Dr. Margaret MacDonald on Philosophical Inquiry & Development of Early Childhood Views on Sustainability

July 03, 2019

Dr. Margaret MacDonald is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education specializing in Early Childhood Education. She teaches a number of undergraduate and graduate courses in Early Childhood Education and is an active mentor and co-inquirer at UniverCity Childcare Centre. Her most recent research looks at children’s understanding around stewardship and sustainability through lens of philosophical inquiry and new materiality.

What is the age range of Early Childhood Education?

Early Childhood Education covers children from birth through about 8 years old. At this age, learning is about both the content and the processes of learning and exploration including knowledge making practices.  This includes a strong emphasis on materials and the creation of a sense of belonging through relational practices. As early childhood educators we strive to work in ethical relationality with children, and families by focusing on the creation of inclusive environments, and developing classrooms where children and families experience a strong sense of belonging.  We also use a form of formative assessment known as Pedagogical Documentation to attend closely to learning moments.

What does Pedagogical Documentation look like and how do you employ it?

Pedagogical Documentation (PD) originated in Italy in Reggio Emilia schools as a tool to deepen engagement in project-based learning.  Teachers document the voice and ideas of children during moments of learning engagement and typically share this documentation back with young learners as a way to deepen and widen the learning processes, feeling and thinking.  In doing this, learning shifts away from attending to known standards and engages with the interests and motivation of children, as a form of emergent curriculum that goes beyond prescription.

My original interest in researching pedagogical documentation was to understand how it could be used by students and schools for parent engagement. It was clear that PD did help teachers and parent’s understanding of  children’s theories and insights but now I also see it also as a way of disrupting standard reporting practices that constantly compare children to normative ways of being, doing and thinking.

I understand that you also work closely with the UniverCity Childcare. Can you tell us about your research there?

In 2009, I received a Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) grant to explore innovative curriculum development. Through the grant I had the opportunity to work with SFU Trust and SFU Childcare Executive Director Pat Frouws to enter into a research partnership and help imagine a new childcare centre that focuses on innovative practice. At the time we were considering how we could incorporate the Reggio inspired principles of transparency, dedicated space, and community along with our own traditional play based approaches like risk taking and materials to create an innovative space and place. With the inspiration of Dale Mikelson from SFU Community trust, a tender was awarded to Karen Marler from HCMA Architecture to construct a child care centre with those principles in mind but that could also comply with the Living Building Challenge to be a more than green, carbon neutral building that produces more energy than it consumes. This was the beginning of the Living UniverCity Childcare building, which has its own bioreactor to convert septic water to grey water for irrigation and utilizes geothermal heat.  This allowed a unique opportunity to work with teachers to develop a framework around values and create experiential opportunities for young students to think about sustainability and their role in the ecosystem.

To engage with these ideas deeply I invited a philosopher in residence, Warren Bowen, who worked with me for almost 3 years to explore children’s relationship with the environment and to develop ideas for opening up a space for inquiry around sustainability.  Warren had no background in education, but had a deep passion for philosophical inquiry and worked with teachers and children to explore what it meant not just to be in a building and attend to sustainability but living with the building. For example, students had opportunities through gardening and visits to the forest to explore ownership of resources like trees and had many discussions about why and when to cut a tree and to distinguish their understandings of ‘belonging to’ and ‘ownership’.  On our visits to the forest, we encouraged teachers to help their students see the forest as a teacher and for the students to feel and think with the forest.

Our first goal was to foster an awareness and respect. Our goal was not to moralize the issue through curriculum but to use philosophical inquiry to drive an ontological shift from sustainability based on conservation for human needs to an inter-connected and related view where we come to see the non-human in relational ways.

Our work lead to 3 publications (see references below) and the development of an open framework document which highlights some of values and principles for the UniverCity Childcare center. This framework published in 2015  continues to be a foundational document reviewed by the teachers at the centre and is used to launch projects related to the building and adjacent forest.

How do you stay connected with the field?

At this stage, I am working closely to the teachers in discussion circles that we call ‘listening circles’.  I stay active facilitating this listening circle at UniverCity Centre with about 8-10 educators.  Our focus has been on how philosophy and research have shifted in the areas of student experimentation & inquiry.   We are just finishing up a close read of a book by Liselott Olsson, Movement and Experimentation in Young Children’s Learning:Deleuze and Guattari in early childhood education and will be starting a book by Affrica Taylor, Reconfiguring the Natures of Childhood.

Facilitating this type of in-service teacher education has been a great way to stay connected to the field of early learning educators.  The teachers have been very generous learners sharing what resonates and connects with their practice. 

Who we are as researchers and educators, our social and cultural background, and the lens we choose to look at what we study all make a difference in what we see and what we choose to see.  Our Listening Circle focuses on process over product and has evolved into something like a graduate seminar where everyone’s perspectives continue to be challenged and informed as we make connections to practice.

Where do you see next steps in your research?

I am constantly reminded that parents place great trust in us as early educators and as researchers.  This privilege needs to be checked and everyone teaching and doing research in this field always needs to be mindful of entering this work in  ethical relationality because of the level of influence we have.  A next step for my research would be to look at greater ways to collaborate with parents and encourage teachers to see parents as co-investigators alongside their children.

For example one of the lesser explored areas for research is multi-age groupings in the classroom, which is also an increasing reality in many school districts.  We often get so focused on individual aspects of learning that we neglect collaborative learning and learning within these family groupings.  Many parents today see multi-age classrooms as a deficit but this is actually an opportunity for a child to develop competency and attunement to others who are younger and have different ways of seeing the world. Co-inquiry intergenerationally and or in multi-age groupings can create very generative compassionate learning environments.

In my future intergenerational work I also wish to continue to engage with post human perspectives and continue to consider deeply and theoretically the values of shared agency or an agentic realism as Karen Barad refers to it, where agency is part of an emergent phenomenon in and of both the human and non-human. This is powerful theory that speaks to the felt qualities that are present in particular encounters or events that we tend to overlook when we continue to be humancentric. My post human understandings emerged from the work I’ve done with colleagues in a group we called G7, an assemblage of faculty members Diane Dagenais, Cher Hill, Suzanne Smythe, Nathalie Sinclair and Kelleen Toohey.  This new materiality theory has helped me continue to look at curriculum development and research methods in new ways and helped me to see beyond and blur the boundaries of self and other as discrete elements in our thinking and acting. It has been exciting to break away from social constructive paradigms and epistemological practices and assumptions that keep us mired in the human and individual ways of being and to essentially re-envision what a learning context really is and does as we go beyond the rational to more emotive ways of becoming researchers and educators.


MacDonald, M. & Bowen, W. (2016). Sharing Space with other Animals: Engaged Philosophical Inquiry and Sustainability. Analytic Teaching and Philosophical Praxis, 37(1), 20–29.

MacDonald, M. & Bowen, W. (2015). Foundations of Democracy: Power, Reality and Dragons. Childhood and Philosophy, 11(22), 265–282.

MacDonald, M. (2015). Early Childhood Education and Sustainability: A Living Curriculum. Childhood Education, 91(5), 332–341.