What does quality professional learning look like for early childhood teachers?

This compelling research gives us the outcome of high-quality professional learning for early childhood teachers and the opportunities it creates in our sector. Educating our educators not only benefits them but it benefits our children, their learning and their development.

Australia’s early childhood educators—often the unsung heroes of the sector—deserve the best when it comes to professional development. In fact, as we discover more about the way people learn, it’s increasingly important that all educators have access to high-quality professional learning over the course of their careers.

The evidence tells us that if a child receives quality early childhood education, this contributes significantly to positive learning outcomes[1]. Research also shows that if a child completes a preschool program, they will have progressed (by Year 3) approximately 20 weeks more than a child who did not complete preschool[2].

Clearly, well-trained and highly qualified teachers have an essential role to play in the delivery of quality early childhood education and care.

As one Australian study[2] puts it: ‘there are significant benefits to be gained from preschool teachers who are specifically trained in developmentally appropriate teaching practices for young children’.

So, the benefits are clear. But how do we go about ensuring that our early childhood educators have access to the skills and training they need to excel?

Why professional learning?

As educators working in the early years hold a wide variety of credentials—ranging from no early years specialisation at all to an early-childhood-specific degree[3]—access to upskilling opportunities is crucial.

There are a number of ways this can be done, including through gaining formal qualifications or through high-quality professional learning that encourages ongoing reflection and improvements in practice.

Andreas Schleicher, Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills, discusses the importance of early childhood education across Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

In fact, a United States review of nine studies[7] that investigated the effectiveness of professional learning—including in early childhood settings—found that on average, 49 hours of professional learning a year can boost learner outcomes by 21 percentile points[4]. That’s an increase by a factor of 1.4 over teachers who undertook significantly less or no professional learning[5].

The effects of professional learning are not limited to academic outcomes. A meta-analysis of studies on professional learning for teachers also indicated positive personal and social impacts for learners[6].

Improving practice

Underlying this is the deliberate change to teachers’ practice informed by professional learning. An Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) survey of over 1700 educators in 2017 found 76 per cent of the respondents wanted to change something about their practice, after having participated in professional learning.

We know that effective professional learning approaches expose teachers to evidence-based strategies. These are often based and managed in educational settings, and focus on improving teaching practice, taking into account the specific site’s context.

Professional learning also needs to be relevant and focused on the next steps in each child’s development or progress.

As Timperley and Alton-Lee point out, recent studies have shown that ‘developing teachers’ knowledge of how to investigate students’ current understandings for the purpose of identifying what needs to be taught next can have a powerful impact on student learning’ .

While this example is school-based, it highlights an important point: professional learning effectiveness should ultimately be judged by the difference it eventually makes for each child.

Simon Breakspear, CEO of Learn Labs Global Pty Ltd, discusses the importance of professional learning.

The early childhood context

Unlike school settings, degree-qualified early childhood teachers are often the only teachers at their site. It’s a double-edged sword because even if these teachers can find and fund professional learning, they may face additional challenges in finding casual/relief teacher cover to enable them to participate.

Also, opportunities for site-based professional learning, such as observing a colleague teach or receiving feedback from more experienced teachers, may not exist.

On top of this, undertaking professional learning in the early childhood sector is not always seen as a necessity, and what is available is seldom tailored to the needs of early childhood teachers.

In another recent AITSL survey of over 1000 early childhood teachers, 35 per cent responded that it was either difficult or very difficult to select professional learning specifically relevant or appropriate to the early childhood context.

At the same time, survey respondents identified the needs of their learners (66.5 per cent) and areas for growth in their teaching practice (62.4 per cent) as the most important factors when selecting their professional learning.

Effective collaboration has considerable benefits when leaders advocate a culture of learning amongst staff. However, early childhood teachers often face the challenge that, unlike their primary and secondary school colleagues, many of their site leaders don’t have an education background.

This can make it difficult to cultivate approaches to professional learning with collaborative opportunities, particularly in smaller sites where there may be only one degree-qualified teacher employed.

Effective collaboration is frequent and ongoing, and when used successfully an integral part of daily routines.

However, the AITSL surveys also show that early childhood teachers are less likely to receive mentoring from a colleague, with only 35 per cent of early childhood teachers participating in a coaching or mentoring activity in the past 12 months, as opposed to 47 per cent across the wider profession.

Therefore, greater opportunities for collaboration with experienced colleagues within or between settings need to be made possible. Potential solutions may include a stronger focus on professional associations or networks and more targeted and effective use of online platforms.

It is clear that early childhood teachers require greater access to high-quality professional learning. Regardless of whether they teach at a small, parent-governed kindergarten or a large long day care centre, early childhood teachers should receive equal opportunities for professional learning and feedback—to improve their practice over their career, and positively impact the learning outcomes of children.

Food for thought

  1. How might we enable communication and collaboration between early childhood sites (especially for those in single teacher services)?
  2. How might we better cater to the specific learning needs and contexts of early childhood teachers and educators?
  3. How can the models being used in schools and other sectors be shared with, and adapted for, early childhood services?
  4. What can be done with existing materials, resources and advice to make them more inclusive and accessible for early childhood educators? What is missing completely?

Resources to support professional learning, and the development of a professional growth culture, can be found on AITSL’s website.

Here at AITSL, we’re all about the evidence and using it to inform the best possible teaching practices. We hope this not only empowers teachers—including those in early childhood settings—but also instills in them a sense of confidence and pride in the work they do. There is more work to be done to ensure early childhood teachers get access to high-quality professional learning opportunities. As a former teacher and principal in remote Australia, I am proud to help AITSL in its mission to empower early childhood educators to excel. Daniel Pinchas, General Manager, Teaching and School Leadership, AITSL. 

 References

[1] Melhuish, E., Howard, S., Siraj, I., Neilsen-Hewett, C., & Kingston, D. (2016). Fostering Effective Early Learning (FEEL) through a professional development programme for early childhood educators to improve professional practice and child outcomes in the year before formal schooling: Study protocol for a cluster randomised controlled trial. Trials, 17, 1–10.

[2] Warren, D., & Haisken-DeNew, J. P. (2013). Early bird catches the worm: The causal

impact of pre-school participation and teacher qualifications on Year 3 NAPLAN outcomes. Retrieved from https://www.education.vic.gov.au.

[3] SiMERR National Research Centre. (2012). Consultation on the application of the National Professional Standards for Teachers (NPST) to teachers working in early childhood education and care services: Report to AITSL and ACECQA, unpublished.

[4] Yoon, K. S., Duncan, T., Lee, S. W.-Y., Scarloss, B., & Shapley, K. (2007). Reviewing the evidence on how teacher professional development affects student achievement. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs/regions/southwest/pdf/REL_2007033.pdf.

[5] Sanders, W. L., & Rivers, J. C. (1996). Cumulative and residual effects of teachers on future student academic achievement. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Value-Added Research and Assessment Center.

[6] Timperley, H., & Alton-Lee, A. (2008). Reframing teacher professional learning: An alternative policy approach to strengthening valued outcomes for diverse learners. Review of Research in Education, 32(1), 328–369.

[7] Timperley & Alton-Lee, 16.


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Daniel Pinchas

Daniel has more than 10 years’ experience as a leader across the education sector and joined AITSL in 2013. As General Manager, Teaching and School Leadership, Daniel leads the important work of AITSL’s Quality Teaching, Initial Teacher Education, School Leadership and Teacher Registration teams. Daniel’s responsibilities involve driving and supporting the development and implementation of a range of policy initiatives and resources to empower teachers and school leaders. Prior to joining AITSL, Daniel held positions at the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. Before that, he spent several years in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, working in remote communities as a principal, teacher and numeracy coach.

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