What it means to be an ECE student

October 2012

 

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NICOLA DUNHAM considers all angles in her research concerning the academic identity of field-based early childhood initial teacher education students.

“We’re not here to be academics!”

I was faced with this very cry, one day as I embarked on teaching academic literacies to students at the beginning of their study to become early childhood teachers.

A challenge had been extended to me, and so began my PhD (Education), into the academic identity of students in field-based early childhood initial teacher education (ECITE).

Early childhood education is in the headlines in some way or another on a frequent basis: a typical headliner will talk of quality, qualifications, and pay parity, in some form or another.

When I set out to investigate the academic identity of students, I wanted to do this in such a way that I would capture an essence of how student identity exists within a rich context. I endeavoured to take a multiple case-study approach that set out to gain the perspectives of not only students, but also teacher educators, in the delivery of field-based ECITE programmes at Bachelor degree level. I also sought to go further to explore the perspectives of those within the wider professional early childhood community, in which field-based programmes are situated.

Open-ended questionnaires, focus groups, and interviews are being used for data collection. At this stage of the research process, I have gathered perspectives from four case studies with data collected from students and teacher educators. I am now at the point of beginning to analyse data, and exploring what people are telling me.

What are teacher educators saying?

Teacher educators of field-based ECITE programmes are talking about the pressure being placed on the field-based component of programmes as students respond to increased academic demand. There is concern that field-based programmes are in danger of becoming a full-time programme with a field-based element, with practice-based components of programmes being compromised by the academic demands associated with a bachelor degree. The implication of academic requirements taking a more prominent place within programmes is that students may need to be more academically engaged and motivated, rather than practice-orientated.

There is a reported pressure on students to spend less time in their work experience centres to allow themselves more time to meet the demands of the academic work in the Bachelor degree. This is described in reports of students being more likely to only do the minimum hours required in their weekly early childhood centre. Participants reported tension for field-based programmes, where their value within the early childhood community has been related to the extent to which students are immersed in practice throughout the credentialing process.

Student involvement within the early childhood community is associated with observation of a change in the student demographic: more students are now volunteers within centres, whereas when the Bachelor degrees were initially established, students were predominantly drawn from the working community. Teacher educators from a number of the case studies reported that whilst students are now less likely to be working in early childhood when they enter study, many might have found work by the end of the programme. Concern was expressed that students see themselves as holding limited positions within early childhood centres, affecting their sense of belonging, participation, with less agency through being “only” students.

With having less experience within the field, students are less likely to be entering field-based programmes with an established understanding of, and experience with, the common language of early childhood. Students are therefore entering a new realm as they manage not only the academic demands of degree level study, but also the language and practices of early childhood education itself. For field-based programmes, the presence of this common language and common practice has been particularly significant as students make the transition into the formal process of academic study.

What are students saying?

When asked how they would describe themselves as a student, the participants provided self-descriptions that could be grouped into three areas: student self in relation to the professional context, the academic context, and an emotional aspect. Often students would draw on more then one of these three areas in describing themselves.

In relation to the professional context, students referred to themselves as a student teacher, volunteer, full-time worker, adult student, or in a paid position. In terms of the academic context, students used descriptors such as, hard-working, organised, committed, engaged, and open-minded; on the flip side: reluctant, lazy, and cruising. Even ambivalent responses were evident with both characteristics of being committed but also lazy. Finally, in terms of an emotional aspect, students referred to feelings such as being stressed, panicked, nervous, confident, passionate, mentally exhausted, and proud.

Students also identified the personal characteristics that they felt were most suited to studying at Bachelor degree level, providing further insight into student profiles for those considering field-based ECITE. Such personal characteristics included: organisation skills, time management, determination, perseverance, dedication, passion and commitment, and being open-minded. While study skills were regarded as important in terms of academic reading and writing skills, it was the aforementioned personal characteristics that held most significance for students.

As they talked about organisation skills it again became evident how messy and complex students’ lives are. There was talk of “juggling” other parts of their lives as they navigated their way through their life as a student alongside their many other identities, as parents, partners, colleagues, and friends. There was talk of “sacrifice” and “doing the hard yards,” “commitment in the present, reaping future reward,” and “managing family life on a student loan”.

Attendance was identified as very important to student engagement. Being present was acknowledged as important in terms of developing deeper understanding, as through attending class they could engage in conversation and discussion to enhance their understanding. This highlights the significance of social engagement and relationship building for successful learning, which was echoed in student preferences for opportunities to talk and discuss their learning. This engaged learning also related across to student preference behind choosing a field-based programme, where they could regularly engage in praxis: a point of significance when we consider the fears of the teacher educators on reduction in the field component of their programmes in light of academic demands.

Students recognised the importance of internal and external influences on their motivation and sense of agency: predominantly portraying an active attitude towards seeking help from peers, lecturers, centre-based colleagues, and support teachers. This internal motivation was associated with feelings of determination and of not giving up.

External motivation came from colleagues at the centre, challenging them but also urging them on, providing encouragement, giving constructive criticism, and through providing opportunities for students’ ideas to be aired and actioned within the early childhood centre. This was significant in terms of empowering students: feeling that they could be agents of change, that they held autonomy, and could make a difference and leave a mark even as students.

What will the professional community say?

As my research continues, the perspectives from within the wider professional early childhood community will add to this understanding of identity, as students experience a range of early childhood centres and the academic environment through the credentialing process.

I will be seeking participation from those involved in policy and teacher education review and development as well as early childhood centre managers and teachers who are closely involved in the experience of field-based ECITE.

Nicola Dunham is a PhD (Education) candidate at the Unitec Institute of Technology, under the supervision of Professor Carol Cardno.