By Dr Mary Moloney
Mary Immaculate College, Ireland.
This article, drawn from a PhD study, explores understandings of the concept of pedagogy in the Early Childhood Care and Education sector (ECCE) in Ireland.
It is based upon interviews with Bachelor of Arts (B.A) early childhood graduates (10), managers (10), and practitioners (16) as well as focus group discussions (3) with childcare students undertaking basic early childhood care and education (ECCE) training.
Findings indicate that with the exception of the B.A early childhood graduates the concept of pedagogy was little understood amongst interviewees. This indicates that an understanding of pedagogy is linked to training levels and requirements, and a belief that pedagogy does not have any relevance for ECCE practitioners.
What is Pedagogy?
Pedagogy can be defined as an interactive process between the teacher, the learner and the learning process. It is the practice, art, or craft of teaching. Early childhood pedagogy must be instructive, with the teacher skilled in the selection of appropriate techniques to facilitate learning. It is the teacher’s implementation of a curriculum, through instructional and social interactions, central to which is play, hands on-learning and social interaction with the child. Within the preserve of early childhood care and education, both theory and practice are essential, creating a cycle of shaping and reshaping, where theory informs practice and practice informs and reshapes theory. It is this combination of theoretical knowledge and understanding, embedded in everyday practice that defines pedagogy within the learning environments of ECCE settings.
The Policy and Training Context in Ireland
The Early Childhood Care and Education sector in Ireland is a complex construct. On the one hand, it is governed by stringent Childcare regulations that cover such areas as the health, welfare and development of the child, behaviour, child/adult ratios, premises and facilities, food, safety measures, facilities for rest, and play and insurance. In addition, the development of two seminal practice frameworks; Síolta: the National Quality Framework(2006), and Aistear: the Early Childhood curriculum Framework (2009) place a significant focus upon pedagogical practices within settings, demanding much more of practitioners in terms of quality ECCE provision than ever before. On the other hand, these frameworks have not been enacted by government and their implementation is primarily dependent upon the good will of the ECCE sector. A further anomaly is, that there is no mandatory training requirement for those working in the ECCE sector in Ireland, nor is there a minimum specified level of training. This is problematic for practitioners and students and is the subject of much debate.
The Childcare (pre-school services) regulations, 2006, legally oblige practitioners to ensure that “each child’s learning development and well being is facilitated within the daily life of the service, through the provision of the appropriate opportunities, experiences, activities, interactions, materials and equipment, having regard to the age and stage of development of the child’s cultural context” (Department of Health and Children, 2006). Practitioners must support the holistic development of the child. Implicit within the regulations is the need for a core body of knowledge, including child development theory, pedagogy and practice.
Interestingly, while demanding the highest possible standards of ECCE provision, Article 8 of the Childcare Regulations simply requires that a person carrying on a pre-school service must ensure that a sufficient number of suitable and competent adults are working directly with the children in an early childhood setting at all times. The regulations do not stipulate a minimum training requirement; rather, there is a recommendation that 50% of childcare staff hold a suitable qualification and that these staff rotate between age groupings.
Adding to the lacklustre approach to ECCE in Ireland is the irrefutable fact that remuneration of ECCE practitioners is extremely low. A 2008 survey, undertaken on behalf of University College Dublin, holds that salaries range from €9.27 per hour for those with up to four years experience to €10.03 for those with over ten years experience. These rates, which apply to both trained and untrained practitioners, are not much higher than the current National Minimum Wage of €8.65. It is little wonder, that the ECCE sector is characterised by a mix of graduate and post graduate qualified staff who may or may not have specialist training in working with young children, as well as those who hold a basic childcare qualification and unqualified workers with no specialist training.
Even though a national minimum training standard has not been delineated at national level, there is evidence that such a standard is evolving naturally within the sector. Following the establishment of the Certifying Bodies sub group 2000, a Model Framework for Education, Training and Professional Development for Early Childhood Care and Education Practitioners” was launched in 2002. This framework, which defines agreed core values that should underpin all ECCE practice, was intended for implementation by the National Awarding Bodies (Further Education and Training Awards Council (FETAC), and Higher Education and Training Awards Council (HETAC)) whose task it is to set national standards for all qualifications in Ireland. To date, this framework has not been implemented. However, as part of the process to develop a Workforce Development Plan, the Department of Education and Skills undertook a mapping and cross referencing exercise in 2009, where they concluded that the framework is still relevant to the future development of education and training programmes so as to ensure an appropriately skilled and qualified ECCE workforce into the future.
A National Framework of Qualifications was launched in 2003. This is a system of ten levels, ranging from Level 1 awards that recognise the ability to perform basic tasks, to Level 10 awards that recognise the ability to discover and develop new knowledge and skills at the frontier of research and scholarship.
Figure 1: National qualifications framework.
© 2003, NQAI, (Reproduced with kind permission).
Although there is no mandatory training requirement for those working in the pre-school sector in Ireland, entrants generally undertake training at FETAC Level 5 or level 6.
At FETAC Level 5, students undertake eight modules of training of which six are mandatory; Child development; Caring for Children (0 – 6); Early Childhood Education; Working in Childcare; Communication and Work experience. There are two elective modules; Arts and Crafts for childcare and Occupational First Aid. FETAC Level 5 can be undertaken over a one year or two year period. On completion of all eight modules, students are awarded FETAC Level 5 accreditation.
At FETAC Level 6, students undertake four mandatory modules; Supervision in childcare; Child development; Social and legal issues in childcare and Early Childhood programmes. There are two elective modules; Information technology and Occupational First Aid. FETAC Level 6 is a one year course. On completion of all six modules students are awarded FETAC Level 6 accreditation.
In addition, a number of third level institutions offer a Batcher of Arts (B.A) in Early Childhood Care and Education including University College Cork (since 1995), Dublin Institute of Technology (since 1999) and MaryImmaculateCollege (since 2003). On completion of a four year programme of study, students are awarded a Degree in Early Childhood Care and Education. Irrespective of the level of training undertaken, whether at FETAC or HETAC level, students are required to undertake a practicum component during their training which varies between educational institutions.
The most commonly held qualification in ECCE in Ireland is FETAC level 5. According to the DES (2008) 41% of those working in the sector held such a qualification.
There was much confusion about the term pedagogy amongst both practitioners working within the sector and students studying at FETAC Level 5. Of the ten childcare managers interviewed for the study, six had FETAC Level 5 accreditation, one FETAC Level 6, two held a Montessori teaching Diploma, and one a 3rd level degree in an unrelated discipline. Five of these managers had never heard of pedagogy. One private manager stated that she “never heard that word; I don’t think it has anything to do with us really, has it?” Of those who claimed to have heard or come across the term, they associated it with “a kind of an educational approach…maybe it’s to do with Montessori or something like that” (community manager 4). In terms of their own work, they articulated their uncertainty about whether the concept related to them at all. In the words of private manager 5, “I know I’ve come across it, but it is more for primary school…it really wouldn’t affect what we do here in the setting at all”.
Practitioners working directly with children in settings were equally uncertain. Of sixteen practitioners interviewed, ten had FETAC Level 5 accreditation while six claimed to hold a Montessori teaching diploma. A total of thirteen practitioners had never heard of pedagogy. In two instances, it was associated with the name of a theorist. One practitioner asked “pedagogy, who is he? I never heard of him” while the other said “I know Piaget and the other fellow but I don’t know pedagogy”. The remaining practitioner was unsure of its meaning other than that “it has to do with educating children”.
Likewise FETAC Level 5 and 6 students were unable to articulate their understanding of pedagogy, claiming that it “probably has to do with school…with educating children, it wouldn’t be something we’d need to know about” (FETAC 5 focus group).
This overall lack of awareness and understanding of pedagogy impacted upon practitioner’s ability to describe the teaching and learning strategies utilised in early childhood settings on a daily basis. There was a total lack of awareness of the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development for instance. Although four practitioners and three managers had heard the term, they “[didn’t] have a clue what it’s about” (private practitioner 3). Equally, there was minimal awareness of the concept of scaffolding. Only two practitioners offered a definition of scaffolding. One described it as “a type of support” while the other explained it in terms of “starting off at a certain level and getting more and more progressive”. Although, they attempted to define scaffolding, these practitioners were unable to describe the types of supports or to provide examples of how they might have scaffolded childrens’ learning within the early childhood setting.
Circle time was cited by all practitioners as the most prevalent teaching strategy utilised. It encompassed a wide range of activities including “reading a story to learning Irish words to asking each child a question and taking turns”. In keeping with an overall emphasis on school readiness (PhD findings) within the ECCE sector, circle time helped to “reinforce [children’s] work, letters, numbers, colours...” (private practitioner 1).
Circle time was also seen as a “tool for [children] to listen to others, to take turns, think before they speak and not to shout out an answer” (community practitioner 5). Practitioners commonly allocated “formal learning time” dedicated to “what we want [children] to learn; we take the lead getting them to colour in or learn their numbers and shapes” (community based practitioner 1). There was a belief that “you have to direct a lot of what they do, otherwise they won’t learn”, “things would be chaotic”, “and you wouldn’t be able to control them” (practitioner commentary). With the exception of circle time practitioners found it difficult to articulate other teaching methodologies.
B.A ECCE graduates stated that pedagogy was “drilled into us in college”, and that it was “really difficult to describe”. None the less, they described pedagogy as the “sort of method that you’d adopt to teach the children in your care, whether it’s the Montessori method, Steiner, Froebel or whether you adopt a play based method of teaching.... not teaching but facilitating the children’s learning in the early years” (B.A ECCE, graduate 3). From a B.A ECCE graduate perspective, there was consensus that pedagogy was associated with both care and education.
In the words of B.A ECCE graduate 5, pedagogy is “everything in the environment”
It’s everything from the minute children come in that door... pedagogy is not just the organised activities; it’s what’s happening when they’re eating, its what’s happening when you’re speaking to them, how you respect them....that’s all part of pedagogy; it’s learning, it’s development, it’s the interactions, it’s everything that’s happening within the environment.
Pedagogy was also associated with the theory and practice “not of teaching, not in a formal sense, but it’s the way that you would support children’s learning and development (B.A ECCE, graduate 9). B.A ECCE graduate 4, explained how “real pedagogical practice does not mean the children receive information that I am giving to them, or, follow instructions that I am giving them. Pedagogy is an approach, but it’s also about a philosophy, about belief in what you are doing and in the approach that you use”.
Discussion and Conclusion
As mentioned earlier, practice is underpinned by theoretical knowledge, creating a cycle of shaping and reshaping, where theory informs practice and practice informs and reshapes theory. It is this combination of theoretical knowledge embedded in everyday practice that defines pedagogy. The diverse commentaries within this article indicate that pre-school teachers with less training had little understanding of the concept of pedagogy. Their lack of theoretical knowledge was evident within individual settings contexts where practice was observed to be pre-dominantly teacher led and didactic (PhD findings).
In the main, the concept of pedagogy was perceived in terms of formal education within primary school and as being removed from the remit of the early childhood practitioner. This is not surprising, given that the term pedagogy did not feature in ECCE documentation in Ireland, prior to 2000 and that up to 2006; the focus of the Childcare Regulations was primarily upon structural quality. It is therefore a relatively new concept.
Graduates suggested that their four year degree enabled them to build on knowledge incrementally “from the first to the second to the third to the fourth year” (B.A ECCE graduate 4). This prolonged process resulted in a “solid foundation and knowledge base”, that helped graduates to “see why, to see the reasons behind practice” (ibid). There is little doubt, that these graduates saw pedagogy as an interactive process between the practitioner, the child and the learning environment.
It is evident that degree level training is directed towards enabling students to acquire the necessary skills and theoretical knowledge to support childrens’ holistic development during the most critical period of early childhood. Their training stands them well in terms of their knowledge and understanding of pedagogy and its implications for practice within ECCE settings. As a result, B.A ECCE graduates are well placed to translate the progressive seminal practice frameworks Síolta and Aistear into practice within settings in Ireland in order to create optimal learning experiences for young children.
The current staffing situation in Ireland is precarious. In the absence of a mandatory training requirement and in the context of the low remuneration levels for those working in the sector, there is virtually no incentive for existing practitioners to up-skill, nor is there incentive for highly trained graduates to remain in the sector indefinitely. As one graduate said:
It sounds like an awful selfish thing to say ...but pay scales; I couldn’t work, I know I couldn’t and I know we’re all used to hearing this but I didn’t do four years in college to earn the minimum wage and that’s the reality. I want to work in New Zealand . . . I want to experience what it feels like to work in a country where you’re valued for working in the early years. I want to experience that, to feel valued.
The issue of remuneration and qualification levels within the sector in Ireland warrants serious consideration. Unfortunately, until a radical transformation of both occurs, teachers will continue to ask “Pedagogy, who is he? In this scenario, the real losers in Ireland are young children and parents.
Moloney, M. (2010). Professional identity in Early Childhood Care and Education: Perspectives of pre-school and infant teachers. Irish Educational Studies, 29(2), 167 – 187.
Moloney, M. (2010). Unreasonable expectations: the dilemma for pedagogues in delivering policy objectives. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 18(2), 181 – 198.