Review by Emma Cate Stokes

Key stage one phase lead, East Sussex

31 Mar 2024, 5:00


As we begin: Dispositions of mind, learning and the brain in early childhood

By Tia Henteleff


John Catt Educational




15 Dec 2023

Tia Henteleff’s As We Begin embarks on an ambitious journey, proposing a vision where research-driven education and child-centric learning coalesce.

The book explores young learners’ cognitive and emotional development, underscored by educators’ pivotal role as facilitators and researchers. However, while it champions an idealistic educational framework, the book occasionally overlooks the pragmatic constraints that educators routinely navigate.

At the heart of Henteleff’s work is an emphasis on positioning the child as the central figure in the learning process. This child-centric approach aligns with widely recognised best practices in early years education, advocating for environments that nurture curiosity, autonomy and emotional well-being.

Beyond this, the book ambitiously encourages educators to don the hats of both practitioners and researchers, engaging in continuous inquiry into their teaching methodologies.

Although the book’s ideological underpinnings are solid, it can struggle in places to provide a clear and practical path from theory to practice. The multifaceted realities of teaching – spanning budget constraints, administrative duties, safeguarding responsibilities and the sheer workload – present formidable barriers to educators’ adoption of an active research role.

While Henteleff acknowledges the importance of teacher wellbeing, the discussion of mitigating burnout and practical strategies for balancing research activities with other professional obligations remains relatively superficial. This oversight may leave readers looking for more tangible guidance on navigating the complexities of teaching while pursuing research endeavours.

Henteleff nods to these issues but stops short of delving into actionable strategies teachers might employ to balance the massive task of conducting research within the classroom amid their many, many responsibilities.

Henteleff stops short of delving into actionable strategies teachers might employ

While the text illuminates the rich, theoretical underpinnings of early childhood education and the huge potential of research-driven teaching, its treatment of the real-world implications for educators’ day-to-day lives, particularly concerning their wellbeing is a missed opportunity.

Where the book really shines is in its capacity to provoke introspection. The thoughtfully crafted reflective inquiry questions concluding each chapter prompt readers to delve into their pedagogical practices and philosophical underpinnings. This reflective exercise is undoubtedly a strength of the work, developing the idea of continuous personal and professional growth among educators.

The book’s reflective nature also underscores the importance of agency in professional development. It empowers educators to take control of their learning journey, identifying areas for improvement and recognising their strengths.

So while the book champions the concept of educators as researchers and underscores the centrality of the child in the learning process, its real contribution is in how it facilitates educators to think critically about their own practice.

For educators seeking to deepen their understanding of early years education and to refine their approaches through introspection, As We Begin offers valuable insights. Yet certain theoretical propositions in the book may raise eyebrows when viewed through the lens of practical applicability. For example, Henteleff recounts an anecdote involving a child’s somersaults in the classroom as an act of self-regulation.

While the narrative champions autonomy and individualised learning paths, it inadvertently brushes aside the logistical and safety considerations inherent in classroom management. This example, though illustrative of the author’s educational philosophy, underscores the gap between theoretical ideals and the constraints of real-world teaching environments. It may be more challenging to facilitate 30 children choosing to perform gymnastics in the classroom.

The book’s American-centric perspective further complicates its universal applicability. Cultural nuances in teaching practices and educational systems mean that not all insights and recommendations will resonate with or be directly transferable to educators operating within different contexts, such as the British educational landscape.

Henteleffoffers moments of clarity and enlightenment, particularly through illustrations depicting brain activity in early development. These visual aids enrich the text, rendering complex neuroscientific concepts accessible.

All in all, As We Begin champions a commendable vision of research-driven, child-centric education. However, educators seeking practical, actionable strategies for immediate classroom application may find the book’s lofty ideals somewhat disconnected from the trenches of daily teaching life.

For those intrigued by the philosophical discourse on embedding research into educational practice, Henteleff’s work is a refreshing read. Educators searching for a pragmatic toolkit for classroom management and instructional strategies might need to look elsewhere.

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