Supporting student teachers for a participatory pedagogy through Shier’s model of participation in Grade R (Reception Year) South Africa


Source: Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 43:2, 251-264

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

There is a paucity of research investigating how participation is implemented practically, especially in the South African context.
It is hoped that this study will contribute to both theory and practice in terms of considerations and recommendations for a stronger participatory pedagogy to be implemented in the Foundation Phase in South Africa.
The aim of this study was to explore final year Foundation Phase student teacher experiences using Shier’s model of participation during work integrated learning (WIL).
The research questions were as follows:
1. What are final year Foundation Phase student teacher experiences using Shier’s Pathways to Participation model of participation during WIL?
2. How do these experiences influence student teacher thinking about using Shier’s model of participation for future practice?

A qualitative approach with ethnography was used to examine student teacher experiences of Shier’s model of participation during WIL.
Ethnography provided the opportunity to study a social group (Cresswell, 2013), in this case, student teachers, to listen and record their voices pertaining to their experiences using Shier’s model.
Ethnography also provided insights for a holistic cultural portrait of how a participatory pedagogy was experienced using Shier’s model.

Research context - Ten final year Foundation Phase student teachers, from 23 to 45 years of age, studying toward a Bachelor of Education degree at a local university in the Western Cape, participated in this study.
Students were purposively selected as fitting the criteria: students needed to be exposed to the lectures on Shier’s model, familiar with participatory pedagogies and experienced with WIL in a Grade R context.
During the final year, students study the compulsory subject, Grade R (Reception year).
For this subject, students are introduced to the knowledge and skills necessary to teach Grade R effectively.
The study of WIL requires eight weeks, four of which are at the beginning of the second school term and the other four at the beginning of the third school term.
During WIL, students should be able to demonstrate knowledge, skills and values, specifically including participatory pedagogies.
Student knowledge about participatory pedagogies is enhanced through introduction of transmissive and participatory pedagogies.
Students are also introduced to child development theories that focus on children as agents and social actors.
Moreover, focus is on how teacher beliefs, teaching techniques and pedagogies influence the way in which children participate. Research sites were Grade R classrooms associated with primary schools.

Data collection process - Data was collected through one semi-structured, 90-minute focus group interview with all ten students.
This focus group was conducted in English, recorded and transcribed.
The interview was designed to prompt responses to student teacher experiences using Shier’s model during WIL, their challenges and the possibility of future use of the model.

Data analysis - A thematic approach (Yin, 2003) was used to analyze the data.
Common themes were categorized; similarities and differences were identified from the data.

Findings showed that while using Shier’s model was challenging, student teachers showed evidence of a growing possibility for positive change toward using the model in future.
Three key themes were identified and discussed below.

Listening for the right answer
The first level of Shier’s model of participation focuses on whether teachers are prepared to listen to children and how teachers work in ways that enable them to listen to children.
Prior to student teachers attending WIL, the model was unpacked during lectures and students were asked whether or not they were prepared to listen to children.
Some students indicated that they were prepared to listen to children whilst others indicated that they were prepared to listen but with some conditions.
When student teachers returned from WIL, they were reminded about their comments related to their willingness to listen to children with conditions and whether those conditions had changed.
The findings indicate that the student teachers experienced challenges with listening to children.
One of the challenges was related to students training to listen to children in relation to achieving the outcomes of the lesson.
Listening was only focused as a skill that primarily needed to be enhanced for the development of language, a receptive skill in language acquisition.
Emphasis was on listening to children for the “right answer” but not listening in relation to their views and opinions.
Whilst it is important that teachers achieve their outcomes as planned for a lesson, there are numerous opportunities for teachers to also listen to the opinions and views of children as these can also direct their future teaching.
Another challenge was related to how a tightly prescribed curriculum pressures teachers to achieve outcomes within restricted time frames.
Yet another challenge concerned the large class sizes while students completed their WIL which made listening genuinely difficult.
Shier’s (2001) model of participation emphasizes the first level of participation whereby teachers are ready to listen to young children: this is seen as an opening.
Whilst an opening indicates that a teacher is ready to show a personal commitment to be participative, an opportunity is only possible when this is realized in practice.
In the above scenario, it is evident whilst the student teachers are open to listening and exhibit awareness of these issues, they are challenged with opportunities which may be due to a lack of skills training and knowledge related to listening to children’s voices (Shier, 2001). Shier (2001) posits that in order for authentic participation to take place, children’s voices are listened to, children are given the space to have their views known and children are part of decision making processes.

Children unaccustomed to having their voices heard
The data revealed most of the student teachers were open to listening to children, to giving children the opportunity to have their voices heard.
Student teacher comments suggested that whilst they attempted to listen to children, the children were not accustomed to having their voices heard.
In one scenario, the student teacher showed initiative at the level of opening (Shier, 2001) creating an opportunity in practice that enabled her to listen to the children.
She chose movement as an activity through which she afforded the children an opportunity to decide how they move from one object to the other.
To her disappointment, however, the children were surprised that they really had an opportunity to make a decision as they are often not allowed to considering that the class is normally rigid and structured.
This could be due to the Grade R teacher’s adherence to prescribed curriculum which disadvantages children’s participation.
Bae (2009) reminds us of that barrier to participation around the simultaneous promotion of independent thinking and attention to children’s voices whilst following a prescribed curriculum.
Theobald and Kultti (2012) alert us to how talk in early year’s settings is dominated by teachers, leaving little or no room for children’s participation.
This raises concerns about how children are conditioned to think, talk and act in a manner controlled by the teacher.
Kellett (2010) notes that collaborative activity between adults and children in early childhood contexts contribute substantially to effective child participation.
In addition to the student teachers expressing concerns about children not being accustomed to having their voices heard, they also highlighted how the children were forced into a little box to do what the teachers wanted them to do.
This was evident when children worked at their tables doing formal written work.
This restricted opportunities for exploring the fantasy areas and playing with blocks.
It was evident that children did not experience shared power associated with making decisions between the teacher and themselves.
The student teachers were confident that if children were afforded opportunities for making decisions and sharing power they would gradually become more responsible and realize that actions have consequences.
The student teachers in this study are voicing their concerns that children be empowered to make decisions and have a voice in the Grade R context.
The student teachers realize that if children are empowered with voice, they will develop accountability for their actions and acknowledge shared responsibility with choices and decisions.

Mentor teachers closed to giving children an opportunity to express their views
The student teachers were asked if they incorporated any activities to give children opportunities to express their views and if they shared this idea with the mentor teacher.
The data reveals tension with opportunities for what the student teachers wanted to achieve in relation to giving children opportunities to express their views and what the mentor teachers wanted.
It was apparent that one of the student teachers was open to giving children an opportunity to express their views.
However, when she attempted sharing the opening with the mentor teacher to progress this into an opportunity, the mentor teacher was closed to the idea.
Shier (2001) states that openings occur when a teacher is ready to show personal commitment to participate.
Due to the fact that the mentor teacher was only comfortable doing things the way she always did, she refused to even begin at the level of opening (Shier, 2001).
Child participation includes teachers who acknowledge that children have opinions and can make decisions (Theobald & Kultti, 2012).
Teachers should also provide opportunities for children to have a say and an influence over activities that occur in their daily lives (Theobald & Kultti, 2012).
When preparatory settings form part of a school, as is the case with most Grade R sites in South Africa, participation does not occur easily and a child’s initiative to participate is often not considered.
This could be due to teachers’ philosophical and practical approaches to teaching coupled with the structure of the curriculum and hierarchical organization of Grade R within the school setting.
This can silence teacher voices.

Bae, B. (2009). Children’s Right to Participate-challenges in everyday interactions. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 17(3), 391–406.
Cresswell, J. W. (2013). Qualitative enquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches (3rd ed.). USA: Sage.
Kellett, M. (2010). Small shoes, big steps! Empowering children as active researchers. American Journal of Community Psychology, 46(1–2), 195–203.
Shier, H. (2001). Pathways to participation: Openings, opportunities and obligations. Children & Society, 15(2), 107–117.
Theobald, M., & Kultti, A. (2012). Investigating child participation in the everyday talk of a teacher and children in a preparatory year. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 13(3), 210–225.
Yin, R. K. (2003). Case study research: Design and methods (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 

Updated: Aug. 01, 2022