The Characteristics of Effective Learning

It has taken us all a while to engage with the Characteristics of Effective Learning; they were included in the original version of the Early Years Foundation Stage Statutory Framework in 2008 and developed further in the 2012 version of Development Matters, but it was not until recent years, when Ofsted turned their attention to this important tool for understanding children’s learning, that the early years sector has engaged with them.  It is ironic that we often need the “stick of regulation” to pay attention.  However, despite their slow inclusion in our practice and the government’s recent reluctance to promote children’s unique capacity for creativity and creative thinking by including “teaching” in the description of the characteristics in the revised Development Matters, 2020, I would urge you to truly engage with them.

They provide an effective tool for our understanding of children’s holistic learning, and enable us to celebrate the uniqueness, care and need to collaborate demonstrated by children at home and in our care.  They offer us a lens for truly appreciating children’s capacity to think out of the box, to make connections and links with their previous learning, and invite us to be still and watch what is going on before stepping in, offering help or interrupting the unique yet complex thought processes behind children’s play and work.  This is beautifully demonstrated in the free clips offered by Siren films prepared in collaboration with Birth to 5 Matters team which we will use to reflect on our practice in our webinar on Tuesday 27 April (register here).

The new non-statutory guidance for the EYFS, Birth to 5 Matters, continues to make links between the principles underpinning the EYFS (the unique child, positive relationships and enabling environment – in other words the dynamic triangle introduced to us by Montessori over a hundred years ago) and the opportunities offered to children to explore and engage, be motivated and creative.  It reminds us of the important connections between what the child does, and how we can support their interests and prepare, adjust or add to our environments to witness their potential unfolding. It also offers a key for interpreting our observations as we watch children’s exploration, willingness to learn by trial and error, their use of previous knowledge, concentration, perseverance and risk taking in problem solving. It also reminds us of their enormous joy in achieving what they have set out to do.  All of these are important ingredients of children’s capacity for critical thinking and creativity – the key skills required for success as they navigate the increasingly complex world of technological development, climate change and personal challenges.

The other important characteristic we need to consider is children’s ability to communicate, collaborate, negotiate and learn from others.  And here we, the adults, have the opportunity, as well as responsibility, to model these skills as we guide children through their learning in the early years.  Looking at the guidance for adults in supporting positive relationship in the above-mentioned document, I rejoiced at seeing verbs like encourage, model, pay attention, be respectful.

And of course, it is not only how we relate to the children in our classrooms; our relationships with colleagues and parents are all important behaviour indicators for children, as is our inclusion and respect for the immediate and wider communities within our contact. These relationships, starting with grace and courtesy, are particularly important as children grapple with their experiences during lockdown and the effects of the pandemic on society as a whole.

Montessori pedagogy and the areas of learning in the Montessori classroom offer us a very important starting point for linking the principles of the EYFS with our own values and ethos. They offer us opportunities for interpretation of what we observe, but it is the children who will open the doors and give us a glimpse of what is important to them and how they have “grown in their understanding of the world around them”, reminding us of the multifaceted non linear nature of their learning and development. 

We need to remain curious about each child, about their unique approaches to learning and individual progress in development.  We need to reassure parents by celebrating their child and communicating the joy of sharing these very special years of their child. 

The Characteristics of Effective Learning offer us the tools to express children’s and our own joy of this time together, in a professional yet  friendly and accessible manner, they offer us a language to share with other years professionals by demonstrating the significance and value of Montessori pedagogy. They are described in the Birth to 5 Matters document as:

“Children are powerful learners from birth. They can develop strong habits of mind and behaviours that will continue to support them to discover, think, create, solve problems and self-regulate their learning. Children need consistent lived experiences of autonomy alongside support for their growing awareness and control of the process of thinking and learning.  Play, time, space and freedom to follow their intentions, sustained shared thinking, and experiencing the satisfaction of meeting their own challenges and goals all contribute to development of curious, creative, resourceful and resilient learners.”

Birth to 5 Matters

Join us at our next webinar on 27 April (register here) to explore and reflect on the principles and ideas behind the Characteristics of Effective Learning and how they might support our Montessori practice.

Barbara Isaacs, April 2021

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