Why do we struggle with critical reflection?

The National Quality Framework (NQF) reforms acknowledge that good outcomes for children can only be supported by qualified and professional educators, who regularly reflect on their own – and their colleagues’ – practice. As with any profession, research and knowledge is always changing and being updated. It’s important that educators, no matter what their qualifications or experience, always remember to give themselves time and space to discuss and analyse their own work.

Reflection is a significant underlying foundation of the NQF. The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) is not a set and structured curriculum, but a guide to help services and educators develop their own approach to children’s learning that will best support the specific children, families and communities that they work with. Even the National Quality Standard (NQS) can be interpreted and applied in different ways in different contexts – there are many ways to Meet or Exceed the NQS. Successful interpretation and implementation can only be achieved through critical reflection.

The NQF acknowledges how important critical reflection is in several ways. “Ongoing learning and reflective practice” is one of the Principles of the EYLF, and the Educator’s Guide to the EYLF features an entire chapter on “Reflective practice for improvement”. Element 1.2.3 of the NQS ensures that “Critical reflection on children’s learning and development, both as individuals and in groups, is regularly used to implement the program.”

The EYLF also specifically acknowledges the importance of using critical reflection to challenge practice from a social justice perspective – for example, it can be challenging to take an accepted practice like celebrating Christmas in Australia, and think about what that may mean to many families in your service. Why is one cultural celebration prioritised over another?

Interestingly however, it seems that critical reflection is an aspect of professional practice that as a sector we most struggle with. Data from ACECQA reveals that NQS Standard 1.2, which includes Element 1.2.3, is the Standard that is the most likely to be rated as Working Towards of all 18 Standards.

It’s hard to determine exactly why that is the case, and every service and jurisdiction is different. My own experience working in the sector suggests that we’re still not comfortable with being critical about our own work, and the work of our colleagues, in ways that are positive rather than negative. Working in early childhood education and care (ECEC) is a physically and emotionally demanding job, requiring a daily and continual focus on the wellbeing of others rather than yourself. It’s entirely understandable that to then have to sit down and discuss what needs to improve can be daunting.

It could also be a reaction to a lack of professional recognition of the important role educators undertake in our community. Particularly prior the NQF, and even now, we were “child care workers”, or “child minders” – little better than babysitters. There is still a huge way to go in the community properly valuing early childhood education and the work of educators. So for many, critical reflection may be seen as another negative “attack” on their work, rather than a crucial part of ongoing professional development and recognition. The more reflective and open to improvement we become, the better we become at our roles. Which means better outcomes for children, families and communities – and in the end, a greater understanding and valuing of our work.

The key is to find ways to be critical, without being negative. To reflect, without becoming upset. To focus on the professional, not the personal. Critical reflection isn’t a choice, it’s an integral part of the NQS. So educators and services need to find some ways to support that process in ways that make sense for their own individual teams and communities.

Reflecting as an individual educator can be achieved in a large variety of ways, and educators should try to find a way that works best for them. This might be a reflection journal, a conversation with a mentor or colleague, voice recordings or even painting or drawing. If you’re a part of a team, you might need to discuss this requirement with your Director or Manager – you may have to share some of your reflections with others.

Sharing in teams can present the most challenges, as it can be a confronting experience sharing your own reflections and reflecting on the practice of others. Teams need strong and clear leadership to be able to engage in critical discussions – Centre Directors (and other leaders) should reflect on the culture within their teams. Is there scope for a culture of critical inquiry?

This culture can be helped by providing clear guidelines for discussions – to always focus on the professional, and not the personal (e.g., talking about a specific piece of documentation in a way that reflects on the actual documentation, not the person who wrote it); for it to be a requirement of all of the team, including leaders; and for possible solutions and positives to be offered as part of any critical discussion.

Every team is different, but ways to start might be:

  • for learning documentation to be displayed in the staff room for comment, discussion and support. Becoming comfortable with sharing our work with our colleagues is vital for critical reflection, and having our work open in a safe and collegial space could help those who struggle with discussing their work;
  • To make it a requirement to include discussion of at least one positive and one “room-for-improvement” item in every professional discussion, until it becomes everyday practice;
  • To provide educators with “questions to guide reflection” from the Guide to the National Quality Standard on a regular basis, and share the answers as a team.
  • To pick a topic and ask these important questions from the Early Years Learning Framework: “who is advantaged when I work this way? Who is disadvantaged?” (EYLF, p. 13).

The only way to become comfortable with critical reflection is to do it regularly, in safe and professional spaces. Educators and teams need to work together to find the means that will support this to happen.

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 edition of e-child TIMES, published by Child Australia.

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