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What it means to be a learner in early childhood education

Schooling is so wrapped up in attainment that I think we’ve forgotten the beauty in learning.

Firstly, let's make it clear that there is a difference between education and schooling. You can educate yourself in every aspect of being, developing knowledge and skills in areas of your choosing. It's why we have hobbies, pursue self-study and develop life-long interests. Often this results in us finding the job that really encapsulates our fascinations and desires.

Schooling, on the other hand, is often not open to choice about what we learn. Policy and statutory frameworks do that for us. What we do have, however, is the opportunity to maximise young children's learning behaviours in the early years thanks to the Characteristics of Effective (Teaching and) Learning and see how they become the markers of motivation in later years.


Discovering the hidden gem

Children in England experience a measured culture; they become all too aware of their quantified self as the system teaches young people that they are only worth something when they have achieved a pre-determined expectation or succeed in scoring a high grade. Perhaps my global readers may resonate with this view too.

What does this teach children about themselves? Well, it's built on the premise that their value as a person is contingent on these 'successful' outcomes and how they sit in relation to others. In other words, if a child isn’t learning, that’s their responsibility.

Sir Ken Robinson once said “People do their best when they do the thing they love - they are in their element”. In the Early Years Foundation Stage we are blessed to have the conditions to cultivate this ‘element’; the characteristics of effective (teaching - new to Development Matters 2021) learning.

They are the hidden gem in learning.

What's unique about the Characteristics of Effective (Teaching) and Learning

Birth to Five Matters (2021, p.42)

Firstly, they can’t tell us if children's learning is on/off track, they don’t give us suggested next steps and they won’t link to developmental markers. That’s probably why it’s so hidden, because they are detached from cognitive memorisation of remembering and knowing more. They are not to be measured.

The Characteristics of Effective (Teaching) and Learning are behaviours of learning. No matter the child’s age, no matter their interest and no matter where they are developmentally; the the Characteristics of Effective (Teaching) and Learning do not discriminate.

They are built on the 3 guiding principles of the Early Years Foundation Stage: how a child is learning, what adults might do and what adults might provide. Together they equal learning and development. One of the best aspects of the EYFS yet so confused in practice. This really is the only sequence you need to remember.

Birth to Five Matters (2021, p.8)

Why the Characteristics of Effective (Teaching) and Learning are misunderstood

They are not an add on to evaluating observations, they are the observation! Observations often ask practitioners to indicate which CoE(T)L are evident or displayed. This can be problematic as there's a danger that practitioners adopt a 'tick list' approach to documenting or monitoring what children predominantly indicate as their preferred way to learn. That in itself needs unpacking: was the observation in the same provision area?, does the child's current interest suggest the dominant CoE(T)L to be present over others?

They are not a choice, they are statutory!

Everyone in early years should be using these with clear intention and be central to reflecting, planning and guiding children interests and learning. Having them on a wall display and telling children they are a “slinky-linky snake” or a “go-for-it gorilla” is seriously questionable practice and doesn't suffice. (What does that even mean?!...)

Considering the Characteristics of Effective (Teaching) and Learning effectively in practice

Children demonstrate learning behaviours best when they have uninterrupted time with freedom to lead their play, are allowed to experiment and investigate in an open ended environment that oozes an enjoyable and relaxed atmosphere with adults that watch with wonder, attune and respond appropriately.

If adults provide the right environment to enable children to facilitate their own learning, they drive their own learning behaviours. (Un)Surprisingly, this supports children to understand, know and do better at things of their choosing which often integrates learning that has been taught by an adult.

When we don't provide an environment that enables learning it's often because the focus is on outcomes and markers of success than markers of motivation. The adult is in full control; designing, resourcing, deciding learning intentions etc. This is the sweet spot - where schooling and education butt heads.

It's not, however, an all or nothing consideration when we talk about learning and understanding learners. It's a balance between belonging and ownership to exercise our learning desires between adults and children - with observation at the centre. I'm talking about noticing here, not noting.

Once we grasp that the underlying message of the CoE(T)L are about supporting children’s ability to learn and think for themselves, we can appreciate the adult role within the supportive relationship and how an environment that enables actually enhances outcomes.

Each early years setting is a dispositional milieu: a place that presents children with particular views of what it means to learn and be a learner. Children will fit in and thrive in a milieu, or they may avoid, resist or try to change that milieu. The type of learners children become will be influenced by the environment.

Margaret Carr

The Early Years Foundation Stage (2007, p.7) Effective practice: Play and Exploration


Reflective Questions

  1. What do children continue to do in your setting that you may discourage?

  2. How could you view the Characteristics of Effective (teaching) and learning - how children learn - as equal to the curriculum - what children know?

  3. How often do you sit and ponder about the play you see unfolding without assigning an area of learning - what does it tell you about the child and how they are learning?


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