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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Expanding the potential and possibilities of the early years of primary school: a system’s challenge

Franceyn O'Connor
Education Officer, Sydney Catholic Education Office

In 2006 educational leaders from the Sydney Catholic Education Office (Sydney CEO) began exploring ways to enhance the educational environments offered to its students in the early primary years.

The investigation was prompted by a number of observations:

  • The age of children starting school varies by up to 16 months, making it a challenge for teachers to provide developmentally appropriate learning environments for all students.
  • The difference between prior-to-school settings (for example, preschools) and some classroom environments can be significant, with implications for the transition to school.
  • The New South Wales Government has decided to assess the literacy and numeracy abilities of all new primary students through the Best Start Program. However, the Sydney CEO wishes to promote diverse assessment opportunities that allow students to demonstrate their capabilities and understandings across all learning areas.
  • Research indicates that the young learner thrives in environments that provide time and space for the imagination, and for inquiry and creativity. However, teachers have voiced concern about how to promote these environments within the constraints of the syllabus and school timetables.

The Sydney CEO established an Early Years Advisory Committee to identify key areas for development. The committee's first action was to research and document effective processes for assisting children's transition to school; the research was underpinned by the belief that each community of learners is unique and that no one transition program would therefore fit all schools. A resource was developed to help schools build their own programs. Schools also began to run dedicated transition programs that ran over several weeks. Unlike the previous 'one off' orientation meetings, these programs allowed time for families, children and school communities to develop positive relationships and set solid foundations for future learning.

The practitioner enquiry project

In 2007 the Sydney CEO began a further project, in collaboration with the Institute of Early Childhood (IEC) at Macquarie University. The project aimed to encourage school leaders and teachers to reflect on ways to enhance educational practices in the early years, to gain deeper knowledge of the early learner, and to develop pedagogy that is appropriate for early learners, consistent with current curriculum requirements. It also aimed to involve teachers and school leaders in the process of change, working with the principles and philosophy underpinning early learning within the ethos of Catholic Education.

At the suggestion of the IEC, the project focused on the use of practitioner enquiry. In 2008, teachers and school leaders in primary schools across the Sydney Archdiocese were invited to take part, choosing their own topics for investigation at the local level. Staff from 12 schools joined the project. Participants included the school principal or assistant principal and teachers from Early Stage 1 (Kindergarten) and Stage 1 (Years 1 and 2). In 2009 six of these schools continued to participate, and a further 12 schools joined the project. The six continuing schools invited additional staff classroom teachers and specialist teachers to join the project in order to create 'corridors of practice', in recognition of evidence that children benefit from being taught by teachers who have participated in similar professional learning opportunities (Manning-Morton, 2006).

Sydney CEO and IEC personnel ran a mixture of full-day events, half days and twilight sessions in which participants met to discuss their own particular questions and to share and affirm or challenge each others' practice.

A significant, innovative aspect of the project has been the fact that educational leaders from the Catholic Education Office are also involved in individual practitioner enquiries. School consultants and curriculum advisors have participated alongside school-based leaders and teachers in choosing and investigating a question related to their professional practice, and like other participants, CEO personnel have worked alongside a buddy for collegial support, with access to critical friends for challenge and extension.

The practitioner enquiries have taken participants along varied paths; room to experiment with ideas and to revise initial thoughts has been an essential component of this process.

For example, Amber Warner, a Year 2 teacher at St Catherine of Siena, Prestons, commenced her project with a broad concern to engage all her students and an overlapping concern to relate to the experiences and individual learning styles of every child. She also set out to build positive relationships with both parents and students. After focusing initially on literacy, she shifted her emphasis to developing a student task that integrated all of the key learning areas. The task required students to design and make a 'future form of transport'. The project was intended as a means to promote higher order thinking, but also offered flexible learning opportunities by allowing students to select their own activities. The integrated nature of the task also helped reduce curriculum overload.

The starting point for Jane Milross, a Year 2 teacher at St Francis de Sales, Woolooware, was the perception that her students did not have enough opportunities for creative play. She felt that, as a result, they did not enjoy enough of the benefits that play offers in developing verbal interactions with peers, risk taking, the experience of having to be flexible, and having to practice and learn through trial and error. She set up a weekly 50-minute play period in which students would choose from a range of activities on offer that day, including construction blocks, playdough, craft work, dress-ups, and play acting. After several weeks the impact of the play sessions was examined through a simple survey of the children, video and photographs of the play sessions, and the teacher's own observations. Very positive outcomes were identified. For example, she found that students were willing to share equipment, and decided their own social rules for the session, such as 'no running round the classroom'. Children were willing to try new activities, cooperate with children other than friends, and some ideas evolved into new mini-projects.

Other practitioner enquiry project topics included: 'How do we embed the good practices and strategies learnt through involvement in the early years project for long-term sustainability?' (school principal); 'How do learning centres maximise student learning outcomes?' (kindergarten teacher); and 'Does my classroom environment enhance or hinder a child's learning style?' (Year 1 teacher).

Evaluation of the project

At the end of 2009 the IEC conducted an evaluation of the project with staff from the six schools that had participated since its commencement. Interviews were conducted with 21 participants, including 11 teachers, five principals and five assistant principals. The interviews addressed six key considerations, including outcomes for children, changes to professional practices, changes to practices within the school community, unexpected outcomes arising from the project, the incorporation of the Sydney CEO Learning Framework and supports needed, and considerations for future implementation. The evaluation also involved an analysis of project artefacts such as the end-of-year reports compiled by 24 participants across the case study schools.

Key findings

At the participating schools, children's academic results were found to have improved relative to previous years' results. The improvements were evident across a range of key learning areas, but particularly in relation to literacy and reading. The evaluation also found that the children were more engaged in learning, worked more independently, and stayed on task for longer periods. Their social skills had also improved, with reported decreases in negative behaviour and more evidence of pro-social behaviour in both the classroom and the playground.

The participating staff reported changes to their practice as a result of the professional learning undertaken through the program. Their knowledge of both theory and practice had improved, and they now had a deeper understanding of individual children and their learning differences. They indicated that their confidence in their teaching had increased, that they reflected more deeply about their practices, and that their teaching had become more child-centred, authentic and responsive to their students' needs.

There were also positive outcomes in terms of the relationship between the school and the community. The project has inspired teachers to renew their discussions about ways of teaching, has strengthened links to the parish priest and the community, and has increased parents' involvement. 'Lighthouse schools', demonstrating exemplary classroom practice, have been identified for the benefit of colleagues from other schools seeking the modelling of best practice.

This year 20 new schools have joined the project. The schools that are currently involved will continue to participate, and additional members of their staff will be invited to take part. The project is developing and changing as participants discover more about the early learner, their school's community of adult learners and how effective change can be brought about throughout the Sydney CEO school system.

Reference

Manning-Morton, Julia (2006) The personal is professional: professionalism and the birth to threes practitioner. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 7 (1).

KLA

Subject Headings

Catholic schools
New South Wales (NSW)
Teaching and learning
Primary education
Curriculum planning
Transitions in schooling
Play