Daniel Lovatt

Find out how a classroom encounter helped Daniel discover his life passion and prompted his journey from electrical engineer to educator and researcher.

Daniel Lovatt with his supervisors, Dr Rena Heap and Professor Helen Hedges.
Daniel Lovatt with his supervisors, Dr Rena Heap and Professor Helen Hedges.

Programme: PhD in Education
Research topic: Creating knowledge together: Fostering and enriching young children’s working theories
Supervisors: Professor Helen Hedges and Dr Rena Heap
School: Curriculum and Pedagogy, Faculty of Education and Social Work
Funding: University of Auckland Doctoral scholarship

Tell us about your journey to PhD study

I left school at the end of 6th form because I couldn’t see the point of my classes - or of learning. I did a NZCE (New Zealand Certificate of Engineering) and, following in my father’s footsteps, became an apprentice electrician. I later became an electrical engineer, completed a Bachelor of Engineering, and remained in the industry for many years. Then, in 2007, I spent time with my daughter Ali at her kindergarten. This experience helped me realise that the care and education of young children is my passion in life.

Over the next year and after much soul searching, I left a lifetime of engineering to begin a career in early childhood education, beginning with the Graduate Diploma of Teaching at the University of Auckland. When I finished the graduate diploma, one of the last things I said to my professor, Helen Hedges, was “if you ever have any research, let me know”.

A year later, while I was working at a childhood education centre, Helen invited me to be part of a Teaching and Learning Research Initiative project investigating children’s interests and working theories. My time as a researcher began. I spent 2 years as a teacher-researcher, during which I completed a Master of Professional Studies focused on investigating children’s working theories.

I participated in several research projects and continued to be around academics and scholars, and this led me to consider doctoral study. It was a difficult decision in the end because my passion is teaching, and there are already so few men in early childhood education. However, after much discussion with my family, friends and mentors, I decided to make the move. Luckily, the University of Auckland awarded me a doctoral scholarship, which pays for my fees and a small amount per week to live on. Without this scholarship I would not have been able to afford full-time doctoral study.

... it is an enormous privilege to read, think deeply, research and write, and I am thankful every day for the opportunity.

Tell us about your doctoral research – in layman’s terms!

My research explores how teachers might foster and enrich children’s working theories about the STEM domains.

Working theories are a learning outcome that can be understood as tentative and evolving ideas and understandings about how the world works. STEM is a focus of much interest in today’s climate. Governments see that STEM education leads to better outcomes for children, to increased employability in STEM related-careers, and to better-informed citizens. Yet little emphasis is placed on STEM education in the early years.

The teaching notions of fostering and enriching are aligned with the holistic nature of the early childhood curriculum framework, Te Whāriki. The curriculum provides a framework to teach and learn within, rather than stating that children must attain certain levels of knowledge. This means that teachers and children can learn together, and that the focus is as much about the process of learning as the outcome.

What does research look like to you?

My research has involved three different sections: year one was a time of reading, writing and planning; year two was a time of visiting two centres and gathering (generating) data; year three, where I am at now, is a time of making sense of the data and theorizing.

I have a workspace in a doctoral hub where I go most days to read, think and write, and every day is different. At the moment, I am looking at video data of children and teachers, and analyzing and interpreting what it shows. I am also involved in writing chapters for books, writing journal articles, guest lecturing, arranging meetings with colleagues to discuss our research as a group, and preparing for, and then actually doing, conferences both in New Zealand and overseas.

What is it like studying for a PhD as an experienced professional?

While I miss the children, teachers and whānau, the move has been great: it is an enormous privilege to read, think deeply, research and write, and I am thankful every day for the opportunity. My topic fascinates me. There are huge gaps in the research which I can fill to help teachers understand children’s working theories, resulting in better outcomes for young children. Studying for a PhD is a huge privilege.

Have you got any advice for people starting or about to start a PhD?

Put a lot of thought into it. It is a privilege, but it is also very hard work. It is enjoyable and exhilarating, but also comes with times of great frustration. A doctorate seems to be as much about learning about yourself as it is about writing the thesis and gaining the qualification.