Young children reflecting on their learning: teachers’ conversation strategies

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Ume University Library]On: 18 November 2014, At: 17:00Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Early Years: An International ResearchJournalPublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ceye20

    Young children reflecting on theirlearning: teachers conversationstrategiesMargaret Carr aa University of Waikato , Hamilton , New ZealandPublished online: 14 Sep 2011.

    To cite this article: Margaret Carr (2011) Young children reflecting on their learning: teachersconversation strategies, Early Years: An International Research Journal, 31:3, 257-270, DOI:10.1080/09575146.2011.613805

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  • Young children reflecting on their learning: teachers conversationstrategies

    Margaret Carr*

    University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand

    (Received 14 March 2011; final version received 9 August 2011)

    A two-year research project with teachers in nine different early childhood cen-tres was designed to explore and extend opportunities for young children toreflect on their learning. This was described as children becoming wise abouttheir learning journeys; the aim was to find ways to assist them to articulatetheir understanding of what they had learned and how they had learned it. Thelocation for extending these abilities and dispositions was children and teacherstalking together as they revisited and reviewed documented learning events. Thispaper highlights the strategies that worked well for thoughtful conversations,and comments on those strategies that did not. It argues for the value of childrenas co-authors in conversations about their learning; these conversations can con-tribute to their developing views about how they learn and assist them to con-struct continuities of the learning that is valued in this place.

    Keywords: early years; pedagogy; dialogue; learning stories; narrative

    Introduction

    For two years, from 2008 to 2009, a group of teachers in nine early childhood cen-tres worked on an action research project to explore the ways in which young chil-dren could become more aware of their learning journeys, and perhaps about thelearning journeys of others too. The research team connected the teachers with theuniversity (a university researcher) and a professional development programme (thedirector of the programme and visiting facilitators). In particular we wanted toexplore how teachers could develop and enhance this ability and disposition. Wecalled this the Learning Wisdom project, inspired by a growing literature on thistopic (Craft, Gardner and Claxton 2007; Sternberg and Jordan 2005; Sternberg,Reznitskaya and Jarvin 2007).

    Nicholas Maxwell (2007) defined wisdom as the capacity to realise what is ofvalue; and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura (2005, 2312) hadreplied to the question how does wisdom develop? by saying that Two key anddynamically interrelated factors appear to be openness to experience and a capacityto reflect on experience to make sense of it. This paper discusses some of the waysin which teachers and young children, together, might develop this dynamic interre-lation between an openness to experience and the capacity to reflect on experienceto make sense of it. This is somewhat contested terrain in early years discussions.

    *Email: margcarr@waikato.ac.nz

    Early YearsAquatic InsectsVol. 31, No. 3, October 2011, 257270

    ISSN 0957-5146 print/ISSN 1472-4421 online 2011 TACTYChttp://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09575146.2011.613805http://www.tandfonline.com

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  • Folk views (Olson and Bruner, 1996; see Carr, 2001a, 120 on folk models ofassessment in the early years) can include the notion that deliberate reflectionspoils spontaneous open-ended play. This paper argues that it is valuable for chil-dren to reflect on their learning experiences at least some of the time and that teach-ers can develop strategies to assist children to do this.

    Why is it valuable for children to reflect on their learning?

    One of the reasons for enabling children to reflect on their learning is to contributeto their developing views about how they learn, and their identities as learners;these views may be established in the early years and are often resistant to change(Smiley and Dweck 1994). Writing in A Handbook of Wisdom about foolishnessas in some sense the opposite of wisdom (Sternberg 2005, 332), Robert Sternbergrefers to Carol Dwecks research on beliefs about fixed intelligence:

    Dweck (2002) suggested that one form of foolishness arises when people have falsebeliefs about their own intelligence, for example that their intelligence is fixed ratherthan malleable. These people believed that effort demonstrates incompetence ratherthan intelligence. Because they believe that intelligence is fixed, they may fail to uti-lize opportunities to raise their level of intellectual performance. (Sternberg 2005,336)

    Folk psychology and folk pedagogy, our everyday intuitive theories about learningand teaching and about what childrens minds are like and how they grow, are verypowerful, enhancing or constraining childrens opportunities to learn. Dwecks workon mindset has provided insights on barriers to learning in early childhood (Burhansand Dweck 1995; Carr 2001b). One of the implications of her research is that whenchildren have conversations about their learning journeys with adults whose ideasthey trust, they become aware of the ways in which their intelligence is malleable.And, as Dweck has concluded:

    The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when itsnot going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allowspeople to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives. (2006, 7)

    Part of the process of reflecting on being a learner is to practise clarifying and artic-ulating ones ideas and listening to other perspectives. Research from the EPPE(Sylva et al. 2010) and REPEY (Siraj-Blatchford et al. 2003; Siraj-Blatchford andManni 2008) projects in England developed the pedagogic strategy sustainedshared thinking as a feature of effective pre-school settings. Their analysisrevealed a general pattern of high cognitive outcomes associated with sustainedadultchild verbal interaction, and they argue for the value of articulating onesideas:

    The notion of ideas becoming apparent to the thinker is one echoed by Dewey (1938),Hoyles (1985) and Damon and Phelps (1989) amongst others, who argue that the pro-cess of articulating ones ideas publicly promotes the process of self-reflection; forcingthe speaker to bring to consciousness the ideas that s/he is just beginning to graspintuitively and to justify and declare these ideas (Hoyles 1985, 209). (Siraj-Blatchfordand Manni 2008, 8)

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  • They comment on the high percentage of closed questions which usually receivevery short responses by the teachers in their study, and they point out that manyopen-ended questions are often closed questions in disguise, since there is onlyone expected and correct answer. This finding supports the early study of BarbaraTizard and Martin Hughes (1984) on talking and thinking at nursery school in com-parison with more reciprocal conversations at home.

    One of the principles of an early years pedagogy, articulated in Te Whriki, theNew Zealand early childhood curriculum (Ministry of Education 1996), is thatChildren learn through responsive and reciprocal relationships with people, placesand things (1996, 43). Taking some ownership in a conversation enables the lear-ner to make connections with his/her own experiences in a meaning-making discus-sion. Tizard and Hughes were especially interested in the situations in which thechildren asked questions, thereby taking on some of the authorship of a conversa-tion and playing a part in its reciprocity and sustainability. Asking timely andappropriate questions was an issue for the teachers in the Wisdom research groupas well.

    A further reason for these discussions about learning is to enable children to rec-ognise what learning is valued in this place a comprehensible purpose for beingthere. Neil Mercers research in primary schools had concluded that:

    . . . the quality of childrens educational experience is significantly affected by theextent to which their dialogue with the teacher gives what they are doing in class acontinuity of meaning (so that activity is contextualised by the history of past experi-ence) and a comprehensible and worthwhile purpose. (Mercer 2002, 145)

    One assumes, of course, that the educational purpose is indeed comprehensible andworthwhile, and, although a national curriculum is very helpful in this regard, tea-cher education, professional development and action research projects with teachers(like this project) strengthen teachers ability to articulate a continuity of worthwhilemeaning and to talk with children about episodes of learning they have noticed,recognised and documented as part of that continuity.

    This paper is about inviting and provoking children to develop experience withmore authoritative and accountable (Greeno 2006) patterns of responsibility for theirlearning; and for teachers to find ways in which they can provide those invitationsand provocations.

    Revisiting event stories

    We sited the conversations in opportunities to review documented events of learn-ing. Research on mothers reminiscing with very young children about events ofthe day (Nelson 2000; Nelson and Fivush 2004; Reese and Newcombe 2007) hashighlighted that revisiting or reviewing event stories can contribute to the chil-drens meaning-making and autobiography. Katherine Nelson, writing about hergroups work on the emergence of the encultured self (2000, 191, 192) had thisto say:

    The great amount of research on young childrens construction of personal memorieswith adults that my group and others have carried out over the past two decades(Fivush and Hudson 1990; Nelson and Fivush in press) indicates that children learn

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  • about themselves and construct their self-stories through the medium of narrativizingexperiences with others. . ... In my view, children learn to narrativize, and in so doingthey learn to remember their specific past and to imagine their specific future.

    In the same year, Katherine Nelson and Robyn Fivush reported that their (l)ongi-tudinal studies indicate that an elaborative maternal reminiscing style facilitateschildrens developing autobiographical skills (2004, 286). Because under-fives inmany countries now spend considerable time with teachers in early childhood set-tings away from home, it was our view that teachers too could engage in elabora-tive reminiscing revisiting and reviewing conversations with children, in orderfor children to expand their views about learning in general, to make meaning ofthe educational purpose in this place, and to construct self-stories about being alearner.

    Opportunities and contexts for conversations on learning

    In the early practising phase of the project, teachers became alert to opportunitiesto initiate spontaneous conversations on these matters, using phrases like Remem-ber last time, or This looks different or You couldnt do this last week andHow did you learn to do that?. Here is an example from Jane, one of theteachers:

    Jane (teacher): Oh, Danielle you know how to swing! How did you learn to do that?Danielle: You just teached me! . . . Remember?J: No, I forgot.D: Yeah, you teached me.J: Oh. What did I teach you?D: You said put my legs back and out, back and out.J: Oh, I see. And does it work?D: Yes, I swing my legs to make it go. See, I can go high.J: Yes, you are going higher and higher.

    Danielle (four years old) is reminding Jane, through words accompanied by actions,that she has learnt something new and that teaching and a mutually valued learningoutcome were connected. The action research project explored the value of moredeliberate occasions for talking about learning.

    One of the major catalysts for this talk was Learning Stories, and the photosor DVDs attached to them. Learning Stories as an assessment tool have becomecommonplace in early childhood centres in New Zealand (and in a number ofother countries); this tool was developed with teachers in five different types ofprovision (Carr 1998) in response to the then new early childhood national curric-ulum in which the outcomes were described as learning dispositions and work-ing theories. The development of this assessment tool has been discussedelsewhere (Carr 2001a; Carr, Hatherly, Lee, and Ramsey 2003; Carr and Leeforthcoming). Learning Stories are stories about learning, documented by teachers,often dictated by children and, in school, written by the learners themselves. Theyinclude text that describes the context and nature of the learning episode, an anal-ysis of the learning, usually one or more photographs (occasionally a DVD), anda suggestion about future work. A number of teachers in New Zealand schools

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  • are using Learning Stories to document their students learning as well (Davis,Carr, Peters and Wright forthcoming), in response to a school curriculum (Minis-try of Education 2007) that includes five key competences as dispositional out-comes that parallel the five curriculum strands in the 1996 early childhoodcurriculum.

    In each of the early childhood centres in this project, Learning Stories and theirportfolios were readily accessible to the children and their families; children oftenspontaneously picked them up, reviewed the stories (often with a peer), readingthe pictures and remembering the events. Many children had memorised theirfavourite stories and were actively contributing to their own assessment (Carr, Leeand Jones 2004b). Families take the portfolios home regularly, and read them withthe children; this provides them, too, with the opportunity to engage in conversa-tions about learning events with their children. As we know, in early childhood,and in education generally, families play a key role in transmitting expectations andaspirations to children (Hattie 2009, 70; Siraj-Blatchford 2010). Assessment prac-tices, and teachers conversations about them, also play a key role in the construc-tion of these expectations and aspirations.

    The nine contributing early childhood centres documented revisiting conversa-tions with at least one (usually four-year-old) case-study child over a year, keepingnotes on occasional and spontaneous conversations about learning as well. As theproject developed, children (and teachers) began to see revisiting conversations asregular everyday events. Sometimes they were incorporated into routines (aschildren arrived, for instance). They began to recognise and construct a range ofopportunities for provoking revisiting opportunities: wall displays that include pho-tographs and Learning Stories, the same resources available for continuities todevelop, and collaborative opportunities. The nature of the Story text and the qual-ity of the visuals made a difference to the opportunity for a thoughtful conversation,and a sequence of photographs was helpful. Table 1 sets out these contexts for pro-voking revisiting conversations.

    Conversational strategies

    The research added audio-recording to informal conversations. For most of thechildren and the teachers this was an unfamiliar process, and initially many of theteachers used a succession of direct questions in a, usually unsuccessful, attempt tokeep the talk going for a decent recording; the children tended to respond with one-word answers and moved on. On one occasion, sharing a transcript with theresearch group, one of the teachers said Here comes the inquisition, as a sequenceof questions elicited short yes and no and dont know answers. At the otherend of the power scale, we had explored minimal encouraging at an early meet-ing, and one of the teachers shared an example where she had used a lot ofparaphrasing, and the child began to respond by talking louder and louder, appar-ently assuming that she could not hear properly. She commented: That paraphras-ing got away on me. At one centre the teachers brainstormed some questionsbeforehand, but when they tried to slip them in it shut down the flow of conversa-tion: the authenticity of the conversation was lost. After six months of practising inthe project the recording had become second nature for the children and theteachers, and they had learnt some new strategies from trial and error and fromgroup discussions with the other teachers and facilitators in the research group.

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  • Table 1. Contexts for provoking revisiting opportunities.

    Contexts for provoking revisitingopportunities

    Accessible places One centre moved the portfolios to make themmore readily accessible. In most centres theyclearly labelled on the spine so that childrencould recognise their own, and they were nearan invitingly comfortable couch

    Routines For some children, the beginning of the daywas a time of settling in, and the portfolioswere a place of belonging for them, theirpeers, and perhaps a family member

    Visiting wall displays A number of wall displays includedphotographs and Learning Stories of currentprojects. Children were interested in these, aswere visiting family. The displays gave themideas about what they might try to do that day,often as a result of a conversation with a peeror a teacher. One child practised his drawingsof temples by referring to a wall display, laterusing photographs on a website for furtherreference and conversation

    The same resources regularly and readilyavailable; a range of representationalmodes available

    Often stories included activities thattraditionally would not be available forchildren to pursue a challenge that had beenwritten up weeks or months earlier. Theenvironment for ongoing projects (makingmosaics, for instance) included the readilyavailable resources so that children couldreturn to the activity when an early LearningStory, and the discussion about it, inspiredfurther work. As children explored ideas, theyoften revisited the same topic across modes ofrepresentation: taking photographs, drawing,painting, block construction, carpentry, makingmosaics, exploring information on the internet.These emerging domains of expertise provideda rich source of conversation

    Collaborative opportunities Group discussions about portfolios oftenencouraged children to discuss their learningexperiences. When these groups included ateacher, feedback from the teachers indicated thatit appeared to be a more understandable orauthentic task for the children when teachers saidCan you show/tell So-and-so (another child)how you. . . rather than Can you tell me. . .

    The nature of the story and the visualsmade a difference

    Some stories appeared to more readilyencourage talk than others, but there did notappear to be a general recipe. The quality andclarity of the accompanying images (usuallydigital photographs but sometimes movie clips)certainly made a difference to whether thestories engaged the children. For these four-year-olds, who are not yet readers of text, asequence of photographs was especially helpful

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  • They became much more skilled at enabling the children to take the lead, and confi-dent of its value, and some key strategies emerged (see Table 2). One of the teach-ers, Naomi, wrote in her reflections on the process:

    I have instigated many of these revisiting conversations and sometimes I have not cho-sen my timing well and the conversation has reflected this: the child doesnt seem toointerested and so I am having to lead the discussion; this often leads to my asking toomany questions and the child does not say much.

    She reported on the vast difference when she responded to one of the childrens ini-tiatives: Today my timing was different in that I could see Rose was looking forsomeone to share her portfolio with and I seized the moment. . .. What a differencebetween this conversation and the first one I initiated. When the children were co-authoring the conversation, they tended to take it in unexpected directions. In oneepisode of revisiting a Learning Story, the child focused not on the story but on aphoto of one of the teachers who was not now teaching at the centre. She (thechild) then introduced a new topic with an analogy: [Thats] just like when I chan-ged my teacher at swimming and the conversation turned to her growing compe-tence at swimming. The listening teacher added that letting the child take the leadmade a difference.

    The teachers used a range of conversational strategies as they semi-formallyrevisited portfolios and Learning Stories in these different contexts and talked aboutthe learning with the children. Having something mutually interesting for the partic-ipants to talk about was important; the Learning Stories usually worked well as cat-alysts for talk, especially when the stories were personalised, there werephotographs attached, the text written was a good read, and reference was madeto earlier examples of learning or earlier stories.

    Table 2 summarises the conversation strategies for revisiting learning thatoften worked well in this project. Four categories emerged: authenticity, co-authoring, personalised connections, and group discussions. Authenticity wasabout the sort of conversational contributions that might have been made in anadultadult interaction context, i.e. the kind of conversations style that childrenwould have heard as the teachers talk to each other. Co-authoring was aboutsharing the power and the initiative. There was a recognition that the childrensfocus of interest may be different from the teachers, and giving time and oppor-tunity for this was acknowledged. It also included developing a shared learninglanguage and vocabulary over time. Personalised connections were made withchildrens interests and expertise, past experiences and possible futures, and fami-lies. These connections worked to sustain the conversations. Group discussionswere encouraged: children often readily discussed group projects, and frequentlyjoined in with enthusiasm when an individual portfolio, not their own, was thetopic of conversation.

    The following are excerpts from the transcript of a video recording between Isa-bella (a four-year-old) and Kim (a teacher). Isabella is revisiting her mosaic storiesand has opened her portfolio to the first mosaic story; she has introduced the wordpractising and Kim asks her to clarify this. It provides an example of a balancingof listening, supporting and initiating in order to co-author a learning sequence inan authentic way. Personalised connections to the family and to further possiblework along the same lines are introduced at the end.

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  • Table 2. Conversation strategies for revisiting learning that often worked well.

    StrategiesStrategies for revisiting learning that oftenworked well

    Authenticity: Authentic (genuine)conversational contributions

    Most successful were the sort ofconversational contributions that might havebeen made in an adultadult interactioncontext, for instance one teacherscontributions to a conversation revisiting aLearning Story included: that looks scary,youre looking serious, I like blue too

    Co-authoring (i): Recognising that thechildrens topics of interest may bedifferent from the teachers and givingtime and opportunity for this

    Teachers often had to backtrack when itbecame apparent that there was a mismatchbetween what they thought was the childsintention or interest, and the aspect that thechild wanted to talk about. On one occasion,sharing a story about a child painting cowsafter he had been to a rodeo, the teacher soonrealised that the topic of interest was not cowsor the rodeo, but the glove that he was wearing.She commented in her journal that we realisedthat a glove featured on other occasions in hisplay and throughout his portfolio

    Co-authoring (ii): Developing a shared andsituated learning language

    Many centres developed their own learninglanguage, which teachers introduced andchildren adopted. Words and phrasesincluded: practising, trying hard, beingresourceful, modification, expert, superherolearners, being a (scientist, author). When thislanguage was used as part of revisiting alearning episode these ideas were attached topersonalised actions, rather than remaining asgeneral virtues. When used outside of aparticular episode the language ran the risk ofbecoming ritualised mantras, divorced fromaction and not attuned to opportunity.Teachers were developing a wide vocabularyof shared learning words and phrases,keeping them attached to the action, tocounter this

    Co-authoring (iii): Children dictatingcommentary for a Learning Story fromphotos

    This was usually a very successful method,especially if the child or children were veryinterested in the event or the topic (examplesincluded a succession of photos of a blockbuilding of a volcano, and of a fish project;both of these elicited conversations withchildren about how and/or what they hadlearned and became an invitation forthoughtful reflection)

    Personalised connections (i): Writing re-visiting stories that described the re-visiting event or conversation

    Sometimes, with a view to strengthening thedocumentation of learning continuity,teachers wrote up revisiting episodes asstories for the portfolio

    (Continued)

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  • K: So what did you practise?I: A butterfly (points to the photos) and (pause) I did the red outside and then I did

    the blues and then the yellow (continues to point to the photos) and the purple andafter that I let it dry, didnt I? (looks up at Kim)

    K: (nods head) Mmm you did. (smiles)I: A little bit and then I put that other tile (pointing to the photo), didnt I? (looks up

    at Kim)K: (nods head) Yes, you did. (Short pause)K: And why did we let it dry?I: Because it was a little bit sticked down (puts her fingertips together) wasnt it?

    (looks up at Kim)K: (nods head) Mmm.I: After the glue. And thats when we um let it dry out (pointing to photo) and then

    we put things on it, didnt we?K: (nods) We did. We did.I: Thats when Im practising (pointing to photo) and thats when I did the tile things(pointing to more photos) and then after that we let it dry. (pause, looks at Kim)

    K: Mmm.I: (Fingers moving) When we finished and then I let it dry (folds arms) and then weput that stuff on (joins hands together and wiggles fingers) on the top and then welet it dry after that didnt we? (big smile)

    Table 2. (Continued)

    Personalised connections (ii): Teachersrevisiting stories from home

    Families frequently contributed stories andphotographs from home to their childrensportfolios. Revisiting these stories was often agood context for conversations because theteacher had not been part of the originalepisode, so asking for clarification andquestioning made sense. Of course, a numberof teachers would have written stories for achilds portfolio, so it often created talk whenanother teacher and some peers shared thestory with the portfolio owner.

    Personalised connections (iii): Childrenrevisiting stories from the portfolios ofolder siblings

    This happened in one centre, where the childhad become familiar with her older (now atschool) sisters portfolio, carefully studied abird house construction, and then went on tomake her own and talked about it: in thiscase, we might say that there were twolayers of continuity of purpose and interest

    Group discussions Teachers found that often children wouldreadily comment on a group Learning Storyor another childs Learning Story, and theyencouraged group revisiting sessions. Theynoted that children changed their languagewhen they were commenting on otherchildrens learning. In one example, thevernacular Thats really bad was code forThats great (!). On a visit to a transportmuseum one of the teachers said: You couldask [named child]; shes an expert on planes

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  • As Isabella talks Kim through the process, Kim keeps the conversation going withconversation oil (Wood and Wood 1983) (nodding, Mmm, You did, Yes, youdid), shifting to the first person plural (we) to ask Isabella a direct question (Andwhy did we let it dry? perhaps reminding her that she, Kim would be able to assistwith the correct answer), adds another nod and then continues with the first-personplural in the collaborative We did. We did. The conversation continues.

    K: (laughs) We did. Do you remember what that stuff was called?I: No. (looks puzzled)K: It was grouting.I: Oh yes!K: Is there a picture of you?I: (looks closely at the photos and then points) There!K: Yeah.I: (continues to look at several photos)K: Is there one of you grouting?I: (looks at photos. Points to one) No. (continues to look. Turns the page)K: Ooh!I: (points to top of page and smiles)K: (laughs)I: There, there.K: Yep.I: Thats a nice picture. (looks at next page)

    Kim continues in collaborative style (laughs and adds We did), then returns to thesecond-person singular to clearly ask Isabella if she can remember the scientificword for one of the processes in mosaic-making. When Isabella says No, Kimsupplies the word, and Isabella appears to recognise it Oh, yes!. They search for aphoto of Isabella doing the grouting.

    K: Thats when you had finished, thats right.I: (turns page)K: A beautiful butterfly.I: Mmm. And I got a beautiful one here. (turns the pages to the second mosaic story)K: And what have you got?I: I made something new, didnt I? (continues to turn pages)

    Kim admires the product (a butterfly mosaic tile). Isabella takes over the authorship:adds an Mmm in response to Kims praise and turns the page to look at the secondmosaic story which Isabella, in turn, describes as beautiful, adding that I madesomething new, didnt I? to keep the conversation going, although she does notelaborate on this. They continue to look at photos, and are briefly joined by anotherchild, who points out that she is in one of the photos, then leaves. The conversationcontinues.

    K: (points to photo) Did you make this one for anyone special?I: (looks at Kim, smiling) Um. I made it for my sister! (pauses then nods) I have to

    make one for my Mummy (counting on her hand) and my Daddy as well.K: Do you?I: Ive got two things to make. (holds up both hands with two fingers pointing up on

    each hand)K: Two things. Is that your plan?I: Yep.K: Thats a good plan.I: (smiles). Recording ends.

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  • Kim asks an open-ended question to which she apparently doesnt know theanswer, and Isabella smiles as she names the family members who will now receiveher next mosaic tiles. Kim emphasises that she is making a plan and that it is agood plan, perhaps implying that it is both thoughtful and achievable.

    This has been a shared conversation about learning, referring to the past,remembering the sequence of events, and looking forward to the future. Kim usesa range of verbal and non-verbal strategies to find out what Isabella remembersof the process she has learned; together they retrace the past, evaluate theachievement, emphasise some learning verbs (practising and planning) and keepthe conversation going. Isabella uses some similar strategies to keep the conversa-tion flowing. And the portfolio is the third player here: it does a great deal of thework. The photos provide them both with cues for the learning conversation; theyare in sequence, and so are the pages, encouraging the co-authoring of a narra-tive. Over the next month Isabella does indeed complete two more mosaic tilesfor her family.

    Group conversations provide opportunities for children to articulate andexplain their views and for taking on other perspectives and co-constructingmeaning. In the following very short excerpt from a long discussion by four-year-olds Zeb and Anna as they watched a slide show of the kindergarten childrensexploration of fish over previous weeks, Zeb tells a story about a shark coveredin ash by a volcano (It went BANG onto a rock and all that was left in the seawas the skin and bones and they took it to a museum). Anna commented thatshe had read a library book about extinct volcanoes and the two children dis-cuss whether a number of named volcanoes in New Zealand are liable toexplode or extinct. The topic is not about the fish any more. The teacher (Mar-jan) affirms the new topic and repeats the name of an extinct volcano: OK. Anextinct one. Mt Maunganui.

    Zeb: Yeah. But some volcanoes just go for one day.Marjan: For one day.Z: Yeah, but some volcanoes go for two days and some volcanoes go for three

    days.M: Mmm. . .. [Zeb repeats and continues his previous comment, counting to ten

    and holding up all his fingers: Some volcanoes go for ten days.]Anna: And maybe they might go for one day.Z: Yeah and ten days.A: Or maybe zero days.(Anna and Zeb giggle)Z: Yeah, and then and then itll be just night. . ..A: Maybe when youre not around it explodes.

    Perhaps Zeb is determined to talk about a volcano-eruption disaster, andAnna, while well informed about volcanoes, is interested in the extinct volca-noes that erupt for zero days or volcanoes that explode when youre notaround. In any event they are sharing ideas and perspectives including aninterest in numbers and Zebs notion that a day does not include the night.A number of studies have found that children who have developed a store ofknowledge about something in particular will be willing to discuss andexplore their learning in quite divergent ways (e.g. Carr et al. 2010; Crowleyand Jacobs 2002).

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  • Concluding comments

    There are a number of implications here for teaching in early years settings and tea-cher education. The central message is the value of conversations about learningand the ways in which these can be facilitated. Early childhood student teachers onpracticum at my university, armed with an audio recorder, record their conversationswith young children and then transcribe and analyse their contributions using anadapted version of the protocol in Wood and Wood (1983). They are usually star-tled by the number of closed questions they use, and, while at first they blame thedemands of the audio recorder and their anxiety about pauses, as they repeat theexercise they come to practise more varied styles and responses, to experiment withconversational contexts, and to listen carefully to the childrens responses. Linkedto this, Siraj-Blatchford and Manni found that it was more often the graduate,trained teachers that were more likely to model a good range of closed and open-ended questions (2008, 15). But practitioners and student teachers need to be con-vinced that it is an important pedagogic purpose to sustain the effort of having con-versations in a busy early childhood setting. Spontaneous one-to-one conversationsare valuable and can be quite short: an 18-turn conversation documented in Carr,Lee and Jones (2004b, 12) and analysed as a rich context of teaching and learningtook just one minute and 12 seconds. Group conversations can be successfully facil-itated too.

    In this study, the likelihood of children asking questions and taking the initiativein conversations in an early years setting was closely linked to their becoming inter-ested and knowledgeable in at least one topic: the examples in this paper includedmosaic-making, sharks and volcanoes. This likelihood is enhanced by practitionerswho notice (and document) emerging domains of interest and expertise and whodevelop opportunities and strategies for listening to the childrens ideas. During theWisdom project, teachers deliberately used identity and disposition language thatemphasised developing competence. One teacher was revisiting a portfolio with achild; when he asked Is that me doing my book? (a reference to a new LearningStory where he was making a book about a recent trip) she replied, Yes, when youwere becoming an author. Another child became absorbed by problem-solvingexperiences with water play and pipes, and a teacher at his centre noted: I wasamazed at his concentration for such a long period of time. She commented on hiscontinued interest in water flow and pipes, as he became more ambitious: Furtherexperiments were carried out. Some of them worked and some didnt work sowell. She pointed out to him in a Learning Story that This is what happens whenwe do experiments. . .. I think scientists make discoveries like this too.

    The discussion in this paper is part of a wider pedagogic argument that class-room dialogue deserves some special attention (Mercer and Littleton 2007, 2). Itacknowledges the value of joint attention, and focuses our interest on the ways inwhich young children are positioned in early childhood provision. We began to seewise teaching and wise learning as a series of balances (Sternberg et al. 2007). Inthis context, having conversations about learning with young children, the balanceswere often reflected in the way in which the authorship alternated between teacherand learner, and sometimes within a group. The teachers in the project were payingclose attention to this balance: noticing, recognising and responding to childrensinterests, while at the same time keeping valued early-childhood-learning outcomesin mind.

    268 M. Carr

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  • AcknowledgementsThis research was supported by the Teaching and Learning Research Initiative programme,funded by the Ministry of Education and administered by the New Zealand Council forEducational Research. The author is grateful to the participants in the Wisdom researchgroup: Wendy Lee, the Director of the Educational Leadership Project (ELP), seven projectfacilitators from ELP, the teachers in the nine early childhood centres who were so preparedto share their failures as well as their successes, and the children and families in thosecentres as well. Transcripts on pages 4 and 11 will also appear in Carr and Lee(forthcoming).

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