Young children’s learning
Summary of the programme
There is growing interest in the importance of preschool for children’s and young people’s learning. The curriculum stipulates that the aim of a preschool is to develop children’s knowledge, and research has shown that a good preschool has a positive influence on pupils’ lifelong learning. The debates often focus on the quality of preschools and equivalence. What is actually a ”good” preschool and how can the municipalities ((i.e. the local education authorities in public sector schools and preschool) offer an equivalent preschool education? These are the issues that formed the context for the R&D programme on Young children’s learning when it began in 2013.
The starting point was the requirement for preschools to carry out systematic work on quality that is based on scientific knowledge and has a focus on each child’s learning. The programme was based on the Swedish preschool curriculum (Lpfö 98) and thus falls within the framework that governs the daily responsibilities of preschool managers and preschool teachers. The objective was to further develop the systematic work on quality in preschool education, ultimately strengthening the quality of preschools.
In order to ensure that the development work is based on scientific knowledge and proven experience, the R&D programme has been run in collaboration with researchers and preschool practitioners. The final report describes how the programme was developed and the results that were achieved according to the different perspectives of the participants.
A combination of research and practical experience
Using a scientific approach, the overall objective of the R&D programme was to develop and test models for documenting and evaluating the work of preschools based on scientific knowledge, with a focus on the child’s learning and knowledge progression in accordance with the goals of the curriculum. A further objective was to develop the skills of preschool teachers to observe and document young children’s learning, as well as for preschool managers and local education authority representatives to develop the knowledge and systems for managing and supporting work on quality. Quality work should, in turn, result in a better and more equivalent preschool for children.
The programme was developed around questions such as:
- What do models for a preschool’s systematic work on quality, which involve documenting children’s learning, look like?
- Which models can be used to describe a child’s knowledge progression?
- How can models be built to document the progression in a child’s learning in relation to the curriculum?
- How can this documentation, along with other documentation, through analysis, be used to assess the quality and developmental needs of a preschool?
In the R&D programme, preschool teachers, preschools managers and local authority representatives have been working with researchers and research students to gain further knowledge on the quality of preschools. Five preschool teachers from the participating municipalities are undertaking a postgraduate degree and conducting research within the framework of the programme. In addition, a senior researcher investigating the role of preschool managers have also been involved in the programme.
National and regional seminars, providing an opportunity for all of the participants to meet each other, have also been an important part of the programme. The first seminar took place during the 2013 spring term and an open conference in March 2017 marked the end of the programme. In between, each participant has participated in a further six national and two regional seminars.
Local process leaders have had a key role in following and managing the development processes. Their work has been to coordinate the development work at a local authority level as well as to facilitate the group discussions at the joint seminars. The process leaders have also met up a number of times each term in order to follow up on, and prepare, the group discussions as well as exchange experiences and lessons learned from their local work. The group has also ensured that the development work is focused on meeting the needs of the preschools.
Linnaeus University is responsible for the research, which includes the work carried out by senior researchers as well as the postgraduate degree course. The programme has been coordinated by Ifous (Innovation, research and development in schools and preschools).
Linnaeus University has also been responsible for evaluating the results and impact of the programme. The evaluation and conclusions have been based on focus group discussions and a review of documentation provided by the municipalities.
What have we achieved?
In summarising the R&D programme, a variety of different kinds of results, impacts and lessons from the perspectives of different participants can be found.
The results and impacts that municipalities and districts are observing in their organisations are described in detail in relevant chapters of the full report (available in Swedish only), and are also highlighted in the evaluation conducted by Linnaeus University (also presented in the full report).
Increased knowledge and awareness
The municipalities report that the R&D programme has contributed to a deeper understanding of the importance of the curriculum for achieving the task of the preschool. They also believe that they have greater knowledge and awareness about, for example, what quality actually means, about the documentation and how it can be used, about the task of the preschool and, not least, about their own role as a preschool teacher or manager. Many mention that by scrutinising concepts together, the teachers gained a common language and approach, and also realised the importance of having these kinds of discussions.
Several municipalities report an initial resistance and that at times they felt uncomfortable. Concepts and working methods were discussed and questioned. During this type of process it is easy to feel challenged; ”Have we made a mistake?” But by reflecting together in different groups (such as within their own preschool, or municipality, or in inter-municipal groups), attitudes gradually changed. Concepts such as teaching and evaluation have become less sensitive. Many mention that they have realised that on-going evaluation is needed in order to be able to make decisions about the next step or activity.
The composition of the discussion groups for the joint seminars didn’t change throughout the whole programme. As a result, a feeling of security has developed within the groups, resulting in open discussions, in itself a prerequisite for achieving collective learning. The local process leaders, who led the discussions during the seminars, have met regularly. This group has provided an important context for shared learning between the municipalities.
Better tools for documentation and evaluation
In all of the municipalities, the programme has directly or indirectly affected their systematic work on quality. Models have been tested and developed to follow changes in children’s knowledge, and are now being used in quality monitoring and evaluation. Development is on-going and will continue even after the end of the programme.
Preschools and municipalities report that they have moved from documenting and evaluating a whole group to focus more on individual children’s learning. This has meant changes to the way this is documented. However, many emphasize that the greatest challenge is still how to follow the learning of each individual child.
It is also clear that preschools have moved from documenting activities to having a greater focus on learning. One municipality reports that they are now planning their work against the goals of the curriculum and the knowledge that children demonstrate in the activities, instead of what they did previously, which was planning and carrying out an activity and then looking at the curriculum retrospectively to tick off what they have covered.
Need for increased analytical skills
Changing the way things are documented and shifting the focus from activities to knowledge is one thing, but the collected documentation must then be analysed. Previously, documentation has often been seen as a way to show parents what the preschool has been doing, but it has now become a way to evaluate the learning that has taken place and inform the planning of future activities.
During the programme, participants worked on how to analyse their documentation and report that they have gained a deeper understanding of the purpose and importance of analysis. At the same time, it is emphasised that analysing children’s changing knowledge remains a challenge, and something they need to continue to work further on. As one participant stated, ”We must keep up with the analysis”.
The lack of knowledge and expertise in analysis is in no way unique to those who participated in this R&D programme, but is something that often arises in the context of school development. Local education authorities and schools need support to further develop this important part of systematic quality work.
Success factors in development work
The evaluation shows that the following factors affect the impact of the programme:
- A long-term approach with regard to the programme
- Well-organised development seminars
- Structures to support the work of the local process leaders
- The way the municipalities organise the development work
The changing role of preschool managers
As a result of changes to the preschool curriculum, the role of preschool managers has also changed. In the context of the R&D programme, it is interesting to investigate leadership in relation to systematic quality work. This has been done by Jan Håkansson in a research study that is still on-going and described in more detail in one of the chapters of the full report (available in Swedish only).
The first part of the study identifies, among other things, how preschool managers experience a tension between the need to govern in a linear way and to work interactively in the systematic quality work. There is a feeling of uncertainty among some preschool managers, which may be due to a lack of, and differences in, knowledge among the staff about how to carry out quality work.
While acknowledging differences in knowledge levels, some preschool managers believe that those participating in the R&D programme are expected to be role models for others in the municipality. An interesting question arising from this observation is whether the development work in the R&D programme leads to greater differences between preschools and teams of staff, rather than levelling them out? Or does the collaborative learning that takes place counteract this process, resulting in stronger knowledge sharing?
Five postgraduate-qualified preschool teachers
As a result of the R&D programme, five of the municipalities’ preschool teachers will soon have a postgraduate qualification to support their professional role. There is some debate about how the municipalities can best utilise these skills. For those who participated in the programme, this is an important issue to consider in the next stages of the process.
During the programme, students spent a significant part of their postgraduate course conducting research studies in the participating preschools. The studies focus on various perspectives relating to documentation and evaluation in preschools. They explore topics such as how preschool teachers talk about documentation and evaluation practices, children’s participation in the pedagogical documentation and how to define interaction in evaluation practices.
The course began in January 2014 and the teachers are expected to complete their postgraduate degree at the beginning of 2018. Then, their dissertations, with final reports on the research studies, will also be available.
In conclusion, a picture emerges of many on-going development processes that have been advanced by the R&D programme in various ways. These processes are by no means complete and development will continue in the participating preschools and municipalities. There will be variations between them, and they may head in different directions, but the focus will remain clearly on each child’s development and learning. In addition, those who manage the processes will have a deeper understanding of the crucial role that preschool teachers and preschool managers have in this learning.