I am very passionate about teaching and that is one of the main reasons why I decided to start my MA in Early Years Education. It’s been fascinating so far.
And after one month of reading about education and learning and reflecting on what they are and how we see them, I decided to put together the most important lessons I’ve learned and interesting information for parents and teachers alike, or anyone with an interest in understanding teaching and children’s learning.
Disclaimer: The literature used and the perspectives proposed are applied to early years education and settings.
How do you see children?
As teachers and parents, we must first and foremost ask ourselves “what image of the child do I have?” This is a very complex and difficult question as there are many visions of childhood and children because this image is constructed by our OWN understanding of what children are and should be.
From a philosophical perspective, we can see children through Locke’s eyes who saw children as “tabula rasa” and they needed to be filled with knowledge from a more knowledgeable other. This implies a linear process, from dependent upon adults to independent, free citizens. This process is illustrated by the well-known ladder of incremental steps or tree of knowledge that can grow as long as it is watered by a constant flow of information.
Therefore, school or education is a place where scientific knowledge is transmitted in order to produce autonomous subjects. In this type of school, a typical pedagogical practice would be question-answer, the educator poses questions to which he already knows the real answer and listens to answers to check. These schools and procedures will follow a pre-determined curriculum and will ensure school commitment, progress, and ultimately ensure an economically productive human resource, a stable, well-prepared workforce for the future.
This school might be the school you attended, even the school your children attended, it may even be the school where you are currently teaching. In this school, the adult-child relationship is an exercise of power.
How we use that power and how much power we give to the children reflects our image of the child. Now take a moment and ask yourselves: how much power, time, space and freedom do I give to the child? How much power DO I exercise on the child, controlling outcomes and learning?
We must be constantly aware that there are many influences on our pedagogical practices: policy, curriculum, practical guidance, experience, community, personal beliefs, and value systems ( Stephens,2010). All these accompany us every single minute of our interactions in the classrooms and beyond.
The same can apply for parents: community, our own experience, personal beliefs, and value systems guide us in educating our children. But we must also be completely aware that children THEMSELVES carry their own influences in the classroom.
And without a well-developed understanding of the ways in which we can support children’s learning and help them become good learners , educators and practitioners are ill-equipped to take on the competing demands they will encounter while teaching.
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These schools will also adopt a “utilitarian audit-style approach” (Roberts-Holmes, 2017) to assess, measure, test, achieve economic goals, create human capital. Implicitly, these schools are subject to standardization and competition, to low-risk ways of reaching learning goals and low-cost solutions.
Thus, their concept of knowledge, learning, and education is reshaped and it might become an individual commodity. How do these schools see children? How do YOU see children in these schools? How much power do these children have? How much freedom, how many rights? Now looking forward, how much VOICE will these children have as future adults?
From a different perspective, children can be seen through Loris Mallaguzzi’s eyes, who viewed children as rich, powerful, competent, able, active learners, protagonists in their own learning and knowledge, subjects of individual and social rights.
Read more about how children can gain a voice of their own in Play-pedagogy and kids’ voices. These children are children of “a hundred languages” (Rinaldi, 2005). They need to be challenged and merit questioning.
They are given time, space, and possibilities to produce alternative constructions, not meet defined outcomes. They are in active engagement with the world. The child is free to make choices, explore his own theories, use his curiosity and creativity, experiment, take responsibility, and co-construct his learning alongside an adult.
Learning is thus a cooperative and communicative activity. It is defined by participation, reflection, solidarity, pleasure, and wonderment. Do you see this in your children? Do you give them the chance to show you this?
From this perspective, schools are a place where relationships combine a profound respect for otherness and difference, with a deep sense of responsibility for the other. There is profound interdependency, “reciprocal contamination and democratic dialogue”(Rinaldi, 2005). Teachers extend and support children’s learning, provide rich and stimulating experiences, offer open-ended invitations to learn.
These teachers understand that children’s ideas need to be encountered with respect, curiosity, and wonder. And teachers are in return encountered by support, respect and trust that their theoretical and cultural knowledge, combined with their professional judgment, can help them make the right decisions about their practice.
All those involved value learning in its richness and complexity, all those involved: children, teachers, parents, policy makers and community.
How to teach so that children can learn?
“Children are born with the disposition to make sense of their experiences. It is our job as adults to make sure that we don’t damage this disposition” (Brooker, 2011) In other words, children are born with an innate curiosity and sense of exploration.
This is called learning disposition, which is “inextricably linked with learning places” (Carr, 2001). Meaning that children’s learning dispositions are shaped by each encounter they have with caregivers, family, community. “Culture not only frames and pervades children’s way of learning, but it also powerfully influences their identities, created and recreated in interactions between people” (Wood, 2010).
As mentioned earlier, we come to school with our own lived experience and contaminate our environment. In the same way,” the child is linked to the reality of his own world” (D. Sousa) and doesn’t come to school in isolated ways.
Loris Mallaguzzi mentioned above based his whole pedagogical practice on a single motto “Io chi siamo’ (I am because we are) making education a relationship, an eco-system of relationships in fact.
A living organism of interdependence, which is a beautiful school to imagine. However, when children’s learning dispositions are met with instructional processes designed to teach skills, their dispositions may be undermined. Because dispositions are best learnt “when they are modeled by those around” (Brooker, 2011).
Schools’ most important outcome, therefore, should be to develop positive learning dispositions, in other words, a love of learning, not prescribed outcomes. “The potential of a child is stunted when the endpoint of their learning is formulated in advance”(Dahlberg, Moss and Pence, 2013).
As teachers and parents, we often ask ourselves “why doesn’t the child want to learn (this)?” or “how do I make this child learn?”. I think we might be asking the wrong question altogether. Perhaps we should be thinking about how learning occurs and how to create a proper environment that can bring out something not yet known, something which is interesting and remarkable.
Maybe we should help children develop a “desire to invent, think differently, imagine, try out different ways of doing things” (Moss, 2013). Without a positive learning disposition, a proper environment to stimulate curiosity and invite exploration, without understanding how learning occurs, a child CANNOT learn, it’s not a matter of not wanting to learn.
How learning occurs
“Playfulness is integral to the ways in which humans learn, relate, interact across generations, cultures, and contexts”(Wood, 2010). Perhaps we should first understand what being playful means. It is a personality trait, a mode of interaction, a flexible approach to tasks, an ability to infuse different activities with the spirit of play.
We play as children and we play as grown-ups, but our play has been refined: doing sports, playing social games, board games, watching a film, going to the theatre, doing karaoke, listening to music etc.
Parents and teachers should understand the qualities and characteristics of play and what play means to children for learning to happen. Children see the world through play and it helps them create their own meaningful symbols, it helps them become flexible and creative learns. It also “enables children to contest and deconstruct established power” ( Wood, 2010). Read more about early years education and the importance of play in Early Years Journal.
For learning to occur through play, we can adopt an integrated pedagogical approach. This implies flexible planning, observation and documentation of children, and reflective dialogue. In other words, we need to become co-players and co-contractors of knowledge. We need to be subtle and creative, as well as skillful, in order to connect children’s play, understanding, and knowledge to our formal and organized framework.
Adults can be inspired by the play they see just as they can inspire play by introducing new skills, knowledge, and ideas. An effective integrated approach combines the benefits of both adult-directed and child-initiated activities. Bear in mind that the activities you set out for your child will be considered work when they are “tightly controlled, with focus on instructional strategies, there is no choice or flexibility and there are clearly defined outcomes”( Wood, 2010).
And child-initiated activities are freely chosen, an exercise of choice, control, and imagination, with little direct intervention from an adult, no pressure for outcomes, require time and space, and children are free to choose co-players, address adults for help, and set their own goals. (Wood, 2010). Now reflect, maybe even take notes, on what is the balance between adult-directed and child-initiated activities in your class/house. When it is well-balanced, learning can truly occur.
Also, by becoming co-players and co-constructors of children’s learning, educational goals are formulated around children’s interests, motivations, and activities. In this way, the curriculum becomes a framework, not a straightjacket, “it is not about what activities children do, but about the children and the context in which children learn”( D. Sousa).
How to create proper environments for learning?
A proper setting helps children “make sense of the world, test new experiences against existing ways of thinking”( Wood, 2010). It is a place where children create and act on their own ideas. Where children are seen as cultural and social beings, powerful agents, and active learns. It is a place where teachers/parents offer children time, space and freedom, a place where they actively listen and observe.
A place where education is all about laughter and endless joy, wonderment, and excitement. “It is a privileged space of sharing, exchange, connection, a place of learning how to achieve diversity, promote and respect children’s rights and different ways of learning” (D. Sousa) It is a democratic and inclusive place, a space of learning and relearning, together.
In a proper learning environment, teachers know that they too are subject to education and learning, they acknowledge a culture of co-teaching one another. Teachers are initiators and facilitators, but also partners. They are researchers, scaffolders, and advocates for children’s rights. But most importantly they are reflective practitioners.
They take notes, observe, listen actively, and interpret children’s learning and development TOGETHER with the children. These teachers are always critical, “they question and experiment with theories and concepts, creating their own meanings and implications”( Rinaldi, 2005).
In this learning environment, adults set flexible and general educational objectives. “By defining a curriculum, we restrict the child’s active role in co-constructing and reconstructing personal meanings”(Soler and Miller, 2003). Units and subunits might push teachers to “teach without learning”( Rinaldi, 2005).
There are many ways to learn
There is no perfect curriculum for perfect teaching and learning! Because there are many ways to learn, to conceptualize learning, many different values, and relationships that influence it. However, there are efficient approaches to education.
And proper environments that are inducive of learning. And also, there are educators that can and should teach and learn alongside children and can create a narrative of endless possibilities. We need a humanized school” (Roberts-Holmes) for active learners and reflective teachers.
“We call for parental involvement but are loath to share responsibility; we recognize the need for community, but we so often crystalize into interest groups; we call for cooperative learning among children, and yet we rarely have sustained cooperation at the level of teacher and administrator“
(Howard Gardner, in Rinaldi, 2005).
We share all of our ideas on our Facebook group Learning Activities for Kids.
Brooker, L. 2011. “Developing learning dispositions for life” in T. Waller et al, ed/s. Making Sense of Theory and Practice in Early Childhood: the Power of Ideas. Berkshire: McGraw-Hill Education
Dahlberg, G. Moss, P. Pence, A. 2013. “Constructing early childhood: What do we think it is?”. In: G. Dahlberg et al, ed/s. Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care. 3 ed. London: Routledge
Stephen, Christine. “Pedagogy: The Silent Partner in Early Years Learning.” Early Years (London, England) 30.1 (2010): 15-28.
Broadhead, Pat, Howard, Justine, and Wood, Elizabeth Ann. Play and Learning in the Early Years. London: SAGE Publications, 2010.
Roberts-Holmes, Guy. “Loris Malaguzzi, Reggio Emilia and Democratic Alternatives to Early Childhood Education Assessment.” Forum for Promoting 3-19 Comprehensive Education 59.2 (2017): 159.
Soler, Janet, and Miller, Linda. “The Struggle for Early Childhood Curricula: A Comparison of the English Foundation Stage Curriculum, Te Wha¨riki and Reggio Emilia.” International Journal of Early Years Education 11.1 (2003): 57-68.
Rinaldi, Carlina. In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia Listening, Researching and Learning / Carlina Rinaldi. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2006. Contesting Early Childhood.