Interactions with young children are profoundly important for supporting and extending their learning. They are so much a part of the daily experience of both practitioners and children that it is easy to assume that they come about readily and naturally. Our experience challenges this assumption. It would seem that something about the role of educator – as opposed to parent, carer or interested adult – puts pressure on practitioners to say things, and say them in ways, that are sometimes unnatural and often unhelpful. Why is this? Well, research into interactions between adults and young children in a variety of contexts suggests that by adopting the role of educator, adults sometimes force their own agenda onto children at an age when children are often highly motivated and driven by an agenda of their own, and do not welcome the interference!
It is important to examine the interactions that take place between early childhood educators and the children, from 6 months to 6 years, with whom they work. We can start by exploring both adult-led and child-led contexts and ask how interactions in these different situations can be made more natural, more purposeful and more effective – for children and for practitioners. Interactions are so important for young children’s learning and development.
There have been many attempts to identify the elements that lead to effective interactions between practitioners and children. But these are hugely dependent, of course, on the author’s or researcher’s definition of ‘effectiveness’.
In the influential study of under fives in Britain in the 1980s (Bruner 1980; Wood et al. 1980), Bruner describes the challenge of trying to achieve what he calls connected discourse (conversation) to occur. At the time, he and his colleagues were looking for a simple exchange between the adult and child where there was at least a three-element exchange on a single topic: A talks to B, B replies and then A responds to B’s response. Of 9600 half-minute periods observed, Bruner reports that only 2 per cent contained such conversations.
In Tizard and Hughes’ (1984) famous study of the difference between the interactions children and adults have in the home and at school, the authors analysed what they term passages of intellectual search, characterized by persistent questioning on the part of the child and the process of relating the adult’s answers to existing knowledge. They found that mothers were more responsive to the questions of the child than teachers in schools and that mothers built more effectively on their child’s existing knowledge, understanding and language.
The government-funded project ‘Studying Pedagogical Effectiveness in Early Learning’ (DfES 2002a) claimed that effectiveness is a result of the adult and child operating from a shared frame of reference that the researchers refer to as ‘a mutual learning encounter’, which includes not only the relationships and interactions between a practitioner and a child but also between the practitioner and the child’s family.
Around a similar time, Siraj-Blatchford and her colleagues in their report on ‘Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years’ (DfES 2002b) introduced the term sustained shared thinking (or what Bruner termed joint involvement episodes: Bruner 1966) to describe ‘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.’ This research identified that the quality and quantity of episodes of sustained shared thinking were contingent upon the qualifications of the practitioners in the different settings within their study.
More recently (2008), Robin Alexander’s research project ‘Talk for Learning’ has drawn on Gordon Well’s use of the term ‘dialogic inquiry’ to speak specifically about dialogic teaching, which he describes as the exchange between adult and child which formulates the extent and manner of the child’s cognitive development. Dialogic interactions he conceives as collective, reciprocal, supportive, cumulative and purposeful.
In 2007, Mercer along with Karen Littleton adopted the term interthinking to describe how teachers and primary/secondary age children work together to solve problems, ‘combining their intellects in creative ways that may achieve more than the sum of the parts.’ (2007: 4).
These different terms describing the nature of interactions are not exclusive, but they demonstrate in their different ways how researchers and educationalists have attempted to capture the complexity that characterises an effective educational exchange between a practitioner and a child.
Is there a project definition of ‘effectiveness’ that would adequately describe the findings of research? All of the terms cited above seemed helpful at some level or other in describing the nature of an interactive episode, but most did not offer an adequate yardstick, against which judgements could be consistently made, as to whether an interaction was actually ‘effective’ or not.
There are commonly-held criteria that are used in the judgement of ‘effectiveness’ altrhough there are possible limitations:
For an interaction to be ‘effective’, learning has to be enhanced. This alone might be seen as problematic for practitioners working with young children, as ‘enhancing’ could be appropriate in an adult-led context but sometimes result in overwhelming the child’s agenda when activity was child-led.
For an interaction to be ‘effective’, it has to be enhanced by the practitioner. This may seem obvious. But on many occasions learning is enhanced by other children; by the environment or by the child’s own independent enquiry. In an ‘effective’ interaction between a child and practicioner, the practitioner must make a contribution that benefits the child. The contribution made by the practitioner might be cognitive, emotional, social, dispositional or metacognitive, but if the practitioner intervenes or interacts without any discernible impact on learning or development, then that interaction is clearly unhelpful or unnecessary.
It is important to clarify that ‘something positive’ might not always refer to something cognitive. In keeping with the project participants’ commitment to the development of the whole child, ‘something positive’ might be cognitive, social, emotional, dispositional or, indeed, metacognitive.