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Title of case study: Acknowledging student’s existing knowledge as a way of approaching academic understandings

Author:: Sigrid Brogaard Clausen
University: Roehampton University

Key concepts: Student voices and collaborative work, Student experience and understandings related to and used as a critical approach to theory/academic literature, re-contextualisation
Background: Children’s Communication and Culture is a HE1 module on the BA Early Childhood Studies, Roehampton University. The module is an introduction to the study of children’s culture including children’s storytelling, play, drawing activities, use of books, television and multimedia. In the module we aim to create awareness of what it means to work with a ‘child perspective’ and supporting ‘the whole child’. The module assessment is a group presentation.

Some of our students seem to struggle when asked to explore and challenge their own understanding and critically evaluate theory while reading/using academic literature. They seem not to be ‘using’ theory, but rather approaching quoted research as an unquestionable truth, or, alternatively, they choose not to invoke theory but present their points of view unchallenged and as ‘common sense’ ideas (and generalisations). This seems to be a problem both in written and oral presentations
A part of academic study in Early Childhood is to develop an understanding of analytical and critical approaches to the content and use of theory and academic literature. Students need to read and familiarise themselves with various supporting and opposing theories in the process of developing an informed point of view and critical understanding of concepts, definitions and perceptions of Early Childhood. It is a process that does take time and needs time to develop. However this also opens some interesting opportunities for lecturers to see how we can support and nurture this process via different materials and ways of teaching.
2 characteristic features of the study of Early Childhood that are worth mentioning are -
1. 1. Interdisciplinary – wide and general knowledge, as well as specialised knowledge in subjects and linked to various disciplines such as sociology, psychology, cultural studies, neuro-science, health, and history.
2. 2. The development of values - working with and developing values e.g. related to ‘view of human nature’ and ‘views of children’s nature’ and in this including own view and experiences.

What I was trying to achieve
Running a new course for 1st year students in ‘Children’s Communication and Culture’ my aim was to implement a Claxton and Bernstein understanding of students’ learning:
a. o Leaning including a process of building upon the students’ existing knowledge, the new knowledge to be tested against the existing or previously held knowledge and a shift from a main focus on information input, to giving time to digesting knowledge. (Claxton 1997)
b. o Learning including to work with the process of identifying and recognising knowledge, concept and theory, develop an understanding and then expressing and critically reproducing and re-contextualising the theory. (Bernstein 1990/1996).

To engage in this leaning process, I tried to work with the students, so that we created an ethos, where they feel comfortable in expressing their point of view and critically utilising theory and academic literature to challenge and support their understanding of Children’s Communication and Culture. Since the assessment for this module is a group presentation, an aim was also to support and develop the group processes and the students’ confidence in sharing ideas and differences, both within the groups and presenting them within the classroom
In this way the students took part in re-contextualising parts of academic texts in the context of early childhood study, the students’ and my own experiences and understandings.

In groups the students were set the task to express and discuss their own diverse understanding of how children’s culture can be defined. These understandings were then compared with examples of ‘researched’/academic understandings.
1. 1. I asked the students in groups to try and define what child/children’s culture meant and encapsulates. These definitions/suggestions were exchanged and discussed in plenum with the aim of recognising the students’ existing knowledge.
2. 2. This was followed by another exercise, where the students were asked to discuss and analyse Lofdahl’s (2005:8) understanding of children’s peer culture

The text chosen for the ‘research’ definition/discussion is drawn from the international academic journal Early Years. This is the example of the literature the students discussed (It was stressed that this was only a paragraph of text and could not be seen as a conclusive definition of children’s culture, but provided some suggestions of how children’s culture could be understood.)
“In my study I regard children as part of a peer-culture (Cosaro. 1985) where
children’s interactions and experiences create the frameworks for certain play
forms and actions to be allowed. But children are also acting subjects in play.
This means that context and children are dependent on each other (Valsiner &
Winegar.. 1992); children are both part of, and through actions and interactions,
co-creators of the social context. And this relation between the individual and the
context is of great importance within a socio-cultural perspective (Wertsch, 1998)
As described by Bruner (1990), it is through engagement in a culture that we
shape our meaning and that language and discourses are utilised as
interpretative systems. Bruner argues that our culture provide us with tools to
engage in communicative situations of narratives and interpretations. And that is
what children are doing in their play world when they negotiate about roles,
content and meaning. The use of language is essential to our cognitive
development, as thought and language are related according to Vygotskij
(1986).” (Lofdahl 2005:8)
By exchanging their understandings of Lofdahl’s definition/description of children’s culture with a focus on peer culture the students were given an opportunity to challenge their own understanding of children’s culture as well as familiarise themselves with an academic text and definition

Lecturer’s View
In defining ‘children’s culture’ there seemed to be a sound basis for the students to share their points of view as well as listening to each other. This seemed beneficial in both relating to their engagement in the following lectures and their participation in group work presentation. One issue that still remains open for discussion is whether the idea behind this ‘structure’ should it be shared with the students before they evaluate it or if students should be left to evaluate without a pre-description of the idea of exploring own opinions, understandings and experiences and then discuss it with theory. I have repeated the structure this year and have again had mostly positive responses. I choose not to make the structure explicit the first time and the feedback showed that some students found the first session confusing. Explaining the structure and the ideas behind it seem to make the students more comfortable with the structure. What I especially have gained a more informed point of view upon, is the necessity of discussing didactics/pedagogy with the students. In regards to the growing numbers of students from nonacademic back ground (but certainly also the rest) I believe that we need to discuss the diverse ways of learning and developing knowledge, and make our various approaches and teaching styles explicit. The analysis and discussion of the quote also supported my assumption of the significance of analysing and engaging in academic literature in groups and with the tutor/lecturer to support the analysis and engagement with academic literature.
Students’ views of the activity
The students were asked;
What do you think about the structure within:

. •Defining Children’s Culture from your own experience and knowledge
. • Exploring ‘academic’ understandings in groups
. •How did (and did it) affect your understanding of Children’s Culture and

this module? The students expressed appreciation of being able to express their point of view in groups and found it easier to read/explore academic literature within groups. They recognised the importance of listening to others’ point of views and exploring diverse understandings of concepts in literature.
Some students found it difficult to evaluate the task. This raised questions to the way the questions were set, which I explored this year, and found it necessary to go through the questions with this years students and ensure that they had understood what I was asking about. But insecurity and the issue of respect for authority will be an issue in evaluations like this, where students have to both show comprehension of a teaching form and evaluate it
Individual student reflections:
‘ It is easier to explore academic texts in groups as it can be discussed and each persons understanding can be helpful and make more sense’
‘I have learned more about what the different types of academic understandings are and working with it in a group’
‘1. I thought this was useful as it allowed people to share their opinion on what culture meant for children. Some people may have stronger ideas about this than others and it was very helpful to hear what others people thought and encouraged me to share what I believe
1. 2. Again I felt this was useful as working in groups encourage people to talk and become more comfortable in one another’s company. Also we all had different ideas about the academic writing we looked at, it was nice to hear and share ideas.
2. 3. I felt that it enhanced my understanding of what the module was going to look into. It also made me feel that the term ‘children’s culture’ can have a number of meanings and I look forward to exploring them and adapting on my knowledge of children’s culture throughout this module’

‘1. I think it is a good idea to write down or reflect upon you own knowledge/feelings as it gives everyone a basic point and something to talk about
1. 2. Although I feel a little weary with expressing my opinions in public (I got red) I do feel it is a valuable part of learning. In small groups, you can debate, challenge you own knowledge etc. on a small scale and then find a wider range of opinions and debate in a bigger group.
2. 3. Research is obviously a big part of learning; you find out facts and evidence to change you mind or support you opinion. Also develop knowledge from class. I do feel this method is effective. I came to university to build on and

challenge my own knowledge and to aid me to work effective with children in the future; and this is what this method does’
‘1 Defining children’s culture from our own experience and knowledge allows us to reflect on what we would consider culture to be, using our own childhood and the children we have worked with as a base, but also allows us to hear other students definitions and from their experiences, thus understanding how broad the definition of culture is
1. 2. Being able to explore academicunderstandings in groups means different peoples interpretations can be heard and our own understandings can become wider
2. 3. It allowed me to see as much more complex view of the culture of children and also means I have a better understanding of what the course aims to teach and explore’

My advice to others who might think of using this approach
a. o Not to be dismissive of the students ideas, (careful with how you respond to the students’ ‘first’ expression) it is in the following discussions and sessions that you can identify and clarify concepts and ideas. Engaging with academic writing, theory and concepts and familiarise yourself with them is a process that do take time and effort. Make this explicit and acknowledge that we all start from somewhere, but also need to read and approach the reading analytically to be able to develop a critically based informed point of view.
b. o It is important to create an inclusive, sensitive and constructive critical ethos in the class room, where students feel safe and confident in expression and discussing ideas, opinions and academic readings.
c. o Be sure to get responses from all students – allocate time in class for these evaluations. Otherwise you might end up only including the students that already have the confidence to express themselves and engage in academic discussions.
d. o Introduce and follow up this method with explicit talk about the method, so that the students gain an understanding of the academic process of creating an informed point of view and critical reflection as well as being involved in the pedagogical/didactic discussion of teaching and learning.

Sigrid Brogaard Clausen
Early Childhood Studies, Roehampton University June 2007

Feedback: I would welcome feedback about the issue of looking at environments for children generally.

Brogaard Clausen, S Acknowledging student’s existing knowledge as a way of approaching academic understandings
in the MEDAL Casebook, MEDAL Consortium (2007)


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