Dr Margaret Brooks’ career in early childhood education has taken her all over the world. She’s worked with children in a Scottish slum, established a kindergarten program in Canada, and set up a demonstration school in Bhutan. Yet once upon a time, teaching was the last job this UNE lecturer could imagine doing.
“My grandmother was a teacher and my father was a teacher. The last thing on earth I wanted to be was a teacher. I wanted to be an artist,” Margaret says.
When she was accepted into a prestigious art college after school, it looked like the stars had aligned. She was dismayed, then, to find her parents had instead enrolled her in occupational therapy college.
After a miserable couple of years, Margaret made the decision to switch to her ‘last resort’ career option – teaching. While she reluctantly sat through two terms of primary education instruction at Moray House, Edinburgh University, things began to shift during her first practical experience.
“I was sent out to a year one class in Leith Docks, a slum area at the time. My cooperating teacher came to school each day with two loaves of bread and jam and a bag of warm, clean clothes. She modelled the best example of ‘integrated learning’ I have ever seen. By the end of the year every child was reading. I was completely sold on teaching. From that time on, I threw my heart and soul into being the best teacher I could be.”
Margaret’s experience volunteering, observing and working with the early childhood teachers and children during her time at Moray House Froebel demonstration nursery school shaped her decision to focus on early childhood education.
At this time, in the 1960s and 1970s, ‘nursery education’ in the UK was getting a lot of international attention. Educators from around the world, especially North America, were turning to the British infant schools for inspiration and replicating what they saw. Yet Margaret could see this copy and paste approach was failing. It was a lightbulb moment.
“I realised the importance of gaining a deep understanding of the theories underpinning teaching and learning. The international visitors to these schools were taking all the architecture of what they were seeing, but leaving the theory behind. We need to understand why we teach in a particular way and understand local context.”
Margaret soon experienced her own change in cultural context, moving to Canada in the 1980s. Later she would establish a county-wide kindergarten program and direct a demonstration kindergarten at the University of Alberta, but first she had to adapt to teaching in a different system. It was a culture shock, but observing the children play helped acquaint her with life in rural Canada.
“One day the kindergarten boys stuffed the toy fridge in the dramatic play area with cylindrical blocks, rounded up some girls to sit in the kitchen and set off in a circuit of the room. They explained it was moose hunting season and they were off to get moose for the winter. The blocks in the fridge were beer for the celebrations on return. The women’s job was to cut up the moose and distribute the meat.”
The importance of cultural context stayed with her, later guiding her as she helped establish a new university demonstration school in Bhutan in 2019 and ensured local teachers were equipped and able to implement theory successfully within the Bhutanese context.
Another pivotal moment for Margaret was realising her love and talent for art could be harnessed to benefit her teaching.
“Someone gave me a book to read that transformed my teaching. The book, called ‘An Experiment in Education’, was an autobiography of the author Sybil Marshall’s experience teaching in a small, one-teacher school. Sybil opened my eyes to so many ways to utilise the arts for teaching. It showed me a way to integrate my need for art with my love of teaching,” she says.
The book emboldened Margaret to complete a PhD between the Faculty of Fine Arts and Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta, Canada in 2002, which involved three years of full-time studio work as well as more traditional educational research.
Today, Margaret’s research continues to mesh these two areas of expertise.
“Drawing is a very powerful learning tool. It brings together imagination, memory and observation. It helps children imagine and visualise possibilities, plan, manipulate and evaluate ideas, solve problems, reflect upon their experiences, and much more. For me, drawing is core in early childhood and should be available and encouraged all the time.
“My research looks at how children use drawing to make sense of their world and how we can support their efforts.”
While all those years ago Margaret sat in education classes wishing she was elsewhere, today she loves being back in a university teaching the next educators.
“It’s hugely satisfying to teach students to be good teachers. I love preparing activities that I know will give students the skills that will be useful in their day-to-day work with children.
“Early childhood education takes imagination and creativity. I get excited when a student takes initiative and goes out on a limb, pushes the boundaries and is innovative. These are the students who will make a difference to education and children’s lives when they graduate.”
Image: Dr Margaret Brooks and the teaching staff at a demonstration school, Bhutan.