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"I have a voice": an analysis of a constructivist early childhood graduate program. (Teaching Strategies).

In past columns, we have suggested frameworks and teaching strategies for many levels of students, including undergraduates. This article is about a graduate program that emphasizes a constructivist curriculum and a feminist perspective. We believe that the design of this early childhood program, including the phases of coursework with its carefully thought-out strategies, warrants inclusion in the "Teaching Strategies" column.--SG & JW

The word curriculum is derived from the Latin word for "race course"; the diminutive, currus, means chariot. In building and maintaining a course of study for students, teacher educators and directors of early childhood education graduate programs constantly seek better ways to support the forward movement of each student's chariot on the created course toward the completion of the race--a successful finish (graduation), and another informed voice in our field.

Those of us who use such constructivist approaches for the acquisition of knowledge can agree with Martin (1992), Noddings (1992), and Palmer (1998), who stress that good teaching is a complex and highly personal process. In addition, we may find ourselves in accord with the many education reformers (e.g., Glover, Morrison, & Aldrich, 1998; Merriam & Caffarela, 1991; Richardson, 1999) who point out that such programs are more congruent with adult learning theory programs. Moreover, we can share the view of others (Norlander-Case, Reagan, & Case, 1999) in believing that educational renewal is possible only if educational programs for teacher development are designed to be experiential and inquiry-based.

Practitioners of a constructivist approach in program design and implementation in early childhood education understand that although faculty can design a successful curriculum, students must be directly involved in guiding and understanding their own journeys. Palmer (1998) states that "to educate is to guide students on an inner journey toward more truthful ways of seeing and being in the world" (p. 6).

The Successful Chariot Driver--The Graduate

Recently, a colleague and I analyzed the effects of our constructivist early childhood graduate degree program from the perspective of recent graduates, in order to examine our success or failure in maintaining the program (DuCharme & Kaye, 2001). Each recent graduate (29 in all) was asked to respond to two questions:

* How has the graduate program in early childhood education affected your professional life?

* How has the graduate program in early childhood education affected your personal life?

The results indicated that all of the recent graduates interviewed perceived changes in their lives that they attributed to their graduate study experiences. Emergent themes were grounded in the data (Glasser & Strauss, 1967) and included "epiphanies" (Denzin, 1989) in a number of findings.

With regard to the question of how the graduate program affected their lives professionally, a variety of responses were recorded that may be summarized as follows:

* Becoming an advocate for children

* Accepting leadership roles in their professional contexts

* Applying newly formed personal knowledge in interactions with parents, colleagues, and supervisors

* Gaining an understanding of the learning process and empathy for their own students' ways of learning new things

* Looking optimistically to the future.

When asked about the effects of the graduate program on their personal lives, the graduates most often referred to the development and rediscovery of self and voice. Consistent with the theory of epistemological development, as constructed by Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (1986), the graduates stated that they felt empowered and more self-confident as a result of their participation in the graduate degree program. One graduate remarked, "I thought I knew myself before I began this program. I've surprised myself. I feel stronger. I have a voice." Other personal responses referred to time management, priorities, and organization in their personal lives. The results of the study suggest that a strong link exists between self-confidence and action as teacher-leaders, indicating that such a curriculum improves the odds for student teachers' success.

The Constructivist Curriculum--Elements of the Program

The participants in our study appeared to appreciate elements of our graduate degree program that: 1) respect them as professionals, 2) value their prior experiences, 3) acknowledge the integration of professional and personal knowledge and experience, and 4) challenge them to learn and think critically. Faculty members in our program share in the building of relationships with our students that support these components. For example, our graduate program connects theory to practice through dialogue, discussion, analysis, and reflection of program design. Therefore, the program itself reinforces the constructivism theories that are emphasized in the coursework (i.e., viewing young children as active learners in constructing new knowledge and making meaning of their environment).

Design of the Courses. According to constructivist theory, "challenging, open-ended investigations in realistic, meaningful contexts need to be offered" (Fosnot, 1996, p. 4). These very assumptions concerning the teaching/learning process drive the development of our course outlines and subsequent syllabi. Specifically, we challenge our students and ourselves with questions throughout the program to clarify trends, tensions, and struggles in: 1) the social, historical, and philosophical foundations of early childhood education; 2) theories of human development and learning; 3) educational policies and practice; and 4) multicultural and global perspectives. At the same time, we challenge our students to develop a critical eye when investigating research, as well as a well-articulated voice when expressing their beliefs about childhood education. As co-participants in an inquiry-based curriculum, both faculty and students have identified and investigated issues that include: 1) the place of culture in developmentally appropriate curriculum, 2) appropriate and inappropriate measures of assessing young children, 3) the uses and misuses of standardized testing in early childhood, 4) policy issues of diversity and multicultural curriculum, and 5) the place of play in the learning process.

Phases of the Program. The curriculum in our program consists of three phases, reflecting a gradual progression from an emphasis on issues primarily of interest to the practicing professional, to issues of theory and research, to the ultimate goal of developing in graduate students an understanding and integration of theory and practice. Throughout the program, consistent with our constructivist philosophy, we value each student's opinion or belief, regardless of whether it affirms our own thinking or contradicts our personal beliefs. When the latter happens, we actively discuss contradictions, illuminating and inviting them into the class dialogue. Rather than expecting consensus, we examine underlying assumptions and experiences that clarify--seeking research and other voices in the field that would enrich these valuable discussions and enhance the learning process.

The first phase of the program includes several courses that emphasize the practitioner's role and define the knowledge base in early childhood education. The design of these courses allows each student to engage in learning experiences that illuminate, confront, and challenge his or her understandings of how, what, and why young children learn. Beginning with this phase and throughout the program, faculty assist students in discovering resources to help them articulate their ideas.

The second phase consists of coursework that gives graduate students opportunities to become more deeply immersed in theories of growth and learning, as well as a chance to probe the historical and philosophical roots of early childhood education. Assignments concerning various philosophies and their underlying assumptions expose students to different world-views and value systems. As an example, students analyze both the documentation of program philosophy and curriculum processes in three self-selected local early childhood programs, in terms of underlying assumptions and theoretical underpinnings. They present their findings to classmates for further inquiry. The students identify questions that define the discussion.

The third phase of coursework includes a thorough analysis of research methods, in combination with scholarly literature reviews, to ensure critical understanding and interpretation of research results. As a result, this portion of the program supports students in constructing their own values and beliefs, integrating theory and practice, and approaching the "finish line" (i.e., graduation) with a coherent and well-grounded belief and value system for the discipline.

Classroom Process and Strategies

Our faculty is committed to replacing the traditional method of transmitting information with an exploration of ideas that often creates even more questions for the students to use in constructing new understanding and even more reflection. As a result, we become problem posers, pursuing a process that "is at the very heart of transformative teaching and learning" (Wink, 1997, p. 122). For example, we ask leading questions based on assigned readings to begin our seminars, and we develop assignments to connect theory with practice. In the classroom and in discussions among faculty, we consider Wink's (1997) four inquiry processes: dialogue, dialectic, reflection, and action.

Dialogue. Our faculty engage in ongoing discussions of how our processes are working. Since we are committed to a teaching style that involves dialogue (as opposed to teacher-directed lectures delivered from behind a podium), we have taken away a barrier, both in our classrooms and with each other.

Dialectic. As a result, the dialogue progresses toward more authentic discussion as we ask questions (i.e., between faculty and student, between student and student, and between faculty and faculty) to seeking understanding of each other's meaning and the meaning of the readings and research.

Reflection. To ensure the integrity of the overall program goals, the faculty still need to be gatekeepers for expectations of quality with their students. Therefore, from the beginning courses onward, we guide and assess our students through assignments and discussion to help them reflect upon their practice, while at the same time we support and challenge them to identify and interpret their experiences as graduate students. For example, in each course, students may resubmit assignments after the first evaluation by the instructor so that they can reflect further on, and improve, the quality of their work.

Action. In addition to reviewing research, we continually offer students opportunities to conduct informal investigations into areas of individual interest. We actively support students who demonstrate interest in conference proposals. For example, four students presented their findings at a national early childhood education conference, reporting on a study of parent involvement in a school where the majority of parents have limited English language fluency.

The Feminist Perspective

As identified in our graduate student study, the elements of feminist pedagogy (Belenky et al., 1986; Gilligan, 1982), when combined with a constructivist orientation, appear to be powerful components of a promising approach to graduate study and educational renewal. Feminist pedagogy, in the sense of caring and nurturing among participants (faculty and students alike), is expressed in the development of personal knowledge and self and appears to be an effective means of educating early childhood practitioners. As Noddings (1984) notes,

When a teacher asks a question in class and a student responds, she receives not just the "response" but the student. What he says matters, whether it is right or wrong, and she probes gently for clarification, interpretation, contribution. She is not seeking the answer but the involvement of the cared-for. (p. 176)

We articulate our belief that students are the "cared-for" by being available for mentoring, accepting students as valuable members of the learning community who bring rich personal experiences to the classroom table, and honoring the multiple voices that are present in each class. Subsequently, an authentic relationship must be formed with each student, each semester.


In this program, the outcomes are potentially as diverse as the society we represent. Our faculty members continue to study issues and support developing students' voices in the process of understanding the power of constructivism. As long as we passionately believe that what our students say really matters, and that our / their voices, together, can be a strong movement toward understanding, then our constructivist approach can contribute to better lives and experiences for the children who are at the mind-heart of what we do!


Belenky, M. F., Clinchy, B. M., Goldberger, N. R., & Tarule, J. M. (1986). Women's ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind. New York: Basic Books.

Denzin, N. K. (1989). Interpretive interactionism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

DuCharme, C., & Kaye, C. (2001, April). Defining the cohort experience: An analysis of the multiple perspectives o fa constructivist early childhood graduate program. Paper presented at the meeting of the Association for Childhood Education International, Toronto, Canada.

Fosnot, C. T. (1996). Constructivism: Theory, perspectives, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women's development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Glasser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine.

Glover, R. J., Morrison, G. S., & Aldrich, J. E. (1998). Graduate student cohorts: How well do they function? Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 19(1), 6-16.

Martin, J. R. (1992). The schoolhome: Rethinking schools for changing families. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Merriam, S.B., & Caffarela, S.C. (1991). Learning in adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Noddings, N. (1984). Caring: A feminine approach to ethics and moral education. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Norlander-Case, K. A., Reagan, T. G., & Case, C. W. (1999). The professional teacher: The preparation and nurturance of the reflective practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Richardson, V. (1999). Teacher education and the construction of meaning. In G. A. Griffin (Ed.), The education of teachers. Ninety-eighth yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education: Part I (pp. 145-166). Chicago: National Society for the Study of Educators.

Wink, J. (1997). Critical pedagogy: Notes from the real world. White Plains, NY: Longman Publishers.

Candace Kaye is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Programs, Early Childhood Education, California State University, Long Beach. (The programs have recently been approved by NCATE.)
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Author:Kaye, Candance
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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