Now What? Critical Reflection for Early Childhood Educators

By: Diane Kashin, Ed. D, RECE.

In my last blog post, I wrote about the pedagogical approaches described in How Does Learning Happen? Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years (2014). I believe, that of all the approaches, reflective practice and collaborative inquiry, has the most capacity to impact the others. This post will provide some insight into reflective practice, particularly focusing on critical reflection. Hope is my word for 2020 and I am hopeful that others may find the suggestions here helpful in their practice. In Ontario, there is a College of Early Childhood Educators (CECE) that requires ECEs to engage in a process of professional learning and to document their involvement in the continuous professional learning program (CPL) in a portfolio. The CECE is beginning to randomly audit and will require that registered early childhood educators submit their portfolio for assessment. The process of CPL will provide evidence of a commitment to reflection. Yet, this seems to worry some ECEs. There are some ECEs that do not want to be held accountable for professional learning. They are concerned about the financial and time investment. The process itself seems to evokes negative feelings. Some ECEs feel that it undermines them and devalues their professionalism because they are always learning and shouldn’t be mandated to prove it. Feelings are understandable but it is inevitable that there will be audits. What we need to recognize is that professional learning does not have to only involve attendance at workshops and conferences and there are many opportunities to engage in professional learning that are more cost effective or even free. Time is a major issue. Time is an understandable concern for a sector that works so hard for so little. It can be difficult to find the time outside of work hours for professional learning. Yet, critical reflection can happen in practice! By embracing an image of ourselves as leaders we can take the lead to be critically reflective in practice and therefore demonstrating continuous professional learning on a daily basis. I would suggest that all ECEs see themselves as leaders. According to the College of Early Childhood Educators, all ECEs, regardless of position or title are leaders.

Leadership in our sector should not represent a hierarchical managerial/administrative model. The responsibilities and demands of early childhood education are such that they cannot be adequately met by one person working alone (Jones & Pound, 2008). We are all leaders. How Does Learning Happen? Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years (2014) is Ontario’s official framework to guide programming and pedagogy. Programs are required to be consistent with its foundations and approaches (Friendly, Larsen, Feltham, Grady, Forer & Jones, 2018). It should be a familiar document for ECEs in Ontario. Educators however, may not have found their way to the document, An Introduction to How Does Learning Happen? Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years: For Leaders (2014) because they don’t see themselves as leaders.

In this document, critical reflection is described as, “not only questioning and rethinking our actions, but also considering whether they make sense in the light of research, theory, and what we know about the children and families in our program” (p.7). That’s a tall ask. Easier said than done. But, if we use a model for critical reflection, the process may be less intimidating. In the past, my colleague Cindy Green and I have recommended, the model of What? So What? and Now What? to support critical reflection in practice for early childhood education students. More recently we are sharing this model with educators as a way to find deeper meaning in pedagogical documentation.

What? So What? Now What? with Buttons

We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience ~ John Dewey

John Dewey highlighted that reflection in a learning context is not just a passive recall of an event. Reflection is a deliberate and active process. It is about thinking to learn. When we observe children, thinking about what is meaningful about what we see takes us from the what (the objective) to the so what and now what. Donald Schön built on Dewey’s work and linked reflection more solidly to professional learning and professional practice. By using critical reflection, we gain new understandings that improve practice. When we employ the type of reflection that Schön identified as reflection in action, which is essentially ‘thinking on your feet’ we are learning to look for the deeper meaning in our practice. Let’s say, you have provided a concrete experience for children to engage in and documented that experience in real time. Using Rolfe et al’s (2001) reflective model: What? So what? Now what? can bring you to a point of critical reflection as indicated in this diagram.

Rolfe, G., Freshwater, D. & Jasper, M. (2001).

I also recommend Kolb’s Model of Learning (1984) as it relates to what you do with children. There are four elements to the cycle, and I think you can begin at any point but let’s start with the concrete experience which can be an invitation for playing and learning. While children are engaged in the invitation, observe and document. Pay attention to the so what – asking yourself what is meaningful about what I am seeing? Record this in a professional journal that you keep with you during the day. Take a series of photos of the children engaged in the invitation. You may end up developing new ideas for future learning experiences that you can test out with the children reflecting the now what of the critical reflection model. You will also have data that you can use to create pedagogical documentation.

Kolb’s Learning Model (1984).

I continue to think deeply about critical reflection and to employ these models that can support my work and the work of others. I don’t work with children now, but I do know that it is a rewarding and challenging career. It is a career that has given me so much. From the children and families I have had the privilege to know and work with to the educators that I continue to be honoured to learn from I am inspired to lead and to engage in my own process of continuous professional learning. I hope this blog can inspire you to think about being leaders in your own contexts. Leaders who engage in critical reflection in ways that improve your practice and in ways that will make a significant difference to the lives of children. Elevate your image of yourself! We are all leaders who can critically reflect in practice!

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