Working Together for Toby: Early Childhood Student Teachers Engaging in Collaborative Problem-Based Learning around Child Abuse and Neglect
Farrell, Ann, Walsh, Kerryann, Australasian Journal of Early Childhood
Child abuse and neglect is an area of serious concern for many Australians, not least of all for early childhood teachers whose 'work involves close and daily interaction with children who may present with signs of abuse. The Australian Institute for Health and Welfare (2009) noted 317,526 reports of child abuse and neglect for the period 2007-08, an 8 per cent increase in the number of finalised investigations since the previous reporting period (2005-06). Queensland contributed 14 per cent to the nation's 55,120 substantiations, second only to New South Wales at 61 per cent (AIHW, 2009).
A growing body of research is demonstrating the importance of teachers in dealing with child abuse and neglect (see Baginsky, 2007; Laskey, 2009; Mathews & Kenny, 2008; Mathews, Walsh, Rassafiani, Butler & Farrell, 2009; Walsh, Bridgstock, Farrell, Rassafiani & Schweitzer, 2008; Webb & Vulliamy, 2001). There is also a small but expanding literature on preservice and neophyte teachers and their knowledge needs in dealing with the issues (Baginsky, 2003; Baginsky & McPherson, 2005; Goldman, 2007; Laskey, 2005). Such evidence points to the urgent need for teacher education programs that address teachers' knowledge needs and, thus, better prepare them for work in this area.
In light of the seriousness of the problem of child abuse and neglect and the important role of teachers in dealing with it, a study was conducted within the School of Early Childhood at Queensland University of Technology (OUT) to provide student teachers with an authentic real-world case relevant to the teacher's work of detecting and reporting child abuse and neglect. It drew upon contemporary approaches to problem centred, collaborative learning, using online and face-to-face activities as vehicles for promoting students' knowledge and confidence in dealing with a real-world issue (cf. Jonassen, Howland, Morre & Marra, 2003; Rosenberg, 2001; Svetcov, 2000). The study was located in the first year of a four-year Bachelor of Education (Early Childhood) program within a foundation unit of study, Families and Childhoods (EAB002). We invited students into either an online space or a face-to-face space to (voluntarily) collaborate, grapple with and reflect upon an authentic problem--the case of Toby--a hypothetical yet typical case of a child suspected of being physically abused at home.
The Toby study was part of a larger university-wide project, Collaborative Online Problem Solving (COPS) that combined problem-centred and collaborative aspects of learning in higher education (Edwards, Watson, Farrell & Nash, 2008). The broader project provided opportunities for undergraduate learners to collaborate as they engaged with and made sense of authentic problems within an online environment in order to bridge the gap between the classroom and real-world experience.
The importance of teachers and teacher training in child abuse and neglect
The clear message from research and from conventional wisdom is that teachers and teacher training are critically important in responding to child abuse and neglect. Despite the message, there has been considerable confusion, on the ground, as to how, when and under what circumstances teachers should act. The confusion around the responsibilities of teachers, in law and policy, has been exacerbated by the range of legislative and policy contexts in which teachers work. Australia, as a federated system, has a wide range of jurisdiction-based legislative and policy frameworks (see Table 1 for a summary of child protection acts in Australia). (See also the 2008 review conducted by Mathews and Kenny in relation to mandatory reporting legislation in Australia, Canada and the United States.)
In turn, different reporting laws in different jurisdictions usually mean that teachers have different legislative duties regarding child abuse (Mathews et al. …