Leading Learning in the Early Years: Collaboration and Emergent Curriculum

Niamh Price is a Pre-Nursery teacher and Coordinator at Suzhou-Singapore International School, China.

 

This article looks at how one Early Years team of teachers reimagined the design of the learning in their grade level. Teachers revisited the roots of their own personal philosophies before building a culture of collaboration and inquiry within their teaching team. This changed their programme and student interactions.

Pre-Nursery at Suzhou-Singapore International School caters for our youngest learners at two and three years of age. I am writing this article as the grade level coordinator of this programme, leading a team of four teachers. We have revised our programme and moved towards a model of emergent curriculum which places student voice and agency at the centre.

This article explores the collaboration that brought my team together around a shared vision of authentic, child-centred practice with children as agents of their own learning. This involved confronting our own thinking about the beliefs we hold true to as individual teachers, and investment in the vision of our students as capable, co-creators of discovery, innovation and learning.

Our school tasked each teaching team to unpack the IB publication “The Learner”, which views the early learner as an agent with voice, choice and ownership. This process set in motion a domino effect of talking, learning and reflecting which has reshaped our programme.

Laying the groundwork for potential change was an essential first step. With support from the senior leadership team, I was able to facilitate professional development for my Pre-Nursery team alongside our weekly planning meetings. The aim at the beginning was to cultivate a shared mindset: to create a space where we could speak without judgement, share thoughts without censor and ultimately connect as educators through the common ground we shared.

Reimagining our programme by co-constructing the learning with students not just in theory, but in actual practice, was the risk we decided to take. To achieve this, it would involve becoming vulnerable as we stepped away from ‘how it’s always been done’ and tried something different. Up until this point, the programme had followed a yearly planner with recurring themes. Susan Scott notes that “when teaching methods are held over from previous teachers and remain unexamined, curriculum becomes stale. Such a situation serves neither the children… nor their teachers” (2009, p.10). An emergent approach with inquiry and agency at the centre would involve turning this on its head and starting from scratch: letting the children guide us instead of teachers solely charting the course. It would leave us open to fail. The essence of this first step in our collaboration is captured in Brené Brown’s observation on vulnerability: “Vulnerability is not winning or losing. It’s having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome” (2018, p.19)

Building trust, and creating a safe space in which to be vulnerable, was key to begin. We got excited as we shook off the habitual thinking that is ingrained within us and dared to imagine what our ideal curriculum would look like. We chatted and scribbled, letting ideas flow.

This is the initial brainstorm of thinking from the pre-nursery team

Excited children, unhurried teachers and that most elusive of teacher wishes, time, were talked about at length.

From this initial deep dive into our own thinking I led my team through ‘bite-size’ upskilling in emergent practice through our weekly collaboration meetings. These amazing teachers, in turn, brought their own books, pictures and insights to share, so we all learned from each other. We examined features of inquiry and authentic play-based practice from around the world, seeking their commonalities, challenging their differences, and adding to our own understanding of emergent practice each week. In tandem with our inquiry, we actively sought to be compassionate, open-minded listeners, reserving judgement and seeking to respectfully learn from and challenge each other.

The development of our emergent programme happened by running two tracks parallel to each other. Track one was teacher professional development with time for active discussion and reflection in our collaboration meetings.

Track two was taking theory to practice, which required careful planning and meticulous observation of our students. By documenting our observations on their developmental trajectory and emergent socialization, we came up with two overarching themes for our first semester. The first 6 weeks emerged as an exploration of identity and belonging: separating from parents and negotiating new relationships outside of the home. Our emergent central idea was “I belong at home and school.” This shaped our interactions, how our room was set up, and the learning engagements we planned. Each step was taken from the cues of our students. Once children had settled, we observed a trend for emergent communication which was a natural next place to explore. We used the emergent central idea of “I use sounds, words and movement to communicate” as an encompassing statement within which observations and learning engagements could be documented and framed. We deliberately chose “I” statements for our central ideas because, simply, our children are developmentally in the “I” phase.

As a team we used the Microsoft Office tool Sway. This enabled us to access a shared digital space which each teacher could contribute to. This was a central space where significant learning and social observations could be documented, building up a picture of each child or small group of learners. These observations became the basis for our planning meetings and professional discussions- what have we seen this week? How can we extend the learning, or collaborate with our students to enrich their discoveries?

Each Sway board included an explanation for teachers which outlined the purpose and expectations for collaboration. This kept each team member accountable and sure of their role in weaving the fabric of our learning together.

This is our essential agreement for posting on Sway

This is a sample post from our Sway. It illustrates how I built on the ideas of my co-teacher. This post shows multiple benefits for any PYP team: a teacher documenting student learning, how one teacher’s work can inspire another’s thinking and the potential for this kind of documentation in forward planning and reflection.

Documentation sample

In taking time at the beginning of the year to build our shared philosophy, rooted in the PYP and play-based emergent learning, we began to connect as professionals with our students at the very heart. In documenting our thinking and observations in a centrally accessible space through Sway, we could each influence and grow each other’s thinking. All decisions were made in the best interests of the learner, based on clear and documented evidence of their interests, progress, challenges and attainment.

In “The Learner” we read that “our understanding of the learner is the foundation of our approach to learning and teaching” (p.1, 2018). This article proposes that in leading grade level teams in the Early Years PYP setting, we lead bravely. Transitioning to a more reflective planning and documentation model, with the learner at the heart, ensures that these children are ready to join the PYP programme at 3 years of age as confident, competent beings who are experts at guiding their teachers and leading the way for their own learning.

Bibliography

  • Brown, B. (2018). Dare To Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts. Random House, New York.
  • International Baccalaureate Organisation (2018) The Learner. Peterson House, United Kingdom.
  • Scott, S. (2009). Emergent Curriculum in Early Childhood Settings: From Theory to Practice. Readleaf Press, St Paul, MN 55117
Niamh Price is a Pre-Nursery teacher and Coordinator at Suzhou-Singapore International School, China. She is in her 8th year at this school. Prior to this, Niamh enjoyed teaching and working with children and families in different areas of Dublin, Ireland. Niamh holds a Masters degree in Drama in Education, with a research specialization in play and creativity in the early years classroom. She believes in the importance of establishing relationships with every student who crosses the threshold of her classroom, and is committed to finding out not just what each child can do, but who they are. Creating environments that invite beauty, curiosity and collaboration is an essential feature of her practice.

3 Responses to Leading Learning in the Early Years: Collaboration and Emergent Curriculum

  1. Kesaia Naisara 2 July 2020 at 2:13 am #

    Thank you for this great article Niamh. You have done a wonderful job of leading your group of teachers in building relationships and ensuring the students are agents of their own learning. A great foundation will only see the endless opportunities for students in their learning. I am blessed to know you and be a colleague. Best of luck in your future endeavours.

  2. Niamh 7 July 2020 at 2:15 pm #

    Kesa, your words genuinely touched my heart. I remember being a brand new teacher to PYP and you were so kind to me. You reached out and told me to ask you anything, and there were no bad questions. I learned so much from you. Thank you for everything, especially for being one of my teachers along the way ❤️

  3. Lisa 20 July 2020 at 1:27 pm #

    Niamh, thank you so much for posting the journey that your team has embarked on. It is wonderful to see the same concepts of learning through co-construction were not only used with the children but also with your teaching team.
    I am a Director of an ELC in Phnom Penh and we are also embarking on a similar journey. We are a new school, 3 years in our infancy and I would be very interested to know more in relation to your journey as a team.
    At the end of last academic year, we began to look at introducing emergent curriculum and applying it alongside the IB for this academic year.
    Our school, being an Australian IB school, follows the EYLF which of course aligns nicely with an emergent curriculum.
    IF you would be interested to have a chat with me in relation to your collaborative process, PDs and the outcomes for children and families in their cultural context, I would be honoured.

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