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Early Childhood

Vanderbilt Researchers Develop ‘Magic 8' Practices to Create An Effective Preschool

By Marva Hinton — October 19, 2017 4 min read
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A unique partnership between a group of researchers and early childhood educators in Tennessee has resulted in the creation of what’s being called the “Magic 8" practices that lead to an effective preschool program.

The practices were laid out in a new study published this month in the journal Child Development and first reported by The Hechinger Report.

The pairing between the researchers and early childhood educators came about after a 2015 study led by Dale Farran, a research professor at Vanderbilt University who also directs the Peabody Research Institute.

That study found that Tennessee’s preschool program had either no effect or a negative effect on students once they reached third grade.

“I think our work showed that pre-K, as we’re doing it today, is not accomplishing what we’d hoped it would and the goals that we’d set for it, which was more than kindergarten readiness,” said Farran. “They were long-term, positive effects.”

Farran said she was approached by the superintendent of the Metro Nashville public schools as he was developing Early Learning Centers. The idea was for her team of researchers to partner with his teachers and coaches to figure out a better way to do prekindergarten. Now they’re in their fourth year of working together, and this study looks at the first two years of their partnership.

Farran’s team conducted intense observations of 26 preschool classrooms in three different Early Learning Centers and presented the teachers and coaches with real-time data on what they saw happening.

She stresses that this took some getting used to on both sides.

“Most teachers have gotten into a situation where data are used to judge, not to help improve, and teachers feel just beset by all this information coming at them about their practices that doesn’t feel very friendly and very supportive,” Farran said. “So we had to learn how to present the data in a more supportive way, but teachers also had to learn how to trust us to give them information that might help their practices to be better.”

Eventually, the researchers decided to simplify things and focus on eight key practices:

  1. Reducing transition times,
  2. Increasing the quality of instruction,
  3. Creating a more positive emotional climate,
  4. Teachers listening more to children,
  5. Providing more sequential activities,
  6. Fostering social learning,
  7. Fostering higher levels of child involvement, and
  8. Creating more math opportunities.

One of the coaches dubbed them the “Magic 8" and that name stuck. Researchers began to find printouts of the practices on classroom walls.

“These practices have to do with how you interact with children and how you create a learning environment so that they can learn that content you’re interested in having them learn,” Farran said.

The researchers found that these practices were particularly important for children who began preschool with low academic skills.

A Changing Field

Farran said 20 to 25 years ago, many of these practices were automatic for early childhood educators, but they’ve been replaced with a curriculum-driven perspective.

“We need to remember that we’re dealing with 4-year-olds, and these interactions between teachers and children and children and themselves are really critical components of a classroom,” Farran said.

The researchers also found that some of the practices were easy for the teachers to adopt, but others were much harder. For example, listening to their students more proved difficult for a lot of the teachers.

“What we find is when we’re in the classroom teachers are talking about 70 percent of the time, but they’re only listening to children 12 to 15 percent of the time,” Farran said. “You don’t really know what sense they’re making of the world unless you invite them to talk to you.”

Farran said whole-group instruction invites teachers to talk at students without listening to them, and without hearing from a 4-year-old it’s very easy to be misled about their comprehension.

Next Steps

The researchers are working with the coaches to develop an app that allows teachers to see how they’re doing with the “Magic 8" practices. The hope is that this will allow the coaches to find solutions. So, if a teacher is taking too much time to transition from one activity to another, a coach will be able to pinpoint if there’s a behavior issue causing the problem or a logistical issue like a bathroom that’s too far away from the classroom.

Farran said this type of partnership is critical to improving early childhood education.

“There’s a lot of research published out there, and there’s a lot of practice going on,” Farran said. "[There’s] this huge gulf between it as we know, but that gulf has to be bridged by both sides. We have to figure out how to create trust among practitioners, but we also have to figure out how to make our researchers a little less self-centered and more determined to be useful to the field.”

Image by Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.