Early Childhood Education Professional Experience
Professional experience represents the component of early childhood teacher education programs in which student teachers spend time in early childhood educational settings. Also known as practicum, field experience, teaching experience, center/school-based learning, or field-based learning, professional experience is when student teachers develop and apply skills as a teacher, learn to apply knowledge gained from teacher education course work, and develop a contextual understanding of teaching and learning in the everyday ECE environment. Professional experience also allows the socialization of student teachers into the early childhood profession under the guidance of a more experienced mentor teacher. The marrying together of practice and theory is valued for helping early childhood student teachers to understand the realities of learning and teaching while becoming informed by research as to best teaching practice. It is the context in which student teachers are given the opportunity to grow and develop as future members of the profession, to practice their skills, and reflect on what it means to them to be an early childhood teacher. Professional experience is the forum in which early childhood student teachers are able to gain understanding of the daily reality of teaching practice and to see a range of educational philosophies manifest in practice.
Professional experience is generally accepted as one of the most critical components of effective teacher education programs. In many countries it is an integral part of teacher education programs and often mandated by an external organization. For example, in New Zealand it is mandated by the accreditation agency, the Teaching Council Aotearoa New Zealand. In Australia professional experience is mandated by the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) (children aged birth to 5 years) and the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) (children aged 5 years and up). In Sweden, the National Agency for Education certifies preschool teachers, ensuring adequate professional experience has been met. Such external agencies typically establish guidance and standards for graduating teachers to serve as gateway measures for entry to the early childhood (ECE) teaching profession, though such standards are typically complex, contested, and driven by varying social, cultural, and political factors. Such standards also reflect the growing status of the professional early childhood teacher, positioned alongside counterparts in the compulsory schooling sector, and elevate teaching in ECE beyond an extension of mothering or child care to acknowledge the pedagogical skill and professional craft of teaching young children.
There are a range of models of professional experience that exist internationally across early childhood teacher education, with variation in length, structure, and place in the overall program. Some models have students spending short amounts of time in the early childhood setting, for example, one morning or day per week. Other models have early childhood student teachers spending sustained blocks of time, from a week, a month, a semester, or even a year within the setting. Furthermore, professional experience may be aligned with course work in different ways, running parallel to early childhood teaching content, or as dedicated blocks of time. For some, professional experience is the final component of a program, such as an internship at the completion of a qualification, while others study alongside their existing employment in an early childhood setting. Such diversity of approaches reflects the varying needs of stakeholders, beliefs about the nature of teacher education, cultural and sociological contexts, and funding models.
In some Swedish teacher education programs, for example, student teachers will return to the same early childhood setting for their entire professional experience, promoting the capacity for continuity of learning, while in New Zealand, it is a requirement that students must complete professional experiences in a range of settings, encompassing different demographic, age, and curriculum characteristics. Some pathways offer field-based programs in which students work in early childhood settings for part of a week and study in the remaining days. While undertaking practicum in a range of different settings, students who are in field-based programs are also assessed in “home” practicums, which can be seen to be more authentic as a result of established relationships. Yet, assessment in “home” practicum can be problematic as employment and student roles and responsibilities can become blurred.
The role of professional experience within teacher education programs and the way it should be enacted has been conceptualized in different ways over time. The changes reflect shifting pedagogical understandings and values within teacher education, as well as the potentially competing expectations of stakeholders such as government and professional organizations, teachers, families, communities, and children, in wrestling with the question, “how should teachers be trained?” A traditional model was one of apprenticeship, in which an experienced teacher socialized the prospective teacher into the accepted practices and behaviors of the profession. In such models, the primary site of learning was the classroom, and the student worked alongside the teacher until competent. In apprenticeship, the expert teacher teaches the novice, with emphasis placed on the transmission of knowledge and expectations. Apprenticeship models tended to reinforce existing practice, with limited space for innovation or practice of new approaches. The role of the early childhood student teacher was to replicate the practices of their mentor with growing proficiency over time.
Traditional models also tended to promote a technicist approach which focused on skill development and management of the learning setting. While such skills are important within initial early childhood teacher education programs, an exclusively technicist focus is insufficient in preparing students for the context of early childhood settings today. To successfully address the complexity of teaching and learning in diverse settings requires teachers who are able to be responsive and adaptive to each child or context, rather than trying to enact a teaching “recipe.”
A shift emerged in 1980s with the increasing role of the higher education institution in delivering teacher education, repositioning the site of teacher education from the education setting to a university or teachers college (McDonald 2005). Such models reflected an emphasis of theory over practice and sought to position teaching as a degree-level qualification, either undergraduate or postgraduate. However, such models elicited concerns as to the preparedness of graduates for the reality of education settings postgraduation. Graduates were considered to have too much theoretical knowledge and not enough practical experiences in order to be successful in the ECE setting. Resistance to such approaches has contributed to the continuation of nonuniversity provision of ECE teacher education that is not typical of ITE programs for the compulsory school sector. Such pathways are valued for the opportunities offered to students and responsiveness to ECE sector needs, though raise questions as to professional parity with teaching counterparts in other sectors.
Contemporary models of professional experience, typically adopt a partnership model in which the teacher education institution and education settings work together to deliver early childhood teacher education programs, with course work delivered by the institution and practicum the domain of the education setting. Each sector is valued for the strengths brought to the partnership, and concerns regarding the theory/practice divide are (ideally) mitigated. However, the balance of delivery between the institution and education settings appears to vary and continues to be a focus of ongoing research and debate as to the efficacy of different approaches.
Partnership and collaborative learning
Pedagogical content knowledge (Ure et al. 2009.
The integration of such foundation features is seen to foster the opportunity for robust teacher development, supporting prospective teachers to develop teaching skills, knowledge, attributes, dispositions, as well as application skills that are responsive to differing teaching contexts and communities. Most recent innovations have seen the introduction of inquiry-based models of initial teacher education (ITE), in which the focus is placed on student-lead learning, research-informed practice, and greater individualization of learning pathways for adult learners. Inquiry-based learning positions student teachers as lifelong learners who need to the learn tools to access, critique, and apply pedagogical knowledge, including critical investigation of the evidence-based research.
A triadic model of support is typical across the organization of professional experience. The professional experience triad is a term used to refer to the relationship between the student teacher, mentor teacher (based in the ECE setting), and teacher educator (institution representative). While the mentor teacher/student teacher dyad is often given primacy, summative assessment points typically involve each member of the triad. The student is placed in education settings for a specified time, allocated a mentor, and is then observed and assessed by an approved appraiser from the initial teacher education institution. The triadic model emerged from a focus on increasing the fairness of assessment between all parties and empowering the individual participants in their different but complementary roles.
The focus of the triadic professional experience relationship is the early childhood student teacher. A triad forms around the student to support their journey into the teaching profession. Each student teacher is unique; they may be a young school leaver on their first career path or a mature student who is changing career or returning to study after raising a family. They may have no previous teaching experience or may have been working in an education setting for a number of years. Likewise, they may have had no previous study experience or may have a range of qualifications. The professional experience is therefore viewed as an important time in the initial formation of the student teacher’s professional identity as a teacher where confidence and competence are fostered (Haigh et al. 2013).
The mentor teacher is the qualified, experienced teacher within the early childhood setting who has responsibility for supporting and guiding the early childhood student teacher, as well as contributing to the assessment process and decision-making. This mentor may be referred to as an associate teacher, cooperating teacher, supervising teacher, or expert teacher. Haigh (2001) defines this role as the “subject competent, significant other and key partner for the student teacher” (p. 4). The mentor teacher has responsibility for supervising, supporting, and assessing the student during the practicum on a daily basis.
Support and training for mentor teachers are noted as significant issues for teacher education provision. Within an apprenticeship model, it is sufficient that the mentor be an experienced teacher. However, mentoring in a partnership and inquiry approach requires the mentor to have a higher level of skill in supporting adult learners. In response, sometimes higher education institutions will organize training for experienced teachers to become suitable mentor teachers in professional experience. Such training programs allow the mentor teachers and the teacher educators to develop a shared understanding of requirements, the skills needed to best support student teachers, and work together toward the assessment of the early childhood teacher education student. Ideally such training programs also build the capacity for partnership, shared decision-making, and trust between mentor teachers and teacher educators, further breaking down traditional divisions. In a study of early childhood professional experience in Sweden, mentor teachers were very conscious of the content that pre-service teachers were learning (Johansson and Sandberg 2012) and allowed pre-service teachers to try different activities and learn from their own experience as well as guiding students’ learning in practice through discussion, reflection, and evaluation. Professional experience provides realistic opportunities for the early childhood student teacher to experience the diversity, problems, and complexity found by teachers in the field and enables them to practice and master the range of skills needed by their profession. The implication is that early childhood student teachers need increasing opportunities to be able to influence pedagogy and practice in their professional experience, thus developing their efficacy as teachers.
The final member of the professional experience triad is the teacher educator: the representative of the institution in which the student teacher is completing their program of study. Their role is to support and assess the practice of student teachers while on professional experience. They may be referred to variously as supervisors, visiting tutors or lecturers, and appraisers. This role may be filled by a range of people: university lecturers or tutors, teachers from the sector who are appointed to visiting/support roles, or designated assessors who may not hold another formal role in the teaching of the education program. The teacher educator serves as the intermediary between the student teacher and the early childhood setting and typically holds responsibility for summative assessment. The teacher educator also acts as a mediator between associate teacher and student teacher. Multiple studies have found this role to be complex and multifaceted, in navigating both support and guidance functions to foster professional development, as well as assurance and accountability functions in ensuring the readiness and fitness of a teaching candidate to enter the profession.
Student teachers consistently report that their experiences while on professional experience are some of the most significant and influential moments in shaping their development as a teacher. It cannot be assumed however that simply placing student teachers in a teaching setting will in itself lead to appropriate, effective, or valuable learning experiences. There are specific elements that play a significant role in determining the quality of the professional experience. In particular, these include the nature of relationships, the provision of authentic teaching experiences, opportunities for supportive reflection and feedback, and increasing opportunity for empowerment and agency. Furthermore, effective professional experience relies on access to quality early childhood settings and skilled mentors to facilitate the learning, factors which are reported as persistent challenges by initial teacher education providers (Kane 2005). Part of the role of teacher education and professional experience is to encourage a process of transformation, in which existing beliefs are challenged against theory and practice. However, while professional experience seeks to foster the process of transformation, there is no guarantee that it will occur. Early childhood student teachers have multiple tasks while on professional experience including showing growth, reflecting, observing, building relationships, linking theory to practice, and demonstrating competence (among others), all while observed and assessed by the mentor and teacher educator. The outcome of such performance assessment determines their overall progress in the early childhood teacher education program and ultimately their entry into the teaching profession. Yet one significant tension of the professional experience is that the student must navigate the expectations of their ITE program while meeting the expectations of their mentor teacher, which may well not align. Students must decide whether to enact existing practice to please assessors or rise to the challenge of being agents of change, role models of innovative practice. Openness to professional growth and a willingness to examine and critique existing beliefs are critical dispositions in supporting transformative practice and require support beyond the delivery of content knowledge and task work.
A growing challenge in ITE is the need for specialization within early year programs to reflect the age of children attending early childhood services and in particular the increasing number of infants and toddlers. Infants, toddlers, and young children have different characteristics, developmental and social-emotional needs, that require skillful and informed pedagogical approaches to foster quality outcomes. Building from this premise, it is common that student teachers will be expected to undertake professional experience with children of different ages within the classification of early childhood. Some countries mandate that student teachers spend a number of different days with different age ranges of children to ensure competency across the age spectrum, from highly verbal and agentic 4 to 7 year olds, to the growing capacity of infants and toddlers. Professional experience with children aged under 3 years has received little attention in the literature to date, yet the growing number of children entering into early childhood settings at younger ages demands that more research is needed in this area. The argument that curriculum for infants and toddlers cannot be a scaled down version of programs for children 3–5 years is now well-established, as is the need for specialized pedagogy and practice for infants and toddlers. Neurological research has informed the need for highly attuned, sensitive, and responsive caregivers for infants and toddlers, as well as deep and sustained attachment-like relationships between children and their teachers. This has led to challenges in relation to infant/toddler placement, as to when, where, and what professional experience should look like with the youngest of children. In particular, do short professional experiences of early childhood student teacher in such settings pose a risk to the youngest children who need sustained relationships? Yet, the opportunity for professional experience with this age group can play a significant role in shifting student teacher’s perceptions of this age group, their competence and capacity as learners, and the rich nature of teaching within a highly relational pedagogy. Research indicates that early childhood teacher students who had exposure to professional experience with infants and toddlers found they had to rethink their existing beliefs about infants’ capacities and capabilities (Recchia and Shin 2010). Student teachers also came to learn that observation was an important way to understand infant communication and understood the need to develop different skills and knowledges to work with children of different ages. Some researchers however acknowledge that it is difficult for teacher educators to share information about pedagogical practices of working with infants and toddlers when they may not have the specific skills or knowledge themselves. There is a need for further development in this domain of infant and toddler pedagogy, in particular understanding the importance of sustained serve and return interactions and adapting pedagogy to meet a child’s individual needs.
Ultimately, the professional experience acts as a form of gatekeeping to the profession. If teacher students pass the program of study, then they are accepted into the early childhood teaching profession. But questions remain as to the quality and efficacy of graduates and their capacity to be effective in light of the systemic issues facing quality early childhood provision. Understanding of effective professional practice is compounded by the use of different delivery and teaching models in initial teacher education, limiting comparison of early childhood teacher education students across different countries as well as across institutions within countries. Overall, professional experience is an important component of early childhood teacher education in fostering essential skills and knowledges. Professional experience is enacted in a variety of ways across countries, bound by cultural and contextual beliefs, stakeholders, and professional organizations. Yet all share the common intent that theory and practice must be explored together to support the development of effective teachers in early childhood education.
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- Ure, C., Gough, A., & Newton, R. (2009). Practicum partnerships: Exploring models of practicum organisation in teacher education for a standards-based profession. Final report. Partnering Institutions: The Victorian Council of Deans of Education and the Victorian Institute of Teaching. Available online at http://apo.org.au/system/files/20440/apo-nid20440-22406.pdf