Early learning years are crucial in teaching children basic life skills and for laying down a firm foundation for lifelong learning

Early learning years are crucial in teaching children basic life skills and for laying down a firm foundation for lifelong learning, coupled with confidence and the ability to grow academically and socially. There have been a number of studies on how best to provide effective learning within the primary school setting.
I have drawn upon the lessons taught at my primary school in addition to the interviews. The classrooms are diverse in social, economical and cultural background for each child and this mixture has underpinned most of the strategies employed.
My interviews yielded an array of techniques utilised by teachers. Techniques, such as play, visual aids, experiments, amongst others.
In terms of the principals underlying these techniques, the interviews and my own research highlighted five main areas that the school and the teachers focused on. It is interesting to note that these areas often overlapped and can be considered a natural progression to each other.
Firstly, all the practitioners emphasised the importance of working in partnership with parents, as well as the children. In all 3 subjects, practioners noted the potential influence that the home environment can have on the child.
Math’s in particular was given emphasis; negative connotations by parents can have an impact on how children view maths as a subject and ultimately their confidence and feelings towards the subject (The Mayor’s Fund for London Feasibility Study, National Numeracy, 2013, p 5: Sonnenschein et al (2012)).
It was apparent that many of the children could count confidently to 10 by the time they started school, however observation indicated that for some this was by rote learning and the child was unable to comprehend the actual value of numbers. This demonstrates the influence of the environment outside the school noted by Bailey and Barnes, 2008; Hipkins et al., 2010 (taken from Week 3 – the hidden curriculum), and represents the challenge of guiding children from rote learning to understanding and utilisation (Week 2 – 3.1 ‘Learning that’ and ‘learning how’).
To combat this, in the primary setting, work was often devised in a creative manner, particularly by applying the subject in a more realistic setting so parents could see that math’s was accessible to them, and they were able to apply their own knowledge in teaching their children. Given the diversity of the classroom, teachers were often creative in finding common ground. So for example, an outline of the game ‘snakes and ladder’, which most parents are familiar with, was provided. Parents were encouraged to help children fill in the numbers, add and subtract as they played the game. This aided counting skills and hopefully involved the parents in fun play.
Another example is the early reader scheme which was set up so parents could help children pick books, within their reading levels, to read with their child, promoting enthusiasm, choice and interest.
The second principal the school took pride in was promoting inclusion. Not only in the broader sense of ensuring classrooms were open to children from a diverse range of backgrounds, abilities, health issues, but also in ensuring each child was ‘included’ and made part of each lesson. This variation in ability is reflected by Medwell et al (2014, p 12). Wood and Middleton (1975) also emphasis the process of “coming to know the child” as one interviewee described it. This moves beyond mere observation towards cooperative learning between the teacher and individual child (Wood and Middleton, 1975, p165), so it is essential that teachers understand the psychology of learning for children.
To this end, the school provided an enriching environment for the children to learn. The environment is an important factor in facilitating learning. The classrooms often displayed the students work, had colourful posters and topic boards. Even the design of the classroom had been thought out, as the head teacher commented, children need to feel safe and free to express themselves, so room had been created for more expressive play, and materials, such as paper and crayons, were readily accessible at the side of the room in easy to reach open cabinets.
At this primary level, all my interviewees expressed in one form or another, how they came to view social interaction as essential, for ensuring students actually understood what was being taught. The importance of communication reflects Vygotsky’s work on cognitive development. Simply providing children with appropriate experiences was in itself insufficient. Children required guidance and instruction, and the opportunity to work out solutions for themselves – a concept referred to as cognitive socialization (Schaffer, H.R. (1996).This illustrates the difference between rote learning and the ability to understand and apply knowledge.
In terms of the lesson plays and classroom activities, some of the interviewees noted that they would often ‘revise’ their subject prior to planning lessons.
Haylock et al (2017, p 4-6) states the importance of practitioners being converse in the area they teach. He illustrates how feelings of inadequacy in maths as a child can carry over into adulthood and impacts on the adult’s ability to teach effectively. Insidiously, these feelings of anxiety can be transferred to children (Hill et al, 2008, p375), as this had a direct impact on their ability to converse freely and with confidence on the subject and therefore teach (Haylock et al, 2017, p 12).
Teachers maintaining their own level of knowledge and understanding are an essential key skill required by the Open University course (Table 1 – Learning Outcomes). In order to know how to teach, the first step was to ensure fluency in what was being taught.
“In order to gain qualified teacher status, teachers demonstrate that they have the knowledge, skills and values necessary to be effective teachers” (Medwell et al, 2017, p1). Indeed, “demonstrating good subject knowledge and curriculum knowledge” forms one of the focal standards for teaching (Medwell et al, 2017, p3). This is reflected in the Professional Standards for Teaching Assistants (Week 1 – 3.8 subject knowledge requirements).
In order to develop subject knowledge, the school and teachers had developed a multi disciplinary approach as to how they would meet the curriculum needs. Teacher independently planned lessons within the schools course guidelines but crucially, underlying this, was an overall policy to ensure all lessons were integrated to maximize exposure and learning. I shall discuss planning lessons and integration separately.
The National Curriculum provided by the government outlines the core objectives to be achieved for each subject and at what stage. School, however, are responsible for establishing how each objective will be met, so teachers can plan lessons with a certain freedom of execution.
The head teacher stressed the importance of having defined plans and policies for what they are teaching. Each lesson plan started with a clearly defined objective, and often incorporated previous learning for reinforcement. Teachers drew on a number of sources as to how they execute their lessons. Some drew on their own experiences, for example, in the video xxxxxxxxxxxxx – cant remember which video used a card system to teach the values of 10s.
In one class I observed, the lesson plan, with the objective of differentiating between mass and weight, the teacher focused on the use of experimentation and an open question and discussion session to stimulate understanding.
The common denominator in all the lesson plans was the concept that it had to be fun in order to engage the child. As one of my interviewees noted, she attempted to link lessons to play as much as possible, often so the child did not realise they were learning. She did however, stress the importance of classroom discussion at the end of each lesson. This emphasis on play for early learner not only helped in enabling the adults and children to interact on the child’s level, but also contributed to a level of “involvement, interest and perseverance” on the part of the child (Wilson and Spears) .
The use of this socio-constructive approach focused on collaborative learning. This not only reinforced her observations on each child’s level of understanding, but also highlighted to the child what they had learned, so they could apply that knowledge with growing confidence and awareness. No single lesson was taught as a standalone exercise. All lesson plans were devised so that they incorporated new objectives, reinforced previous learning and deepened understanding, as well as ensuring all children were given ample opportunities and support in grasping concepts.
Lessons tended to focus on activities children could relate to outside the school environment, reference to real life scenarios relevant to primary school children helped make the subject interesting, relevant and importantly applicable. Haylock et al (p 24-25) refers to this concept as “meaningful learning mindset” and it demonstrates the pedagogical knowledge Shulman and Harris et al refer to as additional expertise required for effective teaching (week 1 – 3.9 pedagogical knowledge. Some caution is required when applying this real life relevancy, as Wood and Middleton (1975) note, there are ground rule for math that do require effective teaching and the level of help provided by the teacher needs to vary according to the child’s ability to allow for progression.
The school in setting their curriculum had decided that lessons would introduce and integrate key concepts in all three subjects. The ideas taught in one lesson were then reflected in other lessons, providing students with a way of linking math’s, English and science as a whole. In this way the practioners fostered children’s ability to apply knowledge to their own world, and provided an index for their understanding and interest. This also facilitated learning as a “gradual process” consisting “of a continual building upon and modification of what has gone before. It can be thought of as a ‘See, Experience, Master’ framework (Mason, 1999)” (Open University Course – Knowledge in everyday life).
Practitioners worked together as a multidisciplinary team. The additional benefit was that teachers were able to compare observations and assist each other in identifying and reaching out to learners who appeared to have difficulty in understanding, without the appearance of singling out individuals, thus undermining their confidence.
So, for example, a science lesson comparing animals incorporated a discussion on size differences. This coincided with the math’s lessons focusing on the use of rulers to measure different objects, experiments on how many blocks would fit into different sized boxes and English lessons which focused on different ways of describing big and small (introducing descriptive grammar). They maintained interest by using different techniques in each case to comprehend and solidify understanding. This reinforced and enhanced the way the children thought about and expressed measurements and gained confidence in the use of items such as rulers, string, hands to quantify their ideas.
In terms of developing children’s communication, this approach encouraged children to be able to adjust their description, vocabulary and conversation in relation to the subject and audience. Medwell et al (2014, p7) notes this creativity in the use of language underpins key stage 1 and 2.
This scaffolding approach first introduced by Wood, Burner and Ross (1976) did highlight some interesting points about the school and the practitioners.
Practitioners noted a necessity to understand key concepts which were developed by the school. Teachers devised lesson plans and incorporated these key concepts from other subjects.
Teachers developed an open process amongst each other and would often discuss how they introduced area in their lesson plan.
This “whole school approach” is also described by staff at St Peters school as snagging (3.6 – The role of the setting and the practitioner).
By process of collaboration, for each new concept introduced, teachers were able to ensure all “three characteristics of effective teaching and learning” (DfE, 2017, pp9-10 – taken from week 2 early learning and subject knowledge), were incorporated in multiple and meaningful ways to ensure that the children were not “learning in a knowledge vacuum”, (Littledyke and Huxford, 1998, p17 – taken from week 3 – 1 the place of the curriculum), but were able to make connections across all 3 key subjects and real life scenarios, stimulating their imagination and creativity