Froebelian Leadership – Kirsty Maxwell

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Project summary:

Action research and reflection on leadership from a Froebelian perspective in an early learning and childcare community


The nursery manager wanted to extend her Froebelian vision with staff, children and families in a deeper way.  It mattered to her that more practitioners should be Froebel trained to have a truly Froebelian setting. This led me to think critically towards applying Froebel’s principles to develop Froebelian minds in the setting.  Using a coaching approach with the manager supported her own critical thinking about existing pedagogy; nature, outdoor play, clay, block play, and slow pedagogy across mealtimes.  Professional dialogue with her team enabled discussion to share thoughts about how to deepen Froebelian practice within the setting which enabled me to co-create with the manager, opportunities for distributed leadership to empower knowledgeable, nurturing educators.  

Using a democratic leadership style, I hoped to lead this team on their journey to becoming a Froebelian learning community. Using a coaching approach with the manager would support her to further develop self-evaluation and reflection within her team, building a shared vision that would as Senge describes show a “genuine commitment” to Froebelian values and principles throughout the setting rather than “compliance”.  Accordingly, as our beliefs inform our professional judgement that impact on our work-based learning so encouraging the team to co-create this vision would enable further learning about Froebelian principles to guide practice and encourage unity and connectedness with staff, children and families.   It was important for colleagues to try new approaches in leading Froebelian principles in the setting, consequently greater reflection in the coaching sessions with the manager moved her thinking to a deeper level revealing that we shared a belief that to build a Froebel learning community needed opportunities to share ideas and build on the team’s strengths to develop the Froebelian ethos which was the main goal. The systems used helped practitioners to have a voice and share enthusiasm for their work and empowered them to make changes throughout the learning environment to support a Froebelian pedagogical approach. Small steps were taken to introduce distributed leadership to build confidence and encourage leadership with and through the team which took courage to embrace “at each stage be the stage”. 

 I facilitated the project by leading coaching conversations with the nursery manager. This helped her to engage in self-reflection with the team, developing deeper relationships to understand better their thoughts, values and feelings about changes to the setting using a Froebelian approach to their pedagogy and indeed their learning as I had hoped this would provide an insight into their thoughts about further Froebelian study. 

 I was reminded through the leadership course that: 

“It is of course easier… to have an answer given by someone else but it is far more valuable and stimulating for them to find it out for themselves… [so] we should rather put them in the way of finding answers…” (Lilley, 1967:126) 

 Thus, I led a block of information sessions discussing Froebel’s Principles in Practice Today pamphlet so there was understanding within the team and that the manager was committed to the setting evolving with an underpinning Froebelian ethos.  Coaching conversations with the manager encouraged her to think critically about her observations of practitioners as autonomous learners and what they would gain from leading an area within the nursery.  In doing that helped consolidate her vision, her integrity and commitment to this goal.  Opportunities to lead change through freedom with guidance optional. There was commitment from almost all practitioners to attend the Froebel Trust sewing webinar and begin setting up an area within the nursery to facilitate new experiences for the children. 

Embracing this new learning I felt the team should share their practice and learning wider by setting up a sewing display at our local authority inset event. This was very well received and encouraged colleagues to make further connections with other interested practitioners across the local authority.  I provided the manager with the opportunity to lead a Dumfries and Galloway Froebel network meeting, supporting her to share how she was embedding sewing within the core provision for the children and the impact it was having while also leading opportunities for colleagues to share further reflections about Froebel’s principles in their work.  Self-evaluation with the team revealed that the children’s participation in the sewing space gave a sense of success in creating this area and ownership of and motivation by becoming joint decision makers.  This chimed with the manager’s thoughts that like the children, adults also learn best when they are given responsibility, allowed to experiment and make errors, decisions, and choices. They were respected for being “autonomous learners”. 

The leadership questions this raised are ways of, as Senge describes; opening up to new knowledge and experiences of Froebel’s principles that challenge the assumption that certification is necessary, therefore allowing staff creativity to lead transformation and change.  With that in mind, how does the manager continue to build capacity within the team that underpins a Froebelian ethos and influence their strategic policies for better outcomes for children and families if the team does not commit to further certificated Froebelian learning?  How could the manager ensure continuous learning mattered within the team? 

 My colleagues learned that relationships are key to having meaningful engagement with children who are respected as joined decision makers and capable learners.  They have been supported by me to think critically about the needs of these children and families through observations and self-evaluation of their own and collective pedagogy. The manager has shown commitment to sharing her vision of a Froebelian ethos for those children and families by communicating this with staff and gradually nurturing their knowledge of Froebelian principals in practice to develop and sustain the very best learning environments for children to thrive.  For some this has challenged their values and has meant they must adapt and/or change their practice.  The manager has meaningfully engaged in professional dialogue with me in a coaching capacity where I have actively listened and challenged assumptions, values and beliefs to embrace what a truly Froebelian setting looks like for all; children, families and staff.  However working out with the setting meant this was not as often as I would have liked or at the times when it may have been most beneficial.  While most staff are valuing the changes to the environment and the impact Froebel’s principles are having on the children’s experiences and open-ended opportunities, I feel it is still a work in progress to secure commitment to further Froebelian study.  With that in mind, through time and as the setting evolves, so too may practitioners’ thoughts turn to engagement in learning alongside their peers.  I would like the setting to consider further the impact of their work and share this explicitly with their families by underpinning with Froebelian principles their rationale, policies and procedures.  I believe that would unify families and the setting to create an authentic partnership comfortable in making decisions together at the right times for the children. 

 Reflections on my leadership learning are that you must be very self-aware of your character to build good relationships with people on which to base any kind of change and select the right approach to do it.  I think this course has been very good at nurturing self-reflection of my personal leadership skills as opposed to evaluating the outcomes of a particular project I have facilitated.  Actively listening through professional dialogue helped me critically think about the manager and her context. Therefore, as professional dialogue became more thoughtful, natural and focused on goal setting, I improved in my ability to communicate more effectively, based on the information presented by my colleague.  I noticed a change in my behaviour being more confident to probe deeper to get to the heart of values and beliefs from both my own and colleague’s perspectives. While this was a strength within our relationship, I did feel that my coaching skills are still an area for growth and pondered if the sporadic timing between sessions affected any momentum in facilitating a change in pedagogy and adult learning that resulted from it.  However, I believe freedom with guidance leads to confidence building and will unify the team towards their Froebelian ethos in the setting through time.  The feedback from my colleagues that my support of their setting has been a valuable asset to them in their Froebelian journey was very reassuring that my leadership skills are effective.  I sometimes see my role within settings as just my local authority job but nurturing educators to become successful leaders themselves will continue to give me a sense of pride and joy. I hope to continue leading and learning about Froebelian pedagogy further and deeper in settings across Dumfries and Galloway as we strive to develop our links across the authority and networks across Scotland and beyond.  I would really like to see further engagement in the practitioner inquiry within settings and opportunities to share that practice to support each other.

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