This blog post was contributed by Helena Taelman (ODISEE).
Educational professionals and researchers may build a nice innovation, grounded in the most recent insights of developmental and educational science. Nevertheless, it may not work as expected, since classrooms and schools are very complex realities (Willingham, 2012).
I suspect this observation also applies to the field of ECEC. Why not? I am fascinated by the story of innovations that started from a beautiful idea, but turned out less well. I mean no null effects, but plain negative outcomes or conflicting evidence with both positive and negative outcomes. How should we deal with this conflict between proposed innovation and evidence? Let us first start with some examples.
Two examples of innovations that resulted in conflicting evidence
Norwegian flexible groups for toddlers display lower interaction quality as a rule
The first time I heard about flexible groups was when a teacher trainer told me with full admiration about this Norwegian 20th century innovation. In flexible settings, children can participate in activities located outside their groups and with other groups. Both children and staff members can move around freely through the large space with interest and activity areas that are common for all. An underlying idea is that children are competent enough to choose where to play and how to play and interact.
The next time I heard about it, researcher Løkken and her colleagues  had compared the interaction quality in settings with flexible groups with the interaction quality in settings with stable groups, and observed a significant and substantial lower interaction quality in the flexible groups. The authors referred to the need for stability to establish high-quality interactions in close relationships, as one of several explanations for this finding.
Multi-age groups may have negative, neutral or positive outcomes
Multi-age classrooms are increasingly popular in the preschools of my region, sometimes with large age bands, e.g. from age 2;6 to age 5;11; sometimes with smaller age bands, e.g. from age 2;6 to age 3;11. They should benefit children’s development according to the Vygotskian sociocultural theory: children’s learning and development is enhanced by interacting with younger or less-skilled children, as it provides the opportunity to model more advanced behavior and help younger peers; interaction with older or more-skilled children provides opportunities to learn from the support of older peers.
However, some recent studies found that having a larger age range in ECE settings may have negative effects on the development of older children in these classrooms [3-4], or on the quality of the classroom [5-6]. Children’s own developmental level , as well as the developmental domain and the teacher’s own degree of professionalization may play a role . Finally, the extent of the age band may be an important factor. While larger age bands over 24 months seem to be associated with negative effects, some studies find positive effects on development in groups with smaller age bands .
How to deal with it?
The researchers in the cited studies explore several explanations, and try to gain insight into the mechanisms behind their results, even over several studies as a self-critical and persistent quest.
But what to do with these results in practice? The first example may seem obvious, but as the authors state, there are still several settings with flexible groups that maintain a good level of quality. The second example is more complex than the first example, as in the accumulation of research positive, negative, and neutral outcomes are signaled. Instead of an unequivocally positive result, it depends…
Nevertheless, I think it is wise to communicate about those findings with the field quite early and repeatedly. When outcomes are negative or complex, professionals should withdraw from the innovation or apply it with more care and invest in the circumstances that contribute to success. But altering a popular innovation when it is on the top of a hype is a very hard process. People often do not welcome such negative messages when they go against deeply rooted beliefs or go against the ideas of the community, but hearing a message repeatedly does help (Willingham, 2012). In my opinion, this communication should not only reach policy makers at the national or regional level, but should also be directed to the centers and professionals.
I have already encountered several ECEC professionals who question the benefits of their multi-age classroom for children’s development in whispers, but do not dare to say their concerns out loud, because the positive effect was presented to them as an undisputed fact. I think their settings would benefit more from a concerted effort to listen to these concerns, analyze them, and take action.
What is your experience?
- Which other examples of innovations in ECEC conflict with evidence?
- Do you want to contribute pieces of evidence missing in the two examples, corroborative or not?
- Why do some ineffective innovations stay in the field for so long, and how can we prevent that?
- Finally, when did you need to change your own beliefs about an innovation and how did you deal with it?
-  Willingham, D. T. (2012). When can you trust the experts?: How to tell good science from bad in education. John Wiley & Sons.
-  Løkken, I. M., Bjørnestad, E., Broekhuizen, M. L., & Moser, T. (2018). The relationship between structural factors and interaction quality in Norwegian ECEC for toddlers. International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy, 12(1), 9.
-  Ansari, A., Purtell, K., & Gershoff, E. (2016). Classroom age composition and the school readiness of 3-and 4-year-olds in the Head Start program. Psychological science, 27(1), 53-63.
-  Ansari, A. (2017). Multigrade kindergarten classrooms and children’s academic achievement, executive function, and socioemotional development. Infant and Child Development, 26(6).
-  Ansari, A., & Pianta, R. C. (2019). Teacher–child interaction quality as a function of classroom age diversity and teachers’ beliefs and qualifications. Applied Developmental Science, 23(3), 294-304.
-  Eckhardt, A. G., & Egert, F. (2018). Differences in childcare quality – a matter of personality traits, socialization goals and pre-service curriculum? Early Child Development and Care, 188(12), 1726–1737. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004430.2016.1278372
-  Ansari, A., & Pianta, R. (2019). Classroom age composition and the early learning of preschoolers. The Journal of Educational Research, 112(2), 234-242.
-  Purtell, K. M., & Ansari, A. (2018). Classroom Age Composition and Preschoolers’ School Readiness: The Implications of Classroom Quality and Teacher Qualifications. AERA Open, 4(1), 2332858418758300.
-  Justice, L. M., Logan, J. A., Purtell, K., Bleses, D., & Højen, A. (2019). Does mixing age groups in early childhood education settings support children’s language development?. Applied Developmental Science, 23(3), 214-226.