Activating active learning: the Characteristics of Effective Learning

Blog 9-3-18Recently we’ve been speaking to students and new practitioners who have recently been introduced to England’s Early Years Foundation Stage (DfE, 2017) and are getting their heads around what the EYFS describes as the three characteristics of effective learning:

  • Playing and exploring
  • Active learning
  • Creating and thinking critically

Of the three characteristics, it’s often “active learning” that is the hardest for newcomers to early years practice to grasp. It’s sometimes misinterpreted as relating to playing in a physically active way but it’s actually about children’s brains being mentally active instead. It’s broken down into three sections – being involved and concentrating, keeping trying and enjoying achieving what they set out to do – but it can be hard to pinpoint what those three ideas mean.

Why is it important that children are being involved and concentrating, and how can we tell they are doing it? Vicky Huchtin (2016) has written a chapter on the three characteristics (available as a PDF download from her publisher’s website) in her book called Effective Practice in the Early Years Foundation Stage: An essential guide. She links “being involved and concentrating” to work by Ferre Laevers, who is known for his research on experiential education and measuring wellbeing and involvement in the early years. He describes children who are involved as being “completely absorbed” in what they are doing, which leads to perseverance, intense mental activity and satisfaction of their exploratory drive (2005, p.10). This is why he argues that “if we want deep level learning, we cannot do without involvement” (2015, p.2). It’s why he also believes that it’s important to assess children’s levels of involvement using a 5-point scale he has developed, so practitioners can identify how quality could be improved in their settings so involvement levels increase.

What does keeping trying mean? Another useful book we’d recommend you have a look at is Characteristics of Effective Early Learning: helping young children become learners for life, edited by Helen Moylett (2014). The chapter on active learning is written by Nancy Stewart, who says “we learn from having a go at new things… If we stay within the safe zone of what we already know… we don’t learn anything new” (2014, p.65). She suggests that children need to preserve the ability to persevere, which we see in young babies who don’t give up learning to walk when it takes lots of tumbles and topples to get there. Penny Tassoni (2016, p.83) gives examples of activities that might promote perseverance, which have an “end point” and give a sense of achievement. She recommends activities like building a sandcastle or doing a cooking activity might be valuable for this.

Finally, how can we ensure children are enjoying achieving what they set out to do? Nancy Stewart (2014) believes that instilling children with intrinsic motivation is important for this. It’s been described “the desire to participate in an activity merely for the pleasure derived from that activity”, (Carlton and Winsler, 1998, p.159) in contrast to extrinsic motivation, where children are motivated by something like a reward or praise. It’s not a new concept – one of Froebel’s principles for early childhood education was “intrinsic motivation, resulting in child-initiated, self directed activity, is valued”, which is why he believed it should be fostered by those working with children  (Bruce, 2015, cited in Early Education, 2018).

We are interested to know what you think about promoting active learning. How do you do it with the children that you come into contact with? And what do you think is the most important aspect of active learning?

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