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Back to the Future With Patty Smith Hill
Article in Childhood Education · May 2017
DOI: 10.1080/00094056.2017.1325238
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Patricia A. Crawford
University of Pittsburgh
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Back to the Future With Patty Smith Hill
Patricia A. Crawford
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Back to the Future
With Patty Smith Hill
by Patricia A. Crawford
“…but the greatest need of all, no matter what type of knowledge
was required, was found to be the art of teaching.”
—Hill, 1926, p. 72
enerations after her passing, Patty Smith
Hill (1868-1946) remains a towering figure
in the world of early childhood education.
Her words continue to offer insight, not
only for those who work with young children, but
also for those who help to prepare the teachers of
young children for the important work they do—for
those who both engage in and support the art of early
childhood teaching.
May/June 2017 • 213
The daughter of a socially concerned minister
father and a progressively minded mother,
Patty Smith Hill was encouraged to seek out
opportunities for learning, service, and advocacy.
Sometimes referred to as a “mother” of the
American kindergarten movement, Hill is known
for many things, including her contributions
to writing the “Happy Birthday” song, her
development of oversized blocks for play, and her
leadership in the International Kindergarten Union,
which eventually became today’s Association for
Childhood Education (Aldridge & Christensen,
2013; Sherwood & Freshwater, 2013).
Patty Smith Hill’s professional accomplishments
included experiences as both a teacher of young
children and as a teacher educator. She worked
with esteemed progressive educators, such as
John Dewey, G. Stanley Hall, and Colonel Francis
Parker, and eventually became a full professor at
Teachers College. Hill believed passionately in the
power, potential, and need for research related to
early childhood education and the development
of high-quality teacher education programs (Hill,
1915, 1925, 1926; Rudnitski, 1995). The purpose of
this article is to connect Hill’s early 20th-century
perspectives on teacher education with the current
state of the field. Special attention is given to Hill’s
(1926) piece, “The Education of the Nursery School
Teacher,” which is reprinted on pages 210-212 of
this special issue of Childhood Education.
Enduring Ideals
Although born into a previous era, and holding
ideas developed in a different social context, Patty
Smith Hill continues to have strong relevance for
those invested in the education of young children
today. Her writing gives primacy of place to the
art of teaching. However, she never posits this
concept as merely a natural approach to working
with children. Rather, she highlights the significance
of several strong threads that must necessarily
be woven into the fabric of high-quality early
childhood teacher education in order for the art of
teaching to be developed, honed, and effectively
implemented. These include the maintenance of
high standards for teacher education, the need for
linking research and practice, the significance of
developmentally appropriate practice, and the need
for teacher efficacy—all topics that remain crucial to
today’s work in the field of early childhood teacher
High Standards for Teacher Education
Over 90 years ago, Patty Smith Hill (1926)
described the impact of a new and ever-growing
214 • Childhood Education
field for those who work with the very young. She
believed that teaching the youngest learners was
specialized work that required different skills than
those required for working with older children.
Therefore, a different, specialized type of teacher
preparation was needed; such preparation should
give specific attention to the needs of those working
with the very young. She notes that, at the time,
the field was “overwhelmed with demands for
help in securing teachers with the type of training
necessary for success in this new field” and that
there was a need to open “training centers” (p.
72). In spite of the immediate need for a growing
workforce, Hill took a long-term perspective,
arguing strenuously for the establishment of high
standards for those who entered the field, noting
that in addition to grounding in pedagogy, nursery
school teachers needed to be able to apply their
learning in areas such as “psychology, psychiatry,
hygiene, nursing and health, nutrition, etc.” in very
practical ways (p. 72). Work with children was
viewed as a multi-faceted and complex process,
an endeavor for which strong preparation, deep
knowledge, and the ability to apply this knowledge
were required.
Hill’s concerns about teacher preparation are
not dissimilar to the concerns in the field today—a
time in which the needs and demand for highquality early care and education also far exceed
the available resources, and in which many who
work with the youngest children continue to be
underpaid and, in some circumstances, underprepared for their important work (Barnett, 2013).
As in days gone by, young children enter school
from diverse backgrounds. They come with a full
range of needs that span the cognitive, linguistic,
physical, and socio-emotional realms (Anthony,
Anthony, Glanville, Waanders, & Shaffer, 2005;
Bredekamp, 1987; Hart & Risley, 2003). Wellprepared teachers are needed to address these
important needs.
High-quality teacher education makes a
difference on practice and can dramatically increase
the potential of a program to make a positive
impact on the children who participate in it (Horm,
Hyson, & Winton, 2013; Jalongo et al., 2007). In
order to ensure that early educators can indeed
engage in the art of teaching, they must receive
strong content knowledge, extended opportunities
for the implementation and refinement of
pedagogical skills, and the support to develop the
dispositions and habits of mind that are required of
highly effective teachers (Da Ros-Voseles & Moss,
2007; National Association for the Education of
Young Children, 2009).
Research-Practice Linkages
In Hill’s world, research was not considered
to be a practice that should stand apart from
implementation. Rather, research and practice
were positioned as having a recursive and
symbiotic relationship in which each process
informed the other. On one hand, teachers’
practice was deemed to be vitally important and
worthy of study, as demonstrated by the careful,
task-analyzed work depicted in Hill’s (1926) diary
studies. On the other hand, she believed that
practice should be informed by the important
findings that flowed out of education research.
Hill believed that the development of effective
normal school curricula should spring from
research based on the experiences and insights
of seasoned teachers. Further, she believed that
all teachers had a role and responsibility in this
work, noting: “While all nursery schools cannot be
research centers, the nursery school teacher must
be thoroughly schooled in methods of research”
(Hill, 1926, p. 73).
Hill’s beliefs, so strongly rooted in the
progressive education movement of her time, find
a natural home in today’s field, as well—a time in
which research-based practices and data-driven
decision making are both required and highly
valued in schools. While early childhood teacher
research, the systematic study of the teaching
and learning within one’s own setting, is often
portrayed as a recent phenomenon, nothing could
be further from the truth. Rather, the tenets of
today’s teacher research stem from and are built
upon the work of many forerunners, including
Patty Smith Hill and other progressive educators
like John Dewey, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, and
Carolyn Pratt (Crawford & Cornett, 2000; Smith,
2012). In today’s early childhood world, both
prospective and practicing teachers continue to
need the skills to engage in professional inquiry,
collect data, learn from their own practice, and
share this learning with others in the field (Castle,
2012; Meier & Henderson, 2007). As Pratt (1948)
described this work during the mid-20th century:
And so, while we continually beat out our
ideas together, tested our findings and our
theories on each other, in the end it was the
teacher who applied the principles, put the
theories into practice, verified the findings
by her own experience. The teacher in her
classroom was the scientist in the laboratory
and the artist in the studio, rolled into one,
and supreme in her own sphere. It could not
be otherwise. (p. 177)
Thus, the art and science of teaching among
Hill and other progressive educators were rolled
together in a cohesive whole that was viewed as an
extension of teacher research, which was grounded
and implemented in the field. This is an ideal that
continues to have important implications for early
childhood educators and the teacher education
programs in which they are prepared today.
Developmentally Appropriate Practice
In Hill’s (1926) focus article, she argues
passionately for the important and unique role of
the nursery school: “The nursery school teacher has
to know and be able to teach successfully all that
skillful teachers in the kindergarten and elementary
grades require; but in addition to this she must be
prepared to carry through with scientific insight,
intelligence, and skill the duties of the mother,
the trained nurse, and the nutritionist” (p. 73).
However, it should be noted that in other writings,
Hill (1915, 1923, 1925) focused her attention more
squarely on the significance of the kindergarten
and the primary grades. No matter what her focus,
she always saw each part of young children’s
lives and curricula for them as being significant
and part of a cohesive whole: “Nor can we calmly
neglect the relation of the nursery school program
to the curriculum of the kindergarten and primary
grades” (Hill, 1926, p. 73). In short, Hill clearly
saw that effective education required learning
experiences to be a good fit for each developmental
level of the early childhood curriculum, and also
advocated for ensuring a connectedness between
each of these points.
Since the publication of Hill’s work, the early
childhood community has continued to build
on these principles, making consistent and
increasingly explicit calls for developmentally
appropriate practice, by positing that curricula
reflect the principles of child development (Copple
& Bredekamp, 1983). This call continues to evolve,
with more recent attention to developmentally
appropriate practice stressing the importance of
the Author
Patricia A. Crawford is Associate Professor,
Department of Instruction and Learning,
University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
May/June 2017 • 215
© Diego Cervo/Shutterstock
ensuring that this type of curricula has connections
with children’s individual needs and cultural
identities (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009; York, 2016).
Likewise, the need to design programs that have
developmental continuity, a seamlessness between
the discrete levels of early childhood education,
continues to be a priority today (Jozwiak, Cahill, &
Theilheimer, 2016; Scully, Seefeldt, & Barbour, 2003).
A Sense of Efficacy
Finally, Hill’s words convey the important role
that self-efficacy, the belief that one has the
potential and capability to be effective, plays in the
lives of early childhood teachers. Although Hill
realized that she, along with a small cadre of other
progressive educators, were charting new territory
in determining the types of training and education
necessary for early childhood practitioners, she did
not doubt that this goal was achievable or worth
pursuing. Hill was launching into a field that was
often misunderstood, unfunded, and devalued.
However, she pursued it with vigor because she
knew that it was not only a significant and worthy
field of study, but also one in which she could play
an important and formative role.
In a similar manner, Hill recognized that the
prospective and practicing teachers with whom she
worked must have this type of self-efficacy—the
sense that they could make a positive impact on
children’s lives and learning. She notes both the
joy and necessity of knowing that the potential to
make this type of impact exists: “To feel oneself
as a constant stimulus to growth and conquest in
a baby world, where helplessness develops into
self-reliance, weakness into strength, gives deep
satisfaction to the maternal soul in every good
teacher” (Hill, 1926, p. 74).
216 • Childhood Education
Just as in the time of Hill’s work, self-efficacy
currently plays an important role in the work and
professional satisfaction of teachers and teacher
educators. Self-efficacy provides a positive starting
point from which educators can develop a sense of
confidence in both themselves and in the students
with whom they work; it “influences how teachers
feel, think, behave, and motivate themselves”
(Vartuli, 2005). Early educators are more likely
to experience self-efficacy and have a sense that
they can effectively reach children and positively
influence learning when they have been wellprepared and supported in their teacher education
program (Christian, 2017).
Concluding Thoughts
Patty Smith Hill’s words, written so long ago,
continue to speak volumes to those in the fields
of early childhood and teacher education. They
offer a foundation from which early childhood
teacher educators can take pride in the complex,
demanding, and rewarding work in which those
who have gone before us have engaged, while at
the same time considering the very current issues
and needs that continue to dominate our field.
Although the rhetoric of the early 20th century may
differ from our own, we find common ground in
serious challenges that we face today.
We must continue to consider our current work
in the light of socio-historical conditions and
the evolution of research within the field (Fuller,
2007). Patty Smith Hill remains an inspiration;
in the midst of laying a foundation upon which
generations of educators could build, she never
lost her focus on the centrality of protecting the
well-being of children and calling for excellence
in teaching. Although she built on the work of
pioneers, such as Friedrich Froebel and Maria
Montessori, she viewed their work as a beginning
and not the end of what could be done in designing
ideal places, spaces, and curricula for children, and
could imagine her own role in moving this work
forward in unique ways (Aldridge & Christensen,
2013; Brosterman, 1997). Her words, like the
celebration of ACEI’s 125th anniversary, offer
us an invitation to look back on early childhood
teacher education as a way to better understand
our present work while embracing the future
challenges that lie ahead in the field.
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