TIS Project Evaluation
School garden projects are becoming increasingly popular because of the effects they have on well-being, such as increased concentration and impulse control, coping with stress and other emotional issues, and reconnecting children to the outdoor environment, as well as being linked to reducing childhood obesity and promoting fitness (Helm 2011). International curriculums, such as the Finnish, Reggio Emilia, and Forrest School approaches, widely recognize the importance of connecting children to their natural surroundings and are well-known for their child-centred methodologies (Penn 2011, Anning 2009, Penn 2011). While the garden project proposal (please see Project Plan page) outlines specific developmental aims and curriculum goals, meeting these objectives was secondary to working from child-interests and building motivations and positive learning dispositions, core elements of a process-versus-product curriculum. The garden project was supported by in-class investigations and constructivist experiences to scaffold learning through planning (Appendix A) and by allowing each child to “actively construct his/her own understandings within a social and physical environment” via open-ended questions, self-initiated investigations and risk-taking, as “action and self-directed problem-solving…are considered to be at the root of learning and development” (Fisher 2008, REPEY 2012: 32).
The project effectively acted as “the third teacher,” as described by the Reggio Emilia, in which the aims of the Alberta curriculum were taught in naturally-occurring and purposeful contexts, such as numeracy through counting seeds and communication development through describing the growth of plants (Helm 2011, REPEY 2002:32, EYFS 2012). “Knowledge is socially situated, mediated and provisional and learning takes place through participation,” thus, working collaboratively and incorporating effective leadership supported by external contributions from parents, colleagues and the setting all helped to create a community of learners and a sense of belonging, pride and accomplishment for all. This report will discuss issues related to the implementation of the project and evaluate the efficiency of certain of its aspects related to its efforts to improve the children’s well-being and the well-being of their families.
Implementation of the Project
Organization, Planning and Pedagogy
The project planning aimed to incorporate an investigation-based curriculum approach (Appendix A) (Helm 2011). Some content was preselected for the learners by classroom practitioners; however, child-selected content (as interpreted by practitioners through observations and discussions) informed the planning and organization of various mini-investigations such as “worms” and “birds.”
Vygotsky (as cited in Hedges 2011:189) posits that new information “gradually, through play and language, develop[s] and reconceptualise[s]…into ‘scientific’ concepts.” This idea suggests that the emergence of children’s knowledge is increased through the reintroduction of concepts in a wide variety of contexts to build on schemas, gather and rearrange information on both subconscious (unobservable) and conscious (observable) levels (Murray 2009). New information was often recycled in multiple ways in the garden and the classroom; for example, the concept of seed growth was encountered in a story book, roleplayed in class activities, visualized by placing the seeds in clear containers, reproduced in a craft exercise and culminated with actually planting the seeds in the garden, where the children were able to witness the cause and effect of planting a seed)—“affecting a wide-range of cognitive, social and emotional outcomes in children’s learning and development” and inclusively working to differentiate learning experiences (Hedges 2011, Sheridan 2013:208, Brock 2009). These experiences were documented in photographs and displayed for the children and their families, providing opportunities to review the content and concepts acquired during these learning moments and to visually communicate these experiences to the parents (see Appendix C).
The children’s questions were generated through a webbing activity, allowing children to identify the relationships between concepts within a topic (Helm 2011). The children’s questions, such as “What we can find in a garden?” and “Where do seeds come from?” were also recorded on an individual basis to act as “building blocks” for each child’s learning trajectories (Anning 2009). The planning structure of the project was flexible, allowing practitioners to accommodate individual learning styles, fill gaps in understanding and create a continuity conducive to their individual learning paces and interests (Anning 2009, Rodger 2012, Helm 2011). The proposal, which did provide suggested activities and developmental aims, was expected to be changed and adapted to meet the individual needs of learners.
Collaboration and Leadership
This project involved collaboration and consultations with the administration, colleagues, gardening experts, and parents. In the typical “hierarchy” structure, there may be misperceptions from professional “experts” who are working from “dominant paradigms” and may not able to trust others to comprehend their “elite” level of pedagogy or believe that support staff are, in a sense, inferior (Penn 2011:181). Unfortunately, these practitioners are missing valuable opportunities to improve their own professional development through discussions of practical applications of current teaching strategies. Discourse and dialogue with teaching assistants and colleagues created a professional “think-tank” for more critical perspectives, as our professionally-based relationship had been developed over an extended period with considerable levels of positive and trusting relationships (Stacey 2009, Payler 2013). This relationship is receptive (comparing and discussing our personal ideologies, assessing our levels of objectivity and adapting our practices to meet the needs of the children), interactive (taking past experiences as building blocks for future planning) and critical (learning from our mistakes and understanding that there is no “right way” to teach) (Whalley as cited in Ghaye and Ghaye 1998). The pedagogical variables inherent in each setting and unique learning context often lead to uncertainty that the “correct” methods are chosen for the right learners. Discussing practices and working collaboratively added validity to decision making through sustained shared thinking and critical assessments of practices, and, in the case of this project, additionally worked to ensure cultural inclusivity, since the teaching assistants have a better understanding of Chinese culture (Stacey 2009, Murray 2013).
Research concludes that China is an academic- and outcome-driven nation, where pedagogies often emphasize the importance of rote learning to achieve positive results in standardized testing; this accentuates the need to be able to justify to parents how process-based learning links to positive learning dispositions, since the majority of the parents in the class are Chinese (Georgeson 2013). Practitioners working in an interpretivist approach believe that shared meanings and social interactions lead to a better understanding of our ever-changing social environment. Involving parents in activities such as playing “customers” during a restaurant roleplay (where children served food that they harvested from the garden and cooked themselves), and sharing the role of teacher during a trip to a local farm (connecting their garden knowledge to a large scale local farm) gave practitioners insight into how parents have developed their own pedagogies and constructivist methods. When individuals get better acquainted in an informal and enjoyable setting, the quality and depth of their relationship improves (Stacey 2009). REPEY (2002) research concludes that high-levels of parent involvement have significant effects on a child’s development, therefore when the relationship between parents and practitioners is both frequent and positive, the likelihood of improving a child’s well-being is subsequently greater.
Discussions and interactions with parents minimize potential cultural tensions that are found when working in multi-agency contexts and can work towards a better understanding of families’ funds of knowledge (Ang 2010, Hedge 2011). After speaking with a child’s mother, the practitioner learned that his grandmother had a garden in Germany (which he had not mentioned in class discussion, as his mother explained he might not remember) and that he had enjoyed eating the raspberries, which was later discussed in class and raspberries were then planted for him. Information like this creates a collage of personalized meaning for the child, extending areas of the project to include individual sociocultural-historical elements (Brock 2009, Anning 2009). Ang (2010:48) points out that “our social experiences are multifold and these differences…make the issue of cultural diversity and the curriculum a complex one.” Working with parents also builds common understandings (such as the way in which we perceive children as capable learners) which creates a more consistent home and school environment, creating easier transitions between various ecological systems (Sheridan 2012). While Hedges (2011) suggests that practitioners may have to visit the home setting to get a better understanding of funds of knowledge, working alongside parents in the setting and in field experiences provides opportunities to delineate between their own cultural understandings and that of the families to develop better understandings of the “uniqueness” of each child, which are necessary when reflecting on inclusive practices (Durden 2008:253, Brock 2009, EYFS).
Throughout various stages of the project, parents were kept up-to-date through newsletters, conversations at drop-off and pick-up time, web-based forums to integrate various types of communication in their native language, as well as last minute reminders to work with their busy schedules, in an attempt to accommodate the needs of all (Helm 2011). Ward (2009) points out that the methods of communicating information to parents requires some consideration—some parents prefer written forms or technology-based, while other prefer verbal, and/or visuals, such as photos. Furthermore, the content of the information must clearly define the purpose and logistics, the resources they must provide and their roles in the project (Stacey 2009). As the families come from diverse sociocultural backgrounds, the “merging of skill, experience, [and] knowledge of each partner” in a classroom of parents adds a considerable wealth of intellectual resources and skills (Hymans 2008:281). Collaboration with other external agencies, who are not teachers by trade, such as the Canadian farmer and local farmers who were consulted, provided a “very traditional” learning experience through guided participation (Brock 2009, Murray 2013). As the children had assumed the role of gardeners themselves, interacting with “real life” farmers affected their perceptions of the project by adding validity, significance and authenticity to their work (Sheridan 2013, Brock 2009). These experiences were documented through photographs and displayed for the children and their families, providing opportunities to review the content and concepts acquired during these learning moments and to visually communicate these experiences to the parents (Appendix B).
Some of the limitations of increased parent-involvement relate to family inclusiveness, such as the busy schedules affecting the availability of some parents. From a child’s perspective, when a child’s parents are unable to attend events, this may be interpreted as neglect, which can lead to feelings of inferiority and potentially affect examination results, school attendance and behaviour, mental health and quality of later relationships and criminality (Ward 2009, Anning 2009). Evaluating whether or not the advantages of including the parents outweighs the disadvantages of some children feeling alienated requires extensive consideration between practitioners and the parents to develop an inclusive plan to meet the needs of the family, as well as the colleagues and the setting.
Evaluation of the Project
Evaluation of Pedagogy
Some of the biggest challenges faced during the project were selecting appropriate pedagogies and maintaining child interest throughout. Moran and Steiner (as cited in Siraj-Blatchford 2009:84) state that “co-operation and collaboration provides scaffolding” to create new understanding. The practitioner’s role in the project was to facilitate and provide a context for learning so that the children’s ideas and interpretations of gardens could be transformed into reality. Finding a balance of pedagogical leadership required consistent reflection to gauge whether or not situations were more beneficial as teacher-led tasks or child-initiated tasks. Piaget explains that “co-operative social interaction…between children and adults functions to promote cognitive, affective and moral development,” emphasizing the benefit of teaching children “the right way” to do a task—such as properly planting seeds by spacing them and explaining the biological benefits, thus providing “learning moments”(Siraj-Blatchford 2002:33). Conversely, allowing children to “do it their way”—placing the seeds where they want to—promotes independence and embraces their child-like nature (MacNaughton 2003). The practitioner implemented both methods in two different areas which were used for comparison purposes in later stages of the project. The explanations as to why we space seeds took on IBL qualities—children could visualize and were encouraged to discuss the cause and effect of both methods (Helm 2011).
As gardening is a typically adult practice, there was some pedagogical dissonance in the developmental appropriateness of the children’s role; adapting roles for authentic experiences (“introducing more mature skills”) versus negotiating activities to be “designed for children”(embracing the nature of the child) were considered (Brock 2009: 56). In the third week of the project, the children began to lose interest. Using the Leuven Scale as an observational tool, it was evident through facial expressions and verbalizations that they did not wish to visit the garden once the choices of tasks were reduced to watering and weeding. The environment that had at one time encouraged independence by offering new experiences and varied learning experiences became too predictable and lacked choices and challenges (Laevers 1996, Fisher 2008, Lindon 2003). A more formal list of responsibilities was introduced—designating daily roles of watering with the hose and monitoring plant growth in a rotation (Stacey 2009, Lindon 2003). Initially the practitioner believed that designating roles would have removed the playfulness of the garden (as indeed it might have in the early stages). However, in effect, these clearly defined roles evoked accountability and responsibility for specific actions and results which allowed for a renewed sense of excitement about visiting the garden. While the daily roles encouraged a sense of maturity, in contrast, increasing the amount of materials in the third week—such as a water table placed adjacent to the garden with a variety of containers, funnels, rulers, magnifying glasses—embraced their child-like nature and furthered options for free-play by providing a wider range of activities that appealed to the various types of learners (Brock 2009, MacNaughton 2003).
Evaluation of Collaboration
The project required collaboration between teachers, students of various ages and parents, which presented both challenges and benefits. Children from the ages of two to twelve from various other classes worked side-by-side on numerous occasions. The exchange of sharing experiences, giving suggestions and commenting on the developments of their gardens created a kindergarten/primary multi-agency situation. They developed friendships that “enabled children to extend each other’s learning, thinking, and interests by drawing on each other’s experiences and funds of knowledge” (Hedges 2011:196). The level of involvement and collaboration from all children provided new perspectives and motivations from more matured perspectives and varying funds of knowledge, skill sets which further developed through additional life experiences, and cognitive and physical abilities (Siraj-Blatchford 2009). Observing “sustained shared thinking” among the varying age levels provided new dynamics for the children that could not be experienced alongside adults. McInnes (2010) concludes that “adult presence appears to lead to children losing confidence in their own ability,” whereas peer-to-peer interactions foster opportunities to develop language-related and social skills, as well as children’s meta-cognition through “naturally occurring dialogues,” typically naturally reflective and analytical in their child-like tendency to verbalize new information (Durden 2008:253, Brock 2009).
Hymans (2008) points out the difficulties that can arise from multi-agency collaboration, and in this case the collaboration between practitioners became slightly problematic. Stacey (2009) writes that a common goal is essential in teamwork, but to be effective it requires focus which may be difficult to afford in an already busy schedule. Colleagues from other grades had expressed great interest in starting their own class garden, but these practitioners eventually found the project to be too much of a commitment and discovered that they had little time to take their classes to tend the garden. The project coordinator took over the shared responsibility of watering and weeding the other two gardens, which was time consuming. In the larger spectrum of the setting’s collaborative nature, the project became one of the many examples of how practitioners work together to support all children’s learning (Hymans 2008). Alternatively, the initial garden project meeting was the only significant opportunity of sustained shared thinking, and consequent interactions were short interactions, lacking in intersubjective content (Durden 2008). Improved and consistent communication with colleagues to problematize issues, even seemingly non-issues, to improve practices and to reassign roles and responsibilities to work together to find a solution that accommodated our busy schedules—for example creating a watering schedule or using class preparation time to accompany children from other grades to the garden—may have worked towards more collaborative success (Penn 2011, Stacey 2009).
Eliciting feedback from external agencies provides diverse and critical assessments that may not have otherwise been considered. The results of this feedback may be influenced by relationships. The survey (Appendix C) issued to parents was returned with unanimously positive feedback as was web-based feedback, entirely lacking constructive criticism or suggestions for improvement. On the surface this could be a positive result; however, from a reflective standpoint—practitioners must be self-aware that their relationships may affect results—there may be underlying influences (Denby 2008). As explained by a Chinese colleague and supported by Helm (2011), parents may feel uneasy about providing constructive criticism as it may be considered rude and disrespectful, and parents do not want to jeopardize the parent-teacher relationship.
Working in a team environment requires not only the understanding of theories, but also being able to effectively communicate goals. Working from an interactivist approach means that a practitioners’ preconceived “visions” for project work will likely be greatly affected by compromises due to varying personality traits, opinions and personal “visions” of others. Although the practitioner had developed a framework for the project, parents were not aware of it. A parent-friendly document condensing the aims, weekly activities and information would have connected the parents to the project; however, the practitioner anticipated issues with accountability—perhaps parents would have clear expectations that might not be met due to time restrictions and their child’s developmental stage—as well as a lack of confidence in project-based pedagogies—experimenting in new pedagogies can induce feelings of vulnerability and fear of failure. Accountability is often a motivating factor in ensuring that standards are being met, leading to an increase in at home-learning which extensive research points to as resulting in long-term benefits (REPEY 2012). Additionally, the overwhelming support expressed by the parents indicates their openness to discuss issues had they arisen. Project and planning seldom develop as anticipated; letting parents know that there will be adaptions made to fit the needs of the learners and accommodations made to their particular interests exemplifies a higher level of professional competence and indicates the implementation of inclusive practices (Helm 2011, Rodger 2012).
The children benefitted from their parents providing more individualized attention that reinforced concepts, reviewing and sharing information from previous learning. Conversely, as indicated by research, parent involvement influenced the children’s behaviour (Durden 2008). It was observed that some children were less willing to communicate in English and in some cases their personalities transformed from more mature and confident in the classroom setting to “babyish,” or more dependent in the presence of their parents (Durden 2008). These observations were discussed with various parents verbally and we have discussed the implications of the behaviour and possible solutions to fill these transitional “gaps” (REPEY 2002).
Vast early years research points to the crucial role of planning to develop strategies for learning and social development, and this indicates that these strategies ought to reflect the “voices of [practitioners] experiencing and interpreting their own professional purpose” (Murray 2013: 293). This project provided an excellent context to work towards the head practitioner’s professional purpose, which aimed to achieve “child-centeredness” or “developmentalism” through methods such as investigation-based learning (IBL), active learning, and child-initiated experiences to lead to the betterment of the children’s well-being and learning dispositions (Ho 2008:228). For example, a child typically perceived as being disruptive in class was not considered so during garden work—the garden environment was conducive to his unquenchable curiosity about his immediate surroundings, suited his typically “outdoor” voice and provided a constructive outlet for his high-level of energy. His inclusive needs were met as a learner and as a child. High-programmed or direct-instruction methods involve maintaining the focus of each child—a daunting task considering varying attention spans, especially with young second language learners who are unlikely to understand without translations. Learning new vocabulary using direct instruction relies on abstract concepts and may be an intellectual process that is too advanced for most young children (Helm 2011). Working in small groups in the garden allowed for more constructivist experiences for practitioners and peers to introduce new vocabulary by connecting it to physical objects and active experiences, and the incorporation of various senses in language learning was more meaningful (Rodger 2012). In addition, these new concepts were re-introduced in various contexts through continuous provisions and materials for free-play, thus supporting language retention (Helm 2011).
Practitioners are not confined to one method or approach—through self-awareness and reflection, dialogue and discourse, a practitioner may build their praxis so that the appropriateness of relevant theories can apply to context. There is always room for uncertainty in education as there is yet to be a universal code of pedagogy and practice; however, the ability to critically analyze theories and discuss these ideas with colleagues and parents helps to minimize uncertainties. When teaching, “there is no such thing as failure, only learning opportunities,” and practitioners must also understand that mistakes are an inherent feature of being human. As practitioners are themselves learners, “mistakes” and other related issues must reflected on and documented to improve practices. In the case of this project, the documentation accumulated during the various stages may be used as a reference for future project endeavours, and “mistakes” may serve to inform future practices.
Projects such as this one provide a multiagency context, supported by all stakeholders working to comply with the individualized interpretation of quality for the setting. This project created a sub-culture within the setting—a “democratic” learning community (Sheridan 2013). Through a “pedagogy of listening” that was extended to all participants the collaboration of “voices” turned the act of gardening into something of deep meaning and inspiration (Sheridan 2013).
Appendix A - Investigation-Based Planning to Support the Project
This planning document was created throughout the various stages of the project following Helm’s (2011) investigation-based curriculum approach. It should be noted that throughout the project, continuous provisions and active learning activities were incorporated to support cognitive and social development. This document will be documented to inform future project work.
Appendix B - Photo Bulletin Board
As learning moments are typically experienced in short periods of time, this display was created to give the children extended opportunities to reflect on their activities and learned concepts, to remember enjoyable moments and to encourage communication regarding these events. Featuring the parents offered an opportunity to highlight their role in their child’s learning.
Appendix C - Survey to Parents
The survey was issued to parents in order to inform future projects and improve practices. Although the survey was scripted for descriptive responses, the feedback received lacked constructive criticism and was unanimously positive. (This document was translated by a Chinese teaching assistant.)
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