The University of Auckland’s first Professor of Early Childhood Education

01 February 2018
Professor Helen Hedges
Professor Helen Hedges

Bringing increased credibility to a sector “still often regarded as the Cinderella of education” is a driving motivation for the University of Auckland’s first Professor of Early Childhood Education, Helen Hedges.

The current Head of the School of Curriculum and Pedagogy in the Faculty of Education and Social Work, Professor Hedges is both “excited and relieved” to be promoted to professor. “It’s about recognition that the research programme you’ve undertaken has been recognised as being high quality and rigorous, and of value to the international field.”

She hopes her promotion will raise the visibility of Early Childhood Education (ECE), provide opportunities for staff, attract more doctoral students and prompt greater international links.

As a secondary teacher of English and social science, Helen became fascinated by young children’s learning through her own children’s involvement in Playcentre. She gained a qualification in ECE, and has been researching, teaching, mentoring and leading academics in the field ever since – the last 15 years at the University of Auckland.

Professor Hedges has been particularly drawn to explore children’s interests – what deeply motivates children to engage in learning and persist even when they encounter difficulties. Children’s pursuing of their interests has a huge impact on later learning and adult success.

She’s been delighted to see ECE teachers picking up on her ideas. Her work has also informed the indicators that the Education Review Office uses to evaluate ECE centres. In 2016-17 she was part of a revision team to update New Zealand’s early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki.

Professor Hedges insists that she hasn’t achieved all this alone; it’s been a privilege to be let in to the lives of teachers, children and their families to learn from them.

Professor Hedges’ involvement in ECE spans almost 30 years. Important changes she’s contributed to are the recognition of the importance of interests and ”working theories” in the first five years of a child’s life, and increased understanding that ECE is a skilled pedagogical practice.

One wish that Professor Hedges has for the sector is that 100 percent of ECE teachers are qualified. Current rules are that half the staff at ECE centres must be qualified. It’s demanding work, with three year olds’ questions about rain or wind requiring the ability to interpret and explain early physics. She’d also like to see the sector better resourced for professional learning, with time and budgets for inducting and mentoring new teachers.

Finding time to do her own research is hard with Head of School responsibilities overseeing 68 full-time staff. She’s hoping next year she’ll find time to plan writing a book and embark on exciting new research with teachers.

In the meantime, she’s been reflecting on the journey of research. The lyrics of Tom Petty’s Running Down a Dream are running through her head:

Workin' on a mystery, goin' wherever it leads
Runnin' down a dream