Grade R teachers' perceptions of early childhood development and how these impact on classroom practice.

Excell, Lorayne Anne
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In this qualitative research study I explored Grade R teachers’ perceptions of early childhood development and how these impact on their classroom practice. Using an early childhood theoretical framework which was predominately informed by developmental and socio-cultural perspectives I interrogated teachers’ understandings of children, quality classroom practice and early childhood contexts. Although the literature acknowledges the contested nature of quality within the ECD/Grade R context, research evidence indicates that the role of the teacher is pivotal if education is to be successfully realized in the early years. This notion of quality embraces particular aspects of practice such as managing the classroom environment, being able to engage children in the learning process through a process of sustained shared thinking and supporting learning in a variety of different contexts. Furthermore, good practice is informed by an in-depth understanding of contemporary issues embedded in socio-cultural contexts of children and families. Within the South African context Grade R is a problematic year despite being the first year of the Foundation Phase. Policy documents informing practice are ambiguous, Grade R teachers are not required to have a formal teaching qualification and they are not afforded the same conditions of service as other teachers. All these factors have served to marginalize the Grade R teacher. The research sample comprised twelve teachers from ten schools who were purposively selected from GDE and free standing community Grade R classes. An important selection criterion was a willingness to be involved in the project. In this multiple case study data were collected through classroom observations, interviews, critical incidents and documentary evidence. The research findings were first analysed according to three broad themes and then further interrogated through three knowledge positions identified by Mac Naughton, (2003) as conforming, reforming and transforming positions. iv Key findings revealed that although participants could not be definitively situated in any one of the three knowledge positions their practices were largely conforming; with few teachers using aspects of reforming practice. This study is significant within the South African context in that it shows similar findings to those of research done by Nias (1985) and Anning (1991) relating to teachers’ perceptions of themselves and their practice. Teachers perceived themselves as being kind, caring and loving individuals who placed the welfare of children in their care ahead of academic considerations. They all intimated that they followed a constructivist orientation, but found it difficult to articulate a deep understanding of practice. In fact they displayed limited understanding of how in the early years teaching and learning can be realized through a pedagogy of play. A gap was revealed between teachers’ espoused theories and their theories-in-use which were predominately didactic in orientation. The study showed the impact of current constraints of the Education Department. Given these constraints the role of South African universities should be to deepen both theoretical and practical insights into early years pedagogy through appropriate teacher-focused interventions.
Early childhood development, Grade R, Perceptions of practice, Constructivism, Sociocultural-historical orientation, Didactic or instrumentalist approach, Developmental theories, Constructions of children, Critical reflection, Effective practice, Contemporary ECD issues