Transcript of Children as researchers

Transcript for Children as researchers podcast (20:59)

Ruth Garlick – Welcome to today's early learning podcast. My name is Ruth Garlick. I'm the preschool advisor in the early learning team and today I'm joined by associate professor Christine Woodrow. Christine is a senior researcher in the school of education at Western Sydney University and we're going to be discussing the topic of children as researchers and inquiry based learning. Could you give the listeners a brief background of your research, and including your role in the research?

Chris Woodrow – Thank you, Ruth, and it's lovely to have the opportunity to speak with you and to share some of my experiences. I guess my main areas of research over the last decade have been in the area of leadership and professional identity of early childhood educators, family engagement, models of professional learning that support pedagogical innovation, in early childhood context and particularly in those contexts where children are disadvantaged by the circumstances in which they live.

What some of the research shows us is that, children in these, there's assumptions about children's learning in these contexts and where adjustments are made, they're often made to make learning more structured and routine and yet, some of our research shows that it's probably the opposite, that is going to be more advantageous to these children. So I became especially interested in research about equity and pedagogical approaches for children who are less likely to achieve at the same, achieve educationally at the same level as more advantaged children, their peers.

So my role in some of this research has often been as project leader. I've become quite well known for the action research work that I've done with some of my colleagues, with early childhood educators that are looking for those pedagogical approaches that really are successful in engaging children as autonomous and engaged learners.

Ruth Garlick – That’s very interesting to me, because having been an educator for about 30 odd years, it is, it's often the case that when we're trying to support children's learning, there's a push-down curriculum and what I'm interested in is is this research that you're doing and that concept of children being supported to be researchers. So was this something that the project encouraged?

Chris Woodrow – Look, absolutely. We've got fairly strong evidence from this project work, that has been going on in Chili, in various parts of Western Sydney, and other sites around New South Wales, in particular, that children's learning becomes, they become more autonomous, children are more engaged with their learning, and the dynamic of the classroom actually changes, as a result of more, I'd say child centered, but sometimes that gets misinterpreted, but, maybe I can say more play-based approaches.

So intentional teaching when it's well understood what that concept is as distinct from instructional teaching, the funds of knowledge, so this idea of the educators and the children researching together, the context in which the children live and their families also live and play-based learning seem to be key concepts that have emerged as successful.

Ruth Garlick – So can you tell us a little bit more about inquiry-based learning and how that works?

Chris Woodrow – Yes, I can. I think it kind of builds on what I've just been saying that it, it creates the opportunity for children to be active partners in their own learning, rather than objects of teaching. So that's what I mean about changing the dynamic. So in partnership with educators, actually working on projects of local significance usually, and establishing directions of inquiry with their educators changes that dynamic from them being receivers and subjects of teaching and learning to them being creators of learning opportunities in partnership with more experienced others. So it's Vygotsky and that kind of concept. Have I answered your question?

Ruth Garlick – Yeah, I get the, I get that real sense that it's not about the educator being the expert about the topic, it's about a joint wonderings and inquiry and hypotheses and searching for what people are hungry to learn about.

Chris Woodrow – Yeah that's exactly right. And you know when I was talking about those concepts that have emerged as being powerful, I omitted to talk about sustained shared thinking, which I think has been a brilliant way of conceptualising how to engage children in that joint participation and joint creation of learning opportunities. So it requires the educator to listen, that active pedagogical listening to children, and to respond in very authentic ways, in ways that lead children's learning. And so inquiry becomes the vehicle, I wonder what would happen if, can you imagine, so the questioning, that kind of engagement is quite different to what you will see in parodies of the kindergarten teacher, you know, sit down and what color is is that? We know that that's a very limited view of early childhood teaching, but you know, it is something that is a bit of a troke. I'd like to give a couple of examples that illustrate that. Would that be helpful?

Ruth Garlick – Yes, because I'm really interested in knowing how the educators go about that. So I guess in some examples, you'll be able to help us understand the strategies.

Chris Woodrow – Yes look, one of the things that I have found has become quite an important way of conceptualising it is to re- describe the role of the teacher. So it's not this lone weekend worker planning learning experiences for children. It's more researching the community and knowing what's actually going on locally. So that those local experiences and the knowledge of the families and the lives that they are leading in their community becomes the rich resources for learning. So instead of being the expert, the teacher often becomes the researcher and then engages children and families in conducting that research about what's going on.

So one of the beautiful examples that I like to draw on is the early childhood sites that have been aware of local council elections and use that pretty lively activity that goes on in democracies to explore all kinds of things, citizenship, and engagement in your communities, but also works on literacy and numeracy at the same time but the children don't even realise that. So one of the examples, the children collected the brochures, the flyers that were around for the different candidates for the Mayor, they brought them because they were coming from different areas. The teachers worked with them in analysing them, reading out what the Mayor was going to promise, looking at the photographs so doing a bit of a visual literacy activity around what they look like. And then after, discussions, you know, that citizenship idea of being active participants. Having the opportunity to vote, have a mock vote, so there you have beautiful maths about who got the most kind of dots and then waiting for the result and seeing who, you know, who got closest. But in one situation, the children, some of the children also created flyers for themselves as imaginary mayors. And so there's a whole lot of issues around critical literacy and gendered stereotypes and those kinds of things.

So what are you going to promise? Is it the playgrounds, is it better roads and where does gender fit in into some of that? And they obviously created texts, so young children from three to five, actually creating these texts in a particular genre and kind of understanding, not the word genre, but that this is a different form and different to the birthday card that you might be giving a parent. Others have been picking up on local activities such as, you know, traffic problems. So, you know, working out ways of solving some of the traffic problems also around schools. I do go off on tangent Ruth. So if you'd like to bring me back to your question.

Ruth Garlick – Oh yes, no, we were talking about how the educators providing the children with that inquiry-based learning and those sorts of strategies that they were using, but it sounds like there was a lot of authentic literacy and numeracy going on within that.

Chris Woodrow – Yeah, I think it's this notion of embedded literacy and numeracy learning rather than this, what would you say structured, instructional and it's inherently interesting and it's interesting to the community as well. So instead of the colouring in activity, I'm being very extreme, being stuck on someone's fridge, it's a project that's happening in the place and families are able to contribute things to that. They might not be anything to actually take home from it, but the day is lively and, and a little bit unpredictable. And I'm remembering , I'll never forget this comment that one of the teachers in one of our projects made about how the dynamic of the early childhood class actually changed as a result of this inquiry based learning. And she said she stopped becoming, being the policeman, you know kind of directing the traffic and in fact she became the partner in that learning. And I thought that was a really nice way of thinking about that, that she, she kind of had a much lower profile in the classroom because she was down with the kids all the time, instead of sorting out the behavior problems and so on because the kids were actually more, more engaged and I think that's a really nice thing to carry forward, to think about how your role changes.

Ruth Garlick – So educators are being more engaged as well.

Chris Woodrow – That's right. And in fact, we have qualitative data from some of our research about educators saying that since they adopted this funds of knowledge approach, that was more engaged with families and communities and implementing their play-based learning that they actually got more enjoyment and satisfaction from, from their teaching. And for many of them, changed their views of families, you know, where they might've stood back and thought families weren't so interested in their children's learning, they actually realised that they were, that there just hadn't been avenues for them to become involved and to share that.

Ruth Garlick – And acknowledging what families have to offer.

Chris Woodrow – That's right. Yes. So that funds of knowledge very much promotes that idea that almost all families have got knowledge and capacity and strengths, but it might not be the knowledge and capacity and strengths that's kind of recognised in, in everyday life. So it takes a little bit harder work to think about how to engage families who might not conform to the kind of stereotypes.

Ruth Garlick – And what was the role of playing in these projects?

Chris Woodrow – Play was actually critical to it and I guess play in many different forms. So some of it very much free play, dramatic socio-dramatic play in some of those examples that I've given you about the, I mean, that was very much socio-dramatic play and you could see the personalities of some of the children emerge as they took on different roles in terms of being an imaginary kind of mayor. But I think, you know, what's really important is this idea of embedded, embedded learning in children's play. So planning carefully but planning with the children so that it's inherently motivating and rewarding.

Ruth Garlick – And I'm just wondering if you see this type of learning being appropriate in the early years of school?

Chris Woodrow – Oh, absolutely. You know, one of the things that I've noticed over the last few decades, there's been a slippage around that. In the past, there's been an acknowledgement of the role of complex play in the school classroom in the first years of school. And I've seen that being eroded and reduced to Friday afternoons with playing with Lego on the mat, rather than that kind of inquiry based project learning that I have seen characterised in schools in earlier decades. I also had worked with a school in one of my recent action research projects who implemented a play-based learning approach in a very disadvantaged area. The teachers were absolutely committed to this as being an important way for engaging the children, but terrified that it might create a whole lot of problems. The freedom associated with play might just break down all the discipline that they had worked so hard to maintain. And in fact, the opposite actually happened. They had to be very creative around working out ways of managing groups, small groups of children so that conflict didn't happen, but the attendance of children in that school, of the children who were in that play-based program actually improved by 50% over the time of the project.

So I think that is pretty powerful evidence that speaks for itself, you know attendance at that school being a really big issue, it really kind of changed things around and I think those teachers are now really proud of their courage actually in doing what they believed in and seeing how it paid off and how, how well the children have done. Unfortunately, COVID was the year that those children went into school, from kindergarten, sorry into Year 1. So we haven't been able to do any follow-up.

Ruth Garlick – Oh what a shame. And there's always questions around curriculum outcomes, because so much of what we do in schools is around curriculum and making sure that we do get children working within or towards, or achieving those outcomes. And it sounds like this is a very integrated approach.

Chris Woodrow – It sure is. Yeah. I mean, there are all kinds of meanings associated with the word integrated curriculum aren't there? But I think for teachers and schools, and early childhood settings, preschools, long day care that have the courage to really embrace this inquiry based approach, then the rewards in children's learning and engagement are there, but it requires a different kind of assessment process to demonstrate that. So the pedagogical documentation that many will be familiar with and the little narratives and exemplars of what children are able to achieve rather than achievement on scales. Those scales are important but I think there are probably a more diverse range of ways we can measure children's achievements and outcomes, then what we are traditionally being exposed to.

Ruth Garlick – And, you know, Chris, I think that might be a conversation for another day .

Chris Woodrow – Yeah and then you'll really wind me up.

Ruth Garlick – And that could be a lot of fun. I'm sure. Look, Chris, I want to thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and your expertise around this. Is there anything else you want to add before we close off?

Chris Woodrow – I think that issue around courage is an important one, that it does take courage to go against the grain as an educator or to take a risk. And I would say that about children too, when you asked me about the outcomes for children that inquiry based learning, play-based learning, does encourage and provide an environment for children to be bigger risk-takers. And I think it's through that joint risk taking that boundaries are expanded and unknown things kind of happen. So I'd say, you know, the courage of schools, school systems, and childhood centres, sometimes resisting families and parents expectations of what learning should look like. I mean, that's quite an important thing as well and I think the role of professional learning, you cannot underestimate how important it is for educators, teachers to have the opportunity to continue to improve their knowledge and understanding over time, not just one-offs, but that over time in this action research kind of opportunity.

Ruth Garlick – Yeah. Well, you've given us a lot of food for thought, so thank you so much.

Chris Woodrow – A pleasure Ruth.

Ruth Garlick – And I hope to talk to you about more things Into the future.

Chris Woodrow – I'd love to.

[End of transcript]

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