Knowledge is a basket full of rich experiences that are multiple and varied. Leaders, team members and the children and families they work with all contribute to it. Their different experiences are parts of a puzzle that form a picture of understanding. Often, as practitioners we are adept at accessing these through observation, casual conversations, prearranged meetings.
But what of the knowledge held by the team? This does not mean the level or extent of their qualifications, or if they have been working in early childhood education and care (ECEC) for one or 30 years. We are interested in what they know in a far broader sense. What are their values and beliefs? Why do they work in ECEC? What it is that really makes Cheryl so good at communicating with the children? Why does Paula have that ‘sixth sense’, gleaned from years of experience and an active desire to understand, on child protection issues? There are many aspects to consider about the knowledge of the team, but there are two that we particularly wish to explore. The first is the learning community, a concept which was informed by psychological and socio-cultural theories and gained popularity in the 1990s.
The concept moves away from the individual as an isolated unit of learning and moved to the idea of learning as a cultural practice shared by a community. This can be applied to a setting.
A learning community reflects a group of people with common goals and a collective vision (however tenuous that feels given the current pressures to recruit staff and meet government objectives), who collaboratively analyse and reflect on their working and learning environment to meet their joint aspirations. It is important to stress that those goals should not just be those that are externally imposed onto those working in ECEC, such as school readiness or the inclusion of two-year-olds in settings. They are more than that; they are what makes up the ethos of a setting: what makes that environment unique and meaningful for all who inhabit it; what they believe in and strive for even with all those pressures.
There is shared knowledge within the community both in regards to the formation of the ethos and in sharing experiences of trying to bring it alive in daily life. It can be easy to assume that there is a shared vision among those who work in ECEC settings and we recognise that with staff turnover and recruitment pressures, finding the time to collectively agree a vision and ethos can be challenging. However, there is a need for everyone to collaborate in the articulation of the vision – it is not enough for you, as the leader, to be the only person who knows about it. So as a leader your job becomes not just to have a vision for your setting in mind, but to ask yourself:
1. Is this a shared vision?
2. Who formed the vision – you, the current team, an old team? i.e. what is your evidence for your answer to Q1?
3. Has your and the team’s thinking changed since the vision was first articulated?
4. Have new members of staff participated in this process?
While a core shared vision can often last a long time, new experiences can often alter the interpretation and enacting of the vision. Thus, as a leader, it is useful to revisit the above questions regularly to maintain that currency and ensure that all members are still ‘signed up’ to articulating and developing the vision and its aspirations. It is all too easy, when you have to step in ratio, or deal with a crisis, to push these more abstract tasks down the priority list. But this risks a situation where a new member of staff may feel outside of the shared vision and thus not part of the community. This is not good for them and not good for the team – they may miss out on that person’s rich contribution.
Thus collaboration is not only about what the vision is; but how it can be achieved and what knowledge (including experience) people can contribute. There is a potential danger that the connection to experience becomes ‘I tried that and it didn’t work’ or ‘we must do it like this’ rather than thinking about what did work and why it worked. Don’t be afraid of engaging in debate as to whether repeating it means it would work again. We think it is important that teams not only collaborate and bring together their knowledge to form a shared vision, but are also encouraged to share their experiences of fulfilling the vision.
For example: a student we recently worked with who was a leader in a rural setting decided that she needed to develop a shared vision among her team of ten staff. The setting was divided into three distinct areas; a baby room, a toddler room and a room for those aged three to four. Our student had recently noticed a rivalry creeping in, a sense that ‘our room is best’ that was unhelpful and divisive. She set up a meeting for the whole staff team and started by asking everyone to write what they believed their job was about; what values did they have and what they wanted for the children. The results were that all wanted very similar things: happy children; good partnership with parents; challenging activities for the children with a sense of progression, etc. They also had similar values in terms of supporting the child’s learning, treating them as individuals and valuing the here and now of experiences. By focusing on their similarities, the leader was able to ‘expose’ the consensus. She then looked at where they were unique and how they fitted together, using a jigsaw analogy so each could see how they relied on the other. The conversation moved away from being competitive and cliquey towards collaboration and mutual support.
Leaders must recognise that knowledge is one of the most important resources in any business situation. Having the opportunity to share with others is crucial to the creation of new knowledge that facilitates change and makes the organisation stronger. ECEC leaders should look at making opportunities to share and exchange that knowledge to create an embedded, co-constructed knowledge, fully owned by the team. Team meetings are often seen as a possible venue for this, but while many teams will meet regularly, inevitably meetings can become about administrative issues or planning for the next day. There can be occasions when teams do share their experiences, but we wonder whether they are truly recognised as being important channels of the knowledge that is embedded in the community?
One powerful method that individuals might use in order to be aware of and access their wealth of knowledge is reflection. Reflective practice is a deeply embedded feature of ECEC pedagogy as is evidenced in virtually all qualifications and training routes. There are many models of reflection – for example, cyclical approaches focused on evaluating experiences in order to inform subsequent actions. However, often reflection has too much focus on the individual and might not be intended for sharing. Individual reflections are important; but in considering the learning community, we also want to think about the potential for collaborative reflection frameworks such as professional dialogues – an organised conversation where both parties facilitate and support each other in thinking through what they wish to say; identifying how their experiences and thoughts ‘fit’ or challenge the current shared knowledge. There are also group activities that can encourage even the most hesitant practitioners to offer their perspectives, and work with the team towards a shared understanding and a solid knowledge base for all to draw on.
We will be exploring the rich possibilities for reflective activities in our final article.
Quality and Leadership in the Early Years: Research, Theory and Practice by Verity Campbell-Barr and Caroline Leeson is published by Sage (£22.99). The book has a chapter devoted to reflection.
Verity Campbell-Barr is currently undertaking research on the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed for working in early childhood education and care.