Learning from others: A focus on EYFS pedagogy.

There is so much to learn from spending time in different year groups and key stages. But there is something very special about Early Years and so much to be taken from its approach. Here are some reasons I think we have a lot to learn from our EYFS colleagues and the pedagogy of Early Years:

  • There is a balance between adult and child-led learning. As soon as children leave Reception, at least in the UK, this becomes heavily in favour of adult-led learning, which I’ve always thought is such a loss. Children have incredible ideas! They are full of inventions, new ways of doing things, ideas to solve problems. Early Years practice gives them space to explore these avenues. This experimentation and belief in your own ideas leads to many fruitful discoveries and links between learning. It will only flourish if children have the space to follow up on their ideas, tinker and experiment. In Early Years this is balanced with adult-led instruction on key skills like phonics, reading, writing and maths (or in some cases I’ve seen recently there is absolute minimal adult-led instruction, with fabulous results both academically and in the children as confident learners).
  • Playing and learning outdoors is valued. Good Reception classes have a well-resourced outdoor space, which gives children chance to move around and take risks physically, as well as apply their curriculum knowledge outdoors.
  • Children are assessed for their progress in ‘characteristics of effective learning’, which has many close links to learning power. Why does this stop at the end of Reception? Are children expected to be adept learners by age 5? Or (and let’s think about this for a minute), do the ‘characteristics of effective learning’ not ‘fit’ with traditional primary and secondary pedagogy?
  • During well-structured and planned ‘free flow’ or ‘Planning Time’ children can pursue their own interests, practise and extend learning and really strengthen every one of their ‘learning muscles’. It also gives them a chance to be creative, come up with completely new ideas and take their learning in an entirely new direction. In fact, their ideas can be so brilliant, they can solve a whole array of problems. Just take a look at Dominic Wilcox’s ‘Little Inventors’ project to see a few examples. Furthermore, when the learning environment is used to its full potential, as in the best Reggio Emilia classrooms for example, the children can explore new avenues and cover every area of the curriculum (and then some) by interacting with their environment alone. In this way, Early Years practitioners become excellent ‘nudgers’, knowing exactly when to join in and build on children’s play and when to leave them alone …
kid playing in a collaborative way in the playground
Collaborative Learning

I’ve often wondered …

  • What if ‘Planning Time’ or ‘free flow’ continued throughout the whole of a child’s education? What could that look like at aged 8? 11? 16?
  • What if all classrooms had indoor and outdoor learning environments? Would that improve behaviour and engagement? I love that quote about adapting the environment to children rather than children to the learning environment …
  • What if the ‘characteristics of effective learning’ continued to be assessed throughout the rest of primary and into secondary? How adept could children really become as independent, confident learners (I’ve visited a few schools that are exploring this possibility)?
  • What if we reimagined the balance of child and adult-led learning throughout primary and secondary? Would children see more of a purpose in coming to school? Would they be more excited knowing that they were going to continue with an amazing project they had started with their friends as well as getting their teeth into new learning in curriculum subjects?
  • What if …
Westhornton Academy Learning environment

Introducing Westhornton Academy, Croydon.

Here’s the amazing news! There’s a school in the UK that is doing all of this – it’s bringing Early Years practice up. And it’s working. The school is getting excellent results AND they are cultivating engaged, enthusiastic, independent learners. I was lucky enough to visit this school a few weeks ago. Here are my top few examples of how they have successfully applied EYFS practice to other year groups:

Independent learning boards

The teachers carefully plan the key skills children need to learn during the week and plan guided focus groups around this. To support this learning, they plan independent activities, such as researching through reading, solving maths problems and writing. Often these tasks follow on from or lead into a focus teacher group. These are displayed on independent learning boards and the children can choose when, where and with whom they complete this learning. They have a checklist to refer to make sure they have completed the tasks for the week. They have choice over everything with the shared understanding that all learning must be completed and that it must be to the expected standard.

Children choose from learning tasks

This is an amazing example of giving children responsibility for their learning. It gives children the space to reflect on whether they are ‘in the mood’ for a meatier activity or a shorter one. It gives them a chance to reflect on their learning and come back to it. It means they can choose who to learn with – who would support them well in their learning and be a good partner to work with. It also gives them chance to think about the space they’d most like to learn in. One teacher being shown around the school asked, “But what if the children don’t do the work.” She was guided to ask a child, who responded, “Why would you not do your work?”

Because children often surprise us. Give them responsibility and they will more often than not rise to the challenge. The children know their teacher has trusted them to learn independently, so they do it. Not only that, the children understand that they are in school to learn and by not doing so, you would only be shooting yourself in the foot. Teachers reinforce this expectation through reflections and class discussions about making sensible decisions around your learning.

What advantages do these children have over children who are instructed by the teacher? This quote from Guy Claxton’s latest book sums it up perfectly:

“In traditional schools, all the learning design – the topics to be studied, the activities to be done, the layout of the furniture, the displays on the walls – is done by the teacher. That is efficient, but if we do it completely, all the time, we are depriving our students of opportunities to learn how to design their own learning for themselves. And they will need to be able to do that for the simple reason that they will not be followed around for the rest of their lives by an obliging teacher, telling them what to learn and how.” 

Guy Claxton, The Learning Power Approach

Classroom environment

Westhornton are in the process of redesigning their classrooms, based on creating independent learning spaces and thinking about how the environment can support different learning at different times, and different learners at different times. This means they have tables, break out rooms, cosy corners, outdoor spaces with big whiteboards. Learners think carefully about which spaces suit their learning for each activity. Children I spoke to were articulate about why they had chosen each space:

“Because we wanted somewhere quieter to work” (Two girls in the corridor exploring Shakespearian insults).

“Because I’m doing a longer piece of writing” (Child at a desk)

“Because I want to share ideas with my friends” (Children sat in a nook together with friends)

I loved stepping outdoors in the Year Two learning zone and watching two boys excitedly writing on whiteboards on the walls. Would they have been so engaged in their writing if they were sat at desks? Perhaps not. Perhaps sometimes it was good for them to learn outdoors, writing notes on big whiteboards and others it would work for them to be writing in books. Whichever way, they were definitely loving their writing outside.

Classrooms are being designing with learning in mind
Children think carefully about how to use flexible learning spaces

Edit benches

Each classroom had an edit bench. The expectation was that once children had completed writing, they made sure they spent some time at the edit bench, reading through, checking and editing their writing – aspects of spelling and punctuation that had already been taught to them they are expected to get right. Because children could choose when they completed a writing task, this bench wasn’t crowded. It gave editing a special kudos and gave children to edit independently without an adult peering over their shoulder. Again, this develops independence in editing. It also gave children space to think about when they did their editing – as adults, we don’t always edit straight after doing a piece of writing. We sometimes let the writing sit for a few days, before coming back to it with new ideas and a clear head: we give our brains chance to distil our thinking. Edit benches are a great way of raising the profile of revising writing and distilling learning.

Independent edit bench

There were so many other ways children were encouraged to be independent learners. On some of the walls, there were strips of paper where children had been testing each other on spellings (one activity that was a constant on the independent learning boards), another wall had a ‘book club sign up list’ where some children had started a book club and were looking for children to collaborate with. The children were confident, outgoing and engaged in their learning. They were articulate and focused. They were smiley and clearly enjoying learning. Westhornton Academy seemed like a wonderful place to be a learner – I definitely would have loved to have gone to school here! As Diane Pumphrey summarised:

“We didn’t make these changes to improve results. We already had great results. We adapted our environment and practice because we knew we were spoon-feeding our children – they were getting the results but not digesting their learning and developing independence. Although our new approach was a brave step for our staff and learners and we didn’t quite know how it was going to play out, it has really paid off. Not only are our children getting excellent results, they are now leaving our school with better life chances because they have the skills they need to be independent learners.”

Diane Pumphrey

There are several more examples, specifically focusing on developing elements of the Learning Power Approach, that will be included in mine and Guy’s book on the Learning Powered Approach in Primary (book two in this series: The Learning Power Approach). We’re getting close to finishing draft one. Watch this space for publication dates!


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