INTERVIEW – Leslie Falconer: ‘Peer Learning Activities address Complex Challenges’
Blessed with the opportunity to speak face to face with so many people from our member organizations at the Annual Council meeting, we took the opportunity to sit down and ask how things are truly going. In the professional atmosphere and on a bigger scale. We spoke with ISSA board member Leslie Falconer, who is the President and CEO of the Experience Early Learning Co., and the co-founder and trustee of the Alabaster Fund.
Q: Leslie, can you please share your current vision on early childhood development?
A: I believe that we are in a mindset shift where we have spent many years – and still are – advocating for child centered practices and the rights of the child, and I think we need to continue that, but at the same time understand the needs of the workforce and those who care for young children.
So it’s a more holistic understanding of when we’re going to provide the support needed for young children to flourish, that we have to at the same time think about who the educators are, the parents, all the stakeholders… what do they need to flourish, because the child is in a relationship with these people and that relationship needs – in my opinion – to be at the center. And if we move into this more relationship-centered care, we can reassess the concept of development. It will subsequently have multi-dimensional aspects to tackle.
Q: What are typical obstacles for early childhood development and how can we mobilize the ISSA network to realize notable improvements?
A: One theme that comes up globally is the money. There are always so many taboos around talking about money. It more or less falls in with politics and religion and such kind of topics, but for some reason, I feel talking about money in early childhood development is very sensitive. There is however a universal agreement that we need more money in education. We need governments, foundations, people who give money, so we can get more services, and we need to advocate for that.
However, there’s a disconnect around wanting more money in education and the acceptance of being able to make money in education. To me that’s a bit ironic, because if we had education more willing to welcome entrepreneurs and innovators from the marketplace or industry, and I mean sustainable, social-impact businesses, we would be able to create more resources from which both ends could benefit.
We are holding ourselves back as a field by only giving approval to funds coming from this one pathway. If we could be more open to innovation and entrepreneurship, we would be attracting more talent, more solutions that are sustainable and that will take us further in financial means, but also in really being connected to the needs of a certain population. And then it would sustain and grow. I’m talking about continuous improvements. You only get that by putting the people in the whole system at hand, and if you are willing to welcome and understand the needs of the broader population and the position of education within that structure.
So, if we are going to improve access to education – given that this is a first right – then we really need to address the money and be honest about our biases. Why we are afraid of people who make money and why do we have the judgments that we do? It will bring us a lot if we can move ourselves to inviting all parties to the table.
Q: Can you give an example of what kind of wins a for-profit organization could bring to early childhood education?
A: I’m looking at it as a whole system, not just the educational part. It could be the furniture or uniforms, the curriculum, the trainers, the technology… looking at all the different potential vehicles within that, the impact could be truly meaningful. We have many problems in education that we cannot solve from within the profession of education itself. Such a field is perfect for innovators and entrepreneurs, who will be looking from an entirely different angle and will design good solutions for us.
We need that type of innovators that will bring positive impact solutions, given that we look at quality as an overall, interdisciplinary and interconnected table of solutions. We can apply that thinking to everything that happens in the classroom and the classroom environment – for example also to the exchange of data between schools and administrators. Any problem can be seen as an opportunity for design and therewith, for growth from which the population as a whole will benefit. In short: if there’s a demand, there’s a market. We can’t just solely keep looking for grants, we really need other options.
Q: As a network, how can we improve the connection between Eastern and Western Europe? What pathways need to be examined still?
A: I’ve always been impressed with ISSA as a network. There’s this layer of discussion around: ‘What are the big needs?’ Trends and topics inside early childhood development are continuously spotted and addressed. But let’s translate those quickly into Peer Learning Activities, so many countries at the same time can connect with the learnings and will be able to raise the system as a whole.
The Peer Learning Activities are so very tangible and ready to use. I’ve seen various overarching networks where it is more common to create ‘a working group’ around a topic, which mostly leads to more discussion. Meaningful, but having the project-oriented Peer Learning Activities really elevates the connection between countries, east and west, west and east. You get the work done, and you have actual relationships forged between the members.
Also, this sense of accomplishment when members co-construct or help implement a new solution, builds the sense of reward and trust between them that enables them to discuss more difficult topics and address those head-on together. Also, I hope we can expand this tangible knowledge exchange further, across European borders. This knowledge is very much sought after.
Q: What would you advise start-ups in early childhood development and what would you advise organizations who are working in the field for twenty years or more?
A: For both, to maintain a hunger for asking questions and being ready to reinvent themselves at all times. Because – and this goes back two ISSA Conferences ago, where we talked about how rapidly our work environment is changing and how the needs of this younger generation of people is changing – there is either this mentality of ‘we need to convince people that this is the way to do it’ versus a general hunger for ‘how can we do it better’ and the constant exploration of new methodologies. We need to think about things that are still missing or that we are currently not doing. And this all links to the vision I mentioned earlier, taking on problems in co-creation with the society as a whole. The funding aspect of services is not reliable. So how do we go to creating a work field that can (partially) self-sustain itself?
For more mature organizations it would also be good to re-package some of the older programs in terms of language, because a lot of interest goes to new, exciting programs. This causes impactful, long-term achievements to get snowed under. It is important that they keep their initiatives in the spotlight by continuously linking them to new developments in the field. Otherwise they may appear to lose relevance and therewith risk losing funding.
Q: Where is ISSA headed in the near future?
A: That is a community question, and the big question on the table. ISSA is a good role model to regional networks, and I think for it to maintain that mentorship is very important. If it can continue to create material, participation and dialogue, that will be a key win in itself. And I also think that if ISSA – as a regional network – can embrace a global dialogue, that is an opportunity. Because ISSA is one of the best organized networks and it is uniquely positioned in the world. It offers a very diverse and multi-cultural point of view.
So I hope ISSA will continue to become stronger in its global presence and mentorship. Maybe not as the solution-creator, but at least as a platform where people can come and present new questions, regardless whether they are from outside of Europe. A place to learn how to discuss those questions and how to drive projects surrounding them, after which professionals can go home and implement such learnings locally. A Peer Learning Community for the world, that would be a win for so many people and organizations.