“I am a powerful learner” James told the teacher on his first day of primary school. This self- knowledge reflects the young boy’s confidence and identity in making the transition from one learning institution to another. Going to school is a big deal and it has long been associated with special expectations and excitement, tensions and anxieties (Broström, 2002). Once there, being at school involves learning a new set of conventions and values while negotiating new identities, roles and relationships. Confident in his core identity as a powerful learner, James was setting a marker and shaping his scholastic trajectory as he began his first day at ‘big school’.
This short article was prompted by a story of change in the end-of-year pedagogical practices within one preschool and the possibilities it may offer to the young group of powerful learners as they leave their early childhood setting. What follows is a brief consideration of transitions, a discussion on the use of pedagogical documentation and a reflection on implications of changing practices for children’s identities as learners as they make the transition to primary school.
Understandings of transitions have evolved from being a physical activity, that is, as a movement from one institutional setting or activity to another (Lombardi, 1992), or a change of contexts (Dockett and Perry, 2001), to a broader conception of transitions as a change process (Fabian and Dunlop, 2002) and pertinent to this article, as a shift from one identity to another (Griebel and Nielsel, 2002). Transitions are well recognised as a significant life event and as a factor in future engagement with education (Huser et al., 2016). They are central to young children’s experiences and well-being, but should not be conceptualised as happening at one specific point in time, in this case “the first day” in big school. Transitions are a fact of life, “ongoing multi-layered and multi-year processes involving multiple continuities and discontinuities of experience” (Petriwskyj et al., 2005, p.63).
For children the transition to primary school is influenced in no small measure by the belief system and approach of the early childhood educator and her/his view about appropriate early education (Peters, 2002). The theoretical lens of the educator will invariably influence practice within the setting. A developmental perspective, which is grounded in the concept of “readiness” and “age-appropriateness”, will encourage transition to school at a definite point in time when the child reaches a specific age or stage. An ecological approach suggests that transitions are part of an interactive system where the involvement of parents, teachers, educators and children themselves are seen as a core element of the change process. A socio-cultural view will understand transitions as relational, happening within a community, with the active involvement and voice of the child shaping the experience. Currently the metaphor of transitions as a bridge (Huser et al., 2016) begins to elucidate concepts of narrowing gaps, connecting cultures and settings, creating space, time, direction and movement, all of which illuminate the complexities of moving from preschool to primary school.
Within the Irish policy and practice context there is a strong recognition of the importance of all transitions in children’s lives. Standard 13 in Síolta, The National Quality Framework (Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education [CECDE], 2006) guides educators in the sensitive management or facilitation of transitions and promotes the active involvement of children and parents as well as educators and teachers in the process. The Aistear/Siolta Practice Guide (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment [NCCA], 2016) prompts thinking around the role of props, activities, dialogues and visits in supporting transitions and urges that all initiatives are embedded within a strengths-based approach, viewing the child as a competent and agentive social actor (Rinaldi, 2006).
Recognising the importance of transitions, the move to primary school has become the focus of a number of projects internationally (Perry and Dockett, 2011). Closer to home, parents, educators and teachers engage in “priming events” (Corsaro and Molinari, 1992, p.168) or activities, such as visiting the primary school, that set out to create stress-free bridges (Fabian and Dunlop, 2007, p.21) between one world and another. Another, under-researched, tool or approach to supporting transitions is that of pedagogical documentation.
Documenting children’s learning is a core aspect of pedagogical practice, promoted in Síolta and Aistear and sought as part of the new education focused inspections from the Department of Education and Skills. Pedagogical documentation refers to procedures that make the everyday activities, challenges, possibilities, processes and thoughts of children and adults visible and consequently open to debate and reflection (Carr and Lee, 2012). The nature and use of pedagogical documentation varies significantly across settings and has many purposes. The literature outlines the many benefits of providing possibilities for communication between stakeholders, e.g., parents, children and settings (Picchio et al, 2014). It has a role in evaluating practice, in helping to make children’s learning visible (Rinaldi, 2006) and is long established as means of supporting the professional development of educators/teachers (Dahlberg et al, 2013). Some, such as Rinaldi (2006, p.63), contend that the value of documentation is “after the fact” and that in reviewing it, the pedagogical team (individually and collectively) can find meaning in the children’s learning. Through this dynamic form of professional development, educators deepen a pedagogy of listening and are better positioned to provide rich, authentic opportunities for learning and possible future experiences. Undeniably a core value in developing pedagogical documentation lies in its intentions and use. Documentation in some early childhood settings can be understood or interpreted as an end in itself, with observations and plans completed and stored for the relevant Inspector to view. With increased levels of training, documentation is increasingly understood as a core working tool of the ECCE profession, which serves to progresses children’s learning.
A recent Learning Story from Beverton Preschool in North Co. Dublin highlights how pedagogical documentation becomes a tool of reflection for the children and how their self-concept, as competent learners, is strengthened as they prepare for the transition to school. As the story reflects, crucial herein is that the staff group at Beverton understand the values of “now”, slowing down and revisiting experiences for all children in the setting.
June was traditionally one of the busiest and therefore one of the most stressful months of the year at Beverton Preschool, that is until the team did a piece of in-house Continuous Professional Development on reflective practice. Whilst planning the final six weeks of the preschool year, the team discussed the stress of preparing the children for their graduation celebrations, ensuring every child’s learning journal was up to date and that observations and checklists were completed and signed off. The team decided that the children’s last memories of the preschool should not be rushed, adult-led, product-based activities but instead should be a natural winding down and celebration of the wonderful journey of learning that has taken place over the last one to two years.
This “closing down” process was carried out over the last month of preschool by, amongst others, encouraging the children to take down their photos on their coat hangers and family wall pictures and to “put away” equipment and store it for the next children to discover when they started preschool in the new school year.
It was whilst the children were putting their old photos from their coat hooks and preschool book into their learning journals that the magic of true reflective thinking happened. When comparing their old photos with how they looked today the children noticed....
“Look at me when I was only 2, I look different now, I am big and I can ride my bike without stabilizers now that I am 4!” (Cherry)
“I had a different friend when I was three (Roisin’s friend Isadora had left for big school last year), now Cherry is my best friend!’’ I couldn’t lift Cherry up when I was three, but now I can!” (Roisin)
“Hughie was with the preschool for two and a half years, that’s a lot of growing he did during his time with us!” He noticed.... “Look - when I was only 2 I couldn’t swim – that’s me but look at me now, I am like a whale and can swim really good” (Hughie)
The act of children using their journals to look back over their time in the early childhood setting, to see changes in themselves and others, to recognise their growing skills and competencies empowers children as conscious and confident learners. As Carr (2011) tells us, when children are facilitated to reflect on their learning they contribute to their understandings of how they learn and develop their identities as learners.
Children develop as competent and confident learners within loving, reciprocal and responsive relationships (NCCA, 2009). In looking through their learning journals, children in Beverton reflected on the changes they had experienced and journeys they had travelled. The conversations emerged in the relaxed context of the group and:
when children have conversations about their learning journeys with adults whose ideas they trust, they become aware of the ways in which their intelligence is malleable (Carr, 2011, p.3).
Through reflective dialogue the children constructed theories about who they are and how they are in the world. In the process of articulating their ideas publicly the process of self-reflection is promoted; forcing the speaker, in this case the children, “to bring to consciousness the ideas that they are just beginning to grasp intuitively and to justify” (Siraj-Blatchford and Manni, 2008, p.8). This is evident in Hughie’s contribution in the learning story where he realises that he is a learner “look - when I was only 2 I couldn’t swim – that’s me but I have lots of friends I can ride my bike without stabilizers I have my own room I look different now I am 4, I am big. I am going to big school
In articulating their stories, Cherry, Roisin and Hughie are narrativising their experience and positioning themselves publicly as powerful reflectors and learners. Nelson and Fivush (2004) suggest that in learning to narrativise, children learn to remember their specific past and to imagine their specific future. In the case of Hughie it creates a new identity as a capable and competent swimmer. Perhaps it also suggests to Hughie that his ability to learn is transferable to new situations and challenges.
In this story from Beverton, the Learning Journal was the focus of reflection and as some suggest, the use of journals is far more powerful and far-reaching in its effects than is generally recognised (Hallberg, 1987).
The power of the journals lay in the children’s reflections on and insights into themselves as learners. It suggests the need to reposition young children as respected, reflective beings and to foster this capacity for their transformative learning and empowerment. How can this approach, explicitly initiated in Beverton as part of their end of year curriculum, be enhanced with next year’s group of children to more effectively support them in making the transition to school? Ultimately, and as with James in the opening lines, did the reflective experience in Beverton mirror a host of ‘powerful learners’ moving confidently into mainstream education? We will watch this space. Reflection and reflective practice is highly valued within all levels of education.
In this short piece we have drawn on research and practice to highlight possible linkages between the process of reflection in young children and the successful transitioning to primary school. We are confident in listening to Cherry that her reflections and discussions with her peers and the staff can only build her confidence and identity as a learner.
I have lots of friends
I can ride my bike without stabilizers
I have my own room
I look different now I am 4, I am big.
I am going to big school
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Marlene McCormack is a committed early childhood professional with a broad range of experience and expertise in the areas of practice, policy and provision. She has worked directly with young children in private and community settings, has spent many years with Early Childhood Ireland leading the Knowledge Directorate and is currently lecturing with DCU on the Level 8 BECE.
Nickola Cullen has run a multi award winning private sessional service in north county Dublin for the last 15 years. During this time Nickola developed a deep passion and appreciation for the betterment of the early years sector, she is currently studying for her BA in Early Childhood Studies in DKIT.