Sustainability Dilemmas in Preschool Teacher Training: Engaging Students' Experience in the Local Place
The European Commission has since 2012 been working on setting out the priorities for early childhood education and care, seen as an important condition for improving learning at school, reducing social inequity and supporting social inclusion. Provision of high quality preschool education and care is in turn linked to adequately trained staff, and the Council of the European Union has decided on ”supporting the professionalisation of ECEC staff, with an emphasis on the development of their competences, qualifications and working conditions” (European Council, 2011). Forms of preschool education differ widely across European countries today (European Commission, 2015), and the training of preschool teachers is also very diverse (Eurofound, 2015). In Sweden, preschool education is part of the general education system, with a national curriculum (Lpfö98). Swedish teacher training of preschool teachers is regulated, and is - just as teacher training for compulsory school - provided at universities and university colleges.
The competence of preschool teachers is strategic for sustainability work in preschool settings. This study analyses the learning affordances of a task about conflicts of interest in sustainability issues. This task was given to students on a university preschool teacher programme, and aimed to develop their ability to reflect on values and interests in change towards sustainable societies, and to work with these issues in their practice as preschool teachers. The intention with the task was above all to challenge the student teachers’ reflection on dilemmas and conflicts (cf. Öhman & Öhman, 2012) in sustainability work.
Teacher education is of particular interest in developing competences required for societal changes towards sustainability (Rauch & Steiner 2013; UNESCO 2005; Wals 2014). School reaches most children and contributes to shaping a foundation for their development as adults. It influences the way they see knowledge paradigms, values and expertise. While later years tend to be structured in separate school subjects, preschool and primary school can shape the basis for a more integrated transdisciplinary understanding of society and the world. The early years are decisive for children’s perception of self and the way they see their place in the world. Experiences in the early years affect the child’s relationship to other life forms (Askerlund & Almers, 2016).
Among the aspects which determine to which extent teacher education can provide affordances for student teachers to develop competences in teaching for sustainabiity are: links to sustainabiity research environements; the ability to work across the divide between social and natural sciences; action-oriented knowledge (Avery & Nordén, 2015, 2017). Adequate teacher training in sustainability work for preschool teachers is not unproblematic, however, since preschool aims to strengthen the child’s development and socialisation through play-based pedagogy (Thulin, 2011; Edwards & Cutter-MacKenzie, 2013). It is not clear how preschool teachers can in practice satisfy the curriculum’s ambition to shape a foundation for understanding highly complex sustainability issues in preschool. Deep knowledge about causal relationships is needed if sustainability education is to form the basis for responsible democratic action (Lundholm, 2011). An additional problem is therefore that knowledge in preschool relating to the natural sciences is mediated by teachers who do not themselves have a strong basis in science (Nilsson, 2012).
It will here be argued that a possible approach to deal with these challenges is to work on practical questions of local relevance, where preschool teachers can to a greater extent draw on their own experience. Contextualising learning by relating to place has been identified as a significant element to increase engagement for sustainabiity (Beery & Wolf-Watz, 2014). However, place-based education can also be limiting, unless connections are also made to global interrelationships (McInerney, Smyth & Down, 2011; Nordén, 2016).
The investigated task took its point of departure in a local place, giving students the opportunity to use their experience and knowledge of local conditions to design pedagogical activities for preschool children that would be relevant to sustainability issues. The task relates to Swedish national curriculum aims (Lpfö98) concerning preschool children’s understanding of scientific phenomena and causalities, and also addresses the aim to familiarise chilldren with their surroundings and the locality (Curriculum for the Preschool, 2016). The curriculum notably states that preschool should ”develop their interest and understanding of the different cycles in nature, and how people, nature and society influence each other” and that preschool teachers should ”give children the opportunity of understanding how their own actions can have an effect on the environment”.
Data for the study consisted of observations of students preparing , carrying out and discussing their projects for the task. Additionally, the student course evaluationis of the task were analysed, to gain a picture of the student teachers’ own perceptions of the learning affordancesthe task offered and its relevance for their future professional practice. The analysis used as a point of departure conclusions of University Educators for Sustainable Development mapping studies (UE4SD, 2015), and two critical axes (Avery & Nordén, 2015, 2017) with respect to offering spaces for transdisciplinary and integrating reflection for the student teachers on sustainability issues, and linking their theoretical training to practice oriented work. The task the students worked with was firstly considered with respect to the learning affordances (cf. Caldwell, Bilandzic & Foth 2012) it offered, through different elements of its design, and secondly with respect to the students’ own perceptions and reflections on their learning, presented in the course evaluations.
Student course evaluations pointed to a perceived tension between the advanced content and working with preschool children. The course evaluations also displayed a tension between what students felt was useful scientific knowledge, and the social dimensions in sustainability. It thus appeared that working with dilemmas and place-based pedagogy was a promising approach to teach future preschool teachers ways of working with sustainability issues with young children. However, to achieve greater understanding and engagement, these approaches would require a more solidly established prior understanding among the preschool student teachers of transdisciplinarity (Mochizuki, Y. & Yarime, 2016) as well as of the significance of social dimensions of sustainability.
The analysis of student presentations and observations suggests that the fact that students could choose the conflict of interests that they wanted to work with and that it was situated locally did in fact enable them to relate to issues they were familiar with. This meant that they had a deeper understanding of the questions, and they could draw on richer contextualised , emboided and emotionally engaging resources from their own experience to develop activities for the children.
The fact that the task was placed in an outdoor environment and related to specific known places made it possible to connect the learning activities to concrete circumstances and lived experiences, thereby also making the scientific causalities and implications clearer than if they had only been represented verbally.
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