understanding the theories


Developmental theories


Socio-cultural theories


Socio-behaviourist theories


Critical theories


Post-structuralist theories


Chapter 2: Developmental theorists and practical implications 15

Developmental theories in practice










Chapter 3: Socio-cultural theorists and practical implications


Socio-cultural theories in practice












Chapter 4: Socio-behaviourist theorists and practical implications 37

Socio-behaviourist theories in practice








Chapter 5: Critical theorists and practical implications


Critical theories in practice






Chapter 6: Post-structuralist theorists and practical implications 47

Post-structuralist theories in practice








Chapter 7: Challenging aspects of practice


Reflecting on practice


Where have our practices come from?


Chapter 8: Theoretical understandings




Chapter 1
Theories and perspectives
“Different theories about early childhood inform approaches to children’s learning and development. Early childhood educators draw upon a range of perspectives in their work …” (EYLF p.11)
Early childhood educators see the words ‘theories’ and ‘perspectives’ used interchangeably in the Early Years Learning Framework. However, on the very same page where theories and perspectives are mentioned, the document also notes that educators are ‘drawing on a range of perspectives and theories’ – suggesting that these are somewhat different. In searching out definitions, it is possible to pinpoint how these two views impact on understandings of children’s learning and development and how these understandings influence practice when working with young children. In the field of early childhood education and care, a theory is a group of ideas that explain a certain topic within the domain of children’s learning and development. Typically, a theory is developed through the use of thoughtful and rational forms of abstract and generalised thinking. In addition, a theory is often based on general principles that are independent of what is being explained. So, someone who considers given facts and comes up with a possible explanation for those facts is called a theorist. Some say that theorists come up with abstract ideas and beliefs and then spend their lives trying to prove them, because ideas can always be disputed until proven absolutely. What theories provide are ‘ways of knowing’ that influence thinking and impact on practice in particular ways. A perspective, however, is the way something is ‘seen’. The meaning of perspective in this context will have something to do with looking or viewing – taking up a particular stance. From theories, sets of assumptions are formed about how young children learn and develop, and what learning and teaching could and should look like. These assumptions influence the way educators think and act, and they have an impact on their ideas and beliefs (Raban et al. 2007, p. 16). Educators view the world in certain ways. They understand and explain what is occurring based on the prevailing theories they know about, and that resonate with their own experience, thinking and understandings. These are the theoretical perspectives – the views stemming from theories – from which educators operate daily when working in early childhood settings. These theoretical perspectives could be on societal views of childhood, how children learn, and the role of families and communities in a child’s development.
Chapter heading

To choose a perspective is to also choose a value system and, unavoidably, an associated system of beliefs. In this sense, a value system is a set of principles or ideals that drive and/or guide a person’s behaviour. For instance, if part of your personal value system was to protect the planet, you would act to install solar panels onto the roof of your home in the belief that this would reduce your energy footprint and, ultimately, stop the mining of coal and/or uranium, in an effort to reach a sustainable future.
The impact of theories on practice
As already mentioned, theories position children and their learning in particular ways which have ramifications for how educators teach, learn and understand child development. Courses designed to prepare educators to work in the early childhood education and care profession are underpinned by a variety of theories that relate to various aspects of child development and learning – such as emotional and psychological development, cognitive and physical development, language and social development, play, autonomy and independence. In Western countries the major theorists can include Erikson, Bowlby, Ainsworth, Piaget, Vygotsky, Skinner, Bandura, Chomsky, Bronfenbrenner, Smilansky, Parten, Rogoff and Foucault (Palmer 2001). The philosophies of these theorists inform and guide educators’ work with young children, families, and communities, as they provide conceptual understandings on aspects that otherwise are difficult to comprehend. Thinking deeply about one’s practice and then linking this to the theoretical perspectives that inform that practice enables educators to act in a more informed way to change their practice. This leads to praxis, which is defined as reflection and action coming together and thus performing a transformative process of change.
Understanding the theories
All professionals develop a set of beliefs (which shape practice) that are passed down from generation to generation through training programs of all types. Unless these beliefs are carefully examined, unhelpful practice can be perpetuated in the name of professionalism. Many taken-for-granted beliefs still remain in need of critical appraisal because of a lack of such careful examination. Theories do not simply arise and replace one another. Theories overlap, merging in places. Sometimes they give way in popularity to one another or fall out of favour, but they are rarely completely displaced. This can be seen with the 19th-century theorists and thinkers who continue to have an impact on 20th-century progressive educational theorists. What is acknowledged is that theories can be complex and intricate.
Theories into Practice


The EYLF (p.11) suggests that different theories ‘inform approaches to children’s learning and development’ and can be categorised in five main ways: • developmental theories
• socio-cultural theories
• socio-behaviourist theories
• critical theories
• post-structuralist theories
However, any categorisation is inevitably both far from perfect and less than total since, as thinking developed and built on previous theorising, there is much overlap between many theories. Moreover, what seem apparently small differences in theory can cause theorists to dissociate themselves from other theorists, causing rifts through strong disagreements. An overview of the theories noting the main theorists, focus and implications for practice are shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Main theories in the EYLF (p.11)

Developmental (Chapter 2)

Piaget Steiner Montessori Gardner

The discrete and/or continuous stages of development

Implications for practice
Educators respond to and plan activities in relation to children’s developmental stages

Socio-cultural (Chapter 3)
SocioBehaviourist (Chapter 4)
Critical (Chapter 5)

Vygotsky Bruner Bronfenbrenner Malaguzzi Rogoff

Development and learning occurs in the context of children’s communities

Pavlov Skinner Bandura

The role of experience in shaping children’s behaviour

Educators and more knowledgeable others scaffold and transform learning in response to children’s prior understandings
Educator-directed activities coupled with rewards and reinforcements

Habermas Freire

Curriculum can have hidden aspects which frame certain points of view and ignore others

Educators challenge assumptions about curriculum and query takenfor-granted practices

Post-structuralist (Chapter 6)

Foucault Bourdieu Canella

There are many forms of knowledge and no absolute truth

Educators explore many different ways of exploiting power relationships embedded in their practice that may privilege certain children over others

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Developmental theories
These theories arose from the traditional base for child development – which was developmental psychology – creating the notion that there is a universal pattern of development and therefore a predictable pathway to development and learning for all children. Ideas developing through the 19th century focused on the observed changes in children as they grew older – maturation. These changes or ‘milestones’ have been articulated into distinct stages which are characterised by qualitatively different behaviours.
Some developmental theorists view development as a discontinuous process. They believe development involves distinct and separate stages with different kinds of behaviour occurring in each stage (Jean Piaget’s stage theory; Maria Montessori’s planes of development; Rudolf Steiner’s sevenyear phases; Kohlberg’s stages of moral development; Erikson’s stages of personal and social development). Others support a continuous view of development and suggest that development involves gradual and ongoing changes throughout the life span, with behaviour in the earlier stages of development providing the basis of skills and abilities required for the next stages (Darwin).
This second perspective has been less developed because of its possible relationship to a focus on genetic evolution and, therefore, racism with different gene pools dictating differences between abilities. However, more recent prominent continuous theorists include Howard Gardner (1983) whose theory of multiple intelligences led him to bring forward evidence to show that at any one time a child may be at very different stages, for example, in number development as opposed to spatial/visual maturity. One outcome of developmental theories is developmentally appropriate practice (DAP), where the focus is on a child’s learning and development as an individual, as opposed to the focus on acquiring specific knowledge. Working from this perspective, an educator makes judgments relating to an individual child’s development, often measured against developmental ‘norms’. Goals are then planned to best meet that child’s developmental needs. This planning is also often compartmentalised into specific developmental domains such as physical, social, cognitive, emotional and language.
In recent times, developmental theories have been challenged (Fleer 1995; Nolan & Kilderry 2010) because of their Western universal construct of the child that acts to marginalise children and families from diverse backgrounds. Developmental theories are criticised for not reflecting the lives of modern children and their experiences by not focusing on the social and cultural aspects that impact on development. They have been described as prescriptive and constraining (Dahlberg, Moss & Pence 1999). It has been suggested that there are many equally legitimate childhoods not just one universal childhood.
Theories into Practice

There have also been arguments mounted on how developmental theories perpetuate a deficit view of children, as their differences to adults are judged and are seen as weaknesses (Silin 1998). Arthur and colleagues (2008, p.19) list some of the specific criticisms of child development theories: • They focus on the individual rather than the child in social, cultural and
political contexts. • Developmental theories are viewed as ‘normative’ – if you don’t fit then
you are abnormal in some way. • Children are not seen as strong, capable, active agents in their own
learning, but instead in the process of ‘becoming’. • There is an implicit assumption that development is universal. What is worth noting when considering developmental theories is how the early childhood education and care field has tended to draw on traditional versions of these theories rather than more contemporary variations that may perhaps better represent children of today. In Chapter 2, meet developmental theorists Piaget, Steiner, Montessori and Gardner.
Socio-cultural theories
In recent years, socio-cultural theories have provided an important conceptual tool for rethinking much of the practice in early childhood education. They draw heavily on the work of Vygotsky (1962), and more recently Rogoff (1990). Socio-cultural theories propose that educators need to understand ‘the development of children in the context of their own communities’ (Rogoff et al. 1998, p. 228). Children are positioned as learning through the belief system to which they are exposed and through their interactions with others. Hedegaard (2004) describes this view of development as the relationship between the child and society. This means viewing a child’s development in the situations of their communities, and as Fleer argues, ‘culture not only determines the principles for defining development but frames the contexts in which the development of children is supported’ (2006, p. 8). Vygotsky saw the social environment as being instrumental to a child’s learning. This means that learning with and from others is prioritised. Expectations of what children can do at certain ages become questionable as different cultural practices are reinforced through a child’s community. The following story helps to illustrate this:
An early childhood educator was travelling through Vanuatu, and stopped at a local village only to be greeted by a 2-year-old boy holding a small sharp knife. Through her Western eyes she was taken aback, thinking, who would allow a young child to run around and play with a sharp knife? He will cut himself. For this community, growing up with a knife was normal practice as Vanuatuan males perform many tasks with their knives every
Chapter heading

day. This very young boy had been shown by many role models how to use a knife and so was in no danger of hurting himself or using the knife inappropriately. He was engaging in daily activities with his community and thereby being immersed in the cultural belief systems in a dynamic way (Gaskins 1999).
So, expectations of children’s development need to be viewed not as universal but interwoven with the social and cultural worlds in which children are raised. As Rogoff (1990, p. 57) explains ‘Development involves progress towards local goals and valued skills’. There are different interpretations of socio-cultural theory discussed in the literature. These discussions centre around the degree of influence and impact of socio-cultural contexts on development. The socio-cultural perspective has major implications for early childhood education, with a key feature being that higher order functions develop out of social interactions. There are two noteworthy aspects of this theory. First, it is fundamentally cultural – and educators are agents of culture who perceive children’s actions within a setting that is deeply informed by their own cultural knowledge and beliefs. Children in their turn are viewed as cultural apprentices who seek the guidance of more knowledgeable others. Second, the zone of proximal development (ZPD) reveals how developmental change is generated through adult support, or the support of a more knowledgeable other, being experienced over time, followed by independent child accomplishment. In Chapter 3 meet socio-cultural theorists:Vygotsky, Bruner, Bronfenbrenner, Malaguzzi and Rogoff.
Socio-behaviourist theories
It may seem odd to group social and behavioural theories together as they are two highly divergent approaches. However, the significant differences on which they are based – their view of the child, their view of knowledge and their view of the role of adults – make them arguably more interesting when placed in juxtaposition than when separated. For behaviourists, knowledge is given to children by adults in bite-sized chunks, while for sociologists, knowledge is created as we experience life while interacting with others. The behaviourist child is a malleable, mouldable individual who can be shaped at will, entirely a product of the environment in which he or she grows up. The social child is curious and seeking, with a preprogrammed process of development which need not be slavishly exposed, but which can be tempered by shared experience with others. This group of theorists focuses on the role of experiences in shaping children’s behaviour. In fact these theories can be separated into two distinct approaches: classical behaviourism (Pavlov) and social learning theory (Bandura).
Theories into Practice