Jacqui Lewis is an advocate for children, childhoods, and high quality, inclusive early childhood education. Her broad experience across the early education sector has consistently sought to respect, protect, and celebrate early educators and achieve an equitable relationship to empower reflexivity and growth. Jacqui has held previous roles as a Setting Leader, Area SENco, Ofsted Inspector, and has supported settings daily in the role of Local Authority Officer. Jacqui is currently part of a research team exploring children’s participatory rights, teaches on the DfE NPQ for Early Years Leadership, is a regional Makaton Tutor, and an Associate University Lecturer. Informed by practice, postgraduate research, and a rights-based philosophy, Jacqui’s agency is immersed in respectful inclusive practice for every child, whilst understanding sector challenges and complexities within educators’ professional identities.
The Power of Inquiry – Adopting a Culture of Practitioner Research and Evidence-informed Practice
As early years practitioners and leaders, we are already fully aware of the criticality of childhood and importance of early intervention. Early years professionalism is vehemently associated with being valued, having connections, and making a difference (Lightfoot and Frost 2015). Yet, our professionalism can often feel conflicted, when our autonomy and agency to make a difference, is disempowered by an overwhelming sense of failure, as we attempt to grasp the slippery fish of the latest trend.
In life, and especially through our lived experiences of education, we often contemplate who was it that made such a difference to us. Who helped us build our resilience, feel safe, or saw the potential in us, when maybe we, ourselves, could not. But reflect for a moment and consider who in your life has truly liberated you with the freedom to think and showed you how your thoughts can lead to agency and autonomy. Creating a culture of inquiry within your setting can not only empower you and your staff to explore depths of unchartered reflexivity, but will can inform a pedagogy of curiosity and discovery for your children.
Undertaking practitioner research and reflexively immersing yourselves in evidence-based practice, contributes to a commitment of an authentic pedagogy of listening to children, families, staff and wider partners. A value and investment of critical reflection can continue to support a long-term process for improvement, enriching practitioners’ professional identity. Nurturing a culture of inquiry upholds practitioners to make that longed for difference and propels our children onto the path of lifelong wondering and learning.
Cohen, Manion and Morrison (2018) consider how practitioner research can be a powerful tool for change. I felt the full force of this power as an undergraduate when I explored how using rhyme with an autistic child could aid their receptive language. The knowledge that I sought out around the subject was not insignificant, however, it was the empowerment of the child which transformed my practice. The research process afforded an intensity of attunement that I felt could not be reached within my daily practice, a genuine surrendering to listen more wholly and completely to the child.
Practitioner research is, just that, research carried out by practitioners, and can be influential in advancing one’s practice (McLeod 1999). Pascal and Bertram, Directors of the renowned Centre for Research in Early Childhood (CREC) demonstrated their commitment to raising the level of critical understanding and reflection amongst the early childhood sector, by launching the British Early Childhood Education Research Association (BECERA). Their annual conference continues to provide a platform for practitioner ‘s to share their research in a supportive environment. Pen Green Centre, leaders in the area of participatory research, advocate that successful service provision can be derived through practitioner reflection and action research. They share how practitioner research can act as excellent examples of active reflection and form evidence-based self-reflection material for inspection and best -practice dissemination.
Practitioner research can indeed enhance practice, as it promotes the critical and reflective inquiry of those who are charged to deliver the service through active engagement, collaboration and dialogue. Practitioners, like you, with a vast wealth of knowledge and rooted in real life experiences, can question how and why, whilst gathering the evidence and acquire an even deeper knowledge of the impact of the service you deliver.
For those practitioners who have not dipped their toes into practitioner research, you may be forgiven (temporarily), in assuming that undertaking for example, action research, is academically challenging. It certainly has demands such as planning, observing, assessing (sound familiar?), and may even feel like a complex activity reserved for graduates or postgraduates. However, this is a myth and some of the most effective research ventures in settings are where practitioners have started with a simple wondering which led to a line of inquiry like the cycle on the above. Simple wonderings which could of began as a curious squint towards your current use of rewards, or that nagging seed of doubt which questions the authenticity of co-regulation. It could also arise from a feeling, for example a disappointment regarding the children’s lack of engagement in a new sensory activity. Feelings that without a culture of inquiry, may lay dormant, unshared or at worse, leave you feeling disempowered as a professional.
You may, however, be reading this as a practitioner who currently engages or has engaged in research, you may even have enthusiastic investment from your peers, either within the setting or your fellow childminders. Either way, it is important to reflect on the depths of the current culture of inquiry and research within your setting. Discussions of alignment around the intended culture of a setting can after all, create coherence and afford practitioners direction and purpose (EDT 2023).
Using Evidence-Based Research to Ignite Practice
As we become increasingly more time challenged to adopt our own practitioner research, we must centralise our respect for children and maintain a resistance to blindly adopting the latest trend, and instead draw from the wide pool of evidence-informed practice. Reggio-inspired philosophy (Malaguzzi 1993) encourages practitioners to view themselves as professionals specialising in the early years, and Webster (2019) reminds us to ‘seize the opportunities for development which mirror the pedagogy, that are research-informed, rather than experiment with fads.’
An evidence-based approach pulls together the best available research and knowledge from professional experts on how children learn, to identify and provide services, that are both evaluated and proven to achieve positive outcomes for children and families. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) acknowledges the essentialism of your professional judgement and expertise within the decision-making process, of what works best in your setting.
The EEF is an independent charity dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement. You may already be familiar with their Evidence Store and Early Years Toolkit, which is based on real data about what has happened when approaches have been used before. This high-quality information provides ‘best bets’ for what might work in your own context and provides a visual interpretation of adopting an approach through considerations of implementation cost, evidence base and impact. The toolkit and evidence store can support your reflections of an evidence-based approach, through both summaries and examples and provide a provocation for aligning and building a culture of inquiry. You may also find it helpful to refer to the Early Years Library, developed by both Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL) centre and the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF). Here you will find a compilation of evidence-informed skills and practices to support children’s cognitive and social-emotional development and ignite your own professional curiosity.
You may have already begun to wonder what next… who knows where that spark of curiosity may lead you. It can a liberating feeling, but one also of respect, responsibility, and accountability to our children. When we open our minds and devote ourselves to truly listen to the voices of children, whether that is directly through practitioner research or more indirectly through evidence-based approaches, our work with children becomes more meaningful. To embed a culture of inquiry across your setting, will not happen overnight, after all as Kelleher suggests ‘culture is what people do when no one is looking’ (EDT 2022) this will take time, but at least for today you can think…. where could I start?
EDT Education Development Trust (2022) NPQEYL
Cohen, Manion and Morrison (2018) Research Methods in Education
McLeod, J (1999) Practitioner Research in Counselling
Murdoch, K (2015) The Power of Inquiry
Newman, L., Leggett, N. (2018) Practitioner Research: With Intent pp120-137
Webster, C. (2019) ‘Making it Real’ Early Years Educator Vol 21, pp. 23-25 Pen Green Research, Development and Training Base
Have a look at the summaries and examples of evidence-based approaches on the EEF Evidence Store. Could you use and adopt some of these in your reflections and inquiries?
For support in how to undertake action research projects in your setting and to start to embed a culture of inquiry across your setting, you can contact the SPH for bespoke support.