By Reg Ponniah
Engaging in research and maintaining currency in one's knowledge base is fast becoming a luxury for tertiary educators with high demands on their time for teaching and shrinking department budgets. However, early childhood staff at the Manukau Institute of Technology are successfully navigating around the obstacles.
MIT has been represented at every NZ Early Childhood Research Conference since its inception in Auckland in 1997. The MIT early childhood staff come across as a vibrant team with a particular message to convey: they might be perceived as underdogs in the tertiary sector because they are located in Manukau and MIT is not a traditional university but they are reaching high.
At the ChildForum organised research conference held in January 2012 in Wellington, twelve staff members attended, four of whom made presentations at the event.
The conference brought together academics from tertiary institutions, including the Manukau Institute of Technology, and officials from the ECE public and private sectors and the Ministry of Education, to discuss and deliberate on research relevant to the effectiveness of teaching, assessment, and early childhood care, health and education in general.
The participants play a big role in contributing to and disseminating research and such conferences help them exchange ideas and information to benefit children, their teachers, and the ECE sector.
The MIT staff were not only articulate and impressive with their presentations but brought to the event their experience and the intellectual capacity to deliver that information in a very comfortable, down-to-earth and passionate manner.
Besides finding immense value just attending the conference, MIT staff applaud the thoroughness and well-researched presentations and would like to see the good work continue through the years.
"It is a quality conference and we would like to see it continued. It's something we have encouraged staff to attend and we look more favourably on our staff going to NZ-based childhood conferences. We do have staff attending overseas ones but we feel it is really important to support an NZ-based conference," Dr Lindy Austin, head of MIT's education school says.
She says the conference programme and presentations are intelligently laid out and MIT staff participate in it and get their work published in the NZ Research in Early Childhood Education Journal as well.
The MIT's journey towards teacher education in ECE has been a less traditional route since the early 1990s as it is a polytechnic and thus a vocational institute.
The Institute's School of Education provides education for people to work in early childhood education and care although research was not a big focus in its early years, Ms Lin Howie, principal lecturer, says.
"It was a very practical hands-on approach supporting teachers and over the years we moved into offering a bachelor's degree in teacher education.
"Once you offer a degree, then the onus is on the institute to support their lecturers to become researchers because the programme itself has to be guided by research."
Ms Howie says that MIT always had a professional development budget for lecturers but with scarce resources, limits had to be placed on who could actually go to conferences – so preference was given to those who were making presentations.
Ms Howie, who with Dr Bill Hagan, has been to most of the ChildForum conferences sees the events as a collaborative and easy place where "we have got practitioners, where we have got beginning researchers and other people who are more experienced attending".
She, however, emphasizes a particular difference between ChildForum's conferences and other conferences.
"At this conference a journal comes out of the proceedings and ChildForum is an ongoing activity that people can participate in, find out information or to add in information all through the year. So it is a different type of organisation which makes it far more powerful in lots of ways."
The MIT staff see a common link that draws them to the conference every year, and that is consistency in the organisation behind it.
"Sarah (Dr Farquhar) is a big part of it. She has been a big voice through the years for early childhood education and care and quite strongly believes in high quality at the conference and the sector as a whole," Ms Howie says.
ChildForum has been in the forefront of disseminating research in early childhood education and care, putting researchers in touch with each other, and very supportive for practitioners seeking specialised and unbiased support, the staff say.
Research has always been at the forefront of any tertiary institution and Dr Bill Hagan (principal lecturer, research) finds the conference a big opportunity to present MIT staff's work and get them published as well.
Dr Hagan says MIT has its own annual early childhood research symposium, but attending ChildForum conferences help support that research.
"We often support people to attend the conference first and to present their own work and to get them published – it's a great opportunity for us."
MIT sets goals and "most of us have come from that practice-based background and our degree is very much field-based".
He is confident that staff will return to MIT and report, in a brief format, their findings at their regular breakfast meetings.
Dr Austin says that the School of Education has specific positions to assist the newer lecturers with their research.
"And coming to this conference I see it as a more secure, safe forum for newer people to present their research more confidently.
"We also have several strategies that we have put in place to support our staff and lecturers to be able to do research to gain the skills to be researchers.
"There are several pathways, support structures in place so that staff can move down this journey of research in a mentor-supportive way -- and that seems to be working very well, Dr Austin says.
Sharon Alderson, MITs project manager for professional development says "we are out every day engaging with teachers and services and we need to know the up-to-date research that has been done and coming to a forum like this with a New Zealand-focused research is really relevant to the teachers with whom we are working".
The conference gives an opportunity for the team to debate and reflect and take that information back to the community it is working with.
As part of a contract with the Ministry of Education, Ms Alderson finds it ideal to tap into ChildForum's online resources, including the weekly newsletter with ECE updates, and continue attending such conferences.
"I'm working with two early childhood services which are engaging in research as part of the programme that they are working in and when that is completed, I'll certainly be encouraging them to come to conferences like ChildForum's to report the findings because they are researchers and it is a safe environment for them to do that."
Two kindergartens are involved in action-based research involving the children and their families.
"This is only at the initial stages but they have got the vision already that they want to share what they have learnt with other teachers.
"This conference has a lot of teachers and practitioners attending and this would be an ideal audience for them to come to and share their information, Ms Alderson says.
And the final word from Dr Austin? She sees the conference as a down-to-earth event.
"I think it is more friendly too. It's quite affordable for people and very central for New Zealanders. And it is very user-friendly."
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