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Grey, A. (2015). “It is a risk, but it is a risk worth taking”: Early childhood teachers’ reflections on review of practice using an approach of practical philosophy. NZ Research in Early Childhood Education Journal, 18, 52 - 66.
“It is a risk, but it is a risk worth taking”: Early childhood teachers’ reflections on review of practice using an approach of practical philosophy
This article discusses an approach to self-review where an early childhood teaching team reviewed the values that underpin teaching practice, rather than the behaviour demonstrated in teaching practice. This approach takes the form of practical philosophy or inquiry with others in order to critically examine teaching practice (Dahlberg, Moss & Pence, 2007). A small qualitative study was undertaken by one teaching team to reflect on their personal philosophy of teaching, and to negotiate, as a team, the values they wanted to underpin their teaching.
The teachers valued participating in reflection and personal dialogue, but experienced some challenges. It was found that this approach can be a valuable method of self-review to heighten teachers’ individual self-awareness, to promote professional dialogue and greater understanding amongst the teaching team and to provoke teachers to reflect more critically on their teaching.
Key words: Self-review; practical philosophy; reflection; teaching inquiry.
Self-review is a common expectation within the early childhood education sector. This expectation is outlined in the Registered Teacher Criteria 12 (New Zealand Teachers Council, 2010) that states: “teachers use critical inquiry to reflect on and refine values and practice, and respond to feedback from their colleagues”. Early childhood education documents have been published by the Ministry of Education that support the implementation of self-review, namely The quality journey: He Haerenga whai hua (Ministry of Education, 1999) and Nga Arohaehae whai hua: Self-review guidelines for early childhood education (Ministry of Education, 2006). This article takes the view that although these documents are useful as guidelines, alternative approaches to self-review and critical inquiry should also be instigated and trialled. It is argued that practical philosophy is one such approach to self-review and evaluation of teaching practice for early childhood education in Aotearoa New Zealand, and elsewhere.
Background to the study
Practical philosophy has been explained as practical intelligence combined with practical wisdom resulting in knowing how to apply general principles to particular situations (Birmingham, 2004). The term Aristotle (1999) used for practical philosophy was phronesis which is defined as “a state of grasping the truth, involving reason, concerned with action about things that are good or bad for a human being” (p. 89). In a modern teaching context, Aristotle’s notion of phronesis, or practical philosophy, is still seen as a counterbalance to the notion of teaching as an activity that is measured by regulations and generic standards that have been formed externally to the immediate teaching context (Kerr, 2010).
Practical philosophy has been described as a better understanding of practice involving the habits and modes of thought that determine actions, and so is situated in a particular context, a specific time and place and focuses on specific events and persons (Birmingham, 2004). Rather than measuring actions and behaviour, practical philosophy instigates social inquiry that involves dialogue about practice to inform decision-making. Here practical philosophy becomes a conversation about deliberate and conflicting opinions, the choice of values or internal aims of a particular practice. Underpinning practical philosophy is the ideal of democracy, and the notion that democracy itself requires constant critique and evaluation (Franklin, 2010). The emphasis on social inquiry and on-going conversations about values and practice are a focus of the self-review process outlined in this article.
Evaluation has been critiqued as usually being a technical and managerial process to evaluate desirable outcomes in early childhood education (Dahlberg, Moss & Pence, 2007; Kerr, 2010; Schwandt, 1996). Dahlberg, Moss and Pence (2007) consider that this results in a form of evaluation that depends on expert knowledge and measurement, when a process of interpreting philosophical values that recognises teachers’ subjective knowledge by questioning, dialogue and reflection to enhance meaning-making would be more suitable. These authors support the approach of practical philosophy whereby the individuals directly involved, that is the teachers in each centre, take responsibility for their decisions and judgments.
Reflecting on and discussing practical philosophy of teaching results in the growth of practical wisdom, which was considered by Aristotle to be a virtue.
Practical wisdom enables us to detect and evaluate the important features of each situation so that we can act wisely on principle. The virtue allows us to be fair, to be just, and to do the correct thing for others who also have the right of actualization. (Franklin, 2010, p. 83)
This has been defined as wise practice (Goodfellow, 2003). Goodfellow (2003) describes this as a combination of expert knowledge with sound judgment and thoughtful action to enable teachers to use their intuition to read a situation from implicit messages gleaned from the interactions within the context where one works. As Goodfellow (2003, p. 51) explains “Reflection and the capacity to appreciate the personal attributes, feelings, attitudes, beliefs and values that influence actions all form part of the practical wisdom of professional practice”. Goodfellow (2001) states that practical wisdom results in wise practice and that wise practice is a more appropriate aim for teaching than the term best practice as it can be applied to the changing nature of relationships and the impact they have on early childhood practice, whereas best practice implies that there is only one right method of teaching and so ignores the complexity of practice. Goodfellow warns, however, that practical wisdom refers to that part of the teacher’s role that is often invisible, and so remains unexamined. By supporting early childhood teachers to review their teaching practice using an approach of practical philosophy, the values that underpin practice are made visible so that each teacher can reflect on these on an individual basis, while dialogue amongst teachers enables a collective philosophy of teaching to be constructed that forms the basis for reviewing teaching practice amongst the team as a whole.
Methodology and the research process
The methodology adopted for this study was the notion of practical philosophy as self-review, drawing on Jean McNiff’s (2003) form of action research based on living values. McNiff contends that evaluation should not merely be seen as something that is completed retrospectively but that it should be an embodied part of teaching practice – an organising principle that transforms the work of teaching into moral praxis, as the following quote explains:
The form of evaluation most useful for understanding and improving personal and social contexts is a process of collective enquiry, in which the individual comes to make judgements about their work, through self-study, in the interests of contributing to good social orders”. (McNiff, 2003, p. 223)
McNiff (2003) states that by asking “How do I improve what I am doing?” teachers are placed at the centre of the review process, so they can make professional judgements about their own teaching. McNiff says initiatives for teacher improvement have sometimes been ineffective because they have focussed on teacher behaviour without scrutinising the values that shape the behaviours. Hence living values action research as outlined by Whitehead and McNiff (2006) complements the concept of practical philosophy, as it contends that teachers can improve their practices through an action research process where each teacher reflects on their work individually and then discusses it with others. By asking “How do I improve what I am doing?” teachers are able to make professional judgements about their own teaching.
Context for the research
The context for this research was a not-for-profit early childhood centre, catering for 25 children per session located in the greater Auckland area, and staffed by four qualified teachers. The four teachers were asked to meet once a month with the researcher to explore the impact of their practical philosophy on their teaching practice.
To give the teachers a clear idea of the time frame a process was outlined from the start, and for each meeting set tasks were defined. At the first meeting the research project was explained and profile sheets and reflective journals were distributed. At the second meeting, ground rules were formed and personal teaching philosophies were shared. For example, one teacher wrote:
I believe that each child is a unique individual with the right to participation - to participate in an environment where children’s ability to play, curiosity, ideas and wonder are listened to, respected and valued. I also believe in the value of participation, a sense of belonging, for families and teachers.
I believe teaching and learning are woven together, with trust, respect and hope. I value learning as an active life-long process where experience, reflection and social participation give meaning to living, being and learning.
I believe learning is strengthened when relationships are valued, interconnecting children, families and teachers building social community and cultural identity. (Teacher 4, Philosophy statement)
At this second meeting, in order to prompt dialogue, the four individual philosophies and reflections were mapped to form a collective statement of values. These values were categorised into values that all teachers agreed upon, and divergent values that needed further discussion. The teachers then negotiated one core value that was common in all the individual philosophies to explore further. The chosen value linked back to the curriculum framework of Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 1996), and the following aspiration for children’s learning:
To grow up as competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society. (Ministry of Education, 1996, p. 9)
Competence was a value that featured strongly in all philosophy statements. The teachers pondered the meaning of the word and the implications it raised for practice:
Teacher 4: Yes, you see like, I just straightaway, with that independence versus interdependence, we need to set about valuing competence as a… what are the words?
Teacher 1: Valuing independence.
Teacher 4: Yes, valuing independence. Then, like in practice, when you ask someone to look after their brother, you could actually argue that you are acknowledging the competent child because you value interdependence, and you see the competency of looking after their brother, as opposed to valuing the brother’s independence.
Teacher 3: Yes, because that is competence. Competence is not independence necessarily, competence is actually to me being able to ask for help, acknowledge that you actually need help.
Teacher 1: I can see this is a good one to look at. (meeting held on 15th March)
From the ensuing discussion, the teachers decided that a key aspect of an early childhood teacher’s role was to reflect each child’s competence back to them, so the review question formed was: How do we enable children to feel competent?
After this meeting, the next week the researcher filmed each of the four teachers as they worked with the children. The next four monthly meetings were spent watching each video and discussing how each teacher enabled the children they worked with to feel competent. In the final meeting, the collective map of values was again revisited and the values it outlined were again discussed. It was felt at this stage that many of the values the teachers had initially not agreed on were very similar values but that they had been articulated differently. After this meeting, there was a break of two months to allow the teachers to have time to reflect on how the process had impacted on their teaching practice. At the end of the two month period, each teacher was interviewed separately to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the self-review process. The comments made in these interviews inform the report of the findings (see later in this article).
As the researcher who instigated the process, I felt it was important to reflect on the ethics throughout the research process. No matter how much careful consideration is given to the research design, ethical dilemmas were always a possibility throughout the course of the research. I considered it my responsibility as a researcher, to maintain an atmosphere that allowed differences to be discussed in a respectful way. For this reason, the group set ground rules before the discussions commenced. In addition, I also set ground rules for myself to follow as the facilitator of the process. I decided it was inappropriate for me to take part in the discussion of the centre’s philosophy as I am not part of the everyday life of the centre. I considered I should only join in the discussion if I could make links to appropriate literature in a way that would add extra depth to the discussion. I was also anxious about the appropriateness of an outsider coming into the centre to facilitate a self-review process whereby teachers reviewed their teaching , as the term self-review implies that teachers review their own practice without any outside influence. My anxiety was unfounded because in the final interview, although I asked no specific question about my role, it was commented on in this way:
I think it is really valuable for an outsider — more objective view, rather than one of the staff members doing it …Having an outsider recording discussion, and us reading from the reflective journal, put value on what we thought. That wouldn’t be the same if it was an insider. A total outsider… that wouldn’t work! It is important that the person coming in does have a rapport, and an understanding of the operations and the background of the staff — for example, the pressures that the staff are under, that it is a mixed age centre with 150 children a week (Teacher 4, final interview).
Although the teachers said they appreciated the insights that could be gained from being videoed, they also felt it was an intimidating experience. This outlined an additional ethical consideration for me as a researcher: How much should I challenge and critique the dialogue? After an early meeting, I became anxious that the process I had planned was not challenging the teachers thinking enough to result in a change of practice or a shift in thinking. I was aware that action research often involved critical dialogue that uncovered unwelcome truths (Kemmis, 2006). Although the value of critical dialogue and the usefulness of having one’s blind spots uncovered by unwelcome truths can be easily justified in theory, in practice it can be very threatening (Meyer, Ashburner & Holman, 2006). Forming a community that critically reflects on and interprets teachers’ understandings of practice can be uncomfortable because it involves subjecting thoughts and beliefs to scrutiny by others who may not hold the same values (MacNaughton, 2003). Some researchers have questioned the wisdom of deconstructing and challenging the knowledge base of early childhood teachers because of the uncertainty and despair this may bring (MacNaughton, 2001). I decided that if I emphasised change in every meeting, I might give the unspoken message that the teaching practice was found wanting (Meyer, Ashburner & Holman, 2006). Hence, being critical can be counterproductive if it causes teachers to become defensive or renders them silent (Stark, 2006).
I decided that the approach to criticality that was most appropriate was to support the teachers to think anew or to reflect on alternatives (Burbules & Berk, 1999). I also considered it was not ethical to impose my own intentions on the teachers, but needed to trust them to form their own interpretations in a way that was meaningful to them so that they could control and own any shift of thinking (Dewar, 2006). I realised that reflection and dialogue was not occurring solely during the meetings when I arrived at the centre one day for a scheduled meeting only to find that the teachers were engaged in a conversation about the research. A caring attitude on my part proved to be the most appropriate way to support the critical thinking that would evolve naturally from the process. (Meyer, Ashburner & Holman, 2006), as the quote below from one of the teachers reveals:
I think what was highlighted for me was that it (the critical reflection process) doesn’t stop. You have triggers that make you discuss with staff about competence and practice. An example of this was when I gave a presentation at a hui (meeting) in Auckland. It was the powerful images of the children and their competence, and the image of the teachers supporting this that made the presentation…It helped that when we edited the videos of children with special rights, it allowed greater discrimination and scrutiny, because we had a lens of competency, we had our awareness sharpened, so we edited more critically, and provided very powerful images of children with special rights being competent. (Teacher 4, Final interview).
It is evident here, for this teacher, that reflection was not confined to the research meetings alone.
The teachers were found to value the opportunity to participate in reflection and dialogue about teaching practice. They reported that they liked the opportunity to reflect on their values and philosophy at a deeper level than just talking about their daily practices. One teacher wrote in her journal: “Should there be a future occasion to be involved in a self-review of teaching practice, I would not hesitate to be part of it”. Reflecting on practical philosophy was viewed by the teachers as professional learning conducted in the context where they worked on a daily basis, so it allowed them to make sense of the complex interplay between individual and collective values and philosophies and their impact on daily practices. This, in turn, allowed them to construct new perspectives of teaching practice indicating that teachers are capable of constructing their own philosophy. Note that a teacher’s competency is defined here in terms of the understandings that are formed from critical reflection rather than mere compliance to a rigid set of rules (Rinaldi, 2006).
An outcome of the process was that it provoked teachers to put their personal values of teaching into words:
I had a whole lot of words in my head but didn’t know where to start. I really had to think about what I do believe in and what I do value! (Teacher 1, Reflective Journal)
When looking at how they, as teachers, enabled children to feel competent, at first the teachers defined competency as simply being able, but they later began to view the notion of competence in greater depth. For example:
Are children who are blind or immobile or autistic still viewed as competent? So then that might be a different way to view competence… As competence is the ability to be human and to think, to feel emotions, to act, be physical, to express yourself, to be social. (Teacher 4, meeting transcription)
This led the teachers to form one definition of resilience as being competent in adverse circumstances. They also decided that competence is not static as not everyone is competent in everything. Teacher 1 for example said:
And the next time I wrote I said ‘ Is part of competence having the confidence to give it a go in learning, and knowing that they don’t always have to succeed, learning through trial and error but being able to say ‘Hey! I did it! I didn’t get it right, but this is what I did!’ So the child doesn’t get upset, but sees what they can get out of an experience, rather than seeing themselves as a failure. (Teacher 1, transcription of meeting)
The teachers could also see that competence was a relative concept as the following comment shows:
I was just going to say after thinking about competence… because if social competence is culturally defined then it is limited to my own culture, so there is a responsibility to know and understand not just my own culture, but others as well, because you can make assumptions about your own and while you understand the culture of the centre that you are in. (Teacher 4, transcription of meeting)
They concluded that a child’s competency could not be measured against a prescribed set of competencies. They also acknowledged the value of reviewing practice with others:
The importance in reviewing this with others — I was nervous. My feeling of competence as a teacher is intrinsic as it arises with the relationships. It is a mixture of teacher-child competence. It is difficult to review practice as we look to justify our practice and ignore what does not fit our picture of ourselves. That is why it is so important to view the video with others. (Teacher 4, transcription of meeting)
The teachers believed that reviewing teaching practice within a team encourages shifts of thinking that may not have occurred otherwise:
By exploring the word competent, for me I feel there has been an enormous shift away from me acknowledging “needs”, as I stated in my first philosophy, to seeing children as having diverse abilities which can be celebrated, because by focusing on needs, I wasn’t really acknowledging that children could be competent at that stage. (Teacher 2, transcription of meeting)
One of the teachers summed up the experience of self-review as practical philosophy in this way:
I would recommend it – what you put down in words, you don’t always enact. What you put down in words is an ideal, but with this form, I realised that it is often hard to enact. The changes in practice to improve are often subtle. It was good also to have the outside perspective and support. It was very supportive doing this in a team – our philosophies were all so similar. We practice in a slightly different way, but we all want the same outcome. I think it could be a team building exercise, because the outside person coming in mediates the process. (Teacher 3, Final interview)
The other significant finding was that there were personal and structural factors that influenced the teachers’ individual and collective response to the process. Although the teachers considered the self-review process to be valuable, these personal and structural factors formed challenges to overcome. In the beginning, the teachers were anxious about the process. Anxiety arose not only from being misunderstood or challenged about beliefs, but also because the teachers felt they might hurt each other’s feelings:
I remember going home from this meeting and hoping what I said – nobody had taken it personally, as what we did was pull apart each other’s philosophies (which are very personal) questioning, challenging etc. (Teacher 1, Reflective Journal)
For another teacher, the anxiety arose from her role as the supervisor of the centre:
I found that I was nervous with my practice being filmed. Perhaps this was because of a fear of being “judged”, particularly in having the roles of both educator and supervisor. Risk taking is part of the process... (Teacher 4, Reflective Journal).
In this case the anxiety was short-lived because the centre had a culture of caring and respectful relationships.
The main structural factor that impacted on teachers was time, and that time is a form that takes many guises (McGee & Lawrence, 2009). The teachers all agreed they valued time, both for themselves and for the children:
Yeah! That is what I said. Philosophically I value time, time to reflect and even out the pace to become deeply involved, but practice is governed by factors such as session time, and with professional development and family time and… so that is why I didn’t even put it in, even though philosophically I value it. (Teacher 4, meeting transcription)
The teachers could see that time (or lack of) was often a barrier to being able to put values into practice
I think I have given more thought to the word competent and how I view the word competent. I think I allow children more time to do things for themselves and do more for others. But when time is a factor… I think there is even more time when they could do things. Sometimes when I have nappies to change, I get the bag rather than saying ‘C’mon, let’s find your bag!’, but now I am aware. (Teacher 1, meeting transcription)
The teachers were also aware that reviewing practice itself took time. All teachers were willing to invest time in the review process although they knew it was often difficult to find time for such activities:
Teacher 4: So if I had an theory about self-review, it would be that self-review is a really important process when conducted… that it is really necessary to becoming a truly reflective practitioner.
Teacher 2: I mean if you have time to do it… I mean I don’t think… with the self-review we meet here once a month. I am not sure without that I would have reflected on my practice at home. You know what I mean! Because it was time set aside with your colleagues.
The findings demonstrate that the process of self-study and dialogue resulted in a greater self-awareness in the teachers, and this, in turn, heightened their awareness of their teaching practices as more than completing daily routines. This emphasises the value of practical philosophy as being practical intelligence combined with practical wisdom so that a better understanding of the habits and thoughts that determine action is formed (Birmingham, 2004).
The teachers all agreed that putting aside the time to meet as a teaching team supported them to become more aware of the layers of meaning behind their teaching philosophy. They also recognised that making time to discuss their philosophy enabled listening (in a metaphorical sense) to take place in a way that led both to personal and professional growth, while forming a deeper, more respectful and caring relationships amongst the teachers.
The results show that a facilitator can play a constructive role in the process of self- review as practical philosophy. The teachers in this study reported that they felt affirmed by having an external facilitator and that it was easier to express an opinion about sensitive issues to an outsider who was familiar with their context. They stated in their feedback that having an insider to facilitate would not have given the same impartiality as an outside facilitator did. It has been stated that knowledgeable and critically aware external facilitation is one of the factors that can support professional development (Mitchell & Cubey, 2003) and that facilitators play a key role in scaffolding experiences, as well as providing additional information, resources and assisting closure at key journey points (Fleet & Patterson, 2009). Although the contrasting view is that an external facilitator can be less effective because they lack understanding of the context and are unable to give long-term support to new understandings of professional practice (Timperley, 2008), I felt that in this instance, there was enough evidence from the research data to indicate that an external facilitation was successful.
Implications for practice
The findings of this study suggest practical philosophy is a valid approach for reviewing practice by creating greater self-awareness for teachers individually, and by provoking them to think more deeply about the values that underpin practice, and whether or not these are demonstrated in their daily actions. It also provided an opportunity for the teaching team to engage in discussions about their practice resulting in a deeper understanding and respect for each other.
The purpose of self-review outlined in the government documents (Ministry of Education, 1999; Ministry of Education, 2006) is twofold. The first purpose is accountability to legal regulations, and the second is improvement of teaching practice. Both purposes can be perceived as a governing mechanism to establish norms of practice that reach a standard. However, the term accountability can mean more than compliance to the regulations that have been externally formed (contractual accountability), it can also mean acting with integrity in a way that is respectful to others and improving relationships in a particular time and context (moral accountability) (Goodard & Leask, 1992). Self-review as practical philosophy advocates for accountability that serves both functions. The terms “improve” and “teaching practice” can both be deconstructed to uncover a variety of meanings, underlying values and assumptions. Reviewing practice using practical philosophy advocates for an improvement of teaching practice that should not only be seen as early childhood teachers meeting a normative standard, but should also be viewed qualitatively. Here practical philosophy ensures that teachers gain a deeper understanding and fresh critical insights into aspects of teaching practice, both individually as teachers and collectively as a teaching team.
To be sure, this approach to self-review is highly dependent on the teachers being able to articulate and engage in dialogue about their personal philosophies. Although daunting at first, by forming, reflecting and engaging in dialogue to discuss practical philosophy early childhood teachers can enhance their professional image with new dimensions – that is, to profess, or state the values that underpin their practice and to demonstrate how these are integrated into their practice (McNiff, 1999).
With an unknown future and constant social change, the competencies and knowledge base required of teachers may need to evolve significantly. For this reason, it is more important to nurture teachers who are self-aware and who are able to blend a professional knowledge base with thoughtful action so that sound decisions are made about children’s learning. In the future, practical philosophy that results in practical wisdom may become an important professional attribute – one that is more able to meet the changing demands of early childhood teaching.
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About the author
Dr Anne Grey is a senior lecturer in the School, working in the early childhood sector at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Originally from Australia, Anne worked in primary education before arriving in New Zealand where she re-qualified as an early childhood teacher, and later gained a Masters and a doctorate in early childhood education. Anne is particularly interested in teacher self-review and inquiry into practice. She became interested in practical philosophy after she read about it in Dahlberg, Moss and Pence (1999) Beyond quality in early childhood education and care: Postmodern perspectives when it first came out in 1999.
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