The Image of the Early Childhood Educator: Learner, Researcher and Innovator

By: Diane Kashin, Ed. D, RECE.

When I was a teenager, my career goal was to be a high school history teacher. At a time of declining enrolment, the goal could not be achieved and instead I chose a different path after university. I found office jobs which I hated and wasn’t that good at, and when I became a very young mother, I realized that there was a magical, wonderful world of early learning out there! I returned to school to become an early childhood educator. It was one of the best decisions of my life. It has been a rewarding career, but it has also come with frustration. As a student, as an ECE in the classroom, as a professor teaching ECE and now as a consultant providing training for ECEs, I am continually dismayed when I hear that some of my fellow ECEs are not interested in ongoing professional learning. I have a number of theories as to why this is happening and some are directly related to my context here in Ontario, Canada but I think that some of the issues are shared universally. I would love to hear from ECEs provincially, nationally and internationally. Please share your thoughts on professional learning and how we can create a culture that supports continuous improvement. How can we support other ECEs who have not embraced an image that reflects co-learning, researching and innovating?

Indeed, education without research or innovation is education without interest ~  Loris Malaguzzi

On the occasion of what would have been Loris Malaguzzi’s one hundredth birthday we should heed his words. We should be embracing professional learning and research as the impetus for innovation in education. In Reggio Emilia, Italy it is a routine and expected function of teachers’ lives. Teachers learn and relearn with children through observation, reflection, speculation, questioning, and theorizing. The teacher learns alongside of the children. The teacher is a teacher researcher, a resource and guide to lend expertise (Malaguzzi, 1998). Within such a teacher researcher role, educators listen, observe, and document children’s work and the growth of a community of learners and a culture of learning emerges. In my province, How Does Learning Happen? Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years has been Ontario’s official framework to guide programming and pedagogy in licensed child care since 2014. Programs are required to be consistent with its foundations and approaches. The framework is closely connected to the Reggio Emilia Approach but this view of the teacher learning alongside children has not taken hold in everyone’s practice.

With regards to How Does Learning Happen? (HDLH?), my theory is that without mandated and consistent training opportunities, the four foundations of learning become the focal point for educators with less regard paid to the pedagogical approaches of the document.  An examination of these approaches supports the image of the educator as co-learner, researcher and innovator.

Pedagogical Approaches from HDLH?, 2014

In the workshops that I do, I have suggested that these approaches are the tools of pedagogical leaders. I also spend time engaging in a clearest to muddiest exercise, inviting educators to place these six pedagogical approaches on a continuum that reflects their understanding. Across the province, the outcome appears to be relatively the same. Educators seem comfortable with what responsive practices means but see them mostly from the perspective of people rather than also including the environment and materials. Educators are clearer about what play and exploration are yet struggle with understanding inquiry. Educators seem to understand what it means to be a co-learner but if they are employing a theme approach it is difficult to take a co-learner pedagogical stance in reality. Inevitably, the muddy approaches are the environment as the third teacher, reflective practice, collaborative inquiry and pedagogical documentation. After every workshop, I am left wondering why aren’t all educators eager, excited and enthusiastic to keep learning so that what is muddy becomes clear?

If we embrace an image of ourselves engaging in a process of continuing, reflective and collaborative inquiry, change is possible. If we see ourselves as already knowing, we are rigid rather than dynamic thinkers. Rigid thinkers are unlikely to see themselves as learners whose primary task is to grow. Without teachers who are committed to growth, children are destined to have static and rather boring learning experiences. There won’t be innovation or even interest. To avoid this stagnation, early childhood educators need to be active learners. Too often, they only see professional learning from a sage on the stage perspective. They listen as an expert speaks. They need to recognize that professional learning can be self-directed and needs to be anything but passive.

In Ontario, the profession of early childhood education is regulated by the College of Early Childhood Educators, which has instituted a Continuous Professional Learning Program. It seems like every day, I read a post in various ECE Facebook groups where someone is rallying against the program, complaining of a lack time and funds to attend workshops. It appears to me, that there is a misunderstanding about what constitutes professional learning which does not have to only include workshop attendance. I would like to see professional learning to be about sharing stories of practice. If this is done within an atmosphere of critical reflection, it could be image altering. The concept of communities of practice arises from the work of Wenger (1998) where mutual engagement, joint enterprise, and shared repertoire “hold the key to real transformation” (p. 85). It is my hope that a community of practice will arise from the work that the York Region Nature Collaborative is engaged in especially as a result of this upcoming full-day professional experience – The Land as Our First Teacher: Exploring the Relationship between Indigenous Storytelling and Pedagogical Documentation. The establishment of communities of practice where teachers engage together in research can empower teachers to improve and avoid top-down models of professional development. The conceptualization of the teacher as collaborator and researcher reflects a theoretical shift from a view of learning as primarily individually centred to one that is fundamentally socially and culturally situated. There are multiple issues inherent with the use of social media but in this case, for early childhood educators, it can help support a community of learners who see themselves as researchers, rich in their capacity to be program innovators. In some municipalities in our province, there are communities of practice that meet in person on a regular basis. The College of Early Childhood Educators offers a wonderful resource on communities of practice. It would be the realization of a dream to see early childhood educators, on their own initiative meeting in these types of communities on-line or face to face. Rather than seeing the process of professional learning as bothersome and something to avoid, I hope more and more early childhood educators will begin to see themselves from a different view and embrace the image of teacher as learner, researcher and innovator. As Cindy Green, my critical friend and colleague wonders, perhaps it begins with ECEs reflecting on this question, “Am I proud to be practising as an early childhood educator”?  

6 thoughts on “The Image of the Early Childhood Educator: Learner, Researcher and Innovator

  1. Yes! Yes! Yes! Thank you for this Diane. It’s as if you’ve been reading my mind. I’ve been talking about so much of this with a friend and colleague this week. I too am wondering why I don’t see as many educators engaging in ongoing learning and professional development. The question at the end of your writing is spot on….. another wonder I have. I will be sharing this with friends and colleagues for sure!


    • I believe most RECE’S are constantly engaged in growth and learning. I think the problem lies with the way the governing body has chosen to tell us what and how we are supposed to do this. Personally I am constantly engaged un PD, conversations with fellow educatirs, groups,online forums etc I feel having to list what I do in a certain manner ( focus on 3 goals) actually minimizes the experiences I am doing. If we were to just track what we are already doing instead of the process of 3 goals over 2 years and writing paragraphs about it, it would be more efficient. We should be allowed more autonomy as professionals.


  2. Thanks for this article, Diane!
    I think learning is paramount and stretch to find ways of increasing my knowledge. Here is my run-down on this topic:
    – I rarely see what I want locally – I am looking for outside courses, delivered outside, at this point.
    – Courses have to fit my schedule: It’s a one person daycare, with lots of work outside of daycare hours.[I do the cooking (nutrition focus), which is a lot of groceries & prep on my time], plus through trial and error, I need to work out a lot to do what I do, and have decided to not compromise that any more, unless something is amazing. Otherwise I have to fit in physio appointments too!!
    – I love online courses/conferences.
    – Really detest in-person courses where room is filled with people who don’t want to be there, chatting throughout, on phone, interrupting speaker over & over ….who I attended to hear from… I’ve been to dozens of those, and just can’t bring myself to go again. Time is too precious.
    – I read tons of books from quality speakers/authors I can’t get to. I also read non-quality books to bring understanding of how society is changing/thinking. Would gladly submit educational learning, through written summary of some sort, to be counted as learning. Have submitted this concept, and others, to ProvGov.
    – I only follow social media accounts that will increase my knowledge with factual information and links. That is also an unrecognized source for learning.
    – The greatest source of outdoor learning in the last few years has been the interactions with people we meet outside (it works for my learning and the kids). For example, we have a strong tie-in with CityWorkers, where children assist in outdoor gardening with them, etc. I feel I have pretty much amassed a horticulture degree in my brain, and the kids have a documented portfolio if they ever want to work in the field. We have a similar link with our local Regional Parks person who expands my outdoor learning in all directions.
    – The kids teach me tons!! They always have a question about something, that we dig into. I don’t know everything. Sometimes we research together, sometimes on my own time.
    – The community. We are outside, around the community, most of the day; so whether it is regulars on the trail, an individual with a camera, guys out collecting bottles, a road crew, homeowner, business owner, … we have so many connections, brief and ongoing, with virtually everyone. It is all learning. Learning to interact & communicate in different ways with all these people (some don’t communicate, which is communication and learning in itself). Everyone has something to teach us and therefore, if we take it in and process it, it is learning.
    -Since I read Richard Louv…nature has taught us a lot. It is shocking, but natural. His books are reflective of the power of this learning.
    – I have even learned through my own writing. I do a very detailed weekly newsletter/email, that includes pretty much everything we did. Just in the writing, referencing, reflection, etc. things pop up.
    Aaahhhh, that was a great release!


  3. Hi Diane,

    I can completely relate to and agree with everything you said in today’s blog. I have always said there are two types of early childhood educators: those who just “like” children and those who want to educate them. Unfortunately the latter seems to be few and far between. I left the field for a bit but a true ECE can never really leave. It’s in our souls.

    I have been a student of of Sally Haughey’s for close to a decade now and if it wasn’t for her and blogs like yours I would have given up on the early childhood field a very long time ago. In fact I am in the process of becoming a Wonder based certified teacher, even though I recently left the classroom to pursue a more business side of ECE. I am doing in person workshops and working on creating online courses for ECEs. My goal is to empower and inspire them. I think that certainly people want inspiration for their classrooms and to learn how to be better teachers but I think there is a depth in ECEs that is yet to be explored. I want to help cultivate innovation within ECEs and help them grow as individuals.

    I think you are right and that many educators do PD because they have to, which means they’re not inspired or craving to learn more about themselves or their field.

    Thank you for sending out today’s blog. It was motivating to read and to know that you are out there fighting the good fight.

    Have a great weekend!

    Carla Wars, RECE Early Learning Foundations

    On Sat, Feb 8, 2020, 7:11 AM Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research, wrote:

    > dianekashin posted: ” By: Diane Kashin, Ed. D, RECE. When I was a > teenager, my career goal was to be a high school history teacher. At a time > of declining enrolment, the goal could not be achieved and instead I chose > a different path after university. I found office jobs w” >


  4. Hi Diane
    I love your thoughtful and thought provoking articles.
    Thank you!

    Maybe it is different here in the US- but EC work is badly paid and not respected as a profession.-
    High quality trainings are generally not offered.
    Educators are not inspired to spend their OWN
    time and money to pursue learning.
    They are already giving so so much to their work!


  5. Pingback: Now What? Critical Reflection for Early Childhood Educators | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

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