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Weaving in data knowledge about sustained shared thinking enhances early childhood education practice

Anne Meade and Meg Kwan
Abstract: 

Weaving is a significant metaphor for kaiako in Aotearoa New Zealand. Te Whāriki is central to their professional lives. At Daisies Early Education and Care Centre (hereafter Daisies), the strands in Te Whāriki shape the curriculum and its principles guide pedagogy and relationships. In January 2019, the Daisies team decided to investigate how to weave more sustained shared thinking through our pedagogy. Daisies’ leaders obtained copies of the Assessing Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care, Sustained Shared Thinking and Emotional Well-being (SSTEW) Scale. A Teacher-Led Innovation Fund (TLIF) grant supported a trial of the scale tool as a professional learning and development (PLD) resource at Daisies and at Te Puna Reo o Ngā Kākano. Trial processes, PLD processes, and findings pertaining only to Daisies are described in this article.

Weaving in data knowledge about sustained shared thinking enhances early childhood education practice

Anne Meade and Meg Kwan

Weaving is a significant metaphor for kaiako in Aotearoa New Zealand. Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 2017) is central to their professional lives. At Daisies Early Education and Care Centre (hereafter Daisies), the strands in Te Whāriki shape the curriculum and its principles guide pedagogy and relationships.

In January 2019, the Daisies team decided to investigate how to weave more sustained shared thinking (Siraj-Blatchford, 2010) through our pedagogy. Daisies’ leaders obtained copies of the Assessing Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care, Sustained Shared Thinking and Emotional Well-being (SSTEW) Scale (Siraj et al., 2015). A Teacher-Led Innovation Fund (TLIF) grant supported a trial of the scale tool as a professional learning and development (PLD) resource at Daisies and at Te Puna Reo o Ngā Kākano. Trial processes, PLD processes, and findings pertaining only to Daisies are described in this article.

Background

Daisies, the case study subject in this article, is a family-owned long-day education and care centre in Wellington. The centre operates in two adjacent houses. The house that received Ministry of Education teaching and learning investment fund (TLIF) funding has a licence for 30 children aged from 2 years to starting school about age 5 years. It meets the Ministry’s criteria for 80% qualified teachers funding. All these teachers participated in the TLIF professional learning and development (PLD) workshops, and kaiako in the other house were kept informed about the project at centre meetings. Te Whāriki is at the centre of Daisies’ play-based programme.

Our TLIF project team was influenced by researchers involved in the Data, Knowledge, Action research programme (see, for example, McLaughlin et al., 2020). They used data for improving teaching and evaluation practices. We wanted to expand our evaluation approaches, in our case by adding scale tools to the teachers’ kete. This shift in thinking about scale tools had begun in January 2019 when Associate Professor Sue Cherrington at Victoria University of Wellington facilitated a workshop for our kaiako on sustained shared thinking (SST), provoking kaiako interest in this feature of high-quality early childhood education (ECE), and in the SSTEW scale and its indicators.

The tools

The Assessing Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care, Sustained Shared Thinking and Emotional Well-being (SSTEW) Scale (Siraj et al., 2015) (hereafter, the SSTEW scale) is a tool designed by members of a UK longitudinal study team who uncovered powerful pedagogies for children (Sylva et al., 2008). Centres in the UK, found to have more SST interactions between teachers and children, demonstrated long-term positive learning outcomes. Kathy Sylva (2015) said, “the current tool-kit of quality assessment is a welcome focus on well-being, self-regulation, and the kind of focused thinking in children that is supported through sensitive interactions with others”. The definition of SST in the SSTEW scale is:

An episode in which two or more individuals work together in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate activities, extend a narrative, etc. Both parties must contribute to the thinking, and it must develop and extend. (Siraj-Blatchford, 2010, p. 157)

Before kaiako at Daisies applied for TLIF funding, the validity of SSTEW items in relation to Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 2017) was checked for satisfactory alignment. We noted that the SSTEW tool included practices that support children’s social-emotional wellbeing. Practices to strengthen cognitive learning and development formed the second domain because “where there is only emphasis on care and emotional well-being, children do not make much progress cognitively. It is for these reasons that sustained shared thinking together with social and emotional well-being are included in the scale” (Siraj et al., 2015, p. 7).

An illustration of a SSTEW item is shown in Figure 1. Only four of its 10 indicators are included.

There are four evidence-based indictors for every item in the SSTEW scale: Inadequate (1), Minimal (3), Good (5), and Excellent (7). For a team to achieve a 3, 5, or 7 score, observers must see the teaching team jointly and severally demonstrate ALL positive indicators up to that point. Thus, to score a “5” the team needs to demonstrate all the Minimal and Good indicators. If any indicators were not observed across the day, the score would be lowered. This glimpse into the SSTEW scale also shows why we used only some SSTEW items—to avoid overwhelming the teacher–researcher and Daisies’ teachers.

TLIF funding required recipients to collect data on learning outcomes. Language use was the obvious choice, given our goal. Another scale tool, Teachers Ratings of Language and Literacy (TROLL) (Dickinson et al., 2001), a sociolinguistics tool,1 was chosen. One example of its items using indicators is entitled “Child’s pattern of asking questions about topics that interest him/her”. Some items are frequency questions (e.g., How often does child express curiosity about how and why things happen?). All items in TROLL have 4-point scales.

The SSTEW scale items selected were because they aligned with teaching goals in Te Whāriki and were in keeping with Daisies’ reasons for using the SSTEW scale for professional learning.

The inquiry and its methods

Our research questions were:

1.How does kaiako use of the SSTEW scale tool increase the quality of sustained shared thinking interactions between kaiako and tamariki and improve child language use found through teachers’ ratings using the TROLL tool?

2.Can findings from the use of the chosen scale tools, combined with narrative assessments, enhance language use and communication amongst kaiako, parents/whanau, and tamariki?

Action research was the framework chosen for the inquiry. Oliver (1980) states, “action research provides a way of working which links theory and practice into the one whole: ideas-in-action” (p. 395). Data from using the two rating-scale tools formed the bases for actions. SSTEW data were aggregate totals pertaining to the team; no individual ratings were gathered. After the data were interpreted, plans were made collegially about how, who, when, and where changes would be made.

Our inquiry project design involved the teacher–researcher and kaiako gathering both types of data in three different rounds across 14 months, with each round following the pattern in Figure 3.

FIGURE 1. EXCERPT FROM THE SSTEW SCALE

FIGURE 2. SSTEW SCALE ITEMS SELECTED FOR DAISIES’ INQUIRY

FIGURE 3. DATA-INFORMED INQUIRY PLAN: THREE ROUNDS OF THESE CYCLES

Data-gathering processes

Our TLIF inquiry began in Spring 2019 and ended in October 2020. Our end goal was to strengthen children’s communication, thinking, and exploration competencies, all valued highly by the centre’s multilingual whānau. The inquiry team included Daisies’ teaching team and head teacher, families, a teacher–researcher and “critical friend”. Families became distant once COVID-19 arrived.

In 2019, SSTEW observational data were collected in relation to four items (of 14 items). Two more items were added to the observation schedule in 2020 (see Figure 2).

Fewer items in the SSTEW scale than originally planned were used during the inquiry after past TLIF teacher–researchers advised us, “Less is more”. That advice helped manageability during the inquiry. Later, our teacher–researcher noticed that deeper professional learning and shifts in practice occurred when kaiako focused on only two or three SSTEW items in any 3-month time period.2 Because of her insight, SSTEW item 11, was observed in the final data collection without any PLD.

The teacher–researcher considered equity when scoring her observations: Did a high proportion of children experience the practices in SSTEW indicators during the observation day?

Data relating to the TROLL tool’s language-use scales were gathered three times during the inquiry. The head teacher and teachers discussed and collectively rated each child’s TROLL learning outcomes.

Between the three data collection rounds, the centre leaders facilitated PLD connected to the scale tools about once per month at team hui and three times in the year during wānanga (teacher-only days). Always, the PLD aims were to deepen teachers’ best practice knowledge and to use SST to enhance children’s language use and critical thinking. Professional development approaches are discussed later.

The impact of the pandemic in 2020

The 2020 pandemic lock-down occurred between the second and third rounds of data collection and, in particular, disrupted the TLIF workshop planned for parents. Pandemic safety protocols markedly changed the ways kaiako and parents communicated for months. Thus, there was insufficient data to address our second research question.

More generally, motivation for the inquiry activities waned among all involved as COVID-19 took its toll on everyone’s energy. Nevertheless, SSTEW ratings improved for all chosen items by the third round of observations completed in October 2020. Also, positive movements in child language use occurred across the rounds of data. An account of our language-use data and how those data sparked changes in teaching at Daisies can be found elsewhere (Meade & Kwan, 2022).

Findings from observations using the SSTEW tool

The decision to only include some SSTEW items in our inquiry (and only the language-use items in the TROLL tool) proved to be wise: the teachers were able to focus on a manageable amount of data connected to indicators of quality that interested them, deepen their research knowledge, and engage in professional reflection that provoked actions, and changed practices. This decision was reinforced by our inquiry experiences in Round 1, after which one of the SSTEW items planned for Rounds 2 and 3 was dropped. Our “Less is more” finding could be useful for the Ministry of Education and early learning services to note in relation to the introduction of Kōwhiti Whakapae, Practice and Progress tool (under development).

On all the chosen SSTEW items, we found that the teaching team’s ratings improved in the second and third rounds when compared with the items first observed and rated. Workshops, and individual critical reflection, about best practice used in indicators placed at levels 5 and 7 in SSTEW items led kaiako to consider which indicators could be valuable additions to their teaching strategies. Consequently, more teachers enacted more of the Good and Excellent practice indicators as time went on.

The scores in Figure 4 show the collective result of kaiako learning how to weave SSTEW indicators of effective practice into their own teaching and seeing how these practices connected to children’s language-use indicators. Kaiako not only learnt more knowledge about teaching, but they also developed as teachers as was noticeable in their actions (Timperley, 2016). Some indicators filled gaps in teachers’ professional knowledge and provoked them to enhance their practice. Kaiako said the SSTEW indicators described evidence-based effective practices in explicit terms, which they found valuable for improving their teaching strategies; for example, again from Item 6: “Staff encourage children to talk and listen to each other by suggesting they tell another person” (Siraj et al., 2015, p. 24).

In her reflections on the positive changes captured by the observational score improvements, “MK”, the teacher–researcher, concluded that kaiako had become deeply invested in striving for best practice over time: both attitudes and actions had changed.

So, what happened to provoke these changes? Motivation increased when the scale data showed practice improvements. Other reasons reflect findings in Jan Robertson’s study of coaching:

resources in the form of the two scale tools provided “knowledge for practice”,

the inquiry design involved reflecting on our own data and that reflection grew “knowledge in practice”, and

participation in effective workshops across the year grew “knowledge of practice” (Robertson, 2016, p. 43).

FIGURE 4. SSTEW RATINGS ON 7-POINT SCALES FOR THREE ROUNDS OF OBSERVATIONAL DATA COLLECTION

Professional learning and development

The teacher–researcher and critical friend designed the framing of the PLD as well as the data collection methods. The design for the overall PLD drew on findings from Best-Evidence Syntheses, particularly the one on School Leadership and Student Outcomes (Robinson et al., 2009).

The workshops began by introducing the two scale tools and their evidence bases. In the first workshop, kaiako were energised by a small-group activity of placing SSTEW indicators along 7-point scales for an item. Was this easy for degree-qualified teachers? Yes and No. While some indicators were readily placed in their correct position on the scale, others had them confounded, with kaiako placing some indicators higher on the scale than the authors had them. Another challenging time was when, for items 10, 11, and 12, the Daisies’ teaching team first scored 1/7 or 2/7. These shocks proved to be a stimulus for further learning.

So began the journey of kaiako from using knowledge for practice (theoretical) into using scale tool knowledge in practice (practical). Knowledge of practice came when the teacher–researcher shared the summary scores from the observation days using the SSTEW scale tool (Figure 4) at the workshop run after each observation day.

The workshop approaches varied across the months. They included team members:

analysing/interpreting the findings

observing their whole group’s teaching practice using SSTEW, and scoring their collective practice

critiquing team practices shown in the collated data, especially for problematic scores

envisioning new practices in which intentional teaching related to indicators would occur

co-constructing changes to daily practice to fill the gaps revealed in the data.

Co-construction of new practices was important to avoid kaiako becoming fixated on SSTEW scores. Their engagement was with teaching and learning, not scores.

Three novel workshop approaches had the greatest impact:

1.Kaiako were given envelopes with the SSTEW indicators for an item and asked to place the indicators on a continuum from Inadequate to Minimal to Good to Excellent, then justify their placements and recall research that informed the indicators. Kaiako were shocked if they had placed an indicator well away from its SSTEW scale position!

2.Kaiako were given release time to observe their colleagues. Each used two SSTEW items when observing for 90 minutes and then rated the team’s practice against the scales.

Kaiako were delighted to observe colleagues’ use of some practices that they themselves seldom used, and to value colleagues as role models. As well, they grasped the challenge of implementing best practice across time, spaces, and children.

3.The teacher–researcher shaped a PLD tool whereby kaiako co-constructed a plan for strengthening their practice in relation to different SSTEW items. Plans relevant to each SSTEW item were displayed in the staff room. Subsequently, kaiako added their revised strategies on sticky notes for all kaiako to see.

This documentation had a motivating effect. As fresh strategies were added, professional collegial interaction became more frequent.

As mentioned, it was the troubling findings that garnered more attention. One such finding from the SSTEW data was relatively low Round 1 scores for Item 10 despite kaiako reading books being highly popular among many children and frequently observed. The relatively low score was because kaiako had not engaged a majority of children in books, storytelling, singing, and rhyming experiences at some point in the day. Moreover, there was minimal diversification of storytelling approaches. A flurry of attention to Item 10 indicators occurred, with visible enrichment of literacy practices. Even so, the whole team could not lift Item 10 ratings to Excellent. Did early childhood teachers’ beliefs about their role vis-à-vis early reading constrain their practices?

Kaiako met the challenges presented by any problematic item scores of 1/7 or 2/7 head-on, rather than with defensiveness or blame. Data being presented as aggregate team scores avoided these reactions. As well as studying the wording in indicators, and/or the commentary on the findings provided by the teacher–researcher (Figure 4), the teachers reflected on how they taught, how they used words, or how often their offerings, words, wonderings, or questions provoked sustained shared thinking. Noticeable changes in the culture of the centre and in kaiako spoken language occurred. Reflection on data deepened kaiako thoughtfulness around children’s language learning.

FIGURE 5. WHAT WILL BETTER PRACTICE FOR SUSTAINED SHARED THINKING
THROUGH STORYTELLING, SHARING BOOKS, SINGING, AND RHYMES LOOK LIKE?

Participation in the TLIF inquiry had deepened teachers’ thoughtfulness around children’s language acquisition and use. Kaiako desire to better understand children’s thinking and to listen deeply to what they had to say, led into more sustained shared thinking. In our TLIF report, we concluded:

Kaiako practice visibly improved in depth and complexity. They:

adopted/adapted indicators in the scale tools as strategies to help tamariki to improve their communication skills,

thought more carefully about ways to phrase questions, and/or when to ask questions,

interacted differently as they read books and engaged in storytelling,

became more intentional in choosing resources and experiences,

slowed down, giving tamariki more time and space to share their thoughts and be heard.

… In sum, the shift in culture strengthened children’s mana, which is the big idea in Te Whāriki. Kaiako zoomed out to what matters most at Daisies and zoomed in to specific teaching strategies drawn from the evidence-based indicators in the two scale tools. (Kwan et al., 2020, p. 8)

Positive movement up the SSTEW scales to attaining Good and Excellent ratings in the Round 3 observations demonstrated teaching had changed. Collectively, kaiako reflected on data summaries from both scale tools, paid attention to the detail in SSTEW and TROLL indicators and data summaries, then worked on enhancing their daily practice. Their enthusiasm for learning from data paid dividends. Kaiako took the initiative to weave in the effective practice distilled in indicators into their micro-teaching to benefit children’s language and thinking. At team workshops, teachers created new teaching goals and strategies, such as weaving in more scientific and mathematics vocabulary during science experiments. All kaiako were proud to notice more children were engaged in sustained shared thinking conversations with them, wherein adults’ and children’s thinking was stretched.

A strategic change in adults’ question wording, from “What would you like to do today?” to “Is there anything you would like to learn today?” had noticeable impacts on pedagogy and outcomes.

Conclusion

Our inquiry design reflects the effective features of leadership and professional development reported in the best-evidence synthesis by Robinson et al. (2009). These are summarised in the left column of Figure 6, borrowed from the authors of Te Kotahitanga (Bishop et al., 2014).

Weaving data knowledge from the SSTEW and TROLL scale tools into team members’ planning, teaching, assessment, and evaluation resulted in beneficial shifts in the team’s culture and play-based practices. The decision to focus our TLIF inquiry on only a few items in the tools was significant for achieving the team’s goals for undertaking the inquiry—deeper professional learning and shifts in practice occurred when kaiako focused on no more than three SSTEW items at a time. Application of the data–knowledge–action framework resulted in positive outcomes for the communication and thinking competence of both children and kaiako.

The aims for the project were to trial the use of scale tools to learn more about children’s language and to enhance teachers’ professional development. The focus was on teachers’ sustained shared thinking interactions with tamariki as they played or participated in small-group experiences with tamariki. The action part of the inquiry involved weaving knowledge from workshops and scale-data interpretation into teachers’ planning and pedagogy. Between the second and third rounds of data collection, the teachers shifted the ways they planned and implemented our curriculum while maintaining their largely play-based pedagogy. They noticeably became more intentional in their micro-teaching. The shifts came about because kaiako had more detailed knowledge of best practices for strengthening children’s communication competencies and they used that knowledge for strengthening learning and teaching.

Notes

1.This tool had been used in the Growing Up in New Zealand study (Morton et al., 2017).

2.These insights may interest the Ministry of Education and researchers developing the Kōwhiti Whakapae tool (see Objective 4.2 in the Early Learning Action Plan (Ministry of Education, 2019))

FIGURE 6. FINDINGS FROM OUR USE OF SCALE TOOLS FOR BUILDING KAIAKO KNOWLEDGE AND CHANGING ACTIONS

References

Bishop, R., Berryman, M., & Wearmouth, J. (2014). Te kotahitanga: Towards effective education reform for indigenous and other minoritized students. NZCER Press.

Dickinson, D. E., McCabe, A., & Sprague, K. (2001). Teachers Ratings of Language and Literacy (TROLL). CIERA, University of Michigan.

Kwan, M., Robertson, E., & Meade, A. (2020). Distinguishing and flourishing: Two early learning services using the same inquiry design to co-construct new communication practices. https://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0016/214036/TLIF-5-041-Daisies-Te-Puna-Reo-summary-FINAL2.pdf

McLaughlin, T., Cherrington, S., McLachlan, C., Aspden, K., & Hunt, L. (2020). Building a data culture to enhance quality teaching and learning. Early Childhood Folio, 24(2), 3–8. https://doi.org/10.18296/ecf.0086

Meade, A., & Kwan, M. (2022). Using scale tools to enhance communication practices at Daisies Te Pihinga. Early Education, 67, 47–54.

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Siraj, I., Kingston, D., & Melhuish, E. (2015). Assessing quality in early childhood education and care, Sustained Shared Thinking and Emotional Well-being (SSTEW) rating scale. Trentham Books & UCL-IoE Press.

Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I., & Taggart, B. (2008). Final report from the primary phase: Pre-school, school and family influences on children’s development during key stage 2 (7–11) DCSF RR 061. UK Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Sylva, K. (2015). Preface. In I. Siraj, D. Kingston, & E. Melhuish, Assessing quality in early childhood education and care, Sustained Shared Thinking and Emotional Well-being (SSTEW) rating scale. Trentham Books & UCL-IoE Press.

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Dr Anne Meade is an early childhood education researcher and writer who has held academic positions at NZCER and Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington. Her research interests are children’s thinking and pedagogies to foster thinking children, as well as contexts that promote high quality early childhood education. Email: annemeade8@gmail.com

Meg Kwan, BTch (ECE), the head teacher at Daisies Early Education & Care Centre, was the lead teacher–researcher when Daisies, alongside Te Puna Reo o Nga- Ka-kano, was successful in gaining TLIF funding in 2019–2020. Meg is also studying for a Master’s degree in educational psychology.