Winter 2020

The Kindergarten Professional Development in Math Conundrum

In Ontario, play-based Kindergarten is relatively new and there is a need to establish what sort of support is required by the coordinated efforts of teachers (OCT) and Registered Early Childhood Educators (RECEs) who collaborate as educators in the classroom. This article reports on an investigative survey that assesses how professional development might be best tailored to suit the educators in these classrooms. It shows the challenges of providing geometry and spatial sense PD in this environment.

In this article, we use RECE exclusively as the professional designation defined by the Ontario College of Childhood Educators. The terminology Designated Early Childhood Educator (DECE) is also in use to facilitate equivalent qualifications. We treat these as being synonymous given the context of an Early Childhood Educator (ECE) working in a kindergarten classroom in Ontario. When speaking about qualifications we will use BEd (Bachelor of Education) instead of the Ontario College of Teachers designation “OCT,” because a BEd can be held by an RECE regardless of membership in OCT. We will use the term educator as an inclusive term for both RECE and OCT instructors in kindergarten classrooms.

The U.S. national research council puts a high emphasis on geometry and spatial reasoning in mathematics education programs, ranking it as the second most important strand. (NRC, 2009, p. 21). This view is also reflected in the Ontario Kindergarten Program 2016 (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2016, p. 75). However, many early childhood educators (OCT and RECE) do not feel comfortable teaching math (Germeroth & Sarama, 2017). Of all the strands, they feel least comfortable teaching Geometry and Spatial Sense (Youmans, Coombs, & Colgan, 2018).  It is also consistent with a finding that learning within spatial and geometric reasoning is “often ignored or minimized in both early education and in the professional development of early childhood teachers.” (Clements & Sarama, 2011). Bruce, Moss, and Ross (2012) had similar findings from a survey of K–2 educators.

There are two possible interpretations of these findings. It may be educators in these classrooms have difficulty addressing the strand. Alternatively, they may be having difficulty weighing the relative importance of the strand when comparing to other stands, most notably number sense and numeration. The lack of clarity is problematic for leadership who try to provide support based on needs. For this reason a survey of Kindergarten educators was used to gather information about educator strengths and needs in five areas of geometry and spatial reasoning:

  • Spatial reasoning concepts in Pre-K and Kindergarten Mathematics programming,
  • Ontario Ministry of Education documents, policies, and curriculum,
  • Children’s developmentally appropriate spatial and geometric learning trajectories,
  • Spatial reasoning and geometry subject matter, and
  • Teaching strategies that encourage the development of spatial reasoning and geometry.

The survey was conducted online in the summer and fall of 2017.

Participant Details

A total of 69 educators were surveyed within Ontario school boards. The educators were from a variety of school boards because of distribution of the survey through a private Facebook group for Kindergarten teachers. The educators are described in Table 1.

The qualifications of individuals who responded to the survey show that some teachers jointly hold both RECE and BEd qualifications. Note that the survey did not ask about the OCT professional designation, so the BEd qualification should be interpreted as having achieved pre-service training as opposed to necessarily having the OCT professional designation. It is also notable that two responses indicated not having an RECE, BEd, or EA training, but did have graduate studies training. Since one of these indicated having a math AQ it is believed they indicated their highest attainment as opposed to all qualifications.

A question that emerges from this table is whether RECE designated teachers have the same access to math AQs as BEd teachers. Since RECEs only require a two-year college diploma and registration with the Ontario College of Childhood Educators, there is a perception that they would not be eligible for AQ courses. Some university providers admit RECEs into AQs. The Ministry of Education has envisioned the teacher and RECE have complementary skills with the former focused on planning instruction, assessing, and reporting, while the latter focuses on childhood development with a focus on skills and age-appropriateness.

The question of training opportunities and how it relates to qualifications is shown in Table 2. The survey reveals that, while RECE can be earned through a two-year college program, that one should not underestimate these individuals where five reported having an undergraduate degree. Four had a kindergarten qualification (no distinction was made between parts 1 and 2, and the specialist qualification). Beyond that RECEs had very few formal qualifications.

Teachers holding a BEd had quite a few formal qualifications. However, it is notable that special education far outweighed any other qualification. It is also notable that primary basic had 17 instances, which imply that these teachers were formally trained as junior/intermediate or intermediate/senior teachers. There is an implication that they were exercising mobility within the elementary school environment beyond what their initial qualification permitted. It is little surprise to see reading qualifications with nearly double the number of math qualifications. This is consistent with provincial emphasis on early literacy. The number of math qualifications is at the same level as second language qualifications.

RECEs notably listed a variety of other training including sign language, Montessori training, self-regulation certification, as well as electricity/electronics training. One RECE noted that they had received school board “training all on my time.” The BEd educators also noted various additional elements of training, but in contrast to the RECEs, they were predominantly official qualifications (such as library specialist).

The extent of employer provided training is given in Table 3. The values in the table are percentages for each type of educator. This allows comparison, for example, of RECEs and BEds where it indicates that the RECEs have had more employer PD than the BEds.

Geometry and Spatial Reasoning Details

The survey asked questions organized according to five areas of geometry and spatial reasoning:

  1. Spatial reasoning concepts in Pre-K and Kindergarten Mathematics Programming
  2. Ontario Ministry of Education documents, policies, curriculum, and research
  3. Children’s developmentally appropriate spatial and geometric learning trajectories
  4. Spatial reasoning and geometry subject matter, and
  5. Teaching strategies that encourage the development of spatial reasoning and geometry

The details of the questions were derived from a variety of sources that are in use within Ontario. Policy elements, for example, were based on Ontario policies, while content questions also used American sources such as the NCTM resources and research findings. Each question was provided as a multiple-choice question with five answers to choose from. The questions were peer reviewed before use and few problems arose with the survey. There was one question that was found to have two correct answers and both answers were accepted.

The overall results of the survey showed 64% of the responses were correct. This points to the need for professional development, which was the original motivation for the survey, but should also be understood as targeting areas that might have needs as opposed to an overall performance of the educators surveyed. In other words, the survey purposefully challenged educators so that their strengths and weaknesses would be revealed.

The outcome also speaks to Play-Based Kindergarten being a newly implemented program and requiring significant changes in the way educators run a classroom. We do not consider it in the best professional interests to distinguish outcomes for RECEs and BEds with the limited scope of the survey. However, the results are consistent with the intention that RECEs would bring a developmental focus where BEds would bring formal curricular approaches. Beyond that, the distinctions are somewhat blurred, which reflects the early stages of enacting a collaborative teaching environment. Certainly in terms of providing professional development it is important that both components of the classroom team share in developing that professional relationship and coordination within the classroom. The results for each of the five categories are provided in Table 4 and the Figure beside it.

The results show considerable content knowledge (D) and that it would be misguided to focus professional development efforts in that area. While this result may be interpreted as high, in the given context, it does suggest the need for additional in-depth training to improve mathematical content knowledge. However, the need is in-depth and tailored to the needs of the educators. Using five questions from a van Hiele Geometry Test, it was found that all but two of the 69 educators are functioning at a minimum van Hiele Level 1, known as Visualization. (See the van Hiele textbox). While this is commendable, this assessment measure from the van Hiele Geometry Test (copyright ©1980 by the University of Chicago; reprinted with permission) only holds the respondents to a low standard. At van Hiele Level 1, geometric figures are recognized by appearance alone, often by comparing them to a known prototype, but the properties of a figure are not perceived (Usiskin, 1982).

There is a need for further math focused training, but moving a van Hiele level is beyond what can be done in routine PD sessions. It is more substantial and has been recognized more widely:

The mathematics preparation of elementary and middle school teachers must be strengthened as one means for improving teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom. This includes preservice teacher education, early career support, and professional development programs. A critical component of this recommendation is that teachers be given ample opportunities to learn mathematics for teaching.” (National Mathematics Advisory Panel, 2008, p 38).

In terms of directing professional development, it is unclear the extent that teaching strategies and concepts may be low because of the enactment of a new curriculum being combined with the collaborative professional classroom environment. It is possible that educator’s views of child developmental are being infused by RECEs and that there is a professional ‘working out’ of best-practices for a play-based curriculum.

Policies and learning trajectories are both concerns that point to professional development opportunities. The need to take time to understand the policies after having gained some experience in the play-based approach is clearly needed. The educators, both BEd and RECE educators, require time to revisit the policies and to further develop their understandings of how the curricular goals can be achieved in the new format. Further to this, the learning trajectories provide an avenue for dialogue that will support the collaboration that is assumed in the new approach. Specifically, the RECEs bring developmental understanding and the BEds bring a larger view of the cross-grade subject development. What seems necessary is a consensus on a developmentally appropriate interpretation of spatial and geometric content, that both meets the developmental needs while setting students on a course for success in subsequent grades.

Math PD Options?

What the survey does not reveal, though the results are consistent with, is that there is a fundamental Math PD conundrum and it is significant. RECEs emerged in Kindergarten as a result of a royal commission. For the love of learning (OME, 1995), which recommended that Early Childhood Educators should gradually replace Junior and Senior Kindergarten teachers. At the time, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) fought against the diminishing of teacher roles, but when it became imminent tried with difficulty to redress a lack of union specificity by the Ministry of Education and succeeded at drawing in RECEs from ten school boards. The rest are split between other unions.

RECEs are spread across multiple unions including ETFO, Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF), Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) (Gananathan, 2015), the Ontario Council of Education Workers (OCEW), and some independent unions. Only ETFO had negotiated preparation time for RECEs when Gananathan published in 2015, consistent with shared planning time being a “major problem” (Lynch, 2014). In addition, ETFO members receive six PA/PD days per year, while OSSTF is allowed to offer training onsite but RECEs are not paid for their time, and CUPE has no provisions for PA/PD. In addition, OSSTF RECEs receive paid time off for required courses to upgrade qualifications (Gananathan, 2015). For example, with the Renewed Mathematics Strategy, the funding for math AQs was available to RECEs if they were members of an affiliate of the Ontario Teachers Federation. However, it is our understanding that not all providers, and notably not ETFO, would allow RECEs into their math AQ courses.

The survey findings are consistent with Lynch (2014) who identifies challenges with the teacher and RECE being “equal partners” in kindergarten classrooms as well as policy misconceptions about play-based learning. She identifies “a more complex problem of what might be termed ‘power relationships,’ and that problem most likely cannot be solved through government regulation respecting role clarification” (p. 342). This occurs on multiple fronts and is exemplified by a letter to the editor of Professionally Speaking (the OCT publication), which admonishes an article for using the OCT designation for teachers but not acknowledging the professional designation of RECEs (Ainge, 2012). Further evidence of the power struggle is Ryan and Date’s (2014) claim that “it has been made clear that the teacher is in charge of the class during the day” (p. 107).

Similar perceptions are held among administrators who have allocated ECEs for duties outside of instructional time. This led to a court case where a ruling interpreted the Education Act as saying that classrooms with more than 16 children were required to have a teacher and ECE. This would maintain the same adult-to-student ratio (Ryan & Date, 2014). However, it also determined that there was no requirement that both had to be in the classroom for the full instructional time (Axelrod, 2017). This has allowed schools to schedule ECE break times during instruction so that they can be available during other times, such as before school, during recesses, and other duties as assigned.          The unfortunate reality is that kindergarten is best characterized by a situation where there is an inequality between a teacher and an RECE. The relationship according to this research is consistent with an ongoing glass-ceiling (Tukonic & Harwood, 2015) operating against professional sharing of duties in kindergarten classrooms. The scenario is, in spite of the best intentions, hindering all approaches to addressing the math needs of both kindergarten and RECE educators in areas such as spatial sense and geometry. In conclusion, mathematics in kindergarten will not improve until foundational issues allowing a focus on co-learning for instructional improvement are realized. This is in spite of a call for addressing the complexity of guided-play in mathematics within the kindergarten environment (Wickstrom, Pyle, & DeLuca, 2019).

Ainge, S. (2012). A distinct designation. Letter to the editor. Professionally Speaking, December, 14.
Axelrod, M. (Nov. 8, 2017). Arbitrator rules boards not required to schedule ECEs to be present for full length of instructional day. See
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Wickstrom, H., Pyle, A., & DeLuca, C. (2019). Does theory translate into practice? An observational study of current mathematics pedagogies in play-based kindergarten. Early Childhood Education Journal, 47, 287–295.

Edward Schroeter, B.J., B.Ed., OCT, has worked for the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School board since 1992. He is a Reading and Kindergarten Specialist and the lead author of 55 Activities Promoting Spatial Visualization and Orientation (2019), Nelson Math Grade K (2018), Chapter 9 of Teaching for Deep Understanding: An ETFO Curriculum Learning Resource Compilation (2013), as well as blogs, magazine articles, and papers on early years spatial thinking and geometry. He has also led collaborative inquiries into early years transdisciplinary instruction and mathematics learning trajectories, and a lesson study into geometry and spatial thinking.

Tim Sibbald is an associate professor of education with the Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University. He focuses on mathematics education and teaches in the pre-service and graduate programs. He is the editor of the Ontario Association for Mathematics Education (OAME) Gazette. Two books that he edited and coedited, respectively, are Teaching Interdisciplinary Mathematics (Champaign, IL: Common Ground Research Networks) and The Academic Gateway: Understanding the Journey to Tenure (Ottawa, ON: University of Ottawa Press).