(2) Five Key Points about how young children learn

Please enjoy the second extract from our Book of the Week: How do Expert Primary Classteachers Really Work? A Critical Guide for Teachers, Headteachers and Teacher Educators by Tony Eaude. Let us know what you think!

The TLRP (see page 4) suggested that learning processes do not fundamentally change with age, though contexts do, and that more attention should be paid to learning relationships. This section highlights five often-overlooked aspects of how young children learn:

  1. the link between cognitive and emotional processes;
  2. how relationships support active meaning-making;
  3. children’s needs for different means of representation;
  4. being cared-for and caring-for; and
  5. the power of example.

The link between cognitive and emotional processes

As Gerhardt (2004, p 24) writes, unconsciously acquired, non-verbal patterns and expectations … are inscribed in the brain outside conscious awareness, in the period of infancy and … underpin our behaviour in relationships through life. For instance, theory about infant attachment (see Eaude, 2011, p 48) emphasises the significance of anxiety in determining responses and the importance of predictable relationships in helping to contain anxiety at a manageable level. Without this, children (and indeed all of us) tend either to withdraw or to become aggressive. Children enjoy challenge but must feel safe to explore, to take risks, to create.

A great deal of research, such as that summarised in Rogoff (1990) and Cooper and McIntyre (1996, pp 90–91), indicates how the cognitive and emotional aspects of learning are closely interlinked, like the strands of a rope. So, children who feel safe are better placed to learn, but anxiety can easily block conscious processes. Unless learners are protected from the emotional cost of failure, especially the public cost, they are unlikely to take risks and conscious mechanisms become ineffective. When I tried to learn to sing, at the age of 40, I knew what to do, but anxiety meant that I was unable to sing. For an eight year-old, this may mean that he knows how to behave, but is unable to make the conscious choices which his teacher expects. So, classteachers must be aware of how learning is affected by unconscious processes, often the result of previous experience and the immediate environment.

How relationships support active meaning-making

Bruner (1996) and Rogoff (1990) emphasise that from early infancy children are active meaning-makers, supported by those who care for them. Their development depends on reciprocal relationships. Just think how a young child learns to speak – by a complex process of listening, rehearsing, trying, being corrected, self-correcting, with parents/carers talking, and Responding to, his emerging patterns of speech. As Donaldson (1982, 1992) showed, young children’s responses depend very strongly on the context of a task and the trust they have with the person setting it. And as Rogoff (1990, pp 94–95) suggests,

involvement in the overall process and purpose of the activity, in a manageable and supported form, gives children a chance to see how the steps fit together and to participate in aspects of the activity that reflect the overall goals, gaining both skills and a vision of how and why the activity works.

In Salzberger-Wittenberg et al.’s words (1983, p ix), our learning, in infancy and for a considerable period, takes place within a dependent relationship to another human being. It is the quality of the relationship which deeply influences the hopefulness required to remain curious and open to new experiences, the capacity to perceive connections and to discover their meaning. Older children may become less dependent on relationships, but these remain highly influential throughout the primary years, and beyond. The more unsure or insecure the learner, the more continuity of relationships matters, whereas more confident learners can cope with change more easily. Learning depends on social interaction, especially what Rogoff  (1990) describes as ‘guided participation’ where a less experienced learner works alongside a more experienced one. How this happens and how children understand and engage with the activity affects their motivation and their learning. Such support is often described as scaffolding, but this must be both intellectual and emotional, maintain cognitive challenge rather than oversimplify the task and be temporary if it is not to create dependence.

Different means of representing experience

One respect in which young children’s minds differ from those of adults is their ability to think abstractly. As Black (1999, p 121) writes, one of Piaget’s principles that still commands acceptance is that we learn by actions, by self-directed problem-solving aimed at trying to control the world and that abstract thought evolves from concrete action. In Piaget’s words (cited in Papert, 1999), children have real understanding only of that which they invent themselves and each time that we try to teach them something too quickly we keep them from re-inventing it themselves. So, they are active agents, constantly building on their previous patterns of understanding.

Bruner (2006, volume 1, p 69) suggests that learning depends on how past experience is coded and processed, which he calls representations of experience, of which he identifies three main types:

  • the enactive, through actions;
  • the iconic, through visual means; and
  • the symbolic, through symbols, especially language.

Vygotsky (1978) argued that conceptual development occurs primarily through interaction, especially with those with greater experience, through the use of tools, notably language. This interaction enhances how children think and learn the metacognition – thinking about thinking – which helps them to relate the specific to the general. Adults tend to assume that thinking should be individual and precede action. But thinking is often best done with others, especially at the limits of one’s current understanding, to help both to clarify one’s own thoughts and to benefit from other people’s. And, as Bruner writes (1996, p 79), we seem to be more prone to acting our way into thinking than we are able to think our way explicitly into acting. This is partly why children, especially when grappling with new ideas, require first-hand experience and different ways of representing this (ideas discussed further in Eaude, 2011, pp 117–19).

While children over seven years old are more able to deal with symbolic and abstract ideas than younger ones, they continue to rely heavily on ‘learning through doing’. When learning is difficult or insecure, children require the ‘earlier’ – enactive and iconic – means of representation more, and for longer, than adults tend to recognise. Their teachers should not rely only on language and conscious processes, though they must help and support children to articulate their ideas and learning processes. So, primary classrooms should present opportunities for children to act, interact and talk, to move, explore and create, not just to sit and listen.

Being cared-for and caring-for

Those who work with very young children recognise their need to be cared-for. This does not stop at some mysterious point. We all continue to require this, especially when uncertain or distressed. Noddings (2003) emphasises that each person (whatever their age and status) is at different times the one-caring and the cared-for, seeing these as the foundations of social and moral development; and that each of us benefits from both of these. Moreover, she suggests that people have a biological need to be cared-for and to care for other people and sentient beings. This helps to develop empathy – the ability to see the world from another perspective. Nussbaum argues that empathy is a necessary element of morality since it is easier to treat people as objects to be manipulated if you have never learned any other way to see them (2010, p 23); and that the development of empathy does not come naturally but requires imagination, emphasising the role of the humanities in this.

However, those who have not been well cared-for may find it difficult, even risky, to care for others – and so require the support of caring adults to do so. Caring-for children does not mean that children should be allowed to act and interact as they wish. Nor does it imply that education is just about children being happy, though it usually helps when they are. Far from it. But it does involve recognising that some children require more support than others if their cognitive processes are not to be overwhelmed by anxiety; and that all children at times need both to be cared-for and to care for others.

The power of example

Young children learn a great deal by example and by imitation, reinforced by practice, though how they develop will depend on what they practise. Children are likely to be more reflective or resourceful if adults model, allow and encourage this; and if they are always expected to conform, will (generally) learn to do so, but at a cost in creativity or lateral thinking. This applies to how children are expected to conduct themselves, from aspects as (apparently) simple as how one responds when annoyed to more complex ones like how to balance honesty and loyalty when a friend does something wrong. It refers to how children learn to build, or sustain, qualities such as persistence or confidence, imagination or criticality. And, in academic subjects, it involves children learning, by watching and practising, how to work as a scientist or an artist, a designer or a historian, building up the procedural knowledge and the ways of working associated with each. So, how trusted adults model actions, attitudes and values is fundamental in what, and how, young children learn.

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