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Extending Thought in Young Children by Chris Athey

This book was recommended to me with the words “this will change the way you look at children’s learning forever”. Strong words.

The book is one of the results of the Froebel Early Education Project, which was run by Chris Athey from 1973 to 1978, at the Roehampton Institute of Higher Education, London. Tina Bruce was the appointed teacher. The children came from nearby Wandsworth, from a range of backgrounds. The project’s aims were to:

Observe and analyse, on a daily basis during a two-year teaching programme, children under the age of 5 in order to:

  • Identify developments in each child’s thinking
  • Describe the development of symbolic representation from early motor and perceptual behaviours
  • Identify curriculum content assimilated to developing forms of thought (page 3)

Very wide ranging aims indeed. So how has the author, Chris Athey, approached this in the book? She has divided it into 3 parts: Events influencing the Project; the Findings of the Project and Later Patterns of Thought.

Part 1 is an overview of the political background and government initiatives, with an illuminating Chapter 4 about constructivist pedagogy, Piaget and how this fits with current theories. And here we find the motivation for the Project and the book:
Constructivists are interested in the processes by which children construct their own knowledge (page 43) and there is a great difference between ‘know-how’ and consciousness of ‘know-why’ (page 44).

Part 2 is a highly detailed breakdown of the observations, drawings, actions and dialogue that were observed during the Project. It is prefaced by the observation that in previous research it was content which was more important than form. So Eng’s observation of “jagged teeth” and “stairs” seem to show no correspondence in content – but when the zig-zag form is considered they are a common representation. The Project concentrated on form, which includes topological space, space notion and representation. As children develop they begin to develop perception (a face must include a mouth before it will elicit a smile, even at 5 months). Children must then use this perception to create their representations in drawings and 3D models.

Using these representations, Athey discusses 5 graphic schema in detail:
Lines; Core and Radial; Open and Closed Arcs; Zig Zags and Angles and Quadrilaterals. This also includes discussion on how the same drawing can be re-interpreted i.e. how Eng interpreted the jagged teeth as “aggressive” but the Project team interpreted this as open triangles (zig-zags schema). Each schema is discussed in detail with plenty of examples of how they may progress as the child matures. The most practical part of this is the subsequent analysis of the representations, with the details of form as schemas start to be combined and perfected.

This part of the book concludes with chapter 6 From Action to Thought. This chapter demonstrates how schemas become co-ordinated with each other and develop into systems of thought (page 153). Seven action schema have been considered in great detail, namely: dynamic vertical schema; dynamic back and forth; circular direction and rotation; going over, under or on top of; going round a boundary; enveloping and containing; going through a boundary.

Each has been sub-divided and considered with respect to Motor level (physical action); Symbolic Representation Level (drawing, models); Functional Dependency Relationship (how the schema is used during play, dialogue, early thought); Thought Level (demonstration, usually through dialogue, of how schemas have been used to create original thoughts) and Discussion (explanation of how children have moved through each area resulting in thought). Finally Thought as internalised action is discussed.

This was a truly fascinating chapter as it draws together all the theory and clearly demonstrates how understanding and building on children’s schema improves their cognitive functioning.

Part 3 of the book takes us even further on the children’s journey, demonstrating how (and examples of which) schema impact on speech, writing and complex concepts, in primary education. For example, levers and pulleys need comprehension of linear movement (dynamic vertical), rotation and going over.

The final chapter explores parental participation and extended experience. This details the learning journey that the parents also undertook during the Project. It is hoped here that this “great source of untapped ability and energy” is used to its full potential in the future. Personally I would have liked some more specific examples of the ways parents were involved and benefited from being a part of this Project, as this could help practitioners to engage more confidently.

Extending Thought in Young Children is a detailed analysis of a complex and long running project. Consequently the book contains plenty of technical language. It is this detail which makes it an excellent reference book. But it does make it a book to be read at several sittings.

There were loads of moments where, as I read a description of a child’s behaviour, the light bulb came on and previously unrelated behaviour suddenly came into focus. I recognised the form of many drawings, plenty examples of which have been illustrated throughout the book. One of the bitter-sweet comparisons is two sets of “draw-a-man” illustrations, one by Project children and one by children matched for age, sex, ethnic background and neighbourhood. The Project children perform significantly better. I couldn’t help feeling a little sad that not all children could benefit from being a part of the Froebel Project.

Finally, has this book changed the way I view children’s drawings, actions, dialogues, behaviour and thought processes? Absolutely. Forever.

 

It is still available from Amazon

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Sustained Shared Thinking – How Important is It?

Sustained Shared Thinking
My new online course on Sustained Shared Thinking is now available. You can get it at a special price here…
>> The Sustained Shared Thinking Online Course < <

 
Sustained shared thinking has been defined as

” an episode in which two or more individuals ‘work together’ in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate activities, extend a narrative etc. Both parties must contribute to the thinking and it must develop and extend” Siraj-Blatchford et al (2002) Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years (REPEY), Dfes.

This is not a new concept, just a new name. Most early years theorist value the adult/child interaction, from Vygotsky’s social interaction and more knowledgeable other; Bruner’s discovery learning; Piaget constructivism right through to Lave’s situated learning.

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Recommended Resources

Involving Parents in their Children’s Learning 2nd Ed by Margy Whalley

“This book is just one of the outcomes of a five-year research and development project at the Pen Green Centre for under fives and their families”. So starts this book and you know it is going to be full of interesting findings. Of course, it helps that Margy Whalley, who has been involved in education for 34 years, around the world, has been leading and directing the research programme.

The 12 chapters are each written by different authors, all of whom were involved in some way with the project at Pen Green, Corby called Parents’ Involvement in Their Children’s Learning (PICL). The authors range from teachers, social workers to researchers and education consultants.

The book starts with a background chapter about Pen Green and its endeavours. In the next chapter, ‘developing evidence based practice’, Margy Whalley discusses the way the project has developed. It contains some essential insights for anyone setting up research projects where children are being observed and details the additional benefits for the adults involved.

In ‘getting to know the families’ Colette Tait discusses how knowing the family situation is vital when planning meetings. From the shift patterns that parents work to the wording on the advertising flyers (mums prefer to “have a chat and a coffee” whilst dads prefer “coming to this meeting will make a difference to your child”).  It highlighted for me that you have to consider all the various home situations if you are going to engage parents successfully. Cath Arnold continues with this theme in further practical ways such setting up the room, which topics to cover, which theorists to draw on.

Chapter 5, ‘parents and staff as co-educators – ‘parents’ means fathers too’, by Margy Whalley and Trevor Chandler is inspirational. How many times have we heard “dads just don’t want to know”? This chapter shows not only how to involve fathers effectively but also the fantastic benefits to the child, father and other significant adults. This is essential reading for every setting and is the most comprehensive writing I’ve come across on the subject.

Cath Arnold writes an emotionally moving chapter about parents who find the services ‘Hard to Reach’, which, in the cases highlighted, means that the parents had had very negative school experiences themselves. This was stopping them getting involved with the centre’s activities – Kate says “I’m not the type – Pen Greeny”. So the two mums were interviewed and allowed to explain their own experiences, feelings and the consequences. In this way the barriers, including personal feelings and attitudes to other people, were identified so they could be overcome. Annette Cummings, in the next chapter, goes on to discuss the impact on parents’ lives, with some great case studies in the parents’ own words.

In chapter 8 we meet the Pen Green Loop, which is a feedback loop with the child in the centre, surrounded by parents and professionals and the Possible Lines of Development (PLOD) wheel. I particularly liked the PLOD wheel, as it has at the centre a small group of children, all of whom enjoy similar schemas. I often hear “how can we possibly plan for 40 different children? We can’t have 40 carpet areas!”. This is how it is done. First identify the children’s schema and then transpose this onto the centre of the wheel. There are 6 ‘spokes’, representing the 6 areas of learning, where activities and ideas can be mapped out for the group of children with similar or overlapping schema. Genius!

Colette Tait discusses the Growing Together groups which are for the birth to 3 age groups, discussing how it evolved out of the PICL group. The value of video taping the parent child interactions and then reviewing these is emphasised.

In ‘deepening the dialogue with parents’ Eddie McKinnon shares with us some in depth conversations with parents about their children, and how, as a result of being involved with the project this has made parents more reflective in their own practice.

But what happens to the family groups when the children start school? Cath Arnold presents 3 case studies, following the parents through Pen Green and then into Primary school, with very positive results.

Finally we have Kate Hayward, a primary school teacher, who was concerned with her own interactions with parents at school. She followed the good practice demonstrated at Pen Green and reports how she reinvents the traditional ‘home-school book’ model when communicating with parents. This chapter ends with a glowing recommendation from the headteacher.

This book is an excellent reference book, steeped in thorough research and viewed through many lenses. The concepts are explained clearly and examples are enlightening. Each chapter is written so it can be read independently, which means an amount of repetition when reading the whole book. However, I found the reinforcement of schemas, involvement levels etc reasonably useful. I was asked a while ago “why do we listen to these ‘theorists’ about good practice?”, to which I answered that they had done research and then tested their theories, proving that it was good practice. I think this book demonstrates this point and beyond.

 

It is available from Amazon

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In the News

More men in childcare

FootballIn the Times Educational Supplement (TES) on the 23rd January there was an enlightening article about the Daycare Trust attracting more men into the Early Years sector.

The first reason given for the lack of men was the ‘work’s low status’. By whose standards? Is it because playing with the children is seen as a bit of an easy life?

The second reason given is low pay. The TUC and Daycare Trust found pay was between 19.60 pounds per hour and 8.70 pounds per hour in 2007. This was, presumably, in the state sector as pay in the private, voluntary and independent sector is much lower than this, as a glance at jobs advertised in the Nursery World Magazine indicates (and they tend to be the ‘best’ jobs!).

The third reason was the high proportion of women in the sector. I can sympathise and empathise totally with this, having previously worked in an industry predominantly male. However, if you have an interest and enjoyment of the work this should not stop you.

Marlon, an early years educator who is case studied in the article, says that he comes from a large family and always had children around. I think this is the key to the problem. Unless men are allowed to come into our nurseries and settings and enjoy being with children they will never aspire to work with them. Many women enter childcare after having children and enjoying the mums and tots sessions, or spending time at the nursery.

We should be encouraging our settings to involve dads and male carers more. They have skills and life experiences which should be shared. Children need all sorts of role models to help them make sense of the world. And what an excellent time to do it, when all sorts of stereotypes are beginning to be seriously challenged.

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Recommended Resources

Cultivating creativity in babies, toddlers and young children by Tina Bruce

As practitioners we are always being reminded about taking photographic and video evidence of children during the day day because a picture can demonstrate a point really clearly. But how often do we find a book which takes this valuable advice? The first thing that you will notice about Tina Bruce’s book is the beautiful, full colour photographs throughout. These are often grouped so that the reader can see the process that is being described in the text.

The next thing is the way that the book can be read – either scanned through, picking out the information boxes or dipped into a chapter at a time or simply read end to end. With this in mind there is some repetition from chapter to chapter, which reinforces the central themes. These are:

  1. Anyone can be creative
  2. Good creativity needs incubation
  3. There are 3 kinds of creativity: everyday, specialist and world shattering

It is often noted throughout the book that creativity is hard work, the environment need to support creativity, as do the practitioners, and that creativity is not producing a creation, but is a process. For me this was the most resonant idea in the book. Too often as practitioners we talk about ‘doing a creative activity’ meaning that we will expect the children to make something, often within our own, narrow adult boundaries. Were the children in your setting allowed to make their own Christmas card using any material of choice and own design? How long was the idea allowed to incubate? Did everyone have to do a card?

Tina Bruce concentrates on the aspects of creativity:

  • emergent beginnings
  • the process of developing a creative thought or idea
  • the product which (may or may not) emerges and this could be a scientific theory, dance or poem!

Sometimes the children don’t even know what they are creating and our adult interpretation should not be forced upon them. In fact, Bruce notes that a clear idea may restrict the creative process.

The case studies bring the subject to life with examples I could easily relate to. Gradually the theory is built to a final chapter about the three kinds of creativity with powerful examples of how this is achieved in adulthood in the arts, humanities and science. The book concludes with a useful page of bullet points on how to cultivate creativity generally.

I was a little disappointed that there were no pictures of children in chapter 6 – Emergent Beginnings – which covers babies and SEN. Whilst there are excellent examples for toddlers, pre-school and older early years, there is much less about babies in general.

Nonetheless, it is a good read, and it is very useful to be able to access the book at the different levels. It is also a useful source of practical information on the process of creativity and how to encourage this within various settings. I would strongly recommend it to any practitioner who is interested in creativity.

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In the News

Unicef Report on Childhood

Unicef ReportI read with no surprise the results from the Unicef report, and the resultant reporting in the Times yesterday (11th December 2008). When all the hype and comment has been cleaned away the nugget of truth left is that a child from a disadvantaged background does not benefit from poor quality day care. Hardly earth shattering. Maria Montessori had spotted this over 100years ago. More recently the EPPE research has proved it. 

The interesting part for me was that the Times had chosen to dedicate two full pages and a half page of comment to this. There were even references to research – EPPE appears on both for and against childcare, again demonstrating a balanced piece of research. You do have to read to the penultimate paragraph before you come to the obvious conclusion –

 “Either the Government must help these mothers to recognise that looking after their young children is a serious job or they must provide these children from deprived backgrounds with highly skilled, well-paid nursery teachers who can help to improve their chances in life not damage them.” http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article5321347.ece

(As an EYP I am assuming here that the author, Alice Thomson, is referring to a ‘teacher’ as all those who educate and care for early years children).

This did give me great hope that the discussion about early years education is becoming news worthy and of interest to the general public. If nothing else it prompts the questions which may be asked by parents – is my nursery/childcare arrangement of sufficiently good quality? Of course, demographics tell us that those parents who are most likely to be reading the Times have already worked this out for themselves. Those parents who need the help to identify a quality setting have been missed again. 

 

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Recommended Resources

How Children Learn. Book 2 by Linda Pound


As the title suggests this is the follow on book from How Children Learn by Linda Pound and is laid out in the same style, with key dates in the side margins and good, clear headings. The references are many and varied, and, more importantly, easy to find!

The major difference with this book is the depth of the content. As well as an overview Linda goes into more detail about the development of each theory, how they build on each other and they differ. I found the way that phonics, in various forms, has been in and out of fashion since the middle of the nineteeth century fascinating – there is a particularly good table which compares analytic phonics with synthetic phonics in the chapter about how children learn to read and write.

In the chapter about intelligence there are some mind blowing facts:

  • The first series of tests for children, to see if they would benefit with mainstream schooling, were devised in 1905 (Simon-Binet tests). And I thought SATS were a modern demon!
  • In 1967 Joy Paul Guilford suggested there are 120 elements which make up human intelligence.
  • Scores in intelligence tests have been rising ever since they started (the Flynn Effect) – no-one is totally sure why.

Creativity is explored in the long view, from Freud to Pinker to Csikszentmihalyi, and then applied to the educational approaches. I found that this really made me think about what creativity is and why it is so important – and also why we don’t foster it more in our practitioners.

Conversely when Linda discusses progressive twentieth century theorists I felt that I had seen it somewhere before “individuality, freedom and growth”,”learning rather than teaching” and “a child’s life under his own direction is conducted all in play, whatever else we want to interst him in should be carried on in that medium”. The EYFS, maybe? No, progressive thinkers before the second world war.

The book ends on an overview of how children learn to talk including a very useful section on early years research.

Overall I would thoroughly recommend this book, especially if you have a particular interest in literacy, linguistics and intelligence or even if you have ever just thought ‘why do we do it like this?’.

Unlike book one, which I enjoyed as an interesting and informative read, I found this one really had me thinking and questioning my assumptions on phonics, creativity and intelligence. Linda deals with complex subjects and interwoven threads of theories comprehensively but clearly. It has inspired me to revisit theorists with a new outlook, particularly Gardner and Csikszentmihalyi, and has made me realise there is very little which is brand new in education!

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Are you a Sparkly Thinker?

At a recent conference about children’s thinking the presenter, the acclaimed author Marion Dowling, made a comment about why it is so important that we should understand children’s thinking processes and how we can then use this in our work. As she stated – “we can’t compel children to engage”. I’m sure every practitioner can empathise with this, having sat in front of a group of children with a book and knowing that not every child is listening!

Marion then went on to describe a situation she had observed in a reception class, who had been learning about Goldilocks and the three bears. When it was time to review their learning the teacher didn’t fire questions at the children but chose to dress up as ‘Mrs Locks’ who had lost her daughter ‘Goldie’.

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Young Children’s Personal, Social and Emotional Development by Marion Dowling


This is the second edition of a book first published in 2000. What a lot has happened since then, with the Laming report, Every Child Matters and the EYFS. Despite this I think Marion Dowling has written an incredibly relevant book with the bonus of being in an easy to read format.

In this book she deals in detail with topics you would expect to find, such as confident children, becoming independent and emotional well being, as well as a refreshingly large chapter on outdoors and how this promotes all round personal, social and emotional development. All the chapters are well referenced and grounded in real experience of nurseries and early years settings. Each chapter concludes with a short summary, practical suggestions and professional questions. It is the latter which I found the most thought provoking. Some typical examples are: what aspects of my behaviour offer a positive role model for young children? How do I help all my children to adopt mastery patterns of behaviour? And what do I do to take care of my own spiritual life?

This last question comes from Chapter 7, entitled Young Children’s Spirituality. I was initially concerned when I saw this chapter that it would be about the deep and troubled waters of religion, but in fact it investigates “appreciating the journey through life in the deepest sense, particularly special moments and recognising our own inner resources to help us cope with the journey”. Something we could probably all do with from time to time! She explores feelings of transcendence; search for meaning and purpose; creativity and a sense of awe, wonder and mystery, with perception and conciseness.

The concluding chapter, however, is the one which raises this book from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Entitled Some Important Ingredients, the first half is about “powerful ways of supporting children’s personal development through book, storytelling and fantasy play”.

The second half of this chapter is simply entitled Yourselves. Most literature and research agrees that the practitioner is the most valuable resource, but how often are the qualities of this ‘resource’ discussed and detailed? Marion Dowling has been able to do this sensitively and realistically, discussing qualities such as flexibility, empathy and optimism. Anyone who has worked in early years settings will recognise the situations she discusses and what is required of the practitioner in these circumstances. For example, under ’emotional maturity’ she raises the issue of family break-up – “Natural  responses are to feel disturbed, upset, angry and frustrated. It is not easy to handle these emotions but practitioners need to learn the importance of remaining outwardly calm and in control, being able to cope with complexity”. Good advice indeed!

In this book Marion Dowling has captured the essence of what a good quality childcare provider should be doing to foster a child’s personal, social and emotional development. It is a well researched book which covers theory and then puts it into practice. The professional questions are thought provoking and captures the current move towards professionalism in early years. However, for me the most outstanding parts of this book are the chapters on spirituality and the qualities of a high quality practitioner, which makes this book essential reading for practitioners and those employing them.

** NOTE: Look out for the new, 4th Edition, published August 2014, reviewed here**

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In the News

Teachernet – a great source of free Early Years material

*** Unfortunately the Teachernet website is no longer available. You can find some of the resources in the Government’s Web Archive here ***

Did you know you can get a lot of the Government’s publications free, online, from Teachernet?

These can either be downloaded or posted out to you (no postage either!) with the only caveat being that quantity is restricted. Why would you want more than one copy of Letters and Sounds or the EYFS? Certainly, as a trainer, I find that after a few sessions the EYFS cards become battered and covered with my notes and circled areas when clarifying points.

By having several copies at nursery or in your setting, staff can browse, cut out, display and discuss the publications. They could even take a copy home to read at their leisure. The EYFS is such a broad document that it deserves being studied area by area and by having spare copies practitioners can do this

The other interesting thing on the excellent teacher net site is that you can view and download thousands of documents, again all for free. These vary from newspaper articles to white papers to Sure Start magazines. I have spent many hours just viewing items which looked interesting, but which I would never have known about otherwise, and have subsequently ordered documents.

One example of this is the invaluable ‘information sharing:Practitioners’ guide’ published by the Department for children, schools and families. I have often had practitioners say to me that “we can’t say anything without consent”. Under normal circumstances this would be broadly true, but this booklet explains very clearly when you can, when you can’t and when you should share information. The other area it covers is what constitutes consent and who can give consent, which is an especially sensitive area where is child is going through the adoption process or is being taken care of by grandparents, for example. I feel this would be an enormous help to practitioners and particularly setting managers who want to make sure they make the correct decision on information sharing.

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