Diversifying Early Years Professional Learning-One Size No Longer Fits All

Article excerpt

Introduction

The subject of professional development (PD) for early years practitioners is fraught with controversy and contradictions. Policy-makers from early childhood national bodies (Australia: Early Childhood Australia; US: National Association for the Education of Young Children) continue to maintain that a central component of PD is the educators' application of the knowledge acquired in their own practices and student learning outcomes, resulting in paradigm changes. Attendance in PD programs is linked to improvements and advancements in educational programs. When these outcomes are positive, the mindsets of practitioners are supportive of the value of the PD. This position is based on the contention that the most significant factors in quality early years PD are the changes in practitioners' practices and changes in student learning outcomes, resulting in changes in paradigm, principles, beliefs and values (DeBord, 2002; Guskey, 2002; Raban, Nolan, Waniganayake, Brown & Deans, 2007).

Traditional models of PD in early years education have included generic PD workshops, conferences, seminars, and staff meetings. The content of these models has been driven by (1) identification of the topic, and (2) selection of the speaker. This form of PD, referred to as the 'front-end loading' model, is one in which professionals are taught identical knowledge and skills by experts in order to become effective professionals (Foley, 2001). This deficit model reinforces three positions: (1) educators are viewed as consumers of professional development, a homogeneous professional group; (2) academic knowledge from PD can simply be transferred and applied as named in the research; (3) educators lack knowledge and skills that can be magically fixed by generic, usually one-off, PD sessions.

While we acknowledge that early years practitioners do possess group characteristics, they do not come as members of a homogeneous group. There are no homogeneous groups. In fact, there are as many differences and sometimes more differences, within groups as between groups. Early years practitioners reflect, inquire, plan, implement, monitor, analyse, critique, evaluate, and change their practices in response to the different needs of students.

The structure of PD as a one-stop shop, originally created to serve an industrial society, has not kept pace with new challenges and new directions created by the needs of our information society. Designing and leading individualised and differentiated PD reflective of changing times, resulting in changes in practitioners' practices and changes in student learning outcomes, is a significant task for educators today.

Alternative professional development approach

An alternative approach to PD for early years practitioners is the participant-driven approach. This focuses on the reflective practice and capacity building of participants. It is an intentional shift away from the 'one size fits all' approach towards a constructivist approach to PD, placing the educator as practitioner and researcher at the centre of the PD, with the focus being on change in practitioners' practices influencing change in student learning outcomes, culminating in paradigm change for the practitioner (Guskey, 2002). Practitioners are supported in constructing their own knowledge, competencies, and capacity in PD sessions. This knowledge is built upon during action research projects, and the focus is on continuous learning for continuous improvement.

Resonating with this shift towards a reflective model of change, practitioners engage in reflective action, concentrating on integrating new learnings from PD settings with specific work contexts. It is an ongoing process that includes high-quality planning and follow-up support in the form of ongoing coaching (Cox, 2007). It is research-informed and research-orientated: research-informed in the sense that educators draw on systematic reflection of the teaching and learning process; research-orientated in the sense that teachers embark on an action research process of inquiry and implementation in their workplace, monitoring and evaluating student learning outcomes. …