education.govt.nz

Looking for the good: appreciative inquiry in early childhood education

Issue: Volume 96, Number 8

Posted: 15 May 2017
Reference #: 1H9d7k

early childhood education

A strengths-based approach to organisational change is having encouraging results within a group of early childhood education services in the Auckland region.

Appreciative inquiry (AI) is a way to conduct self-review and improvement by focusing on the positive aspects of a group, rather than by identifying the problems then generating and implementing solutions.

Sometimes described as a ‘world view and a process that acknowledges that there is always something that works well,’ AI finds a natural home in education, and early childhood education in particular.

Its holistic and collaborative nature promotes clearer and ongoing teacher inquiry, and has the potential to strengthen relationships between all of those that make up an early learning community.

A process rather than a recipe


In 2016 H-Education consultants Dr Bill Hagan and Lin Howie were contracted by the Ministry of Education in Auckland to mentor 12 early childhood services in taking this strengths-based approach to their self-review process.

Considered more a philosophy or process instead of a step-by-step recipe, AI is often portrayed as a cycle including the ‘4 Ds’, so-named to reflect the positive emphasis of the approach: discover, dream, design and destiny.

By supporting early childhood education services through these stages, Bill and Lin were able to help each one identify existing strengths and use these to make improvements.

From improved school transitions and encouraging more adventurous play, to strengthening parent communities and connecting with the natural world, each service used AI to make improvements beginning with what they were already doing well.

“I believe AI is a very exciting approach for any organisation that’s doing internal evaluation to use,” says Lin.

early childhood education“It’s especially exciting in early childhood education because it’s strengths-based – so it looks for the positive and that sits well with the aspirations of Te Whāriki."

Lin says the process is fun and the story-telling and listening elements resonate with the relational aspects of early childhood education.

“Because AI helps people look for the best and then make plans together, it’s just very positive. It’s not that we ignore problems, not at all – but rather, it’s about generating excitement for change."

“It gets more people on board, and the ideas are better and fresher. People are engaged and look forward to working on the changes.”

Smoother transitions at Fatugatiti Aoga Amata


Fatugatiti Aoga Amata is a bilingual Samoan preschool in Papatoetoe, Auckland that was invited to take part in the SELO project with H-Education in 2016.

Following a consultation process with whānau and new entrant teachers at local primary schools, the team at Fatugatiti wanted to use the self-review process to work on smoother transitions for their children as they moved on to primary school.

Building from the foundation of what was already working well at Fatugatiti, positive transitions for children were identified as an important goal within the centre’s overall vision.

“We want our children to be well prepared for lifelong learning and success and able to leave Fatugatiti charged and inspired for the next step in their educational journey,” says centre manager Faalele Faiai.

Continuing to strengthen relationships with the wider preschool community has been crucial in creating smoother transitions, and a partnership was established with two nearby primary schools, where regular visits were set up for the preschoolers to observe routines and participate in group learning.

“From this relationship we held our first meeting of new entrant teachers and parents last year, where we could exchange useful information about the transitions, and share our dreams and expectations for the children,” she says.

“Smoother transitions are important because the holistic welfare of each child is our responsibility. That includes doing our best in our practice to grease the wheels and open doors, to set up opportunities to empower them to deal with changes in their learning environment.”

Has the self-review process has been valuable? “Without question,” replies Faalele.

“Always at the heart of the matter is the child. When they are your absolute focus, decisions and action plans are primarily in their best interest."

“We continue to receive a lot of feedback from happy parents and new entrant teachers of children from our centre that have started primary school bursting with excitement and great confidence, fully engaged in their new learning."

“Those evaluations and responses warm the cockles of the heart and inspire us to continue to always strive for best outcomes for our precious children.”

Taking risks


Shannon Keane is lead teacher at YMCA Manurewa Early Learning Centre, and she says the particular focus for their work was encouraging ‘risky play’.

The introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 created an opportunity for the centre to review their policies at an organisational and centre level.

“Change is good, and we aimed to ensure that the experiences provided in our risk-taking environment were still challenging for our tamariki,” says Shannon.

“This was around the same time we were invited to participate with H-Education on an amazing journey using their AI review. We were able to achieve change at a revolutionary level, and the whole process released us from looking at what was going wrong but enhancing what we were doing well.”

This change saw teachers consciously work with children to learn how to make safe choices for themselves and others, including discussion, negotiation and planning outdoor activities.

“We needed to release our fears of ‘cotton-balling’ and being ‘helicopter’ teachers,” says Shannon. “Rain, hail or shine … there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”

One particular highlight for the teachers and children takes the form of a regular bush visit in their local neighbourhood.

“It’s a little secret place that our tamariki have called ‘our bush’. Every Tuesday you will find us there learning about how to be great leaders."

“With a leader-stick in hand we are discovering the joy of nature through playing games, problem solving, finding patterns in nature, hunting and gathering, drawing and writing about our experiences and truly connecting with everything available.”

Shannon and the team at Early Learning Manurewa recently returned from a conference in Vancouver where they presented their findings to an international audience of educators.

“We wanted to show how the appreciative inquiry process can support the dreams you have for children and your community,” she says.

“Presenting our work at the conference was an amazing experience and it allowed us to celebrate a practice that works with others around the world,” she says.

Creating opportunities to connect with nature


Head teacher at Pakuranga Baptist Kindergarten in Auckland Jacqui Lees believes the AI approach aligned nicely with work already being done at the kindergarten.

“We were interested to sign up for this SELO project, and I felt that it tapped into some elements of what we were doing already,” she says.

For instance, explains Jacqui, the ‘learning stories’ written for children, where teachers document positive learning experiences that draw on a child’s strengths, are completely woven into the fabric of life at the kindergarten.

However, the AI process wasn’t completely familiar: Jacqui admits a reliance on problem-based thinking to address issues.

“In the past I think many centres, ours included, have had a problem-based approach – what do we need to improve – how do we fix this or that. So it has been a shift in thinking for us. It’s a different perspective but one that fits really well with the kindergarten ethos.”

Thinking deeply about the question, “what are we already doing that we want to continue to get better at?” was integral to the beginning of the appreciative inquiry process, which resulted in a desire to encourage more outdoor play at the kindergarten.

Parents were invited to join the ‘dream’ phase, where everyone was encouraged to share stories of favourite outdoor experiences.

“There were stories about people dancing in the rain, walking in mud, and jumping in puddles,” says Jacqui. “We started to make plans about how we could bring these experiences into the everyday running of the kindergarten.”

“That dream part was huge for us – it set up a whole cycle of planning. The result was that we started to make changes accordingly – these were a mix of ‘quick wins’ (planting colourful flowers outside the classroom) and long term planning (planting an orchard) and I felt that hadn’t come out of the self-review process in the past.”

The kindergarten has been working hard to make the changes happen.

early childhood educationPermission has been granted to use some land around their neighbouring church to plant fruit trees, risk management plans have been finalised, and a group of 10 children have started venturing to a wild area once a week.

Another part of the kindergarten’s action plan was realised with the purchase of a small tent and set of wet weather gear for the children, to enable yet further rich learning experiences outdoors.

“It has been a real shift in practice for us – it’s resulted in a much more meaningful review. By closely involving our children’s whānau as well, we’ve unlocked a stronger bond between us and them.”

This in turn has strengthened the kindergarten’s student community.

“The children responded really well to the ‘dream’ component of the AI process – we’ve involved them the whole way through really. By talking about and drawing their dreams, they’ve become more proactive in their own learning.”

What is Appreciative Inquiry?


Appreciative inquiry (AI) is a way to conduct self-review and improvement by focusing on the positive aspects of a group, rather than by identifying the problems then generating and implementing solutions.

Sometimes described as a ‘world view and a process that acknowledges that there is always something that works well’, AI finds a natural home in education, and early childhood education in particular.

Its holistic and collaborative nature promotes clearer and ongoing teacher inquiry and has the potential to strengthen relationships between all of those that make up a school community.

What is SELO?


SELO (strengthening early learning opportunities for children, whānau, families and communities) is a professional development programme for early learning.

It is targeted at early childhood education providers and kōhanga reo that have low participation rates or need support in providing quality early learning.

There are three different programmes available. Each programme will be shaped to the service’s needs.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 8:06 pm, 15 May 2017

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