The Observed Construction of Teaching: Four Contexts

Article excerpt

The purpose of this study was to discern, through observation, the different ways in which child care teachers constructed "teaching" in a program that included children with disabilities. Eleven teachers in a single high-quality child care program were repeatedly observed and videotaped in their interactions with 63 children. Qualitative methods used in interpreting the tapes included narrative notes, cross-researcher descriptions and discussions, data reduction into categories of teaching behavior, construction of explanatory effects matrices, and development of confirming and disconfirming tables. Four "contexts" were found to affect or contain teaching: environmental, planning, approach, and interaction. These contexts should be considered in policy development, management, personnel preparation, and teaching.


Classroom-based education for young children, including those with disabilities, consists of myriad influences and activities. The background to actual interactions between adults and children includes the ecology in which the program and classroom operate. Within the child care center's ecology, teachers' interactions with children can vary from being minimally intrusive to being completely controlling. This study sought to understand, through observation, the different ways in which child care teachers constructed "teaching" in a program that included children with disabilities.


In the "ecology" of teaching (Bronfenbrenner, 1979), different levels of influence have reciprocal effects on each other. Those influences furthest from the child affect levels closer to the child, and--to some extent--ecological influences close to the child have the potential to shape more distal levels. In preschool programs, some environments have been established deliberately to promote particular skills, such as literacy. Thus, classrooms have been identified as providing an enhanced "literacy environment" (MacKay & Watson, 1999) or a "literature-rich environment" to promote emerging literacy (e.g., Katims, 1994). The features of the physical environment, including the technology available (e.g., Elliott & Hall, 1997), increasingly have come to define the classroom ecology.

The child care ecology vis-a-vis teaching also consists of the prevailing philosophy and policies in a center. Whether it is the preschool atmosphere regarding hard work versus personal growth (Holloway, 1999) or the adherence to philosophical principles (see Juan, 1985), a center's orientation can be influential. Perhaps the biggest philosophical influence over teaching in the United States in recent years has been the definition (Bredekamp, 1987) and redefinition (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997) of developmentally appropriate practice. The applicability of developmentally appropriate practice for children with disabilities has been debated in numerous sources (e.g., Wolery & Bredekamp, 1994), some focusing on "contextual issues that exist in the debate/discussion" (Wolery & Bredekamp, 1994, p. 332). These include the notion that practices, rather than disciplines (early childhood special education versus early childhood education), should be debated; each discipline should promote acceptance of ideas from the oth er discipline, the different origins of the two sets of practices should be acknowledged; and so on. All nine contextual issues that Wolery and Bredekamp discuss point to the importance of examining the ecology in which teaching of young children occurs.

Teachers' Interactions

Perhaps the most salient feature of the child care ecology is the interactions between teachers and children. Santos and Lugnugaris/Kraft (1997) have reviewed the literature on instruction in natural environments, which are defined as the use of typically occurring events, activities, and consequences as a context in which to teach specific skills. …