Dr Sarah Alexander
Seven characteristics of quality teaching to support the success of all learners under six-years of age were identified through a systematic review of research evidence I undertook in 2003.
These are outlined in one of the first reports in the Best Evidence Synthesis published by the Ministry of Education.
Key Messages from the Quality Teaching Early Foundations Synthesis
1. Learning starts early
Young children are learners. Learning starts well before children reach school. Professional teachers, parents and others who share responsibility for children need to recognise children as emergent and powerful learners. This includes setting goals, holding expectations for learning, and not prioritising social-emotional development as more important.
2. Teachers must “know” children
To teach effectively professional teachers need an in-depth knowledge and understanding of each child. All teachers (including parents and professional teachers) need to build links between the different socialisation settings for children. It is important to know about children’s experiences and learning in their different socialisation settings and to establish shared goals and cultural match. Quality teaching is also about getting to know children very well through systematic observation and involving children as informants about themselves.
3. General and subject-based knowledge must be held by teachers and communicated appropriately
Teachers need to cultivate and feel confident about using subject-based knowledge and general knowledge to build on children’s existing understanding and to foster new learning.
4. Teachers must attend to “how” children learn best and critically examine their own thinking about what they do and how this impacts on children’s outcomes
The evidence shows that teachers should play an active part in planning, participating, scaffolding (providing support to overcome greater levels of difficulty), and being a partner in children’s learning processes (co-construction). Opportunities for children to observe and participate in every-day activities and tasks, such as cooking and shopping make learning meaningful and provide rich contexts for dialogue between adults and children. Teachers should support children to become self-regulated learners through promoting awareness of what they know and control of their thinking and learning processes.
To teach well teachers must think about what they do and work to close the gaps between what they know to be best for children’s learning and what actually happens for individual children. Some possible strategies include the use of video and audio recordings to support teacher analysis of their own thinking and children’s experiences, the provision of opportunities for teachers to meet with other teachers for professional development, and the use of an outside observer/researcher to record practices and provide feedback to teachers.
5. The social setting should be organised in ways that support learning
The social setting impacts on children’s outcomes. Peers can influence outcomes as can adults. The evidence points to the importance of establishing a ‘community of learning’ approach where many varied opportunities for collaboration and social learning occur. Heterogeneity rather than homogeneity in the peer group can help to facilitate better cognitive and social outcomes for young children; providing that difference is valued by teachers and within the setting.
6. The physical environment should be organised in ways that support learning
The physical setting, including the amount and arrangement of space, and nature and availability of equipment and materials impacts on children’s behaviour and outcomes. It is important for teachers to recognise how the physical setting can provide a vehicle for promoting children’s learning. For example, regulating access to some materials can facilitate children’s use of language to request what they require.
7. Children’s physical and emotional well-being are key considerations for enabling and enhancing children’s learning
Teaching must be responsive to children’s physical and emotional well-being. Disease prevention and health promotion strategies are important, along with promoting child safety and good nutrition, and reducing hazards in the environment such as potentially physically harmful noise levels. The emotional climate must be conducive to learning though children experiencing nurturing relationships with their teachers and through children’s teachers (including both professional teachers and parents/caregivers) maintaining balanced and supportive relationships.
A list of the characteristics of quality teaching in the early years and the research-based features underpinning the criteria
1. Effective teaching involves working with children as learners
- Teaching is focussed on children’s learning.
- Teaching facilitates children’s talk and conversation about their learning, supports their cooperative and independent work, encourages children’s motivation and dispositions toward learning, and provides the conditions to give children opportunities to participate in learning activities.
- Teaching approaches children’s social and emotional development as linked to and important for children’s intellectual development.
- Goals for children’s learning that include knowledge, skills, dispositions and attitudes and feelings best serve children’s development in the long-term.
2. Teaching is informed by contextual knowledge of children’s learning
- Ongoing systematic observation of children and discussions with children about their learning can assist adults to develop their knowledge of children’s learning.
- Children’s learning in different contexts such as with their family, in their church, and in their community is recognised and built-upon by the teacher(s).
- Quality teaching involves building strong partnerships with children’s family and whanau.
3. Effective teachers (includes parents and other caregivers) use content knowledge confidently to support and extend children’s learning
- Teachers draw on and use content knowledge (e.g. what is needed to help a plant grow or the names of planets).
- Teachers have confidence in their personal ability to talk about and demonstrate their knowledge.
- When teachers can not adequately answer children’s questions or provide sufficient knowledge they access the information they need e.g. books, the internet, etc.
- When teachers are not sure of the accuracy of their knowledge they research further into it.
4. Teaching scaffolds, co-constructs, promotes metacognitive strategies and also facilitates children’s learning
- Teachers are actively involved in planning, structuring and informing children’s activities and learning experiences.
- Teachers scaffold children’s learning – building and extending on what children already know and can do.
- Teaching supports children to draw on their viewed experiences and activities.
- Teaching promotes a co-construction model of learning, where learning is actively constructed by both the child and the adult and both are learners.
- Teaching promotes children’s metacognitive development and strategy use, e.g. children’s control of their learning.
- Teaching provides children with opportunities to observe and participate in everyday adult tasks.
- Teachers reflect on their own thinking and engage in planning with colleagues and/or parents to improve teaching.
5. The social setting is organised in ways that support learning and maximises children’s learning outcomes
- Many opportunities are provided for learning with others.
- Teachers take account of their role as models.
- Children are supported to be the “teacher” sometimes.
- Interactions with different peers facilitate children’s learning.
6. The physical setting is organised in ways that support learning and maximises children’s learning outcomes
- Optimal organisation of space, density, and activities.
- Location of activity areas is planned to enhance learning.
- Children’s playground and physical play for learning is valued.
- Teachers regulate access to some materials and equipment.
7. Teaching is responsive to children’s physical and emotional wellbeing
- Prevention of communicable diseases and health promotion strategies that involve families.
- Teachers act on any risks to children’s health and safety e.g. noise levels, nutrition, etc.
- Teachers create a positive, happy and warm climate.
Quality teaching from birth lays a foundation for children’s later educational achievement.
This report shows that the quality of teaching by parents, professional teachers and others who share a responsibility for children matters when it comes to improving the outcomes of diverse children. Simply focusing on getting more children into early childhood programmes and on whether the programmes are high quality ones does not guarantee that outcomes will be optimised for every child. Quality teaching makes a difference.
Quality teaching during the early years before formal schooling can effectively reduce educational disparities for Maori and Pacific Nations children and children from families with traditional risk factors such as low household income. The benefits of quality teaching during the early childhood years carry through into schooling.
Seven characteristics of quality teaching derived through a review of the best international and local evidence are presented in the Early Foundations BES report.
The seven characteristics of quality teaching are supported by discussion of research-based features of best practice, showing what works well for enhancing children’s learning outcomes.
The characteristics of quality teaching apply across different types of early childhood programmes and settings, and to all of children’s various teachers (including, parents and other family members, professional teachers and other caregivers).
The Early Foundations BES should be read and discussed in conjunction with the Quality Teaching for Diverse Students in Schooling BES. This is especially important when reviewing the evidence and discussing the implications for learning and teaching during the year prior to and the year after children’s entry to school. Some of the evidence presented in the Schooling BES is of relevance to learning and teaching in the early childhood years, and vice versa.
The Family and Communities BES complements the Early Foundations BES in looking specifically at the impacts of family and community on children’s outcomes.
The Early Foundations BES is intended to encourage dialogue on what works for children and how best to optimise outcomes. It is a formative document that represents the best evidence that could be accessed within the time frame of the project. Further iterations will be important as new research evidence becomes available and as the characteristics of quality teaching require updating.
Some Initial Questions Emerging from the BES Report that you may wish to think about and discuss with colleagues
- Professional early childhood teachers and early childhood researchers in New Zealand have tended to focus on children’s needs and learning processes. Also concern with the quality of early childhood education for all children has overshadowed the fact that diverse children within the same early childhood programmes can experience inequitable outcomes. The question is: what steps need to be taken to ensure that strong attention is also given to the outcomes for diverse children of early childhood education?
- How well do professional teachers really know the children in their care?
- How can linkages between home and early childhood service settings be maximised to promote better outcomes for children (for example, through home-visiting by professional teachers, enabling mothers to continue to breastfeed their infants in full and part-day services, involving families in the early childhood curriculum through project work at home, and the co-construction of goals for children and a joint ECE service and family approach to teaching)?
- How can communication amongst the teachers of the various early childhood services a child participates in, and how can communication amongst early childhood and school teachers and parents/caregivers during transition to school be strengthened to reduce disruption in children’s learning and optimise learning outcomes?
- How well are early childhood services set up to provide the kinds of interactive situations that may occur naturally within home settings?
- What can professional teachers do to support quality teaching in the home setting?
- What training and support is provided to parents, whanau members and others who share responsibility for children?
- How can professional early childhood teachers be encouraged to use content knowledge, feel more confident in using, and be more knowledgeable of strategies to check the accuracy of their knowledge in their teaching and dialogues with children?
- What can providers of initial teacher education and professional development providers do to facilitate greater professional teacher awareness of children’s metacognitive strategies and abilities, and to help professionals develop their ability to teach metacognitively?
- Are professional teachers supported to identify changes in their behaviours and interactions that influence children’s behaviour and interactions?
- How well is child diversity accepted and supported within group early childhood settings?
- What skills and understandings do teachers (including professional teachers and parents) need to have (for example nurturing children’s friendships and helping behaviours) to be able to effectively shape the social environment and capitalise on opportunities presented within the social setting that will help to maximise children’s learning outcomes?
- What processes are needed for more carefully determining whether the space available and the density of space in early childhood settings is optimal for children of different ages and for the number of children (and adults) within settings?
- Do early childhood professionals need to re-visit what activities and materials are provided for children, and where and when within the early childhood setting?
- How can teachers be encouraged to capitalise more regularly on the potential of the outdoors and outdoor equipment for promoting children’s thought and learning?
- What emphasis is placed on the role of the professional early childhood educator in promoting children’s physical well-being (e.g. health promotion and accident prevention)?
- While society accepts that parents and other family members can have emotional involvement, it is less acceptable for professional teachers to have emotional involvement with children. How can emotionally positive teacher involvement with children be encouraged and supported in professionally provided early childhood services?
- How can greater inter-sectoral collaboration be promoted professionally and in research?