By early childhood (EC) practitioners, I am referring to Centre Heads (or Principals), Teachers (for 4-6 year-olds) as well as Educarers (for 0-3 year-olds). For simplicity, I will just refer to them as teachers.
Teachers & Educarers
Let's begin with the Teachers and Educarers. We can think of EC teachers as playing multiple leadership roles. In order to be effective leaders, they need to be constantly learning, honing their skills and building their credibility as professionals.
Leading the children and families
Children have amazing capabilities in perceiving and learning. Nonetheless, pre-school age children, look up to their teachers for direction, comfort and protection. Teachers need to provide a safe and secure physical and emotional environment for their development.
Young children are very impressionable, and they do pick up information from their environment quickly. Words, acts, facial expressions, ways of handling day to day situations are all picked up by them. Hence, teachers need to be good role models of desirable attitudes, values, language use, thinking … and this is particularly important for the children from less advantaged backgrounds.
To provide for the children's learning, teachers need to be observant of the children's development, their temperaments and interests, and accordingly plan activities to facilitate their learning. Sometimes, parents may put pressure on them to design learning in ways that may contravene developmental appropriateness guidelines and teachers will need to exercise leadership by upholding their professional beliefs and explaining to parents why their preferred approach may not be appropriate.
Leading peers and colleagues
Every teacher is expected to support the building of their centre's capacity. This expectation is conveyed in the EC Skills Framework. To allow this to happen, Centre Leaders generally exercise distributed leadership through an organisational structure that has some formal middle management roles, and some informal roles. Many teachers play the role of'mentor' to trainee teachers. More experienced teachers often coach or mentor their less experienced colleagues. Among peers, teachers are expected to share their insights from classroom innovations and learning from courses with their colleagues. These are the ad hoc roles. Some teachers are given formal leadership roles such as Senior Teachers, Level Head, so that they get the opportunity to lead small groups on specific programmes and projects. Learning through doing constitutes a big part of a teachers' learning. As teachers lead, they pick up leadership skills and get to reinforce their own learning of the subject matter. Involvement of teachers in formal and ad hoc roles also help them grow their ownership of centre management and prepare them for career advancement. However, while many Centre Heads have the intent to grow leadership skills and learning at their centres, their efforts are sometimes compromised by the lack of time for teachers to come together as centres generally operate a very lean manpower model.
"More experienced teachers often coach or mentor their less experienced colleagues."
A/P Sum Chee Wah, Associate Professor, Early Childhood Education Programme
Centre Heads who may have been successful by providing a safe, secure and happy environment in the past find themselves having to pay closer attention to curricular and pedagogical leadership now. Even though leading the curriculum is not a new role, previously, they may have been able to claim that they were providing a programme of learning when they kept children busy with colouring booklets, penmanship templates, worksheets for simple counting. Now, they are expected to follow the curriculum frameworks such as the Early Years Learning Framework (for 0-3 years old) and the Nurturing Early Learners Framework (for 4-6 years old).
Not only do Centre Heads have to pay attention to the learning programme that their centres offer, the quality of the programmes and the support systems are important too. Centres Heads need to secure a license to operate their centres. They are also under pressure to meet and maintain the standards of SPARK certification, a quality assurance system that is hosted and promoted by the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA).
With the quick expansion of the sector, there was also a need to recruit foreign teachers. Currently, the sector may have between 20% to 30% foreign teachers. Foreign teachers typically also do not stay beyond three years, so the departure of every foreign teacher creates a certain amount of activity within the centre. In addition, the sector today has many young female teachers who are trying to start a family. Naturally, the number of teachers who are away on maternity leave or childcare leave is something that centres have to contend with. So, the leading of the EC workforce and the management of the centre has increased in complexity.
Given the current expectations on quality and the much larger size of centres, Centre Heads now need to have an infrastructure to support the operations of the centres. Centre Leaders need to have good leadership skills to set the direction, grow the infrastructure, nurture a learning culture and manage the programmes and resources of the centre.
Again, as the centres have rather lean manpower and little administrative support, Centre Heads generally have to devote a large part of their day to attend to administrative and operational matters, leaving little time for the core business of leading the staff on professional & curricular matters, or helping staff to deepen their professional expertise.
We have set up some sector-wide infrastructures to support professional development and growth of teachers. Perhaps we should now zoom in on the infrastructures within centres to enable teachers to improve their pedagogical skills. Perhaps we should give more attention to learning from doing, give teachers time to reflect on and review what they are doing, create an environment for them to grow their expertise in assessing the children's care and educational needs, designing appropriate learning activities for children and mastering the facilitation of these activities for the children. Then only they will be able to grow in professional competence and confidence.
A research-based time-tested formula used by the training profession for optimal learning even today is the 70-20-10 principle of learning and development developed in the United States of America in 1980s. This principle advocates for 70 percent of the learning to come from real-life on-the-job experiences, 20 percent from interactions with others and 10 percent from formal educational events or activities. Although the learning environment has changed with new technology, this principle is still very much used today and it can serve as a reference in our design of learning for teachers. Teaching, like many skill-based endeavours, require head knowledge, practical experience as well as personal mastery.
Knapp et al., 2003, wrote about the three learning agendas in educational institutions. The learning of (1) children, (2) teachers and (3) the organisation. The learning of the children, their teachers and the growing of the capacity of an institution are closely interlinked. Teachers' professional learning in turn impact on their practices in the classroom and subsequently the children's learning. When the teachers are learning and improving their practice, the children's learning will improve, and the organisation will grow in capacity to provide for the children.
Currently, the learning opportunities available to teachers appear to be focusing on formal training courses conducted in classrooms. Anecdotally, it appears that participation in formal training courses is not evenly spread across centres and within each centre, it is also not evenly spread. While it is common that teachers are observed by their supervisors in class as part of performance management, these platforms are not often useful for professional dialogue and learning as there is a decided power difference between the supervisor and supervisee. Few centres have comprehensive plans to help teachers improve their classroom practice. Reflection is viewed as important by the sector, yet few teachers can claim that they reflect deeply and that these reflections have helped them to improve practice. There are also few platforms for social learning as most meeting times are devoted towards administration and operations. Centre-wide peer observation programmes are rare although informal or ad hoc arrangements do exist.
The common reason given for the lack of dedicated effort towards learning appears to be the lack of time. Is it really a matter of not having time, or is it a case of not having sufficient resource to ensure that teachers' learning is given priority. If one were to look at the schedule of a centre, and workload of the teachers, then there would not be time. However, the shortage of manpower is not going to be solved as Singapore has a tight manpower market.
Research has played an important part in shaping the ECEC landscape globally. There is a growing body of knowledge on ECEC, thanks to the research done by the most advanced systems.
For example, longitudinal studies carried out in the United States of America like the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Project which started in the 1960s, and the Abecedarian Project which started in the 1970s, informed us of the positive, long-term effects of high-quality early education and care.
Economists James Heckman, a Nobel Laurette, studied the returns on investment (ROI) of early childhood care and education, and found that the ROI for early pre-school age children is high compared to other age groups, and especially when looking at the long-term benefits. He also concluded that the fadeout effect of early childhood is a myth and that skills developed during early childhood provide a foundation for future learning and that the impact of early childhood experiences have a lifelong impact.
The High/Scope Perry, Abecedarian projects and the work of Heckman have been influential in convincing countries to pay attention to early childhood care and education. More recently, Heckman's team has also shown that the ROI for high-quality birth to five programmes provides a higher rate of return than preschool alone.
Neuroscience research in the last 20-30 years has also contributed immensely to our understanding of brain development in the first few years of life and how brain development might be affected under different circumstances.
Birth cohort studies, like the Dunedin Study carried out in New Zealand, for example, informed us that self-regulation in young children is more important than social economic status or IQ in predicting a person's later success in life, among other findings on health etc. Another large-scale longitudinal study, which was carried in the UK, was the Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE). Among other things, the project identified 5 areas that are particularly important for effectiveness in early childhood programmes and these are quality of adult-child verbal interaction, staff knowledge and understanding of the curriculum, staff knowledge on what children learn, adult skills in helping children resolve conflicts, helping parents to support children's learning at home.
The work of various psychologists, philosophers, educators like Piaget, Erikson, Vygotsky, Dewey, Montessori, Frobel, just to name a few, have contributed much to the curricular and pedagogical approaches that we still practise in early childhood education.
Let me now touch on research on early childhood on our local scene. I think we should continue to ride on the shoulders of the giants in research on ECEC. To date, there is very little research on local ECEC scene. As a small country with limited resources, we should continue to learn from the work of researchers all over the world and prioritize our research work to get maximum mileage out of our limited resources.
"As a small country with limited resources, we should continue to learn from the work of researchers all over the world and prioritize our research work to get maximum mileage out of our limited resources."
A/P Sum Chee Wah, Associate Professor, Early Childhood Education Programme
My suggestion is that we focus on 2 categories of research. The first is research that is most critical at this stage of our sector development. The second is research that we need to carry out as these inform the unique features of our system.
Examples of research areas in the first category would be teacher education and workplace learning. With licensing and quality assurance in place, most centres already have a curriculum. To raise the quality of our programmes, we need to understand how teachers are interacting with the children and how they are facilitating the learning of the children using the curriculum. With such information, we can design more targeted teacher training. The other area that is untapped is workplace learning. The conventional wisdom for professional learning is to adopt the 70:20:10 principle, which I have mentioned earlier. EC practitioners appear to be attending courses but they appear not to be tapping on learning from experience. However, we do not have data systematically collect to show us the actual situation of learning in the sector.
Examples of research in the second category are Mother Tongue Language and bilingualism. The bilingual policy is unique to Singapore. The understanding of English and our mother tongue language has given Singaporeans an edge over others in this region as we can access both Asian and Western cultures. However, we may be quickly losing ground as more parents communicate with their children mostly in English. Some questions that come to mind are: "What does a mother tongue language curriculum that will enthuse the children look like and how should teachers teach it in order to have the children pick up the mother tongue languages easily?", "How should the mother tongue language curriculum be differentiated for children with different language backgrounds?" and "How do we help parents develop more confidence in using their mother tongue language at home?"
There are many questions we have in relation to the early childhood curriculum, pedagogy given our different social-cultural context. We can probably say that what we have in the sector today have been much influenced by social-cultural values of the West as curriculum developers, teachers, teacher trainers all read literature written in English. There are questions like "how do we design the curriculum to reflect the social-cultural context of Singapore?" and "Given our context as a city-state, are there specific skills, mind-sets, dispositions that we should help our children develop from young, and if so, what are they?". These are questions that are perhaps more pertinent to the sector's growth at this stage in our development.
 Growth Engineering (2017): Informal Learning: What is the 70:20:10 Model?
 Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy (2003): Leading for Learning Sourcebook: Concepts and Examples
 High/Scope Educational Research Foundation (2007): Outcomes of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study and Michigan School Readiness Program
 International Journal of Early Childhood (2007): Abecedarian: An Early Childhood Education Approach that has a Rich History and a Vibrant Present
 Western Economic Association International (2008): Schools, Skills and Synapses
 The Heckman Equation (2016): There's more to gain by taking a comprehensive approach to early childhood development
 Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology (2015): The Dunedin Multi-disciplinary Health and Development Study: overview of the 1st 49 years, with an eye to the future
 Longitudinal research and early years policy development in the UK (2016). International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy
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