Hi I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education.
In this week’s episode we dive into emergent curriculum and inquiry-based practices with early childhood education specialist and author Susan Stacy. Susan tells us what emergent curriculum means how an early child educator can best go about learning it for application in the classroom and also how administrators can enable an environment that supports a dynamic curriculum that is responsive intentional and full of possibilities. To learn more about emergent curriculum and how you can start on the journey of applying it in your programs. Stay tuned for this week’s episode of the preschool podcast.
Susan let’s start off with the easy question or the most basic question of what is emergent curriculum?
I had a feeling you were going to say that when you refer to the easy questions and I find this is the hardest question of all really because it’s quite a complex undertaking. Easily learned I think you know with practice but to describe it in a nutshell is pretty tricky. And it really is about the cycle of inquiry and you know watching children listening to children and thinking that children really carefully and responding to that. But I do like to caution people that it’s not all about the children it’s about a collaboration with children that you know we’re not necessarily following the children and what they want to do. You know it is like in terms that anything goes with what the children want to do it’s not that at all. It’s in writing curriculum it is very intentional on the teacher’s part in terms of being a careful listener or a watcher and thinker and reflecting carefully and then being very intentional about what you do in response.
So it’s a very careful process. And I call emergent curriculum and a collaborative responsive process that’s that is embedded in the cycle of inquiry. And so knowing that fact with inquiries is really important for education. That’s one of the sort of foundations from my point of view it’s well it’s a foundation for emerging curriculum. I have to make sure when I’m beginning that journey with educators who happen to have experience with it that they understand what the cycle of inquiry is and how that unfolds or what it looks like in the classroom what the teacher’s role is. So to describe the emergent curriculum in terms of what you think is definition that that’s hard because it sort of expands it goes on tangents into all sorts of other areas that we have to explore as educators start going on this journey.
Go to work I think is key to getting going. Especial full day workshops this or a series because you can learn about the foundations and a shared vocabulary that you need to engage in this kind of work you can actually practice it in the workshop. So for instance what I’d like to do is to take the take a look at the beginning of the cyclic inquiry which starts with keen observation but what does that mean. You know you can explore this in a way. So what does that mean to really keenly observe the child. What do you do with those observations when you have them. So what we do is we will look at some video clips or we’ll look at photographs together and analyze them will think a little bit more deeply about what’s going on not just the surface that’s immediately apparent when a child does this over and over again.
What does our child comment really mean. What does that tell us about the child thinking. And in a workshop or a series we can think about those things together and we can reflect together. And that’s a really good basis for deciding. OK so what are we going to do next in response to that. Because this is a collaboration that the child does. And so we do that day intentionally. What do we need to do with our environment to support this idea that the child had an observation. We have to be careful not to just look at what the children are doing with material and actions although that’s very important and that’s critical when the child is nonverbal of course so less verbal but to try and get at the child thinking, and we get it that by listening part of observation is also listening and Carmila Rinaldi reminds us often in her writing and her speeches to think about many different ways of listening, for this listening for this is or that. What does this comment mean. How can we get a their thinking and conversation. What are their understanding what the misunderstandings. Those are key things to be to be listening for because we’re trying to figure out a respond. You know in a workshop we can we can over a couple of days over a series we can start working with the observations, we can think of various responses. It’s nice when there’s a little gap between workshops so that we can go away observe and bring out our observations back to the group for discussion. This is what I saw when I tried. This is what happened and kind of analyze that. It’s a nice reflective process.
So just picking up on that point that’s a really good idea sort of learning the fundamentals and then applying it in practice so that when you go back and discuss what happened in the classroom you’re using it with the context of having applied it already and so you get more out of the learning experience I suppose.
Yeah absolutely. It’s a process of you know observing thinking trying something out especially when you’re very new to this kind of approach trying it out. See what happened. What did the children do in response. What does that tell us what is their response tell us. Trying in your practice as you as you work through this process to judge the children’s engagements. Because this is our response to them, provoke more thinking that it sustain off curiosity. Are we able to build on that play. You know this is very play based and so build on that play did it enrich their play. How do we how do we know what they’re thinking. What did we see did we document that.
It’s useful to bring the documentation which is a big part of imaging curriculum know documenting their words their ideas their play their actions to document that we read notes. We bring it back to the group when we’re learning even when with seasoned practitioners bring it back to the group and through the information around and happened and what happened because it widens out the lenses, it is a different way to think about things. And often if we’ve been doing something the same way for many years we have a particular set of narrow lenses in the way that we look at something and when we talk about it with other people especially people from backgrounds and we get these new perspectives that we might not have before. So that’s very important.
Yeah. And I suppose that concept applies to immersion curriculum in general as well and correct me if I’m wrong but I assume when you document your observations and you’re thinking about what do I do with these observations there isn’t necessarily a right answer. Maybe there’s different ideas about how to proceed with the child’s development from that point in terms of what activities you want to proceed with but there may be various different activities that would be beneficial.
Absolutely. It might not even be an activity. It might be, you might need and you might decide that’s OK to understand this I need further conversations with the children I need to build from conversation into our play so they really what’s going on here because I’m a little confused or I’m a little unsure. The thing I like about emergent curriculum it is like in any human relationship it’s a relationship based. And so you’re not 100 percent sure of what you’re doing. It’s a little like stepping off a precipice and thinking you know I’ll try this. I think this is what I think I’ll try this. But what informs your practice. Probably more than anything is your relationship with the children because you know you’re not a stranger to this group people, you’ve known them for some time you know the dynamic of the group. You know what’s new for this child, and what’s old for this child.
So you know you already have some knowledge through your relationship. You have some knowledge of what they’ve done before and what their thinking has been before so you know the thing is that they are exploring you know if this is new them or if it’s been going on for lunch or private practice and it helps you to make a decision about how to respond. But as they say, you know an exciting part is you’re never 100 percent sure. And I think that’s a good thing because it keeps us on our toes, it keeps us thinking, keeps us watching and it keeps the work exciting because you know even the say a child comes back to you have a group of children who have come back to something in their play that you’ve seen before with other groups of children. I find that subject for instance of the fascination with birds comes up a lot with children with different groups but that investigation inquiry is going to be completely different from one group than it is from another because everything goes back to the children’s questions. What are the children’s specific questions about this, or why is this particular group fascinated with it.
I mean it’s very different from a semantic approach where everything is planned out in advance and you know it always goes back to childhood it’s always comes back to this group of six children who are working on watching this and I’m curious about this but it’s so different from that other group of children I’ve had before. And so you have to keep going back to the child remembering their role in this. And I think that it’s a collaboration it’s like I’d describe it as kind of conversation an ongoing conversation between a group of children.
One thing I want to touch on what you mentioned there which I think is very important is keeping things exciting and interesting and keeping you on your toes and thinking. I think that’s so important and the reason I say that is that I do think that’s lacking potentially in some environments. And in order to stay passionate about what you’re doing as an educator I think you need that. And I guess my question to you is, in your experience as a trainer as emergent curriculum inquiry based practices do you see that when educators go and apply your teachings in a classroom does that get them excited when they see any impact on the children. So I think that’s really what motivates most certainly child educators at the end of the day is seeing the impact on the work in children’s progress and that I would assume provides further inspiration and excitement for them to do more of this type of an approach.
Absolutely. And it’s very exciting for me and very gratifying to see when someone comes back with their observations their reflections the trial and error they’ve been through, often so many times they’ll be the sort of aha moment when they feel the children just come alive with excitement and curiosity and they’ve been able to take this exploration with the children so much further than they ever dreamed. The children are so engaged and in some cases maybe the educator never seen before or maybe the children have been a little disengaged a little a little board it’s something that she’s tried before and all of a sudden you know that this animation that this sort of dynamic happens within the child’s life that children are engaged the time passes really quickly. No behavior issues because the children are excited to be doing what they’re doing. The materials suddenly become more meaningful to the children because the educators really responded to the child’s ideas.
She’s bringing in materials that are maybe loose parts and natural materials and all sorts of things in the classroom that are not toys. And I think you know they might be things from you know Canadian Tire or the building store or something that you’ve never used before but suddenly they’re pertinent to this investigation it’s pertinent to the children thinking and it’s exciting, it makes everybody come alive including the educator. And you’re right in that in a difficult profession you know nobody pretends that early childhood is easy. It’s fun. It’s challenging. It’s exciting. It can be exhausting both physically and mentally. But I think when you go to work excited every day to see where the children are thinking is going to take you and you know this unusual thing happened yesterday and today. Maybe find out why. I think that that keeps us on our toes. The other thing it leads to is curiosity within the teacher. I find that emerging curriculum sort of merges curiosity with issues so that questions are always coming up and even exciting questions to explore and a big questions and not small questions about you know what does this mean in a terms of a child’s understanding, it’s a useful questions, but it’s not one of the great big questions.
You know with the big questions we’re thinking about you know how does a child show that they understand you know the difference between right and wrong. You know that’s a big question. That’s a sort of a ethical and challenging question to think about. And that’s just an example off the top of my head. But sometimes we see things in children’s play or we hear things in children conversations and they raise these big questions for us as teachers. And then that puts us in a bowl of researcher a teacher researcher and that’s when things get really exciting because now you’re sort of stepping out of your ordinary practice and your thinking on sort of an elevated level about the meaning of teaching the meaning of the children’s play and how these two things intersect. I think that’s very interesting for teachers.
That’s so exciting to me and at HiMama we’re really passionate about empowering early childhood educators and giving them opportunities to show their leadership capabilities. And it sounds to me like emergent curriculum really leads to these types of traits and you mentioned curiosity I think is another really great example of just thinking about things more, thinking about things differently and having that collaboration with the children as you mentioned and also empowering educators to be able to do that and take action on it.
Absolutely. And one of the roles is to be a leader of the group with a team leader or a pedagogical leader or administrator and director or whatever you want to call the sort of leadership person I think there is a role there, making sure that the teachers have some freedom to explore with children to think this way and that takes time it takes a bit of time away from the children and this has been traditionally been the biggest challenges for administrators. I’ve been an administrator in this role trying to provide time for teachers to reflect together. That’s a really tricky thing for administrators to resolve but it’s one of the most important things that we can give to educators is trying to talk. That’s not a waste of time. That’s a really important part of the reflective process to have some time each week. Maybe time at the end of the day time during nap time. Some time to get together to think. To act as a communal practice in the classroom team a whole, staff organization I have to give a shout out from London Bridge in London Ontario who has done a fantastic job of finding ways for educators us to do this. You know getting educators to get them to think to capturing and valuing that practice. And many people across Canada, and many directors are finding innovative ways of doing this and it’s hard it’s very hard, but educators need time.
So for any administrators that are listening to this podcast can you provide any examples? I know you mentioned London Bridge but any other examples maybe a London Bridge or Elsewhere of how director supervisors are providing that time for reflection for their educators.
Well many people across Canada in Nova Scotia in Ontario and I’ve seen similar practice in Ontario and B.C. There are many directors who are making this sort of a focus at their staff meetings. So rather than having a sort of a business type staff meeting they’ll make sure they come together once a week more often once month because time is so short and share documentation to have those conversations with each other we have to remember both big organizations along with small centers with maybe two or three classrooms. Teachers are kind of separated from each other you know so they don’t get to share their exciting work and the things making them really curious and the questions that are coming up for them. So many directors across the country who are really trying to carve that time devoting either having a special meeting just for sharing documentation sharing questions sharing puzzles sharing that challenges and getting excited about the work they’re doing. There’s a lot of that going on.
If they can do it in a separate meeting they’ll do it for 90 percent of the staff meeting that they usually have and only 10 percent will be involved you know within the business stuff. So which often can be handled in other ways. So get all the stuff together and forming a community of practices is huge. I do find that directors who are good at this, forming these thinking groups they’ve made it a priority. And I think sometimes you know budget gets in the way we’ve tried to get people out of classrooms during the working day because that involves a substitution that involves money and often there’s people get sick you know and it’s just a lot of reasons why we often can’t get people out during the day.
But if we can get teachers at during the day or even a brief conversation together then we can get them out for an evening meeting and so you have to go back to OK when somebody is hired. What kind of person are we looking for? Well we’re looking for maybe a curious person we’re looking for a flexible open person we’re looking for someone who gets excited about children and then you know we want commitments to come to these types of meetings that this is important and we need to grow as a community by talking together exploring ways of being with the children together. So you know it starts at a very basic level of when that person is hired and the understanding of the expectations intensive meetings and reflection and documentation.
So it sounds like just being very purposeful and proactive about it is a key part of it because there is so many distractions or so many things going on in a child care or early learning program it’s very easy to have an excuse and be kind of putting out fires. But you have to be make it a priority.
Absolutely and I think the people who are very good at doing this across the country all the people who take the center’s vision, mission statement, philosophy, and what they’re doing is if not at the forefront and making them come to life. So you know they need to work with the team as administrators often will get together and say OK this is our philosophy, this is our the image of the child. What would that look like in our classrooms. Does it show, are we be practicing a philosophy. How does that show in our environment in our documentation in interactions with children. How that philosophy, our image of the child, mission statement. How was that made. How did it come to life. And I think if you’re the administrator if you keep coming back to that, if you keep examining and reflecting on it, it will really keep you on track. You can’t lose sight of that. If this is your passion and if this particular image of the child has purposeful and competency and creativity in your ideas, your image of the child if that your vision and your will is looking at children organization. Then we have to keep coming back to that and making sure that that’s what we’re actually doing.
That’s what that’s what comes through our practice in all different aspects of our practice. Often when I work with administrators you know part of what they do is try to make their vision visible on an everyday basis in a classroom, in their administration, in their professional development. Guides professional development. What should we do next as a staff what do we need to examine. What’s the big question we want to address this year or this semester? What is it we’re after, how are we going to reach that goal. So I think going back to your philosophy your image of the child really helped to keep you on track.
Certainly a recurring theme in this podcast is about returning back to your vision because again it’s so easy to get caught up in the day to day and forget about you know why you’re there. And so that’s a very good point I think to never forget about your vision and like you said make it visible so it’s always there and you’re always thinking about it.
Yeah. And you know when the big exciting you know passion the conversations of the whole group as a whole staff you know it sometimes it’s important that a pedagogical leader the administrators say OK so how does that play into our vision, you know bring that back again , or the challenge you know things that people are struggling with. There’s always going to be struggles and challenges and to bring people back to. OK so we’re struggling with this particular thing so what let’s go back to our image of the child, what do we believe about children? So if we believe in this competent child then what can we do in this situation you know. We said, how can we ease the children back into it. So pedagogical leaders or the leader of the classroom whether it’s an actual separate sort of person who is a pedagogical leader for the organization whether it’s the director herself. That’s a really important role because you help people to think through you know, you don’t give answers. You try to ask questions that are thought provoking and lead people maybe to think about something from a different perspective. I am going to bring that vision.
One of the other themes I’m picking up on here and a lot of our conversation is this whole idea of a community where you’re discussing. That’s both from learning about the emergent curriculum whether that’s through workshops with case studies through to applying that and having discussion with the peers in your child care or early learning center and maybe even beyond that with an early childhood education community. I think that seems to be another big sort of trend in early childhood education is it safe to say that there is more kind of collaboration happening amongst early childhood educators.
I think that’s for sure. Yeah I am so impressed with the way the people are creative about getting together. So for instance here in Halifax we have some casual grassroots group, and I know these are springing up all over the country. They really are communities of practice, we don’t call them that, but that’s what they are. We get together to think together. I like to see educators get together with people outside of their own centre as well as the people inside the centre because again it widens the perspectives it exposes us to other types of thinking and it can expand our knowledge incredibly these are the people that are studying and reading and that’s such a huge opportunity for extension of learning.
So here in Halifax we have an emerging curriculum grassroots group where we come together in the community of practice and it’s a very casual group and we get together and have you know something to eat and something to drink and we talk about our work and what’s been happening in the last month and exciting things happen. Inevitably I find that these kinds of discussions start off with the nitty gritty talking about our work, then it evolves into all of these discussions of importance, these big philosophical discussions you know on huge tangents that are pertinent and thought provoking and really help us all to grow and then we have a similar group around pedagogical documentation where people build the documentation center. So we’re seeing missing documentation from all kinds of different places at all kinds of different levels. Digital documentation, sophisticated documentation and everything in between. It’s so interesting for Examiner and to see how other people use documentation to guide their decision making. I think that’s a really important role of documentation emergent curriculum. In particular it is used as a tool to help out decision making in terms of what children might be thinking about and what we can do in respond to that.
So in addition to communities of practice and maybe some of these groups that form which sounds great especially when that happens organically in your local community. What are some of the other sources where you go to find information about what’s happening in early childhood education or where you connect with other people. In the early child education community because I do think that’s important for people to be able to find those resources if they don’t know where they are.
Yes I do. And I do a lot of online research. There are great people in Canada and the U.S. and across Europe and in Australia who write wonderful blogs. And again, reading some people’s writing through blogs, I think we have to be again critical thinkers. We have to seek out the really high quality blogs. You know I follow Diane Kashin quite closely and other people across Canada one blog kind of needs to another. You know you tend to find someone who is of like mind a similar philosophy and you latch on to that blog really pretty regularly and they lead you to other thinkers.
So for instance did the Kate Hartman is from the U.K. she’s from Birmingham, the same city I’m from in the U.K. and she and she knows many educators in Canada. She’s done a lot of work here. She and I got together for lunch when I was in the U.K. She put me on to all sorts of other people whose blog I hadn’t heard of in Europe because she had this sort of European thing and I did the same for her in terms of the North America thing. And so you know this social network whether its face to face verbally or whether it’s online, social network is huge in terms of seeking out information. I think we have to be careful that we’re not looking for ideas. What we’re looking for is people to think with when I’m looking for a blog. I’m looking for like some like-minded people but people who share philosophy, who maybe are in touch with all the people that I don’t know about I’ve never heard of maybe a philosopher, a writer. And that just widens my exposure to more thinking.
So I think that you know really important to sort of sort of expand your horizons. And the other thing that sometimes happens is that I group of people who weren’t really in my field they might be in the field of design, the arts, a different field they might not be in the field of early childhood education but they had really important creative ways of thinking. So it’s you know I think it’s important for us to sort of widen our scope and sometimes look at people who are outside of our own field which can relate. I think he’s looking for people who have new ideas outside of the box and are creative thinkers and those are the sort of type of blogs and writing that I’m always looking for.
That’s a very insightful point about getting information and having conversations with people outside your field as well. I know that’s where a lot of the most creative big ideas come from is when you start putting together some of those theories and thoughts from your own practice with what people are doing in other fields so that’s a really great point.
Exactly. I think you know most people these days in Canada for instance, take the work of Andy Goldsworth, the artist and in Scotland and you’ll be fascinated and he’s got nothing to do with early childhood education but boy does he inspire early childhood educators in his work with natural material rocks and stones and rivers and sand. He does adult work but it’s fascinating to see what can be done with those materials. And as an early childhood educator, until I was exposed to his work, I wouldn’t have thought of doing some of the things that he does. You know, until I seen it was it quite mind boggling. And so many early childhood educators have books by Andy Goldsworth, it’s the same in all fields. Simon Nicholson who created the theory of loose parts was an architect and you know we gained a lot from his work. And so this is why I like to look elsewhere and a really good leads you know for people who are just doing interesting things.
Yes good examples. Now you’re obviously very focused on the emergent curriculum not as a very important trend that’s happening early education now I’d say where adoption of those practices is increasing which is great to see. What’s exciting you most about what’s happening in early childhood education right now?.
Oh gosh, that’s a big question, so many things but I’m really excited about the growth of pedagogical documentation and all the different forms that it’s taking and the ways that it’s expanding and people are sharing this and showing each other different ways of thinking about this the creative ways as being able to be present with the children and not letting sort of documenting their work take them away from their children.
But being present with the children and focused on them yet still being able to document. I see people doing really creative things with that and that’s exciting. And this whole idea of using people outside of our field to expand and thinking I think is very exciting. I’m really interested to see where that goes. And I’m a big fan and a big follower of Ken Robinson who I’m going to throw in and I’m being a British centric here but he’s another Brit who’s done a lot of work on creativity and creativity and teaching.
And I like to listen to him and he’s sort of big thoughts on creativity again you know one of the big thinkers, philosophers and if I’m feeling a little you know, tired, I go back to listen to Ken Robinson and I think yeah, there’s a push here to try and bring creativity to teaching. I’m not just talking about teaching in the early childhood services, but teaching all through school and right into university and approaching education from a very different revolutionary aspect trying new ways of being in the classroom whether you’re a child or whether you’re an adult. I think that’s very exciting
Yes very exciting. Well Susan thanks so much for this very interesting conversation. Where can people find you online.
Well I have a web page, SusanStacey.ca. I have a blog which I’d like to write more but I do write occasionally, I just don’t have that much time. Anything that I think is sort of you know exciting and important I try to write about my blog. Certainly I can be contacted through my webpage. There’s an email link there and some examples of project work so that’s probably the easiest way to reach me for somebody who just searching for information and an explanation of emergent curriculum. Not in a nutshell, but there is a page explaining how emergent curriculum and inquiry unfold.
Wonderful. Thanks so much Susan.
No problem, my pleasure.