Uncovering the layers of reflective practice

During the month of June, We Hear You will be featuring a three-part series exploring reflective practice.

The series will address some of the challenges educators face around reflective practice and critical reflection. We explore what it is and how it informs your work, practical strategies and what to record while sharing some quality practice examples.

Uncovering the layers of reflective practice: Introduction

Current data identifies Quality Area 1: Educational program and practice as one of the most challenging quality areas for services to gain a rating of Meeting or Exceeding National Quality Standard (NQS). In particular, Element 1.2.3: Critical reflection on children’s learning and development has been at the top of the ‘not met’ list for some time. When critical reflection is embedded naturally in the practice at a service, educators engage in critical reflection as part of their daily routines.

In this series, the diagram representing the multiple layers of reflective practice will help us think through and visualise the way it connects and impacts all aspects of our work, from self-reflection to reflecting on teaching and learning and, finally, reflection that informs continuous improvement. The approved learning frameworks refer to reflective practice as a ‘form of on-going learning that involves engaging with questions of philosophy, ethics and practice. Its intention is to gather information and gain insights that support, inform and enrich decision making about children’s learning’(Early Years Learning Framework, p. 13; Framework for School Age Care, p. 11).

Throughout the series we use a range of terms interchangeably such as reflective practice and critical reflection. There is a common misconception that critical reflection is about finding fault or criticising an event or the actions of those involved. The reality is critical reflection involves reflecting on experiences, posing questions, sharing ideas and respectfully considering different perspectives. It allows us to develop deeper understandings, explore concerns, improve the program and raise the overall quality of education and care experiences of children. It also supports educators to develop confidence in professional judgement.

All aspects of your work are supported by critical reflection, including engaging with the NQS. The NQS is intentionally not prescriptive to empower educators to draw on their pedagogy and knowledge of child development and the learning frameworks, and to make decisions based on their unique knowledge of the children, families and communities in which the service operates. Remember, there’s no one set way or approach. Your process of critical reflection is unique to you and your service context.

Wherever you are at with your reflective practice journey, we challenge you to go deeper and consider how critical reflection fits in with the professional learning community within your service context.

What you need to begin or strengthen your reflective practice:

  1. A safe respectful, ethical space where everyone’s ideas are valued and heard
  2. A willingness to continue learning, growing and changing
  3. A commitment to improving outcomes for children
  4. A refresh of the approved learning frameworks to support the process and the research
  5. TIME! Set aside some time to meet, think, read and reflect.

Remember the end goal is to improve outcomes for children, families and communities!

Next week, we will begin the series with part one and explore the way self-reflection is the key to growth, continuous improvement and quality outcomes.

Further reading and resources

ACECQA – Information sheet: Developing a culture of learning through reflective practice

Early Childhood Australia – Thinking about Practice: Working with the Early Years Learning Framework

Early Childhood Australia – Reflection as a tool for quality: Working in the National Quality Standard

Children’s Services Central – Reflective Practice

Exploring professionalism: Will you ‘interpret the rules’ or ‘debate the intent’?

ACECQA’s National Education Leader, Rhonda Livingstone provides insight into National Quality Framework topics of interest.

I thought it would be timely to explore how education and care professionals have grown and developed since the introduction of the National Quality Framework (NQF). Given that we are about to embark on the next stage of the continuous improvement with a revised National Quality Standard (NQS), I would like to open a dialogue that may spark some conversations with your teams as you ponder the questions:

  • What is your approach to the changes to the NQS?
  • Will this be an opportunity for innovation and change in the ways you look at quality improvement?

Sims, Forrest, Semann and Slattery (2015) raise the issue that whilst the intent of policy changes might be to empower educators to consider how the standards apply to their context, the result could in fact be that educators are disempowered. This thinking is based on the idea that educators may fear straying too far away from accepted ideas and practice due to a strong focus on accountability.

The article goes on to say that there can be a tendency to simply focus in on understanding and interpreting the ‘rules’ rather than debating the intent of the ‘rules and experimenting with a variety of ways relevant to context’ (p. 150).  So how do we as a profession begin or escalate the discussion about the intent of the NQS and build professionalism and confidence?

I reflected back on my involvement in the development of the NQS. We set out to develop an aspirational standard that was predominantly outcomes focused, not prescriptive and had inputs embedded within the minimum legislative requirements set out in the National Law and Regulations.

The exciting thing about this shift in focus from being told what to do and how to do it, is it empowers educators to draw on their pedagogy, knowledge of child development, the approved learning frameworks, the NQS and underpinning regulatory standards. This combined with their knowledge of individual children, families and communities empowers educators to make informed decisions about how they meet the standards in ways that are contextually relevant for the families and communities of their service.

I believe the revised NQS could be the catalyst to start such the discussion. To engage in critical inquiry, action research and professional conversations about what are the outcomes for children when these standards are met or indeed when they are exceeded. An example could be opening up a professional dialogue about why the planning cycle is important to facilitate children’s learning.

Some questions which may prompt reflection and discussion in your service:

  • What opportunities exist for educators to engage in professional conversations, critical inquiry and investigations?
  • How do you create and promote a culture of innovation within your service?
  • How open are educators in your team to trying different approaches?
  • Throughout the self-assessment process, how do educators unpack the ‘why’ behind practices, in particular those identified as strengths?

Reference

Sims, M., Forrest, R., Semann, A. and Slattery, C. (2015) ‘Conceptions of early childhood leadership: driving new professionalism?‘ International Journal of Leadership in Education: Theory and Practice, 18 (2), 149-166.

Further reading and resources

NQF Changes Information sheets and resources

Educators’ Guide to the Early Years Learning Framework

Educators’ Guide to the Framework for School Age Care

Effective Professional conversations

We improve what we measure

In her first We Hear You blog as the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) Chief Executive Officer, Gabrielle Sinclair shares her thoughts about the National Quality Framework and a recent visit to the Northern Territory.

One of ACECQA’s functions is working with regulatory authorities to educate and inform services and the community about the National Quality Framework (NQF).

Since 2012, educators, services, schools and governments have undertaken a significant journey in implementing the new laws, regulations and the National Quality Standard.  While it took time to get across the detail of the new national system, over 88% of services have now been assessed and rated, with 73% rated Meeting National Quality Standard or above. Over the next five years, our challenge is to continue the quality improvement journey and support parents and carers as well-informed consumers of education and care services for their children.

In my new role as ACECQA CEO, I am learning a great deal from you about the diversity of communities across Australia; the unique circumstances in which services operate; the rich experiences of families; and the way we all respond within a national framework.

Recently, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to meet with the Northern Territory Minister for Education and speak at the 2017 Leaders’ Conference in Darwin. I was impressed by the determination to raise quality in the NT and the unique way leaders in both sectors were enriching children’s experiences and improving learning outcomes.   The continuous quality improvement journeys shared by Principals Leah, Joe and Graham, highlighted the critical fact that good leadership is all about results.  To achieve better results, they spoke of giving a voice to the expertise and knowledge of early childhood educators, teachers and local families.  They reflected on the immense value of listening to and understanding the perspectives of children.

During my visit to local services, I met with very insightful educational leaders who were deeply connected with their local communities.  At Nightcliff, there is a strong partnership between the early learning centre and the school with the aim to give young children a seamless experience from long day care to preschool and on to school and outside school hours care. The results are tangible. The physical and sector barriers are being removed; the early learning centre and the school are sharing quality resources; families are welcomed; and the focus is very much on building confident, enthusiastic young learners.

In both education sectors and in every jurisdiction, we are listening to inspiring educational leaders who share their stories.  Although each experience is unique, a common reflection is that improved, sustained results are unlikely to happen without a commitment at the highest level; a deep understanding of the NQF and the roles we all have; a determination to improve beyond a single point in time; respect for the early childhood profession; and genuine partnerships with families and the community.

We have learnt so much since 2012.  It is worth sharing our own NQF journeys with others – across services, sectors and borders – and with our families.  It is a truism that everything that gets measured gets better and, as Joe reflected, do our children deserve anything less?

From soaring towers to inclusive playscapes: Exploring the journey of children’s participation

How can we give children more opportunities to contribute meaningfully? To their services? To their community? To their cities and world? Bridget Isichei, an early childhood educator and former director of UnitingCare Jack and Jill Preschool Grafton and area manager for Goodstart Early Learning, writes this month about the journey of children’s participation in an exciting council playground project.

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A collaborative design by the children at Goodstart Early Learning Grafton

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child tells us that children have the right to have their voices heard and their opinions considered.

For most of my own career, enacting this meant asking children to contribute to the design of their play-space or encouraging them to develop their own behaviour guidelines (in line with National Quality Standard Element 1.1.6). More recently, I have been engaged in a project that has changed my thinking about this. I now realise we can do more and dream of a world where children are given the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to community discussion, and mould the cities and towns that they live in from the day they are born.

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A contribution from the children at Westlawn Preschool Grafton

The project started during my time as the Director of UnitingCare Jack and Jill, when a group of preschool children wrote to the Clarence Valley Council to express their opinion that their town had insufficient playgrounds, and asking if they could design a better one. To our delight, the council agreed at the perfect time since they had budgeted for a new playground the following year. Within just a few months the council saw the value of consulting young children and invited three other early education and care services to become involved. As the director of the preschool that originally approached the council, I was given a place on their committee.

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“You can sit on if you have no friends and someone will come to play with you.” – UnitingCare Jack and Jill Preschool Grafton

Some of my strategies and key learnings from the project were:

At first educators held large groups and expected every child to contribute:

We reflected and decided that although children have the right to participate, they don’t have to. We set up a learning space in each service where children could visit and record ideas if they were interested in the project.

We expected all educators, park designers and council members to know why children have the right to participate:

We spent time explaining the benefits of children’s participation and voice to all stakeholders.

We asked children to contribute ideas without giving them the tools, knowledge and resources they needed:

playscapes-westlawn-preschool-grafton-1
A contribution from the children at Westlawn Preschool Grafton

Educators decided to hold small group times for interested children to increase their knowledge about playground design, recycling and inclusion. The designated learning area was set up with books and information about the project so the children could revisit the area and build skills over time. Continuous learning, high expectations and intentional teaching were therefore critical elements in making the project successful.

Children came up with too many ideas to use:

Children were encouraged to reflect on and refine their ideas. Children were given the opportunity to consult with each other and park design professionals to find out if their ideas were practical. By revisiting these ideas regularly, children were able to develop their thinking.

The design for the new park now includes signs written by the children, has equipment that is inclusive of all children, recycling bins, a very tall tower, sand and water play and children’s art. The park will have a special seat that ‘you can sit on if you have no friends and someone will come to play with you’. When a child suggested this, I knew that this inclusive idea was very important, but something an adult would be unlikely to think of.

Children have unique perspectives, and the world is a lesser place when we don’t listen to them.

References

UN General Assembly. (1989) Convention on the Rights of the Child, 20 November 1989, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1577, p. 3.

Helping families understand quality

This month on We Hear You, Jessica Annerley, Chief Executive Officer of Bruce Ridge Early Childhood Centre and Preschool talks about helping families understand the National Quality Standard, and building support for quality education and care.

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Our service was rated Working Towards National Quality Standard (NQS) between 2013–2016. Conversations with families at the time were focused on why we achieved this rating, why we felt it was an appropriate rating at the time of the assessment, and what we were doing to improve our practices.

Our educators recognised the importance of including families in our quality improvement journey, helping them understand the quality areas, and what we were doing to support their child’s learning, development and wellbeing.

We used the information in the assessment and rating report as the basis of our Quality Improvement Plan (QIP). We then shared this in a formal process with families, along with our philosophy and policies, and asked our families what they felt we were doing well and what we could improve in relation to the NQS. After integrating this feedback into our programs and practice, the hard but rewarding work paid off in October 2016 when we celebrated the outcome of our reassessment with the families from our service. We are all thrilled to have achieved the Exceeding NQS rating, and look forward to our ongoing journey to achieve excellence.

exceeding-300-rgbIt was great timing with the release of the new NQS logos. So far the Exceeding logo, which is displayed on our website and signature blocks, has been a useful conversation starter, helping new families understand a little more about quality education and care.

Having achieved Exceeding NQS in all seven quality areas, our conversations with families are less about the areas we are doing well in and more about the areas that support our philosophy and that we feel passionate about as a community. Unique aspects of our service, such as our relationships with the community, the professional learning and development our educators are committed to and our ‘Bush School’ program, are often topics we discuss with families. We also outline how they directly link to the NQS and support children’s learning on a daily basis.

The assessment and rating process is another opportunity for us to talk to families about the NQS. It helps families recognise the value of what we do, and helps refocus the importance of our profession and the way it contributes to the outcomes and benefits for children both in the early years and later in life. We believe it’s a step towards improving what is a largely undervalued and underpaid sector at present.

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Families are often surprised to hear that prior to the National Quality Framework there was no national law, regulation or mandatory curriculum framework. This leads to conversations around professionalising our sector and mandatory qualifications for educators. It provides an avenue for us to talk to families about the importance of early childhood education and care – that is, not just child care.

Educators are often a family’s first experience of education for their child, and we play an important role in helping them understand the sometimes confusing terminology, complexity and importance of the NQS.

Looking for resources to help you talk to families about individual quality areas and the NQS? Check out the Guide to the NQS – the summary paragraph before each quality area might be particularly useful.

Practical strategies for reviewing, planning and improving team performance

ACECQA’s National Education Leader, Rhonda Livingstone provides insight into National Quality Framework topics of interest.

William Shakespeare said ‘we know what we are but not what we may be’. One of the many roles of leaders is to assist team members to realise, and reach their full potential.

Assessment and rating data shows that element 7.2.2 of the National Quality Standard (NQS) is among the top five most challenging to meet, requiring that ‘the performance of educators, coordinators and staff members is evaluated and individual development plans are in place to support performance improvement’.

Professional development supports educators in their work to provide quality outcomes for children and families. We know when education and care services establish and maintain a culture of ongoing reflection and self-review, team members are more likely to feel challenged and motivated, and experience job satisfaction (Early Years Learning Framework p.13, Framework for School Age Care p. 12).

The Guide to the National Quality Standard refers to a cyclical process for performance review and improvement, but doesn’t set specific guidelines around timing or how the process should work in practice. Services should establish a process that works best for their staff and management structure. The process should be one that identifies staff members’ strengths and assesses and enhances staff performance.

Strategies

When implementing a performance review system, (including Professional Development Plans for each team member) a self-assessment tool developed by the Professional Support Coordinators Alliance is a useful resource. The tool can be used to establish goals and identify areas for professional development.

When education and care professionals engage in self-assessment with managers, they’re able to build on strengths, identify areas they would like to develop and celebrate the successes and contributions of all team members. Whatever system is used, it’s important the purpose is communicated clearly to staff and they feel empowered and supported in the process.

Another approach to self-assessment might be regular one-on-one catch ups to discuss current achievements and challenges. Meeting regularly ensures the team is supported on an ongoing basis and through periods of change. This is especially helpful when teams consist of casual or short term members. It can also reduce the sometimes onerous task of undertaking the process annually.

Additional strategies to self-assessment can be found in our previous article on professional development planning, as well as the Gowrie Tasmania fact sheetLeadership in Early Childhood Education and Care Services.

Quality Improvement Plan

Reviewing your current process for planning, supporting and improving team performance is important and can form part of your Quality Improvement Plan. How does the team feel about the process? Are there opportunities to share achievements? How do other services approach professional development? These are some questions you might like consider when reviewing your service’s plan.

Sustainability in children’s education and care

Sustainability

Rhonda Livingstone, ACECQAThis month ACECQA’s National Education Leader, Rhonda Livingstone, promotes sustainability and looks at why it’s important for children to explore values and develop an appreciation of the environment.

Living sustainably means living within the capacity of the natural environment to support life and ensuring our current lifestyle has minimal impact on generations to come. Sustainable practices relate not only to the natural environment, but also our society and culture, including aspects such as consumerism and community well-being.

As the need for greater sustainability becomes more apparent globally, so does the importance of embedding sustainability in children’s programs. Through hands-on experiences and relevant educator pedagogies, children can explore and learn about their local contexts and environmental issues. They can develop the creativity and critical thinking skills necessary to make informed decisions for change, improving the quality of their lives, and those of future generations.

Practicing sustainability empowers children to construct knowledge, explore values and develop an appreciation of the environment and its relationship to their worlds. This lays the foundations for an environmentally responsible adulthood.

Sue Elliott, Senior Lecturer from the University of New England, NSW, says ‘early childhood education for sustainability is a transformative and empowering process actively engaged in by children, families and educators who share an ecocentric worldview’ (Elliott, 2014, p.15).  An ecocentric worldview is one that embraces all the Earth’s life forms and physical elements, not just humans.

When there is an alignment of philosophies, ethics and beliefs in a service, sustainability becomes the norm and has a positive impact on children’s learning and the wider community.

The Early Years Learning Framework, the Framework for School Age Care and the National Quality Standard promote embedding sustainability in all daily routines and practices. Services often find elements relating to sustainability under Quality Area 3 challenging to meet.

Holistic approach

Educators typically focus on sustainable practices and activities for children in the outdoor environment. However, it is important to embed sustainability more broadly in all aspects of service operations. A holistic approach to sustainability is essential, acknowledging the natural, social, political and economic dimensions as defined by UNESCO (2010).

Sue Elliott (2014, p. 52) offers the following questions to get started on a journey of change:

  • What practical first step or action priority could we engage in that best reflects the interests and/or strengths of this community?
  • How will we decide on the most relevant and achievable action?
  • Which stakeholders in our service may have an interest in this action priority?

Other questions for reflection include:

  • What strategies do we use to foster children’s capacity to value and respect the broader environment and appreciate the interdependence between people, plants, animals and the land?
  • How are children involved in the environmentally sustainable practices already existing at the service and in the community?
  • What connections have we made within the local indigenous community that support a deeper connection to the land?
  • How will we maintain the inspiration and momentum for the journey of change?

Starting point

Nadine McCrea (2015, p. 64), Associate Professor at University of New England, suggests the following sustainable practices as starting points.

  • create edible gardens for sharing and/or cooking produce
  • implement an energy saving policy including heating, cooling, lights, appliances
  • practise green cleaning
  • be active citizens for sustainability in local community projects
  • collect natural materials for play ethically, only taking a few and using respectfully
  • install a solar hot water system
  • reuse and repurposing materials for play
  • create a second-hand children’s book or clothing exchange for families
  • use forest-friendly paper products
  • avoid disposable, single use items
  • investigate local indigenous environmental knowledge
  • implement a sustainable purchasing policy including local products and minimised packaging

What other possibilities might be relevant to your education and care service?

Network

Educators might consider joining a sustainable education network for ideas to engage in sustainable practices. Current networks include:

The Early Childhood Environmental Education Network has developed the Eco Smart for Early Childhood – a sustainability filter for Quality Improvement Plans along with a version designed specifically for family day care educators. Other useful resources include:

References and resources

Davis, J. (Ed.) (2015). Young children and the environment: Early education for sustainability (2nd edn.), Port Melbourne, Victoria: Cambridge University Press.

Elliott, S. (2014). Sustainability and the Early Years Learning Framework. Mt Victoria, NSW: Pademelon Press.

McCrea, N. (2015). Leading and management: Early childhood settings – Inspiring people, places and practices. Port Melbourne, Victoria: Cambridge University Press.

NSW ECEEN (2012). ECO SMART for Early Childhood – A sustainability filter for Quality Improvement Plans. Sydney, NSW: OEH ET & NSW ECEEN.

NSW ECEEN (2015). ECO SMART for Early Childhood – A sustainability filter for Quality Improvement Plans Family Day Care revision. Sydney, NSW: OEH ET & NSW ECEEN.

UNESCO (2010) Four dimensions of sustainable development. Retrieved 25 September, 2014, from http://www.unesco.org/education/tlsf/mods/theme_a/popups/mod04t01s03.html

Young, T. & Elliott, S. (2014) Ways of thinking, acting and relating about sustainability. Deakin West, ACT: Early Childhood Australia.