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Using Research to Develop Your Professional Skills

by Kate Hodgekiss on June 2

Viewing the educator as a researcher

In recent years increasing research, particularly in the world of neuroscience, continues to demonstrate the importance of early childhood education. Yet, policy and wage issues, alongside a still relatively new (and growing) awakening to its importance, has left early childhood education losing approximately one in five educators a year (Irvine, 2016) due to feeling disheartened, burnout and demoralisation. As a result, it can be difficult, as an Educational Leader, to keep your team feeling motivated and keen to engage in continual professional development. Engaging your team in a culture of ‘the educator as a researcher’ is one way of keeping them inspired and reflective. Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio Emilia approach, stated “education without research or innovation is education without interest” (Edwards, Gandini & Forman 2012, p.49). It is our nature, as human beings, to be driven towards growth and development, and to lose interest when our work becomes stagnated. Participating in research grows knowledge, and with that comes reflection and quality practice.

What is the difference between primary and secondary research?

When exploring the idea of research most start with secondary research. This simply involves collecting, reading and/or reflecting on existing research. Every time you read an article online you are participating in secondary research. Of course, there are different levels of secondary research and we will look at that next, but this is what it looks like in its simplest form. Primary research is something some educators will feel unfamiliar with, although many will have participated in some form of primary research while completing their qualifications. Primary research is the process of collecting information and data directly, rather than through previously completed studies. In education this would primarily mean studying children, the way in which they develop, learn, and grow. Many educators find this to be an intimidating idea, and yet we collect data on children all the time as we observe, plan and reflect. Both these types of research, when understood, can help drive team motivation, as well as the quality improvement process. And the wonderful thing about the 21st century is how easy it makes both these types of research!

How to engage in effective secondary research…

There is no doubt that the internet is now our go-to place for secondary research. The biggest issue with this amazing collection of information, is that often we have no idea where it comes from. It is important, if we want to engage in effective secondary research using online techniques, that we understand the varying qualities of information available. It is wonderful to have our educators reading articles constantly because of platforms such as Facebook, but we have to be wary about the source of information. Most teachers who have been through university will know the term ‘peer reviewed articles’. These are articles which have been written by experts in the field and then reviewed by a panel of their peers. Peer reviewed articles, as those published in academic journals, are the most reliable source of information. All of the scholarly or academic journals are peer reviewed. One of the easiest ways to find peer reviewed articles is through a “Google Scholar” search. Some articles may require payment, but many are free and you can refine your searches to prioritise these. Of course, peer reviewed articles are not the only type of article you should read. The point of research is often to evoke reflection and any article, or bog for that matter, can achieve this. There are many reputable sources, which although may not be peer reviewed, will involve some level of editing and review – you are reading one right now!

Another aspect of secondary research which is important in the 21st Century is keyword searches (and for the purpose of this article we will focus on Google, the most popular search engine). When engaging in secondary research online, it is vital that you have an idea of how to use keywords in search engines like Google. Google indexes billions of websites so, unless you want to spend your time sorting through one irrelevant entry after another, being savvy with keywords is very important. Subtle changes to our searches can mean all the difference in results. For instance, if you want to search for information on attachment theory, simply typing in those two words will yield about 128 million results. Typing in “Attachment in early childhood settings” reduces your results to 30 million and automatically gives you scholar suggestions at the top of your search page. The trick to keywords is keeping them broad while also refining your results.

Once you know how to engage in secondary research this way, it becomes second nature. As an Educational Leader one should be encouraging their educators to find answers for themselves through research, rather than depending on the EL to pass on their own. Having said this, it can be difficult to start educators on this journey and like with anything else in leadership, it certainly helps when you lead by example. Having a platform for sharing articles such as the Reflections section in Tapestry, is paramount to creating a culture of ‘educator as a researcher’. Malaguzzi recognised “professional growth comes partly through individual effort but in a much richer way through discussion with colleagues, parents and experts” (Edwards, Gandini & Forman 2012, p. 49). It is through sharing your own research and reflection on that research, that you will demonstrate the benefits and knowledge that comes with this practice.

Breaking Down Quantitive Vs Qualitative Research…

All of that secondary research you have been doing, has to have come from somewhere. Someone completed the study and wrote the article – that is the primary researcher. Often in early childhood we look to others for guidance, particularly when we think about theories of education. We focus on experts of our past like Piaget, Vygotsky, Bronfenbrenner. But what is to say that you aren’t the next Piaget? We, as educators, spend so much time with children, and yet we don’t seem to value ourselves as childhood development experts. That is exactly what we are, and if we engage in regular primary research there is nothing stopping any person from coming up with their own ideas and theories about child development, learning and education. One form of primary research is basic or applied research which includes quantitive and qualitative studies.

The definitions of these are just as the words themselves suggest. Qualitative research refers to the collection of detailed data or non-numerical data; it is descriptive and often uses a variety of methods to collect information. Quantitive data, on the other hand, deals in numerical data such as statistics – data which can be measured and compared. As early childhood educators working with children on an individual level, we are more often than not going to be primarily involved in qualitative research.

There are many methodologies you can use to collect data and some of these you will have engaged in previously, such as observation. Some of the qualitative research methods include observation, interviews, focus groups and case studies. Quantitative research methods are less personal and more concerned numerical value, as mentioned. These include things like surveys, polls and questionnaires. Some studies use one or the other of these methods, while some use a mixture of the two, depending on what they are trying to achieve.

One of the best ways to learn how to conduct applied research is to read studies already completed by others. Through reading studies you will start to see the processes used in the collection/analysis of data. When studying the effectiveness of certain practices one must have points for comparison or a ‘control group’ as it is called in the research world. For example, when Bowlby completed the 44 thieves study which informed his theories on attachment, he was trying to ascertain whether juvenile delinquency acts such as thieving were more common in children who had not had a strong attachment in the first years of life. He compared his collected data (which he obtained through interviews) between two groups: 44 children referred to a clinic for stealing and 44 who were viewed as ‘unstable’ but had not been referred for stealing (the control group). He then went about analysing their answers against his theories of attachment (Follan & Minnis, 2009).

What is Action Research?

Action research is a popular form of research in the social sciences, particularly education, because it aims to change three things: educator practice, educators’ understandings of their practice, and the conditions in which they practice (Kemmis, S., 2009). This is probably the most effective form of research used in early childhood education and in aiming for quality improvement. Moreover this form of research includes reflection and collaboration which we have already established are of the utmost importance in early childhood. Hine (2013, p.152) suggests “action research in education can be defined as the process of studying a school situation to understand and improve the quality of the educative process”.

The most common model for action research that we see used in early childhood (and you most likely have heard of this before) is the action research helix, or the ‘look, act, think’ model. This is the simple model we use in critical reflection and with our quality improvement plans. First we ‘look’ through careful observation of a practice, experience, routine etc. Then in the ‘think’ stage we reflect on what we have observed critically, looking for ways in which it could be achieved more effectively and finally, during the ‘act’ stage is when we test out a solution which has been formulated based on our reflection (Hine. 2013). This may end here or if a solution is found to be ineffective you can start the process again. For this reason action research is looked at as a cyclical process, not unlike the planning cycle – observe, interpret, plan, reflect.

Introducing the ‘Pedagogical Investigation’ technique…

Early Childhood, as well as being a constantly evolving sector, is one that has many divisive topics. When passions are high and philosophies are strong, there will be disagreements among your team in relation to practice. As an Educational Leader it is up to you to being your team together in their approach, ensuring fluidity through the service environment. One way of ensuring you are choosing the best approach to practice is to engage is investigative projects – in the case of early childhood, they could be called ‘pedagogical investigations’. When there is debate about approach, or simply a question no-one has a good answer to, why not investigate it for yourselves? Pedagogical investigations can use a combination of all the research techniques discussed here (and more) and can be a hugely effective tool in creating a culture of research.

As a leader, you can encourage your colleagues to research and explore together, to find their own answers to questions. For example, let’s say a colleague cannot decide on their approach to attachment in the early years. Should they engage in primary caring systems or not? They could start off answering this question by doing some secondary research into attachment theory, the circle of security, and key person approaches. While engaging in this secondary research they could start to collect data on their current practice, taking observations of babies’ reactions and emotional cues at transition times and so on (the ‘look’ stage of the action research helix). Then from this combination of secondary and observation research, they could start to discuss their emerging ideas for effective attachments (the ‘think’ stage of the action research helix) using Tapestry Reflections. Next they can begin to put these ideas in to action (the ‘act’ stage) and finally reflect on their changes – perhaps sending them back to the beginning of the cycle. And finally, once you feel you have answered your question, or achieved you goal, you can draw your conclusions and share them around between your team.

Conclusion

Research is a huge topic and there are many approaches we have been unable to discuss in this article. It is well worth your time to research, research – strange as that may sound. The importance of participating in research becomes clear and as you read through the ideas and suggestions presented, some of them you will already be engaging with without even realising what you are truly achieving. Making it clear to your educators, as an Educational Leader, how important their own research is, and how valued their opinions and ideas are, will help to keep your team inspired and informed. It is through this sort of research that you can start to cultivate a strong sense of professionalism with early childhood educators, who for years have been undervalued and oppressed. We are working with children at the most impressionable ages, when their brains are going through sensitive periods of development which will impact their personality, identity and beliefs for life. Early childhood education may not get the recognition it deserves from wider society, but it is one of the most important jobs in the world. We are raising a future, and if we want that future to be bright, we need to ensure we are giving children the best start in life – and best starts come from best practice, which comes from vigilant research and reflection.

References

Edwards, C., Gandini, L. & Forman, G. (2012) The Hundred Languages of Children 3rd Ed. Praeger: California

Follan, M. & Minnis, H. Forty-four juvenile thieves revisited: from Bowlby to reactive attachment disorder. Retrieved from: https://www.gla.ac.uk/media/Media_475639_smxx.pdf

Hine, G. (2013). The importance of action research in teacher education programs.  In Design, develop, evaluate: The core of the learning environment. Proceedings of the 22nd Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-8 February 2013. Perth: Murdoch University. http://ctl.curtin.edu.au/ professional_development/conferences/tlf/tlf2013/refereed/hine.html

Irvine, S. (2016). One in five early childhood educators plan to leave the profession. The Spoke (Early Childhood Australia). Retrieved from: http://thespoke.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/one-five-early-childhood-educators-plan-leave-profession/

Kemmis, S. (2009). Action research as a practice-based practice. Educational Action Research.17(3). pp. 463-474.

Kate Hodgekiss

Kate has been in the sector for over 20 years. She earned her bachelor degree in Early Childhood Education from Macquarie University, and spent many years working as a teacher both inside and outside of Australia before commencing her management career. Kate has since taken on a variety of roles including nominated supervisor, educational leader, start up consultant, quality consultant, regional manager and online program development creative head. Now the owner/director of Engaging Curriculum Solutions, Kate enjoys passing the wisdom of her experience onto fellow educators and teachers. This article has been edited for the UK education sector by Helen Edwards, Co-Director of The Foundation Stage Forum and Tapestry Journals.