Our aspiration in education is to inspire a lifelong passion for learning in the children we teach. Habits and attitudes are created at a very young age, so the type of curriculum and level of challenge we offer children from their very early years will determine their attitudes to learning – possibly for life.
Nothing in life is easy, and nor should it be. The greatest pleasure in learning is to achieve something against the odds, overcoming difficulties and challenges. If we can enjoy that process, then we gain a love for learning. If we offer children the opportunity to be creative and to rise to challenges, to find themselves in the pit, to fail time after time and yet to have the ability to accept and enjoy failure as part of the learning process, then we are creating lifelong learners.
Everything that is worth doing is difficult, for, when success then comes, we truly have that sense of achievement and worth. That is what makes us fall in love with learning; it’s also what it takes to succeed in life.
We must not protect children from the barriers and challenges of learning; we must teach them to overcome them and enjoy that process.
For 50 years or more, early years learning has been dominated by the thinking of Piaget and the Plowden report that embodied Piaget’s beliefs. Due to advances in neuroscience and a better understanding of how we all learn, we now know that Piaget’s concept of stages of development is not what we must base our teaching and learning upon. We now know that we do not develop in structured stages – there are no cognitive barriers to learning certain things before a certain age.
And yet, the structure of our school system is set up around Piaget’s idea that we can only learn certain things at predetermined ages when our brain is developed enough to do so. We divide our teaching into key stages according to the age brackets that determine Piaget’s stages of development.
We now know that our brains are all but fully formed at birth, and that all that holds us back from entering a limitless world of learning, understanding, and challenge is life’s experiences and the ability to talk and express ourselves.
Research into how we learn in our early years must therefore have a focus on these two things, succeeded by a focus on them throughout our learning lives.
The type of learning process and opportunities we are offered whilst we are young will determine our attitudes to learning and ultimately our success in learning. If, in the early years, we follow the misguided Piaget philosophy on early years learning stages, we will believe that learning occurs through simply allowing children to have a choice of low-level activities, believing that their brains are not developed enough to learn in any other way.
The result of this is that early years learning experiences are often intellectually undemanding when, in reality, the young child or toddler’s brain has an absolute thirst and capability for knowledge and learning. These experiences are cushioned and sanitised, but lack the ingredients of challenge and stimulation that will result in the love of learning that we all wish to achieve. This is born out of a desire to be protective of our children; to strive not to allow them to be over-challenged, over-faced, and hurt, either physically, emotionally, or intellectually. This approach stitches together a saccharine-sweet reality that does nothing to prepare students for the challenge of the real world.
Nobody succeeded in sport or academia without pain and challenge
Dealing with pain and challenge are, of course, essential ingredients in developing a love of learning. If we deny children these things, we are doing them a great disservice and are failing to prepare them for a life of successful learning. That is why the early years phase is so crucial. For years, many of us have invested our efforts into an approach, a set of beliefs, and a pedagogical framework that are inherently flawed.
In more recent times, we have also become obsessed with observing, recording, and assessing, and have neglected teaching and learning; we must rectify this and get the balance right. The vast majority of our time must be spent in the teaching and learning aspect of our practice. Children gain little and will not develop if we are continually ‘pulling up the carrot’ to see how much it has grown. Our efforts should be spent on developing and nurturing it, not observing and measuring it. Assessments and data are important, but they must not dominate our lives as educationalists or the educational experiences we offer the children.
Opportunities to talk are vital; children must learn to communicate, collaborate, and cooperate, so we must create purposeful environments that have learning opportunities to achieve this.
A teacher’s job is to know when to intervene and participate, when to teach and enhance/support the learning and when to withdraw and leave the children to it.
We have often spent too much time ‘leaving them to it’ in early years education.
Children must be able to learn from well-planned, structured activities that will stimulate and challenge them. Teachers should be there to direct them and steer them, as, when left to their own devices, children will often take the easy option rather than the challenging one. We must avoid wrapping them in a dream world of unstimulating activities that have no rationale or learning objective behind them. As trained professionals, we are planning their intellectual, emotional and physical development through providing the appropriate learning opportunities.
These learning opportunities must revolve around oracy and experiences. Woven into this are opportunities to read, write, count, estimate, paint, dance, sing, and gain a better understanding of the world around us.
We do not simply learn by experiences; we need direct teaching and support from wiser and more experienced learners, who understand how we learn and what we need to learn. We cannot leave this process to chance, especially in the crucial early years of life when our brains just want to learn. Very young children learn more in the first few years of their than at any other time in their life; if we get our early years approach to learning right, perhaps we can rectify this.
It is therefore essential in the early years setting to provide direct teaching-based opportunities in the key areas of reading, writing, and mathematics, for these are the areas in which the children will be measured. They are vital areas in terms of determining their success in our school settings and in life. We must create the opportunity to immerse them in these areas, and not just offer them as one of many activities to choose from.
Learning is about striking a balance between all the ways in which we learn. It is therefore not a great leap of faith and belief to realise that we actually learn in the same way throughout our lives. Just as the early years provision has often neglected direct teaching and instruction, so has learning in later years neglected the need for discovery, exploration and experimentation.
“The challenge now is to transform education systems into something better suited to the real needs of the 21st century. At the heart of this transformation, there has to be a radically different view of human intelligence and of creativity.” – Sir Ken Robinson