A Thinking Continuum: A Search for Complexity in Early Childhood Education Practice

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. Pondering about early learning is something that I do on a regular basis. Usually what motivates me are stories from colleagues and friends or posts shared on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest, as most of my friends and followers on social media are educators. I could talk for hours with anyone who shares my passion for early learning. For this reason, I am beyond excited to be joined by fellow passionate early childhood educators this summer at the Rhythm of Learning in Nature which is a Reggio inspired and forest school influenced five day summer session of professional learning. Visualizing walking through the paths that spiral and swirl through the forest of the Oak Ridges Moraine, by the lakes, valleys and trees with Debi Keyte-Hartland from the United Kingdom and Suzanne Axelsson from Sweden helps me get through the long cold days of winter. There are still spots open for this unique professional learning experience and you can register here.


Meanwhile, I bide my time, sharing stories and trying to interpret meaning with local fellow passion players in early childhood education such as my friend and long time colleague, Cindy Green. Taking the time to dialogue and reflect helps us in our practice as adult educators and trainers. Recently Cindy told me this story:

During a training experience we were focusing on Ontario’s new pedagogy for the early years, How Does Learning Happen? and looking at the four foundations for learning – belonging, well-being, expression, and engagement. Beginning with belonging and the image of the child as competent and capable, the challenge was put forth to remove pre-cut crafts from practice as this product oriented activity does not support the four foundations. Then to illustrate and create a sense of belonging, I invited the educators to participate in the Quilt of Belonging experience where they were asked to reflect on why they think they belong in the field of early learning and represent their thinking. Each created a square that was weaved together to form a quilt. After the quilt materialized, one educator had a very strong reaction and she said, “why did you ask us to make a quilt, isn’t this a product. Aren’t you being too teacher-directed?”. She had refused to contribute to the creation of the quilt.


When Cindy shared this story and talked about her intentionality behind the experience it was an evocative moment. I couldn’t stopped thinking about Cindy’s story and the implications for our practice as adult educators and what it meant to early childhood education. I needed time to search for complexities because teaching and learning is never simple. Reggio inspired teaching and learning defies simplicity. In Journeys: Reconceptualizing Practices through Pedagogical Narration complexifying practice is seen as a key element in creating a collaborative critical reflective community.


My current thinking revolves around the idea that the process versus product debate is actually a false dichotomy. When children engage in process art, sometimes a product is produced. Often times, it is extraordinarily beautiful because it depicts joy and creative expression. It is not an either or dichotomy where two parts are mutually exhaustive, where nothing can belong simultaneously to both parts. Process versus product is a false dichotomy. A false dichotomy is a a dichotomy that is not jointly exhaustive (there are other alternatives), or that is not mutually exclusive (the alternatives overlap).

false dichotomy

What happens if we remove the “versus” and we talk about process and product? What happens if we see process and product as a continuum rather than a dichotomy? I have long advocated for the removal of “versus” when teaching early childhood education students. There are so many examples of these – open ended versus closed ended questions, teacher led versus child led, teacher directed versus child directed, process versus product, the list seems to go on and on. I think seeing these as in opposition of each other may lead educators to believe that they have to choose one or the other; that one is better than the other. Once they choose they defend their position and perhaps pronounce judgement on those who are not on their side? Instead, I would like to frame discussions about these big ideas using continuum thinking. Either/or thinking highlights differences, which can lead to great dialogues with like-minded colleagues but sometimes we find ourselves in conversation with someone who thinks differently. If we can all find ourselves along the continuum, maybe even meet in the middle as a place to dialogue from common ground, perhaps we can start to see different perspectives? A continuum highlights our commonalities and is better at depicting a complex topic. It can bring attention to thinking about our choices and actions and where they may be situated along the continuum on any given day.

Process AND Product

Philosophies of learning and teaching can also be viewed as a continuum. In early childhood education there are choices that usually fall somewhere between instructivism (behaviourism) and constructivism. In the appendices of Ontario’s early learning framework, Early Learning for Every Child Today (ELECT) a table is shown that depicts the two philosophical choices.

From the ELECT

What if we viewed instructivism and constructivism along a continuum? I like to draw a line on the board when teaching philosophy to my students and I position behavioursim to the right and social constructivism to the left for obvious reasons. One of my favourite continuums to use as a prompt for complex reflection on practice is the one that is featured in the report, The Crisis in Kindergarten: Why Children need to Play in School by Miller and Almon (2009).

Kindergarten Continuum

Perhaps a continuum is a place for possibilities? Could it be a place to consider the complexities of practice from a common ground? We don’t have to meet in the middle, we just have to be on the line to begin the process of thinking deeply about our practices. It is from that vantage point that we can seek to see the perspectives of others. It is from the line that we can think about children and how learning happens? It is from the line that we can make ethical decisions in practice and pause to reflect on complexities that go beyond dichotomies that divide us to a place where we can dialogue about our journeys. I highly recommend the Journeys book which is so complex I have only skimmed the surface but when I flipped to the end this quote jumped out!

May all of your journeys in early childhood education practice be tentative, transformative, exhilarating, and complex! ~Pacini-Ketchabaw, Nxumalo, Kocher, Elliot, Sanchez (2015, p. 194).

I hope you will come along on the journey towards complexity in practice. You may also want to consider searching for complexity in the company of others. Join me at the Rhythm of Learning in Nature  to walk the path towards complexity.


16 thoughts on “A Thinking Continuum: A Search for Complexity in Early Childhood Education Practice

  1. This journey of reflecting on how learning happens has taken me on so many paths! Life’s experiences and the choices we make as we traverse the paths can also be viewed on a continuum… a continuum of learning.


  2. Thank you Diane. A lot of what you have explained has been percolating within myself. One example being: Why can’t we take time to all sit together at snack and enjoy our little community together in conversation and hear each other’s stories over food ? Why must it always be free choice now? I believe being on the continuum is healthy wholesome way to look at our practice without giving up those traditions we value.


    • Such a good example. Free snack time versus group snack time. It does not have to be one or the other. I have long advocated for free choice but now you have me thinking! Which is a good thing – thank you 🙂


  3. Hi Diane, I am always inspired by your posts. You have a way of consolidating current issues in a simplified, clear and manner that creates ongoing dialogue and allows all of us to find our place along the continuum. As I meet with educators, I have had discussions about the ______ Vs ______ and thought too about the continuum. The continuum is a picture we can keep in our mind whenever we are questioning why we do what we do.


  4. I am so appreciative of your writing and how you advocate for play inspired, reggio influenced early learning. As an early primary teacher, I would really love the conversation to shift to early learners. The continuum, choice and play based learning does not stop in kindergarten. Our new B.C. Curriculum is shifting our thinking to learning in all areas with all ages to ‘what’s next? My teaching has evolved over the years with a shift from product to process. My students want me to see them throughout their day, while they are engaged in ‘the moment.’ Thank you for bringing this conversation forward!


  5. Diane,
    This article, upon reflection, brings up so many aspects of life that we see as dichotomies, and yet are discovering they are not. Gender is one example. The brain seeks patterns, and we are comforted by our mastery of concepts that fall into pattern. Yet we know that the world is complex, and there are many perspectives. This is of great interest to me as one who works with children and adults who are always in a stage of growth.


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