Getting By With Help From Our Little Friends!
What we can learn from Early Years education
If any of us were to make a list of the attitudes, skills and attributes we would want our pupils to walk in to our lessons with everyday, they would all be similar:
Self confidence, independence, a desire to learn, to possess high levels of motivation, creative thinking, the ability to work in teams, to self manage and to challenge their own thinking.
As a teacher I would have paid good money for a class of kids who worked that way day after day. The irony is that those pupils are out there, indeed the young people we teach everyday were at one time, those kinds of learners.
I must nail my colours to the mast here and confess that despite the fact that I was never trained as or taught in an early years setting, I believe that the best run early years units are the finest models of successful learning environments to found at any level of formal education. It is exactly for that reason that I am convinced that we all have something to learn from their approach and should be committed to finding ways that we can transfer elements of early years practice through our own curriculum and lesson design.
Whilst I fully appreciate the impact that programmes like Learning to Learn can have on our schools and our pupils I am concerned that such programmes should be necessary; after all if you watch young children in a well run Foundation Stage setting you see children who are dynamic and highly skilled learners, I read some staggering research a few years ago that claimed that we learn nearly 80% of everything we learn in our life time before we are 5 years old; the first time I heard that statistic, my instinct was to bulk and dismiss but the more I thought about it the more I realised its viability; after all, we learn to walk and talk, make sense of texture, sound, image and the complex world around us, we learn about the subtleties of human interaction and body language etc., etc. In many ways we are born the perfect learning machine…so what happens?
Do we need more programmes like Learning to Learn which help to train our teachers to train our children how to learn? Or should we be asking more fundamental questions about how do we modify what we do to ensure that we encourage the natural learning skills that our children are born with, how do we harness those instincts?
Perhaps the most provocative question is what are we doing within our current approach to learning that train children out of these early abilities and what is it that an early years unit does to promote those instinctive skills. In many ways early childhood is a little like taking journeys of discovery; think back to the days when on a sunny Sunday afternoon you may pile into the family car and just ‘go for a drive’, no one really knew where you were going and in some ways it didn’t matter, it was the experience that was of importance; as you drive you may choose to go down the lane on the left or head to that interesting spot on the horizon to the right. That must be what it’s like to be a child under 5; one of the first things you notice in a well run early years setting is the level of independence and self management you see from its pupils; the staff have planned a series of open ended tasks and experiences (well structured and thought out against clear sets of national criteria) the children are briefed and then they begin their journey. The staff will guide and question, challenge and direct where appropriate and as a result the children learn at a phenomenal rate. As our students leave the early years setting and head into ‘real’ school we install in each of them a satellite navigation system that from now on will define the journey in minute detail, control the route and the time taken and will even ensure that should you deviate from the route, it will get you back on the most efficient track asap! As a result our pupils become increasingly dependent on direction and lose the natural instinct to manage their learning; over time they become reliant on others and forget that learning comes from inquiry, investigation, hypothesis and conclusion…I have sat in so many staff rooms where teachers, particularly in Science Departments lament the inability of their students to understand that particular methodology.
A few months ago I was talking to a group of young learners about their school experience and particularly their curriculum, when one nine year old boy said something that I found quite profound: “I am bored of learning second hand stuff,” he said, “I want to learn new stuff, that no one has learnt before, I don’t want to keep learning things that you already have the answer to!” Now whilst it is impossible to do this, it is vital that we make learning feel that way for our students, granted it can be hard given the complexity of the curriculum and the syllabus we must follow but that, I guess, is the art of a great teacher and in many ways, is one of the key reasons why early years education is so successful; it feels like a journey of discovery, unmapped and new.
What excites me most about early years practice is the constant planning for context and purpose that draws on children’s experiences and sets the learning into a wider frame than simply learning as part of a syllabus; the learning really matters to the students because they can see its relevance to their lives and gives them the chance to try things they see as exciting elements of the adult world: If they are learning about healthy living, they will have a doctors surgery to role play in and a Jane Fonda workout video to recreate; learning is linked to real life, it is not, as is the case in older settings, seen as something to do that will one day, allow to live a real life!
It was John Holt, the famous American educator, who once asked, upon starting to learn the cello, at what stage he would be allowed to say that he had stopped learning to play the cello and was now actually playing the cello. His point was that learning for children in school feels the same; at what point can they say that I am living life, rather than learning to live life? It is a disconnect that I fear grows through most children’s schooling but one that is so skilfully managed in the Foundation Stage.
One of the most powerful elements of excellent early years practice is the structured engagement of the senses, learning in its most successful form is a sensory experience; the most powerful history teaching was for me experienced on the old battle fields of the Somme, in the castle at Whitby…In English it was being involved in theatre workshops of Shakespeare, of being taken as a primary school pupil, to sit under a tree on a field with my class, as the teacher read to us; that heady mix of sunshine on the skin, the sound of rustling leaves and the feel of the grass on your back helped me fall in love with the language and the tone of literature. Our senses are such powerful hooks that activate one of our most important learning tools; memory. How often when we plan our lessons do we ensure that each learning experience is reinforced with a sensory connection: a sound, smell, touch, taste or image?
For me the key to the success of early years practice is that whilst outcomes are vital, even more so, given the latest raft of Government reforms and target culture, staff concentrate their energies on developing the quality of the experience and they trust that if they get that right, the outcomes will follow…I am not sure that as school evolves and as the stakes get higher we don’t lose sight of the quality of the journey and refocusing would not really be that hard. The keys to the success of the early years seem to be:
- Building planning outwards from the personal learning skills natural to young learners
- The commitment to build learning experiences that are rich in context and practical work, ensuring that learning does not feel like practice for something bigger and better.
- To ensure that learning feels open ended, new and like discovery. Not like a closed journey where there is a right answer that is already known.
- Planning to engage and stimulate all of the senses as often as possible.
Above all, I feel that we should all, no matter what age or phase we teach, commit to visiting a well run local early years provider and challenge ourselves to take a little of what they do back with us to our own settings…maybe there really is something in the saying that teaching is child’s play!
© Richard Gerver