Sightlines Initiative

promoting creative and reflective practice in early childhood education

Diary Library

This Blog (or Diary) section has a broad mix of articles, reflections, comments, position pieces, as well as requests and information from Network members. It is becoming quite a comprehensive library. You can browse using the categories and search modules to the left.

Do contact us with your suggestions for new articles - and we really appreciate comments and other feedback.
Robin Duckett

Empathy, Curiosity and Creativity: education for the Anthropocene

This year we are highlighting how the ethics of relationship can prove a foundation for shaping education.

We begin with a fantastic opportunity to find out more about a most remarkable educator of the 20C – whom many western educators will probably be unfamiliar but who has lots to share.  We have an online presentation on Saturday October 2nd at 9.30 UK time (you can find out more and sign up via the link.)  We think that this is a first opportunity for a UK audience to find out about Sukhomlinsky's work.

Here is an article to whet your interest, from our presenter, Dr. Alan Cockerill. 

Vasily Sukhomlinsky was a Ukrainian school teacher. 

From 1948 to 1970 he was the principal of a combined primary and secondary school in the rural settlement of Pavlysh. His school was made famous through his many books and articles, which have been read by millions. Thousands of educators, from the length and breadth of the Soviet Union and beyond, travelled to see his school with their own eyes, and millions of educators around the world have been inspired by his example. His love for children. His writings are imbued with the optimism that he believed to be the essence of childhood. Working in very difficult circumstances, he created a model school, and a holistic educational theory to support it. Despite taking on a heavy work load as a teacher and principal, running a preschool group, and organising parenting classes for all the parents at his school, he found time in the early hours of the morning to write dozens of books, hundreds of articles, and over 1200 little stories for children.

Vasily Sukhomlinsky with children at outdoor school

The development of science and technology has given humanity great power over its environment, but it has also created serious problems, including climate change and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The future of humanity will depend on the qualities we educate in successive generations: not just on their knowledge, but on their attitudes, values and strength of character.

Sukhomlinsky's approach to education addressed children's emotional, moral and aesthetic development, as well as their physical, intellectual and vocational development. Figuratively speaking, we may say that Sukhomlinsky's approach engaged children's hearts, heads and hands, through the development of empathy, curiosity and creativity. Sukhomlinsky engaged children's hearts by helping them to develop empathy for all living creatures, including family members, classmates, elderly members of the community, animals, birds and plants. He also taught them to appreciate the beauty in nature, in art and music, in human relationships and in work. Sukhomlinsky engaged children's heads through their emotions, through a sense of wonder and curiosity about the phenomena of nature, and a sense of admiration for human knowledge, skill and heroism. Sukhomlinsky engaged children's hands through constant involvement in work and creativity, in the orchards and fields around his school, in greenhouses and workshops, in technical clubs and laboratories, in art rooms and in other creative pursuits such as music, literature and puppetry.

To develop empathy, Sukhomlinsky taught children how to read facial expressions, paying particular attention to the eyes. He put children in situations where they had the opportunity to care for plants, animals, family members, friends, and other members of the community. He told children stories, and shared his own compassionate perception of life. In 100 Pieces of advice for teachers he wrote:

'Our work addresses subtle aspects of the spiritual life of the developing personality—the intelligence, feeling, will, conviction, self-consciousness. One may influence these spheres only through like action, through intelligence, feeling, will, conviction, self-consciousness. The most important means for influencing the spiritual world of a pupil are the teacher's words, the beauty of the surrounding world and of art, and the creation of circumstances in which feelings find their most striking expression—human relationships covering the whole emotional gamut.'

To develop curiosity, Sukhomlinsky took children on frequent excursions into natural environments and to local work places, and exposed them to natural phenomena that aroused feelings of wonder and amazement. He encouraged them to ask questions about what they observed, and to seek answers to their ques-tions through reflection and reading.

Sukhomlinsky wrote about the importance of curiosity, and how to awaken it, in Kak vospitat' nastoyashchego chelokeka (How to educate a genuine human being):

In the very notion of curiosity is hidden a deep meaning: it is a growing, ever intensifying need to know, to find out, to explain. The more actively people interact with the surrounding world, the more they see connections between things, facts, nuances, characteristics and the peculiar features of things, facts and phenomena, and the more they are filled with wonder and amazement. They discover many incomprehensible things, thousands of riddles that they must solve, no matter what. In this appearance of riddles and their solution is the essence of curiosity. Our task is to ensure that in early childhood all children become little thinkers, that their activity should lead to an irresistible avalanche of discovery. The only way to achieve this is through work, in the broadest sense of the word. Children's work does not mean giving them a shovel and letting them dig till they are exhausted. Curiosity is a very delicate personal quality, and it is very easy to destroy it, awakening an aversion to work, if that work is beyond a child's strength or is too monotonous. I am talking about the work of a thinker. Children's work is an active vision of the world, a vision through which children become active participants in natural processes, and custodians of nature.

For two years before they join the compulsory school program, I work with little children in a preparatory group. I would call this period a school in curiosity. This is first and foremost an educator making contact with a child's brain, which is so plastic and responsive during the preschool years. The main method employed in making this contact is to inspire children with wonder and amazement. The main instrument is a teacher's words, and the main form of activity is excursions to the source of thought and language, in the midst of the inexhaustible richness of nature. My aim is that a growing curiosity should become an autonomous force, governing the interests and aspirations of children. If I manage to establish curiosity as an inextinguishable flame, I know that children will never lack ability.

In the twenty-first century, we can easily fall into the trap of thinking that all the knowledge we require is available via search engines like Google, and accept whatever information we find online without question. A curious, questioning mind will not be satisfied with pre-digested knowledge, but will seek to incorporate new information into a meaningful world view.

Sukhomlinsky understood that in the second half of the twentieth century (and this is even more true in the twenty-first century) learning must be a life-long pursuit. He knew that a self-motivated learner, driven by curiosity, will make far greater progress at school than one who is forced to learn through a system of rewards and punishments. He also believed that every student's mind is unique, and that each child views the world through a unique pair of eyes, drawn to different aspects of the world that surrounds them.

To develop creativity Sukhomlinsky employed teachers with diverse interests and work skills, and established a program of extracurricular activities that provided children with many opportunities to discover their talents and creative abilities.

Sukhomlinsky took great pride in the diversity of extracurricular activities at his school. A key feature of these clubs was the way younger children worked alongside older children and learnt from them:

The ‘School of Joy’ is what Vasily Sukhomlinsky called an informal preschool class that he ran to prepare children for school. It was conducted under the open sky, and involved lots of walking, observation of nature, talking, making up stories, drawing, games, caring for plants and animals, meeting new people, and learning to read and write along the way.

The first thing that catches the eye of a child who enters our school in grade one is the array of interesting things that all, without exception, are busy with. Each pupil has a favourite workplace, a favourite hobby, and an older friend whose work serves as a model. The overwhelming majority of pupils are not only learning something, mastering something, but passing on their acquired skills and knowledge to their friends. A person is being truly educated only when they pass their knowledge, experience and mastery on to someone else. One only begins to sense one's creative powers and abilities when one enters into moral relations with another person, becomes concerned about increasing their spiritual wealth. This is how a vocation is born and how self-education occurs. In the work process moral relations between personalities arise from the moment when one begins to see in another their own virtues, when the other person becomes as a mirror to them. It is on these moral relationships in the collective that vocational self-education is built.  

The clubs that operated after school were an integral part of the educational experience at Pavlysh, having a great influence on the general atmosphere of the school and on children's interest in and success at their studies. They also provided a key avenue for pastoral care. The diversity of extracurricular activities ensured that every child could find some activity in which they could develop their creativity.

Empathy, curiosity and creativity are valuable attributes in any human being, especially in the 21st century, and Sukhomlinsky's insights into how to educate such qualities are still relevant today.

Dr. Alan Cockerill 

You can also access on our website e-versions of Sukhomlinsky's book 'My Heart I Give to Children' and Dr. Cockerill's biography of Sukhomlinsky 'Each One Must Shine.' They give immense food for thought and action for any conscientious educator or parent today.. 

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Seeking Truth: Sixty Years in Early Childhood Education - Wendy Scott O.B.E

"I learned a great deal from the children, families and communities in London's Docklands and the East End where I started teaching in 1961. Conditions were not much better than those faced by the McMillan sisters in Deptford half a century earlier. Children played on unreconstructed bomb sites, and many, including immigrant families, lived in difficult conditions. My college training had not equipped me with necessary knowledge about bed bugs, or prison visiting, so I had a lot to learn …"

"Educators should guard against over-concentration on formal teaching and the attainment of a specific set of targets". the Rumbold Report 'Starting with Quality' 1990

In a paper which we are publishing for a general readership, Wendy Scott brings much to our attention in a rounded reflection on her sixty years of experience and advocacy in early education. The highs, principles, histories of morally committed pioneers; developing democratic early educational practice despite the disinterest of wider society; the frustrations and volte-faces of policy and ministers. She highlights the need for educators to maintain vigilance and articulate 'what quality is and should be' in the face of seas of change and ignorance in recent and contemporary times – and from her own experience reminds of the need for individuals to find their ways to keep rooted and also open.

Wendy Scott is an early years teacher with extensive experience in the PVI sector as well as schools. Headship of a demonstration nursery school was followed by a senior lectureship at Roehampton University, where she co-ordinated the original advanced diploma in multi-professional studies.

Wendy has been an early years and primary inspector in London, and has worked across England as an OFSTED Registered Inspector and trainer. She led The British Association for Early Childhood Education and chaired the national Early Childhood Forum before becoming a specialist adviser to the DfES, and working abroad with the British Council and UNICEF. She is has been President of TACTYC, the Association for Professional Development in Early Years, and has judged the Nursery World Nursery of the Year competition since 2008. She was awarded an OBE for services to education in 2015.

"The Treasury … allocates resources to Government Departments over three years. This is reviewed biennially, but is followed by an annual internal battle within Departments for funding. This together with our oppositional political system makes long term strategic planning virtually impossible: I was told that my ideas for developing secure and effective early years provision over 20 years had no chance, nor did any proposal that would take longer than a single parliamentary term."

"A heavy accountability system together with inappropriate definitions of school readiness and ill-advised approaches to the teaching of reading are narrowing the curriculum in nurseries as well as reception classes. Several recent initiatives pushed through by Ministers go against research evidence and professional experience. The lack of respect for expertise is hard to understand, let alone accept. …. The politician simply put his hands over his ears, and said "I'm not listening". "

"As an experienced professional, I have deep concerns that rigidly imposed accountability to a flawed system currently takes precedence over the real needs of individual pupils: rising levels of mental health problems among students of all ages and stress on teachers are serious symptoms of the current malaise. It is very frustrating to find that although many parents as well as professionals seek to speak truth to power, they are not being heard. The human cost is considerable, and will cast shadows long into the future."

You can download the article from our bookshop. Please follow the link.

 There is no purchase cost: please complete the order process and ignore comments about payments. You will receive an email which includes a download link. 

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Dialogue, Courage and Patience

Sightlines Initiative Network member Gillian Reece-Jones has been reflecting on a recent positive encounter with parliamentarians, recounts that they were open to learning from the profession, and invites us all to connect more with politicians.

Like many of you these days, I seem to be continually accosted by emails,usually from the DFE, to respond to consultations on prospective changes to policy on what is inevitably called these days 'the early years sector'. I usually sigh and mutter 'lip service ' and 'waste of time', then dutifully compose a piece that advocates my long held principles of early education, which even as I press 'send' I feel is bound to be left unopened and unread.

Initially I had the same thoughts when I was invited to attend an APPG meeting (All Party Parliamentary Group on Childcare and Education) last week. The intention of the Zoom meeting was for representatives from early years to brief MP's and members of the House of Lords on the viability of the 'early years sector' and the flyer didn't sound too appealing and frankly not my usual cup of tea.

"With the early years and childcare sector integral to the national economy and society, providing vital services to workers across the country and high-quality early years education, providers have called for this APPG session to convey deep concern that unless action is taken to protect the sector, long-term damage to economic recovery and future economic growth will be stifled, as well as a permanent scarring of those vulnerable children who most depend on high-quality early years education."

As you can see from my italics, early education and the needs of vulnerable children seemed to be very much an afterthought and the central discussions would be around the child as a' commodity: 'human capital being educated and trained for the economic needs of the future.

I would normally have deleted immediately but I am in the latter stages of writing up a Master's dissertation on 'school readiness' from a practitioner's perspective and the human capital theory has appeared in many of the academic papers I have been using so thinking I might be able to use the discussion in a paragraph or two,I accepted the invite to attend and joined the Zoom.

As we have all found in recent months, Zoom calls are difficult, especially with large numbers but apart from the fact we only saw the Chair of the APPG ,Steve Brine MP, and the three invited speakers and only heard from them and the Parliamentarians, the ongoing text chat from those like me attending in the background illuminated and brought the meeting to life.

Steve Brine in his introduction stated that he had already spoken to Rishi Sunak about the importance of early years to the economy and that there needed to be a full review on childcare and early years education. The APPG were petitioning for a debate in Parliament where they would seek All Party support for a review.

Helen Donohoe, policy advisor from Pacey, talked about early years requiring a long-term strategy for direct funding and that the current Pupil Premium system requiring parental application, was over complicated and time consuming for settings to administer.

She also stated that any review should revisit recruitment; by improving the perception of working with young children, with a recognised career and pay structure would create a profession that was aspirational and attractive to a young and diverse workforce. Level Three staff and above are leaving the profession in droves year on year. She also indicated that the needs of parents and how they are supported particularly after COVID-19 needs to be urgently addressed.

The committee members of APPG asked lots of questions about the current pay rates and the qualifications and these were answered by Helen but also by those on the ongoing text chat.

Julian Grenier, Head Teacher of Sheringham Nursery School and Children's Centre, was the next speaker and obviously in agreement with Helen. He discussed the priorities for a 'meaningful review'and suggested a re-visit to the Nutbrown Review to implement those recommendations and stated that 'graduate leadership requires a qualification and career framework and public funding requires clear processes and defined outcomes'. His ten-minute section was very cleverly constructed as he put up simple slides with the front page of the Nutbrown Review and the EPPSE 3-16+ report along with pictures of children from his nursery. This was for the APPG committee to take note of for further reading whilst ensuring their thoughts were very child-centred.

Julian also talked about the importance of community and how funding at the grassroots level is so important to addressing the issues and needs in areas of high disadvantage .There were lots of questions from APPG members and one was on 'school readiness.' Julian directed them to read the UNICEF document 'School readiness and transitions' which not only asks 'is the child ready for school' but also 'is the school ready for the child' and 'is the community ready to support them?'

This created a lot of interest from the MPs and the in-text chat discussed organising, leading, and funding early years settings at the local community level and how that might be achieved. I could feel a small chink of possibility at that point.

Julian also highlighted that the 30-hour funding formula is propelling the 'Matthew Effect' i.e.'the rich get richer, the poor get poorer' and that nurseries in disadvantaged areas have the least funding and employ the least qualified staff.

He then posed a question for members of the APPG to reflect on.

What is childcare and early education for? Is it: 1) childcare for working parents? 2)Early education for young children? Or 3) Promoting more equal life-chances?

There was discussion about the DfE and the civil service within it and how unresponsive it is to MPs questions which I thought begged the question if they don't listen to you how can we expect them to listen to us!

The third speaker was for me a disappointment. An American, Dr Jenna a paediatrician, launched into her work on human investment in America(It was the longitudinal High Scope study) and of course mentioned her 'award winning book'. I think the turn off for me and many others was the neuroscientific explanations for unlocking the potential of babies learning. It was all delivered so quickly even I only caught half of it.

After further discussions when the APPG members were asking lots of questions or responding to items in the chat, the meeting finished, all wrapped up in an hour.

Was it useful?Yes, I think was. Would I attend again?Yes, I would.

The APPG are an informal back bench committee from the Commons and House of Lords and as a committee have no formal powers as a Select Committee has. However they all sit in their respective House and by being in dialogue directly with people from the early years community on a regular basis surely they must be able speak with a clearer understanding on the issues we all currently face? The MPs attending were clearly impressed by the degree of professionalism amongst the educator participants and became very open to supporting the re-framing of education from a value-led, professional starting point.

The early years community is fragmented by all the different types of settings and funding, i.e. PVI or grant maintained and of course by the different pedagogies (those 'alternative narratives') we embrace in our principles and practice. These are all reflected in the ever increasing number of 'bodies' representing specific areas of early years and whilst I know they are extremely supportive to their membership in offering training and network opportunities they do rather keep us all separated.

We need far more opportunities to work in a pluralist way on the issues that affect us all, and not only dialogue together but with those with the influence and opportunity to make changes for the better. The 'More Than a Score' group in which Sightlines Initiative participates, are doing  this to great effect, and the new Early Years Coalition is a great prospect.

So instead of feeling as a community that we have to shoehorn our pedagogy into an ever tighter space and be compliant/resistant to the constant imposition of policy and inspection on our practice let us instead start ever so slowly to take back control. Let us reach out to Montessori, Froebel, Pikler and Steiner and other colleagues who are already finding common ground to confront the dominant discourse which currently ignores us. Let us ensure that when bodies engage on 'behalf ' of early years we are represented and have a place at the table too.

Finally let's use the democratic rights we all have to participate with groups like the APPG, but also to answer those calls for evidence from the Education Select Committee who regularly call the DfE and Ofsted to attend and account for their actions relating to early years (check out the Parliament website) as well as those from the DfE.

Years ago, at a Sightlines Initiative Conference, Peter Moss called us 'early years guerrillas': well the time for subterfuge is over.We need to come out from cover and engage.

So for 2021 the words I will try to live by are 'dialogue ', 'courage' and 'patience' …what are yours? 

Gillian Reece-Jones is an early years educator, was a governor of single primary academy which she led as Chair into a MAT co-created with four other schools. Currently she is working full time to complete a Masters in Early Childhood before deciding whether to continue with academia and (when Covid allows) continue to work with parents and children under two.

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