Vignettes as an appropriate methodology to highlight the complexity of children’s participation in early childhood centers and Children’s schools

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Vignettes as an appropriate methodology to highlight the complexity of children’s participation in early childhood centers and Children’s schools
From the Edited Volume
Edited By:
Catherine Langridge
Content

Abstract

This proposal is aimed at the identification of a relevant descriptive method that can support ECEC (Early Childhood Education and Care) practitioners in the recognition of the structure of children’s participation in the educational activities that impacts on their learning. In order to highlight the structure of children’s participation, a relevant methodology is needed. A methodology is the vantage point of any educational perspective, since it enables the identification of the critical aspects of an educational practice from a large mass of information and events; as a consequence, it can support professionals in their reflection about children’s participation and learning. The methodology does not determine what will be discovered, but what is relevant to inquiry; it gives also an orientation towards change. We refer to an in-service professional training programme, in which we used the method of “vignettes” to analyze the impact of the organization of the setting and the professional scaffolding to the children’s participation in the educational activities. The nature and rationale of our method is discussed through the presentation of some examples.

Keywords

Vignette, ECEC, Children’s Participation, In-Service Professional Training, Scaffolding

Introduction

The “accountability” culture has developed the Quality Framework perspective and its related descriptive methodology, to promote quality in the ECEC (Early Childhood Education and Care services). Educational practices are cut up into their constitutive elements; each component is described in the language of variables and measured; then the quality of each service is assessed according to given standards. However, the analysis of simple sets of distinctive features does not seem relevant for practitioners’ everyday work, which is aimed at the promotion of children’s learning in the specific circumstances of historically evolved settings (Alexander, 2008; Fuller, 2007).

Peter Moss is even more skeptical of the “quality” perspective, applied to the complexity and diversity of human encounters in the educational practices. According to Moss and collaborators (Dahlberg et al., 2013), “quality” is related to a specific paradigm which assumes an objective, universal and stable conceptualization of what is educationally needed by the children, families, communities and professionals. As such, “it is a technical language applying expert-derived templates to particular settings (e.g. rating scales, checklists and standardized inspection measures)” (Moss, 2016, p. 10). As a consequence, he and his collaborators call for alternative theoretical assumptions and methods to make practice visible and subject to exploration, reflection, dialogue (Dahlberg et al., 2013), in order to promote children’s learning and social justice.

Since the educational and methodological shortcomings of the Quality Indicator Framework approach, we pose the following question: Which is the relevant methodology to engage practitioners in understanding the complexity of their everyday work and to enable them in promoting children’s participation and learning?

What is Relevant? The Sociocultural Perspective

In order to recognize the relevant aspects of any educational process, a conceptual perspective should be made explicit, since it highlights the institutional and local dimensions that impact on children’s learning.

In the sociocultural approach that lead our methodology, the organization of the educational activities promotes the interests of children and creates the interactional events in which adults and peers enact the scaffolding strategies that support the children towards the development of new possibilities of learning. The types of questions the adults ask, the objects the children find to play with, the layout of the settings they participate in, all these components shape the opportunities of learning (Fleer & Richardson, 2009). When practitioners train children to recognize and reproduce phonemes and numbers, or arrange different corners in the room, or encourage the children to express their hypotheses during the exploration of a garden, they establish distinct educational goals and share cultural models with children (Fuller, 2007).

Therefore, the sociocultural perspective gives attention to:

– the organization of the educational settings: the environment, the furniture and tools (the environment is the “third educator”, according to the Reggio Children approach);

– the project-based activities, which establish the contexts for meaningful activities;

– the interactions with adults and peers, as opportunities to advance children’s thinking. According to Fleer (2002), “the documentation of what teachers do, say and think alongside children’s interactions is critical for determining how participation changes over time” (Fleer, 2002, p. 9).

An appropriate methodology is needed, to make these relevant dimension of children’s participation evident and object of joint reflection. We refer to the “vignette” methodology as a mediating tool to describe some educational processes and to highlight the relevant aspects of children’s participation in specific settings, with the support of adults and peers. These can be also a valid alternative to the Quality Indicator Framework approach to evaluate the educational quality of ECE services.

The “Vignette” Methodology

Vignettes are “descriptive episodes of specific situations … that are usually presented in written or visual formats” (Skilling and Stylianides 2020, p. 542). Since vignettes are written from an educational perspective and incorporate the salient dimensions that characterize a specific educational practice, they can stimulate a joint reflection about an existing practice, from the perspectives of practitioners and stakeholders.

Vignette methodology may grant relevance in the practitioners’ understanding of their practice; “relevance” is considered a cognitive process that maximizes the information about an educational event, in order support practitioners in Early Childhood Centres to jointly reflect and bring about change in existing practices. Skilling and Stylianides (2020) propose a methodological framework to which the vignette construction should adhere, to support validity of findings and trustworthiness for practitioners.

The proposed framework is characterized by three key elements:

– ‘Conception’, which includes conceptual perspective, nature of content, purpose;

– ‘Design’, referring to the practical aspects related to the construction of vignettes, such as format, length, terminology, open/closed questioning and narrative point-of-view;

– ‘Administration’ of vignettes and participants’ responses.

Vignettes as short, self-contained episodes, based on examples of educational situations the professionals consider exemplary or critical to promote the children’s participation and learning (Bablett et al., 2001). Vignettes represent how educational interactions are formed through a series of stages (Palaiologou, 2017) and offer the educational staff the opportunity to examine the educational situation, in order to understand how children’s participation is sustained. In in-service training programs, the educational practitioners are typically invited to respond to these stories in terms of their own perspectives, highlighting the opportunities and constraints of the setting in promoting children’s participation and the variety of the scaffolding strategies enacted by the adults or peers. As a consequence, the use of vignettes promotes “dialogicality” (O’Dell et al., 2012), since it encourages the expression of multiple perspectives in analyzing the same situation. Furthermore, conducing professional talk on the basis of vignettes allows the team to increase the wealth of knowledge and experiences, to reflect on possible improvements of practice and to design innovative educational activities.

Educational Demands

Each educational activity promotes the interests of the children and creates the interactional events in which adults support the children towards the development of new possibilities of learning.

Human development occurs neither in a cultural vacuum, nor according to a single privileged trajectory. The children develop contextualized competencies, in relation to the kinds of challenges they meet in participating in the practices of a community, as well as in relation to the patterns of support they find from adults and peers.

A playful activity may become educational, since the children are committed to achieve some interesting goals and make experience of the nature of their environment. During the exchange of ideas, adults support children to learn some cultural repertoires that mediate their understanding of the unfolding playful situation: the appropriate ways to make friendship, the correct number sequence, the names of different objects and their properties.

The vignettes can capture some episodes of educational activities and the interactional strategies that unfold in context, to achieve the intended goals in the practice. By close examination of vignettes, a group of professionals may identify and discuss the educational potentials of the organization of the educational settings, the nature of the activities and the interactions between adults and children and between peers, as opportunities to advance children’s thinking.

Scaffolding

Vignettes allow the practitioners to identify the variety of the “scaffolding” strategies they enact to support the children’s participation and learning, as well as the conditions offered by the setting to children’s exploration. “Scaffolding” is a metaphor, introduced by Wood and colleagues (1976), to refer to the manifold responses that the adult gives the child when both are engaged in an activity, in such a way that the child can develop competencies which are above the level of individual performance, but are emerging through the collaboration of an adult or a peer. Scaffolding is the “temporary, but essential, nature of the mentor’s assistance as the learner advances in knowledge and understanding” (Maybin et al., 1992, p. 186).

The adult introduces different strategies to interact with the child, each sensitive to the child’s actions and thoughts. Therefore, by complementing the child’s initiatives, the adult offers a dynamic support that:

– promotes the child’s interest in the activity,

– maintains the complexity of the activity in sight,

– guides the child towards the intended objective of the activity,

supports the child to reflect upon her/his thinking process.

The Use of Vignettes in an In-Service Training Programme for Early Years Practitioners

The use of vignettes in the in-service training programs can support the professional team in working out of a culture of pedagogical continuity, as well as of the ‘idea of the child’. We refer to an in-service training program conducted in a system of Public Early Education Centers run by the Municipality of a large town in Italy. The system consists in 18 “Infant-toddler Centers” and 30 “Children’s schools” (as they are called in Italy, in order to focus on the child-centred approach, rather than on the preparatory function for schooling).

worked in close contact with the pedagogical coordinators of the services and established regular visits in some centers and schools, where we talked to the educational teams, made observations, worked out vignettes. The vignettes were adapted through an ethical evaluation of their feasibility for circulation, using pseudonyms to protect the privacy of children and educators, erasing elements for individual recognition. Some aspects of the professionals’ strategies and the opportunities for children’s learning were highlighted by the university team. Subsequently, they were used in the formative part of the program: the vignettes were read and jointly discussed by groups of educators, in order to identify the educational demands posed by the activity design, reasons for the specific arrangements of the settings and the strategies adopted to promote children’s learning. Subsequently, the groups joined in plenary meetings, to discuss broader educational issues related to the interpretations of the vignettes. During the meetings, some critical aspects of Early Years education were identified and differences in perspective were discussed.

The Methodological Conceptualization

In line with Skilling and Stylianides (2020), we make explicit the conceptual perspective underlying our use of vignettes in the programme:

– Conception: we refer to the sociocultural approach to analyze the organizational and interactional conditions that impact to the children’s participation and learning in the settings; the purpose is to invite practitioners to discuss about the conditions that impact on children’s participation, such as the organization of the setting and the scaffolding strategies;

– Design: the researcher takes the fieldnotes for about two hours (covering diverse activities); then selects one specific activity and extracts a vignette of about 600 – 800 words and a sketch of the disposition of the groups of children, toys and tools in the room (no pictures were allowed in the settings);

– Administration: the practitioners agree that one researcher enters in the center, makes observations and fieldnotes on a notebook, then reports the notes to the educational team, in order to begin a joint discussion, related to the specific settings; by analyzing different vignettes in different centres of the same public system allow the researchers to obtain a general model of the institutional culture and the different professional approaches that can be recognize within the system, in order to promote the circulation of practices and educational strategies.

We analyzed the vignettes and highlighted some critical points for the discussion with the practitioners. We report two example of Vignette: the first describes a “salt dough” activity; the second one a musical instruments activity. The relevant questions were:

– How are the educational activities organized?

– Which scaffolding strategies are introduced, to promote the children’s participation?

– Which educational goals are achieved?

First Vignette: Playing with the “Salt Dough”

Vignette: “The”salt dough” activity starts in a room by the teacher Antonella. Six female and five male children, aged 2-3 years, participated. The teacher explains to the children the activity they are going to do and how they will do it. The activity begins with the teacher standing bent around the table where the children are placed three on each side. The children raise their sleeves helped by the teacher and taste the salt. The teacher opens the bag of flour and invites the children to touch it by putting a pinch in their hand and add water. Teacher asks to the children: “Does mom make pizza? Do you know what is the difference? What did we put here? and what do you put on the pizza? [the children do not give well to the last question a child answers “salt”.] The teacher gives a little extra flour to each one [it seems that the activities have precise boundaries]; then she gives a rolling pin to each child and other objects to cut (wheel or knife) or shape (molds); each child has a part of dough.

The teacher says: “You have seen some salt, flour and water… now we have dough”. Everyone manipulates his part individually: one spreads it out, one rolls it up and cuts it. The teacher says: “Do you have to make dumpling?”; she goes to a little girl who is flattening the dough and says she makes a pizza and teacher replays: ” a pizza? “. A child uses the mold to cut out some figures. The teacher shows how to do it, turns to another child who wants to make a snake. Children after a while manipulate, roll up, cut, break.

The practitioners refer to the “salt Dough” as a typical activity the children enjoy; they also make explicit the relevance of creating routines to prepare them for the meal.

The children perform very simple actions, which are useful for the development of their fine sensory-motor schemes. There is a limited engagement of children in a repetitive activity; however, their actions do not combine into a more complex activity; the scaffolding strategies are limited to the performative level and do not promote children’s engagement towards more advanced goals. The symbolic plane of the play was not stimulated enough to promote the children’s creativity. More natural materials as well as other simple objects could have been introduced in the situation, in order to enlarge the children’s imagination: making a small sculpture representing an animal, encouraging the tactile recognition of different materials; the practitioners’ interventions could have also triggered the invention of new stories (Table 3.1).

Table 3.1. Relevant aspects of children’s participation emerged from the vignette analysis

Relevant aspects of children’s participation

Educational demands

Stimulating children’s sensory-motor activity; introducing a routine before meal

The setting arrangement

Structured activity; the children are divided into groups of 3. The materials are distributed to the children so that they can carry out the proposed activity independently. The boundaries of the environment are defined and very precise.

The scaffolding strategies

The practitioner encourages the children to explore the materials and find a connection with daily activities (i.e. the same ingredients used for the salt dough are used to make pizza). She involves children in procedural activities that required manipulation (kneading, cutting, making molds). The children answer teacher-led questions about their experience at home with flour and dough; they learn to talk about taste.

The scaffolding strategies remain at the procedural level (the adult gives explicit instruction, related to ‘how to act’); the outcomes are relatively simple and the performance is mostly assisted.

The activity is not an opportunity for children to work together in a complex project-based activity; teachers’ interactions are not related to promote further thinking.


Second Vignette: The Awakening of Musical Instruments

The musical instruments’ activity is intended to stimulate children to experiment with sounds; the musical activity is carried out individually even if the other children are encouraged to pay attention to the play of their peers.

Vignette: “The teacher Claire asks a child to help her in setting up the sleeping room for the music play (4 males, 1 female children from 2 to 2.6 year of age). All the instruments are inside a big basket; the teacher shows how the instruments can be played (slow, loud, with hands, with drum sticks) and let the children to experience the sounds. Then asks Lorenzo to help her to cover the instruments with a large blanket and to dispose the pillows for sitting around the basket. Lorenzo is a shy child who becomes more communicative through playing music. The children begin to use the pillows as drums; Anita understands that the room becomes the music room and wants to go away. The teacher says: “Here there is only one rule: close your mouth and what to do with ears? And the eyes?”. The teacher speaks in dramatic tone about the silence of instruments “Have you heard anything?” “How do the instruments awake?”. She admonishes the children that the instruments awake gently [and the implicit message is that they are expected to be quiet and carefully listen to the sounds of instruments]. Under the blanket, she gently plays the drum as it is awakening. The teacher shows how an instrument can be played; then she asks firstly to Joan to play the drum, to explore the sound with the hands and the drum sticks. Then asks her whom she would like to pass on the drum [this is a closed question, because she expects she call on the next child; the objective is to support the children’s memorization of their peers]. Then she invites the children to listen to Simon playing the drum; the children are quiet and listen to the peers’ experience with the instruments. To maintain the structure of the activity, the teacher invites the children to maintain their focus of attention to the peers’ playing; if a child plays a different instrument and do not respect the turn, she differs the experimentation (“when the instrument will awake”) and to remain in the music circle and to listen to the others [maintaining the reciprocal attention]. She offers scaffolding to each child in playing the instruments: she explains to Zadie how to keep the instrument correctly and she holds Zadie’s elbow to let her play; she let Joan to play by herself, and then Lorenzo, meanwhile she invites Joan to remain in the music circle and do not disrupt the activity; she invites Carlo to use just one drum stick per hand and do not use all them together”.

The educator initiates the activity and gives some indications to interpret correctly the activity. She assigns turn-taking and invites the children to maintain reciprocal attention. The children are allowed to experiment, with some scaffolding to the teacher. The educator tries to promote reciprocal listening and respect among children; supports the children experience with sounds learning, stimulating them to appreciate silence and gentle sounds (Table 3.2).

Table 3.2. Relevant aspects of children’s participation emerged from the vignette analysis

Relevant aspects of children’s participation

Educational demands

An invitation to the music: recognizing different sounds, dramatizing the life of instruments, acting gently on instruments. Sharing a pleasant experience.

The setting arrangements

The room is not initially structured for musical activity. The setting is co-constructed with the children: the educator invites the children to participate in the preparation of the activity.

The scaffolding strategies

The educator assigns turn-taking and invites the children to maintain reciprocal attention. She supports the children’s experience with sounds: she initiates the activity, gives some keys to interpret correctly the activity (covering the instruments, disposing the pillows in circle, dramatizing the silence). The children are allowed to experiment, with some scaffolding by the educator. She invites the children to appreciate silence and gentle sounds.

 Vignettes and the Pedagogical Dilemmas

Vignettes can support practitioners’ analysis of the complexity in their everyday work, as well as the children’s evolving participation in the activities in educational settings. By converging their attention to relevant aspects of practice as presented in the vignettes, professionals can discuss about the motives, consequences and values implied in the situation and reflect on their presuppositions, in order to connect them into a broad educational framework.

After the first stage of the training in which groups of educators jointly discussed on the vignettes, we organized a plenary meeting with the involvement of all practitioners, to discuss broader educational issues related to the interpretations of the vignettes. During the plenary meetings, two emergent topics were discussed with professionals: the concept of “Child-centredness” and the development of “Common knowledge”.

Child-Centredness

During the meetings with practitioners two contrasting pedagogical views emerged:

– “The children are at the centre of their world”: according to this perspective (Chung & Walsh, 2000) children live in a unique stage of development, which is characterized by the search of pleasant experiences with peers. Learning occurs around their centres of interest; as a consequence, educators arrange the settings in specialized corners, in order to support the children’s initiated activities (such as the small playhouse, to play “the family”; the plastic toys representing fruits and vegetables, to play the market; the corner to make drawings);

– “Semi-structured approach”: the adult proposes a new activity, in order to help children to overcome some learning barriers or personal negative feelings about an activity. For example, educators ask “I am going make drawings, who comes?”. These activities are simple invitations to the children to do new actions to overcome some psychological insecurities (for example invite children who are afraid of getting dirty when using the colours); they are stimulated to express their emotions and cooperate, as well as to respects social rules.

However, in the vignettes, many playing activities appear to be strongly related to the routines the children experience in their daily life or they are simply manipulative, such as in the “salt dough” play. Scaffolding strategies are oriented to reproduce some well-known objects or everyday situations (such as “making pizzas”) and to preserve the boundaries of the activity.

A different approach calls for a design of educational activities towards the promotion of children’s exploration of the environment, in order to expand their opportunities of learning. This perspective is based on the idea that symbolic play is the germinal imaginative children’s activity that leads towards more advanced learning milestones: the understanding of the others’ perspectives, the ability to act simultaneously at the level of the material reality of everyday objects and at the imaginative level of their symbolic roles. This add a more transformative dimension to play, since it is not only a pleasant and communicative situation (such as the “Salt dough”), but also an opportunity to stimulate the children’s creativity, such as “The awakenings of instruments”, which is a trigger for further exploration of the nature of sounds, the harmonization of musical play among peers, the development of communicative competencies in the musical language.

The organizational and pedagogical consequences emerged from discussion, promote the “pedagogical continuity”, that is the development of a shared educational framework among practitioners, in order to give consistency to the educational stages. The idea of “Pedagogical continuity” was firstly developed in the Reggio Emilia Approach and it is defined as “a unitary cultural and management orientation” (Reggio Children, 2013) the practitioners are invited to design the educational activities having in sight the long-term children’s learning trajectories and proposing new activities that build up from the children’s thinking and interests in the previous ones. The use of the vignettes may promote professionals’ systematic reflections about children’ learning and the joint envisioning of new learning opportunities.

The Development of “Common Knowledge”

A second issue of discussion arise from the use of vignettes in the in-service training was related to the development of a common lexicon to identify the children’s potentialities that are the ‘germs’ for further learning and therefore should be enriched in the Early Years education.

Pedagogical continuity requires a specific focus of the in-service training programs, namely, the development of an articulated system of “common knowledge” (Edwards, 2010; 2016), which consists in the construction of an educational framework of values that are worth-pursuing in practice, such as the idea of the children as subjects of rights and the idea that the educational processes must be based on mutual respect and the acceptance of diversities. As consequences, the development of common knowledge allows practitioners to work out convergent educational goals and to recognize new opportunities in practice. Common knowledge is also a system of presuppositions that helps to clarify the divergences in the personal perspectives that emerge in interpreting some educational events in practice.

It is proposed that vignettes may support the development of “common knowledge”, since they can be used as shared references for the practitioners’ analysis of their practice, offering the opportunity to converge their attention towards some aspects of their practice (for example, the educational demands posed to children, the scaffolding strategies and the structure of children’s participation); by pointing to specific aspects of their practice as they are expressed in the vignettes, professionals can make explicit their educational reasons, their ideas of children’s learning and the potentialities for subsequent activities, according to the pedagogical continuity.

The pedagogical coordinators (the managers of the Early Years Centres and of the Children’s Schools) agreed with our project, but many practitioners considered the perspective of continuity as a constrain on the uniqueness of each child’s development and interests. The in-service training did not achieve a stable outcome in relation to the construction of a common lexicon, that can highlight the manifold dimensions of children’s potentialities and developmental trajectories. Different motives may explain this difficulty: the pressure to focus on competencies as school prerequisites that the higher stages of education put on the lower ones; the need to overcome the barriers between different educational stages and institutions in the in-service training programs, since the “pedagogical continuity” spans across different stages of children’s development. As a limited result, the discussion about the integrated view of the uniqueness of each child and the construction of a shared idea of the child was very appreciated because these ideas relate both to the children as at the centre of their world and the idea of children as full participant to human practices.

Conclusion

Indicators are static measures and do not shed light on the complexity of the educational interactions and learning processes. On the contrary, vignettes offer the practitioners the opportunity to recognize the sensitive strategies they enact to promote children’s learning in specific contextual conditions, as well as to reflect on possible changes in some conditions of the educational activities.

In the in-service program we conducted, we recognized that in the Early childhood Centres all the children are well accepted, and there are different opportunities to engage them in activities that respond to their interests; however, there are some educational goals that can be reached: carefully designed activities with some long-term objectives. These more advanced goals require the reduction of routinary and repetitive activities that engage children only temporarily and in limited number. It is also recommended the development of a specific form of documentation, in order to share educational objectives and a collective vision about what is relevant in the educational practice.

In the educational institutions, practitioners may produce vignettes as tools to support professional talk about relevant situations in their daily work, use them as reference points to converge their attention towards relevant aspects of their practice, highlighting both the structure of the designed activities and the scaffolding strategies offered to children.

By using vignettes as a common reference, the practitioners in an Early year Centre are able to align their perspectives on practice, make explicit their presuppositions about their ideas of the nature of the children’s development, the role of educational interactions in promoting children’s learning in specific situations.

In sum, the use of vignettes in Early Childhood Centres impacts on two levels of professional competence: the first one is the description of the structure of participation of children in educational practice and the scaffolding strategies to promote learning; the second one is the level of the presuppositions, values and strategies that orient the professional team.

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