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Giving power to the under-fives

Diane Hofkins hears evidence for cultivating children's "disposition" for learning

What is the magic that turns a decent teacher into a wonderful one? According to a long-term research project on early learning, it's the ability to generate a sense of autonomy and mastery in children.

Subject knowledge and empathy with children are also very important and teachers are doing well on these fronts. But getting children to feel they are learners in their own right is a key teaching skill that is increasingly lacking. In fact it has declined in the past decade.

These findings were aired by Professor Christine Pascal at a congress of heads and advisers organised in Oxford by the National Primary Trust. The irony was not lost on such a group, many of whom remembered the pre-national curriculum era, when fostering children's autonomy was at the heart of accepted "good practice".

Professor Pascal, the co-director of the Effective Early Learning project at University College, Worcester, provided firm evidence for what was once instinctively believed. She did this by developing rigorous and detailed methods of assessing teachers' performance through careful recording of children's responses and behaviour.

Other research evidence, she said, shows that early education, which emphasises children's autonomy along with their social and emotional development, is "powerfully more effective in the long term" than formal teaching. Although small children are capable of achieving narrow, short-ter targets, their long-term interests - and society's - lie in their developing a "disposition" to learn. This disposition, which implies motivation, self-esteem, respect for others, aspiration and the urge to master skills and projects, was the best predictor of later success.

She called for a "humanising agenda" for the next decade, focusing on developing the social and emotional dimensions of early learning, the professional development of teachers and other early educators and working in partnership with parents.

Learning is a highly emotional experience, she said, and children who come to school angry or distressed cannot learn. The new foundation stage for three to five-year- olds had rightly placed personal and social education at its heart. Practitioners needed to learn how to help children achieve emotional resilience. Meanwhile, teachers are feeling tired, stressed and de-skilled. "We have to reclaim the game," she said. "The key is holding on to teachers' well-being."

Professor Pascal wished for teachers to feel "enchanted" - and she was able to point to research evidence showing just what factors kept teachers feeling that way despite the stress:

* Ongoing professional challenges and intellectual development;

* A good support network;

* Never losing sight of the child behind the paperwork;

* A balance between work and home.

For more information on the EEL Project visit www.worc.ac.ukcrec. The National Primary Trust website is www.npt.org.uk

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