Critical reflection in practice

I have been challenged this term as we have sought to tweak and improve elements of the daily routine and our practises at St Luke’s Catholic Early Learning Centre (CELC). Although at times uncomfortable, the challenges and discomfort have been worthwhile. They have prompted me to explore the art of critical reflection and learn that going through the layers of the critical reflection process, growth and a culture of collaborative inquiry can be achieved.

Some of the challenges at the CELC that we have sought to improve from have included

  1. Setting up and implementing a positive mealtime environment for 59 children (which includes breakfast, morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea.)
  2. Communication challenges for team members throughout the day. There are variable factors which influence this such as, their being 12 staff and 7 different shift times and little opportunity for team members to formally meet during their shift time. As well, we use a collaborative staffing model where the children are not formally allocated in  room groups. These factors can be problematic for the planning and evaluation of the environment.

I saw these challenges in my own observations at the CELC as well as from discussions with other CELC teachers. To formulate a “plan of action” to manage these challenges, we engaged in a critical reflection process following  “layers of reflection” (as described in the diagram below. (Source: Miller, M. “Critical Reflection Reflections, Gowrie Australia, Summer 2011, Issue 45.)

Layers of reflection

Firstly, we gathered information from teachers at a CELC staff meeting. Everyone was able to contribute to this self-assessment and it was unanimous that these areas were challenging for all of us.

Given the wide scope, we delegated specific areas to teachers who had an interest in exploring it further. To facilitate the linking of theories and gathering of information from different forms of literature, we reframed the challenges into questions for our critical reflection. Our challenges were reframed to the following questions which we are in the process of exploring further:

  1. How can the mealtime environment shape children’s interactions with each other and educators, supporting positive eating habits, independence and social skills?
  2. How can educators be supported in their room groupings to facilitate their wellbeing, consistent practice, transitions and communication?

Linking reflection to literature and theories 

  1. How can the mealtime environment shape children’s interactions with each other and educators, supporting positive eating habits, independence and social skills?

Mealtimes provide the opportunity for social interactions between the children and with educators. As well as discussions about healthy eating and providing nutritional meals, the mealtime environment can support children’s developing self help skills. This aligns with the “Manage” pillar of learning (St Luke’s Pillars of learning) as children begin to “manage self.”

Our mealtimes at times were more process driven rather than an enjoyable part of the day. At times it was a counting experience, with the number of children at each mealtime being counted and “checked off” a list to make sure they had their meal.

The National Quality standards highlights the importance of positive environments (NQS 3), the value of providing opportunity for children to develop relationships with each other (NQS Area 5), as well as describing the importance of healthy eating for children (NQS Area 2.) This is described in detail by Rhonda Livingstone in “Creating positive mealtimes – We Hear You Blog.”

To support children’s agency and emerging self help skills, the mealtimes have been adjusted in the following ways:

  • Individual serving dishes are placed on each table for the children to serve themselves their own meal.
  • Educators sit with children at the tables, prompting conversations with the children and between small groups of children.
  • Mealtimes are in smaller groups to facilitate more conversations.
  • Families have been invited to share their favourite meals which are served at home with the CELC so we can include these in our menus.
  • Educators have created a “CELC Recipe book” for families with favourite recipes from the CELC.

The general consensus to date is that these changes have been positive. Mealtimes are more settled and the children are engaging in more positive interactions and conversations during these times. Mealtimes are still a “work in progress” and educators are discussing with each other ways to further improve mealtimes to facilitate children’s sense of agency. Last week, progressive morning teas were introduced to further support children’s emerging levels of managing self. By continuing to evaluate and discuss our processes, a culture of collaborative inquiry is maintained.

2. How can educators be supported in their room groupings to facilitate their wellbeing, consistent practice, transitions and communication?

At St Luke’s CELC, a collaborative model for teacher/educator grouping is used rather than a traditional “Room Coordinator and educators” model. This can be seen in the diagram below.

1CELC_graphic

The children are not in traditional room groupings that is often used in long day care settings. At St Luke’s CELC, each educator is responsible for a group of focus children whom they observe, plan and implement experiences for throughout the year. The children have the opportunity to explore each of the learning environments throughout the day.

With the fluidity of the day and groupings of staff, challenges arose for staff as they were spending time in each of the learning spaces, but not in their room which they were responsible for planning the environment (eg Teal, Navy or Outdoor.) Further to this, staff within each room group did not spend periods of time together to evaluate and reflect upon the program. This had implications for the effectiveness of their programming and evaluation of practice.

When discussing the challenges, educators questioned the staffing model and its appropriateness in a large centre. Many were challenged by the fluid approach and movement of children. It was suggested that we change our whole model to the more traditional long day care model with children in set room groups with allocated teachers in each room and a less fluid routine across the learning spaces.

Before making a big change to the staffing and room model, I investigated the theories behind our practices, this included reading Working in the Reggio Way: A beginner’s guide for American teachers by J Wurm. Wurm compares Reggio Emilia schools daily routine to traditional routines and groupings in American Children’s services which are similar in structure to Australian long day care centres. She highlights the benefits of team teaching and its advantages including less disruptions to free play explorations and the sharing of responsibility amongst teachers for more formal parts of the day. This highlighted to me the advantages of our approach at St Luke’s CELC and reinforced to me the benefits our approach.

Our staffing model supports peer modelling and a team teaching approach. The fluidity of groupings supports the children’s developing sense of agency as they are able to freely explore each of the learning environments. The daily routine moves freely with large amounts of time devoted to exploratory based learning as well as more structured parts of the day. During these times teachers share the responsibility for the planning and implementation of the more formal based experiences in which children participate eg literacy based group experiences, fundamental movement skills, spirituality and music explorations.

To ease the challenge of communication amongst teachers within their room groupings, it was decided to trial for one and a half hours each morning, the designation of each room group of educators to their “room” (ie Teal, Navy, Outdoor Investigations.) Initially, there was some resistance from teachers to the designation of areas at certain times of the day. However, over time there has been more positive feedback with teachers describing improved channels of communication which has facilitated easier evaluation and planning for environments.

This reminded me of the cartoon depicted below – sometimes we experience discomfort however through change comes growth and improvement for the greater good. I discovered this cartoon in a blog when searching for information on “leaning into discomfort” as I quite often think of this phrase when reflecting on practise.  I discovered this blog in my Google search  The Healthy Uncomfortable – I love the title and thought the cartoon is an apt illustration of the process of critical reflection.

Moment of discomfort

Critical reflection is not easy. However, to sustain a shared vision of our purpose and to implement this effectively, critical reflection is required and needs to continue as a means to building a professional culture of collaboration and inquiry.

“It has been said that the environment should act as a kind of aquarium which reflects the ideas, ethics, attitudes and cultures of people who live in it. This is what we are working toward.”

Malaguzzi

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