This PhD study is a critical investigation and reconceptualisation of in-service professional learning and development strategies and practices for early childhood educators in England, aiming at developing and promoting an approach to professional development and learning that is firmly grounded in Froebelian philosophy, values and practices. I want to propose the use of a lens of a professional culture that is distinctly different from that reflected in general policies and practices in the early childhood sector in the UK as a way ‘to making the familiar strange’ (Rosaldo, 1993). I have chosen to do this by including early childhood professional practice in Italy. EC practice in Northern Italy is widely known for its holistic pedagogy, e.g. in the approaches developed in Reggio Emilia, Pistoia, San Miniato and Bologna (Fortunati, 2006; Fortunati & Catarsi, 2012; Lazzari, 2012; Rinaldi, 2005). It is less well known that these pedagogies were developed – and can only thrive – in a culture of reciprocal professional relationships between practitioners with a diverse range of experiences and qualifications, between early childhood institutions and the local community, and between research, practice and policy.
A large proportion of the provision available in the UK for young children falls within the private, voluntary and independent (PVI) sector, particularly regarding children younger than two (DfE, 2010) it includes childminders, nurseries, holiday play schemes and children’s centres to name a few. The current system of Professional Learning and Development provision for early childhood educators in England shows a wide range of localised variation, resulting in fragmentation of the quality of Professional Learning and Development offered, for example, different boroughs offer different Professional Learning and Development courses according to the needs that have been identified in that particular area by the local authority. Despite only one government department (education) being responsible in the UK, service provision is fragmented and of variable quality (European Commission, EACEA/Eurydice, & Eurostat, 2014; Miller & Hevey, 2012).
The Italian early childhood education system is divided between childcare centres (Asilo Nido) for children from 3 months to 3 years old and preschools (Scuola Dell’Infanzia) for children aged 3- to 6-years, each under the auspices of different government departments (OECD, 2006; Urban et al., 2011). The Asili Nido were established in 1971 as an institution governed by the municipalities, who are also responsible for the arrangement and provision of Professional Learning and Development for educators (Falcinelli et al., 2002). Like England, Italy has a multiplicity of qualifications, roles and responsibilities in early childhood education and care, making it important to consider how educators negotiate and perceive their personal identities in order to provide recommendations for policy and practice that are meaningful to their experiences with Professional Learning and Development (Lazzari, Picchio, & Musatti, 2013).
The main research question guiding the study is: how can Professional Learning and Development (PLD) in Early Childhood Education and Care be conceptualised through a Froebelian lens in light of contemporary PLD practices in Tuscany and London?
The following sub-questions will be explored to address the principal research question:
This study will be organized as a pair of ‘freestanding-but-related case studies’ (Stake, 2003) in the UK and Tuscan PLD context. The sampling strategy will be targeting specific cases in the full knowledge that they do not represent the wider population but are representative only of themselves (Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2011). Each case will include a variety of data sources including:
Documentary research will be employed to explore present legislation and guidelines relating to educators’ professional learning and development (PLD). The current provision for educators’ PLD will be explored in the context of recent and longer term trends (Cohen et al., 2011). Documentary research will be used both as a research tool in its own right and as part of the triangulation process for the research (Macdonald, 2008). The analysis of policy and other documents will support both the construction of the interview schedule and will feed into the organization of the focus group activities for the participants. Parts of the documents that I identify as being relevant of discussion will be selected and included in the interview questions for practitioners to talk about and will also be used as critical prompts for the different activities in the focus group.
I have chosen this method because of its power to display each interviewee’s unique experiences and special stories which will help construct knowledge with the participants on the topic of PLD and professional identity.
From the themes identified during the semi-structured interviews and from the documentary research, I will develop a schedule for a focus group containing different activities for the practitioners to participate in and some documents to discuss. This will further explore the features of PLD in professional contexts and will also be used to allow the participants to co-construct a new understanding of PLD that I will then interpret through a Froebelian lens. This method will focus on the ways in which the participants discuss the issues of identity and of PLD and how their interactions as a group assist them to build up a view about specific themes that have been identified during the semi-structured individual interviews
The study is undergoing approval from the University of Roehampton’s research commission, after confirmation of the project and ethical approval is obtained, I will proceed towards the initial collection of the data.