I just read a rather interesting (American?) article that advocates for more carefully informed and specific teacher PD in the field of early literacy development. Their interest is in the knowledge of ECE teachers and they argue that this field of expertise needs further research that is particular to the learning needs of these students/teachers (so that effective professional development might be offered to the teachers). The authors focus their study on “the skill of word recognition, an important aspect of the content knowledge that preschool teachers must have to effectively support early literacy.” (p.489) This narrowing of focus makes perfect sense within their argument, but it is worth noting that their approach to literacy also seems to focus on the traditional skills of reading and writing, rather than being situated in a wider vision of literac(ies).
Cunningham et al. write: “Being a skilled reader is not a sufﬁcient condition for being a skilled reading teacher. Although this fact is becoming more broadly understood, and the practices of and policies regarding elementary school educators reﬂect this increased understanding, considerably less attention has been devoted to supporting early childhood educators in acquiring the disciplinary knowledge needed to support their younger students’ emergent literacy development. This job, too, is one for an expert. The reading research community will demonstrate its commitment to early childhood educators by crafting professional development programs that are compelling and that help educators calibrate and acquire content knowledge.” (p.504)
Their abstract sums things up: “A growing body of research is emerging that investigates the teacher knowledge base essential for supporting reading and writing development at the elementary school level. However, even though increasing recognition is given to the pivotal role that preschool teachers play in cultivating children’s early literacy development, considerably fewer studies have examined the knowledge base of these early childhood educators. This paper will discuss the existing research literature and then examine a recent study that investigated the knowledge constructs of 20 preschool teachers. Findings indicate that preschool teachers lack the disciplinary knowledge required to promote early literacy and, in fact, tend to overestimate what they know, creating a potential obstacle for seeking additional knowledge. Recommendations for strengthening professional development programs and developing more robust measures of preschool teacher knowledge are proposed.” (p.487)
The authors are somewhat ambiguous about the nature of ‘early literacy development’. Their discussion revolves around the mechanics of actually learning to read and recognise words, rather than on any of the (more holistic) previous learning that enables a child to participate in such instruction (which is surely more fully the domain of ECE?!). That said, I really enjoyed this article – I particularly enjoyed their approach to professional development and their discussion of the need to consider the factor of knowledge calibration when looking to develop teachers’ abilities to teach, asserting that “knowledge calibration may moderate the effectiveness of professional development.” (p.500).
Their argument for this is pretty convincing and as they explain:”…researchers from varied disciplines in education and psychology theorize that as learners (and speciﬁcally, adult learners) we are motivated to learn when (a) we think that a topic is relevant to our daily life (Knowles, 1980; Ryan & Deci, 2000) and (b) we can accurately assess our lack of knowledge of that topic (Cunningham et al., 2004). Thus, recognizing the power of teacher beliefs in determining the type and amount of classroom learning is a necessary component in the creation of effective professional development opportunities.” (p.499)
“Reviews of previous research on knowledge calibration among teachers suggest that: ‘People learn information more readily when they are relatively well calibrated as to their current level of knowledge because they can focus on areas where their knowledge is uncertain … if teachers of beginning reading are well calibrated in their disciplinary knowledge, they presumably will be more receptive to seeking out and/or receiving information they do not possess.’” (p.500, citing: Cunningham et al., 2004, pp. 143–144)
Equally sensible is their statement that:
“In order to understand the factors that make a professional development program effective, it is necessary to determine not only the content knowledge that must be provided during the program, but also the value that participants place on the acquisition of such knowledge, as well as the most effective ways to convey that knowledge. Measuring actual teacher knowledge, as well as teachers’ perceptions of their own knowledge and beliefs regarding whether this knowledge will help them instruct students more effectively, are ﬁrst steps in examining these factors. Although it is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss teacher beliefs concerning how to teach reading, it is important to note the reciprocal relationship between beliefs and knowledge. Teachers may choose not to engage in professional development around topics that they do not believe to be important, yet such beliefs are dependent upon their prior knowledge of research in this ﬁeld. Future studies should include measures of actual knowledge, perceived knowledge, knowledge calibration, and teacher beliefs in order to more comprehensively assess factors that inﬂuence teacher receptiveness to participate in professional development.” (p.499)
I recommend the article! (though I think it needs to be read in conjunction with other theories on early literacy, literac(ies), multilingualism, as well as longitudinal studies on learning to read (I am thinking of the ones that indicate that learning to read early is of no great benefit to the child)).
I also think the need to appreciate ‘the value that participants place on the acquisition of such knowledge‘ is a discussion worth having in the field of science teaching in NZ…
Ref: Anne E. Cunningham, Jamie Zibulsky, and Mia D. Callahan (2009) Starting small: Building preschool teacher knowledge that supports early literacy development. Read Writ 22: 487-510