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Our research began in February 1998. In the early years, we spent a significant amount of time developing and revising our research protocols; specifically protocols for teachers to record their observations of children and protocols for analyzing those observations.
The early data we analyzed included teachers' visual notes (primarily of children working with blocks and other three-dimensional materials), photographs teachers had taken of children and their structures, and children’s documentation (e.g., sketches, maps, artwork, writing). Later, we added protocols for documenting Nature Notes in Dimensions' Nature Explore Classrooms™.
For the first few years, our research findings were primarily published internally. In particular, they were used to inform our teacher/co-researchers, staff, and parents about our discoveries. We also incorporated key findings into our internal staff development (teacher training) program, grant proposals, our series of Nature Explore™ and Train-the-Trainer workshops, the development of the Nature Explore Classroom concept and design consultation process, and the Learning With Nature Idea Book. Though our research continued to evolve over the years, our early insights became the foundation for many of the guiding principles Dimensions uses today in creating spaces and selecting materials to support meaningful learning for children.
One of the first major documents we produced was titled, “Working Hypotheses–Insights from Visual Notes – Fall 1999-Spring 2002”. This document was a summary of four years of data analysis, which was collaboratively conducted by Dimensions’ Executive Director, teachers, our architect consultant, and qualitative research specialist.
This document was intentionally titled “Working Hypotheses” to reflect the evolving nature of our research. The concept of working hypotheses applied to qualitative (naturalistic) inquiry suggests that our data are viewed in context (based on the characteristics that are unique to this site). In their hallmark text, Naturalistic Inquiry (1985), Yvonna Lincoln and Egon Guba suggest that working hypotheses are not nomic generalizations that become “laws” (cast in stone) to support theories that result in deductive hypothesizing for future studies. Rather, working hypotheses come from (and are ground in) the data – they are arrived at inductively and are applied based on the situation and context. Rather than conclusions about “The Truth”, working hypotheses are framed tentatively and examined repeatedly with the addition of new data and when situations and contexts for the research change. The researcher’s task is to describe and interpret the uniqueness in each new setting and situation and uncover the working hypotheses that fit within each specific context.
At its inception, our research was exploratory and broad. We had few preconceived notions about where it would lead us. Our overarching purpose was to explore how young children developed visual-spatial skills, and how teachers could best support that development. We were working with a “blank slate” as we examined our early data, and the categories identified in our working hypotheses document reflect the key themes that emerged during our first years of analysis. In summary, our early insights related to:
The working hypotheses document represented the culmination of our careful analysis of each data entry in teachers’ journals, and our attempt to “make sense of” the emerging patterns. Since the internal publication of this document, we have added five years of data and three formal, weekly analysis teams. We have incorporated a focus on children’s learning in nature and our Nature Explore Classrooms. Teachers record Nature Notes outdoors and continue to document children’s visual-spatial activities inside and outside. We continue to compare our emerging findings with our original working hypotheses, which continue to ground our practice and serve as guiding principles.
Key Skills Children are Developing
As we began to examine each data entry, we constructed an analysis protocol. to help us identify the specific skills children were developing through their visual-spatial work, and interactions with nature, natural materials and other manipulatives. Continuing our use of an inductive process as we examined teachers’ documentation, we identified a list of key skills we saw children developing, noting specific examples in our data that provided “evidence” of those skills. Over the years, we have continued to add to the original skills list. We published the skills list internally for teachers, who requested that the list be reproduced on the backs of the forms they use to record their observations of children. The skills list serves as a checklist for teachers when they are recording why they believe each data entry is significant. Copies of teachers' documentation also go home in children's portfolios, so parents see the skills their children are developing.
An important part of the skills development process is teacher support. In April 2009 our researcher compiled data from focus group interviews with teachers and teachers’ documentation that specifically identifies the variety of ways teachers support/scaffold children’s learning. A collaborative team (two teachers and our research director) are currently working on a paper on the role of teacher support. The attached table summarizes our data.
More than Play – An Early Article Summarizing our Findings
In February 2004 our research consultant wrote a short article titled, “More than Play: Children Learn Important Skills Through Visual-Spatial Work”. The primary audience for this article was Dimensions’ parents and teachers. It was published internally as a supplement to the Parent Newsletter. The article summarized some of our key findings, based on the analysis of teachers’ early visual-notes. It includes samples of teachers’ sketches (scanned directly from the raw data), one child’s sketch, and sample categories from the Construction Typology that Dimensions uses in our workshop on Developing Observation Skills.
The Construction Typology was created inductively from our data. The architect who was part of our original research team developed the typology based solely on data drawn directly from teachers’ observations (i.e., sketches of children’s building). Rather than developing an exhaustive list of construction skills apriori, based on her knowledge of architecture and construction, the architect was careful to represent on the typology only those skills we had observed in the data.
Dimensions first published the typology internally, for teachers to use as a tool in their observations of children’s visual-spatial work. Teachers indicated that seeing the categories of skills on the typology validated their documentation and affirmed that they were recording important skill development. Teachers carried copies of the typology with them as they observed children, and suggested enlarging and laminating it and placing copies on the walls (at children’s eye level) in the block areas of our early education classrooms. The benefit to teachers was that the typology served as a visual guide for them as they depicted children’s work. The categories on the typology also helped teachers notice things children were doing in their visual-spatial work that teachers had not previously seen children doing. The Construction Typology gave teachers a new lens through which they could view children’s work.
An unexpected outcome of posting large, laminated copies of the Construction Typology in the classrooms was children’s interest in them. At times, the Construction Typology inspired children’s building. Children consulted the drawings on the typology prior to building and selected materials to reproduce the skills represented on the typology (e.g., bridges, tunnels, a stepped structure, an imbricated wall). Sometimes children consulted the Construction Typology after building, to see if they could match the visual depictions on the typology to what they had created. Often, the typology provided an opportunity for teachers and children to dialogue about children’s work, and for teachers to share vocabulary with children (e.g., “I see you’ve made a steep ramp”; “Where is the door to your enclosure?”; “What shape is the inside of your tunnel?”). The Construction Typology also served as a two-dimensional representation of children’s three-dimensional building process, which provided children withmultiple perspectives.
The Teacher/Co-researcher Role
One of the unique features of Dimensions' research is our commitment to the Teacher/Co-researcher model. All of our teachers are trained on qualitative research methods, including close observation and documentation skills. Dimensions partnered with a local college to offer a three-credit, graduate level qualitative research course in 2001 and 2007. Fourteen of our teacher/co-researchers and three Dimensions consultants completed the course (including our senior landscape architect).
Ongoing, weekly staff meetings encourage Dimensions’ teachers to be reflective practitioners. As is characteristic of qualitative research, in their role as co-researchers teachers serve as the primary instruments for data collection. Part of their job description includes submitting weekly documentation for our research. In the fall and spring each year, all teachers also participate in focus group interviews to give them the opportunity to dialogue with other teachers regarding what they are observing about children and what they are personally learning. Teachers are involved in all phases of the research process, from framing research questions, to collecting and analyzing data, and writing and presenting our findings.
In the fall of 2007, Dimensions’ Research Director presented a paper on the Teacher/Co-researcher model at the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) Annual Research Symposium. The focus of the paper was on teachers’ perceptions of how the teacher/co-researcher model had transformed them personally and professionally and transformed nature education at Dimensions Early Education Classrooms. The data presented in the paper were collected between fall 2004 and Spring 2007, in a series of eight focus group interviews that included all teacher/co-researchers, plus individual interviews with five teacher/co-researchers. The paper describes:
Dimensions' teachers directly attribute their involvement as co-researchers to job longevity. Our teachers have an average tenure that exceeds ten years. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) estimates that turnover for preschool teachers averages 30-50% annually (January 2005, Smart Money). When this paper was written in 2007, 16 of 21 teachers employed on the preschool staff (76%) had been with Dimensions since the beginning of our research in 1998. Several teachers attributed this longevity to new “opportunities for growth” and “new eyes” their involvement as co-researchers provided, “increased professionalism”, “increased job satisfaction”, and a greater sense of “mission” in the “important” work they are doing.