Inclusion and wellbeing

Can Children Really Learn It All Through Child-Led Learning?

Sue Allingham on why our youngest need to take charge of their own learning.
July 8, 2020
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What's in this article:

  • We hear a lot about child-led learning versus direct teaching. But how far can child-led learning take us?
  • Child development expert Sue Allingham explains why experiences are vital for a child’s early learning, and why they need to be led by the child.
  • She goes on to explain just how far this can take us, and the skills that a pedagogue needs to make this work for children in the Early Years.

As we gradually return to normal in our settings and our practice, our environments adapting to meet the needs of the current situation, I have noticed an increasing theme emerging.

Online, through articles, interviews, social media posts, this theme has four key aspects:

  • It’s assumed that all children are able to learn in the same way.
  • Teaching in Early Childhood Education is seen the same as our approaches with older children.
  • The teacher decides what the learning should be.
  • The only valuable learning is learning that’s school-based.

There is a core assumption here. That the adult knows best, decides what to ‘teach’, writes the content in advance – a ‘knowledge organiser’ for each child.

Every year. For each year group. Including Early Years.

But now, during the times of this pandemic, it feels like we’re seeing an extension of this. Teachers are working hard to put together schemes of online lessons for their classes to access at home, which, while potentially for older children, are proving a challenge to work appropriately and effectively in the way our youngest children need.

But why is this happening, and why is it such a challenge? And most importantly, what should we be doing instead?

Why do we have teacher-led learning?

Looked at objectively, it seems to be a good idea to have everything planned weeks, months or years in advance. To have a prepared schedule to teach to, that is mapped out across year groups so that everyone knows what is happening – and when.

As adults we often map parts of our lives out like this, especially at work. We make decisions, sometimes individually and sometimes in groups, about plans for how we want or need things to be.

The thing is, this way of working will also work with older children as they develop skills of reflection and reasoning through their years of life experience, meaning that they can usually see why their learning is moving in a certain way and they can link it to other thinking they’ve done.

So why is it not so simple to plan teaching like this with the youngest children?

Well, put simply it is based on less life experience.

Why children in the Early Years need to lead their own learning

In her 2017 book Early Childhood and Neuroscience: Theory, Research and Implications for Practice, Mine Conkabayir notes:

“The concept of sensitive periods refers to distinct phases during early childhood when the brain is best able to receive and use information gained from experience, in order to learn specific skills. The period of birth to five specifically represents a sensitive period for babies and children as it represents a time of fervent growth and development, with neural connectivity being at its most prolific.”

What Mine is saying here is that the youngest children learn through experiences and making connections. Planning what will be taught even a week in advance doesn’t allow that to happen.

By constantly working from an adult-conceived plan, this important element is missing. Information will be received and may even be responded to, but without links and experience the learning may not embed or make sense.

Julie Fisher on the importance of child-led learning

In her book, Starting From the Child, Julie Fisher sums the important of child-led learning up, by saying:

“The construction of this personal cognitive jigsaw has many parallels with the construction of the traditional wooden puzzle.

At first, the pieces of the cognitive jigsaw are picked seemingly at random. Sometimes the piece fits straight away; sometimes it is turned round and round before it fits. Sometimes the piece is turned round and round, does not quite fit but is jammed in anyway because it is more satisfying to have reached a solution than to have to start again.

It is the skill of the educator to be aware of the pieces of the jigsaw that the child already has in place and whether or not they have been fitted together correctly.”

Julie goes on to write:

“The ‘teacher’ – whether an adult or another child – needs to be informative without being imposing. Imposition simply leads to the learner becoming confused and disaffected. Confusion arises because the links between the pieces have been made by the teacher and not by the learner.”

With the best will in the world we make assumptions and are driven by the expectations made of us, and it can become easier to go with this than check how different these are from the reality of the child.

Can you teach everything with child-led learning?

So is it possible to teach everything expected from an adult-conceived curriculum through a child-led approach?

I would argue yes, it is. But it requires a skilled teacher who really understands and notices what is happening, reflects and changes plans almost without realising – a true pedagogue.

In order to be able to do this well it is vital to know and understand the expectations of the curriculum you’re working from, but then interpret it through the children. My experience has shown me that it is possible to gain a higher level of involvement and attainment by doing exactly this.

Child-led learning in action

Three of the boys in one of my Reception classes were sitting on the floor with the flipchart that they had taken down from board.

This use of a resource was fine with me – they each had a pen, and they were writing numbers over 100. As their teacher, I knew their varying levels of understanding, as well as what the Foundation Stage requirements at the time were.

My whole class were familiar with what the numbers up to 100 looked like as our signing in sheet was a hundred square with pockets so they could put their names into any number they liked.

I watched as the children egged each other on to write three digit numbers, and I could see that they were becoming increasingly perplexed by something. In the end I was called over.

I had been working with them on addition to ten, and they were confident with that. They wanted to know how to add three digit numbers now – they knew it must be possible. So we did some work on hundreds, tens and units mapping it out across the paper.

Playing with numbers in this child-led way took me and the children to a place in our thinking that I would not have planned for – and a place that was in no document. It did not mean that the three of them were able to do this type of calculation, but it did mean that their thinking about numbers had more depth.

Because links and connections had been made.

Just how challenging is child-led learning?

I understand why working in this way sounds really difficult. As I said earlier, it can be perceived as easier to work from a pre-set plan.

But is it? It’s vital that we understand the curriculum we are required to teach, and it is our role to impart learning. But it’s not our role to simply give disjointed facts. It actually becomes easier for us and the children to mould our teaching into what the they already know and can do, because it will fit into place for them and embed.

We all too frequently hear that a prescribed curriculum raises standards, or that children can’t learn everything through child-led learning. But as Robin Alexander discusses, there is a fear that this moves our education further away from pedagogy. He argues that even if we do run with a rigid policy or structure, we are not immune from the contexts of culture, self and history.

He wrote:

“It is vital that we do appropriately translate and structure our teaching and learning environments so that they start with the child.”

Decisions made about curriculum may well have been taken out of our hands. But the question we must ask ourselves is whether that means that our pedagogy should be taken too?

The big ideas

download pdf
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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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