4 Practice in Early Learning

Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.
—Finnish saying

Learning principles underpin each educator’s practice, and draw on a rich repertoire of pedagogical practices to facilitate children’s learning by:

  • adopting approaches that recognize the interrelated nature of children’s learning and development
  • being responsive to children
  • teaching intentionally
  • valuing the cultural and social contexts of children, their families, and communities
  • providing continuity in experiences and enabling children to have successful transitions throughout early childhood
  • monitoring and supporting children’s learning and development through authentic assessment

Holistic approaches

Holistic approaches to teaching and learning recognize the connections between mind, body, and spirit. When educators take a holistic approach, they pay attention to children’s physical, personal, social, emotional, and spiritual well-being, as well as cognitive aspects of learning. While educators may plan or assess with a focus on a specific outcome or component of learning, they see children’s learning as integrated and interconnected. They recognize the connections between children, families, and communities, as well as the importance of reciprocal relationships and partnerships for learning. Educators see learning as a social activity and value collaborative learning and community participation. Integrated, holistic approaches to teaching and learning also focus on children’s connections to the natural world. Educators foster children’s capacities to understand and respect the natural environment and the interdependence between people, plants, animals, sea, and land.

Responsiveness to children

Educators value and are responsive to all children’s interests and competencies by recognizing:

  • children’s lived experiences
  • children’s culture and ways of knowing
  • children’s language(s) spoken
  • children’s individual needs

Educators are also responsive to children’s ideas and approaches to play, which form an important basis for curriculum decision-making. In response to children’s evolving ideas and interests, educators assess, anticipate, and extend children’s learning via open ended questioning. They also provide feedback, challenging children’s thinking, and guide their learning, while making use of spontaneous teachable moments to scaffold children’s learning.

Responsive relationships are significant features of school age care settings. This form of collaborative engagement is evidenced between educators and children, among children, between educators and parents and various stakeholders including schools, working to support children, families and the community.[1]

Responsive learning relationships are strengthened as educators and children learn together and share decisions, respect, and trust. Responsiveness enables educators to respectfully enter children’s play and ongoing projects, stimulate their thinking, and enrich their learning.

Intentional teaching

Intentional teaching is deliberate, purposeful, and thoughtful. Educators who engage in intentional teaching have specific knowledge of how children learn and develop. They not only have a repertoire of strategies to use with all children, but they also understand when and how to use such strategies. Intentional educators recognize that learning occurs in social contexts and that interactions and conversations are vitally important for learning.

To be intentional is to act purposefully, with a goal in mind and a plan for accomplishing it. The teacher who can explain why she is doing what she is doing is acting intentionally—whether she is using a strategy tentatively for the first time or automatically from long practice, and whether it is used as part of a deliberate plan or spontaneously in a teachable moment.[2]

Intentional teaching is influenced by the educator’s Image of the Child, guided by professional knowledge of how children learn and develop, and shaped by reflective practice.

This type of teaching uses approaches that allow for the co-construction of knowledge between children and educators. This process of co-constructing knowledge results in new knowledge and meaning, rather than facts. It builds on, for example, Vygotsky’s theories of children’s learning, and recognizes children’s intelligence, curiosity, and sense of discovery[3]

Co-constructing knowledge refers to an educators’ decisions and actions that build on existing knowledge and skills to enhance learning; a responsiveness to what children know, what they wonder about, and their working theories about the world around them. When educators engage with, observe, and listen to children; discuss with other educators, children and families the possibilities for further, increasingly complex exploration, they contribute to the process of co-constructing knowledge.[4]

Intentional teaching extends to the environment as well as interactions with children. Educators use intentionality when they design the layout of the learning environment, the types of materials that are included, how the materials are made available to the children, and the schedule of activities—including the length of time for each type of activity and the balance of active and quiet times of the day.

Valuing the cultural and social contexts of children

Educators who are culturally responsive respect all cultural ways of knowing, seeing, and living; celebrate diversity; and understand and honour differences. This is evident in educators’ everyday practice when they demonstrate ongoing commitment to developing their own cultural responsiveness in a two-way process with families and communities.

Educators view culture and the context of family as central to children’s sense of being and belonging, and to success in lifelong learning. Educators also seek to promote children’s cultural responsiveness. Cultural responsiveness is much more than being aware of cultural differences. It is the ability to understand, communicate with, and effectively interact with people across cultures. Culturally responsive practice means:

  • being aware of one’s own world view
  • gaining knowledge of different cultural practices, historical perspectives, and world views
  • developing positive attitudes toward and appreciation of cultural differences
  • developing skills for communication and interaction across cultures and languages

Continuity of learning experiences

Children bring family and community to their early childhood education programs. When educators build on children’s prior and current experiences, it helps them feel secure, confident, and connected to the familiar, which facilitates continuity in their lives. Continuity is key to helping children transition easily between home and their early childhood education programs, school and before and after school settings, or school and home. Different places and spaces have their own purposes, expectations, and ways of doing things.

In partnership with families, educators ensure that children have an active role in preparing for transitions. They assist children in understanding the traditions, routines, and practices of the settings to which they are moving, and in feeling comfortable with the process of change.

As children make transitions to new programs (including school), educators working in early childhood education programs and schools should arrange time to share information with teachers to build on children’s earlier learning. Educators work collaboratively with children’s new educators and other professionals to ensure successful transitions.

Authentic assessment

Authentic assessment approaches are part of an ongoing cycle that includes observation and documentation to assess children’s development. Such practices allow educators to observe children in their own play environments, and in their relationships and exchanges with other children and adults. Educators are able to talk with children, and understand how each child thinks, plans, and understands.

Authentic assessment allows teachers to “capture” what developmental checklists, rubrics, and some assessments do not—the children’s thinking and learning processes. With authentic assessment, teachers view individual children from a strength- based perspective, incorporating their individual interests and unique qualities. These observations assist teachers to design and develop classroom environments and select activities to scaffold each child’s learning. When done with intentionality, authentic assessment helps teachers create the link between assessment and developmentally appropriate curriculum.[5]

Authentic assessment provides opportunities to reflect on pedagogical practices and the appropriateness of learning environments. It involves communicating with parents and families, to give context to observations and to fully understand children’s development in a more holistic manner. For example, sharing observations with parents may touch on a child’s social, physical, and cognitive development by providing an analysis of how a child approached the activity, rather than simply speaking about one specific area of development.

Authentic assessment approaches, “…engage or evaluate children on tasks that are personally meaningful, take place in real life contexts, and are grounded in naturally occurring instructional activities. They offer multiple ways of evaluating students’ learning, as well as their motivation, achievement, and attitudes.” (Epstein et al. 2004, 6) It also allows educators to partner with families, children, and other professionals to effectively plan for children’s current and future learning, communicate about children’s learning and progress, identify children who may need additional support to achieve learning objectives, and assist families in accessing specialist services.

Educators use a variety of strategies to collect, document, organize, synthesize, and interpret the information gathered to assess children’s learning. They search for appropriate ways to collect rich and meaningful information that depicts children’s learning in context, describes their progress, and identifies their strengths, skills, and understanding.

More recent approaches to authentic assessment also examine the learning strategies children use and reflect on how learning is co-constructed through interactions between educators and children. Used effectively, these approaches become powerful ways to make the process of learning visible to children and their families, educators, and other professionals.

Each child demonstrates their learning in a variety of ways and authentic assessment allows educators to use assessment practices that are culturally and linguistically relevant and responsive to the physical and intellectual capabilities of each child. It allows for attention and consideration to be given to children’s abilities and strengths, and allows them to demonstrate their competence.

The inclusion of children, families, and other professionals in the development and implementation of relevant and appropriate assessment processes allows for new understandings to emerge that would not be possible if educators relied solely on their own strategies and perspectives. The use of inclusive assessment practices with children and their families demonstrates respect for diversity, helps educators make better sense of their observations, and supports learning for both children and adults.

Assessment, when undertaken in collaboration with families, can assist them in supporting children’s learning and empower them to act on behalf of their children beyond the early childhood setting. When children are included in the assessment process they develop an understanding of themselves as learners, as well as an understanding of how they learn best.

Reflective practice, when it is applied to an educator’s role in children’s learning and assessment, allow the educator to examine their own views and understanding of pedagogical theory, research and practice. This brings the following into focus:

  • how experiences provide opportunities for children within the context of Learning Goals
  • the extent to which they know and value culturally specific knowledge about children and learning embedded within the community where they are working
  • each child’s learning in the context of their families, drawing on family perspectives, understandings, experiences, and expectations
  • learning opportunities build on what children already know
  • how learning experiences are inclusive of all children
  • how unacknowledged biases may influence their assumptions about children’s learning or cause them to set lower expectations for some children
  • how incorporating pedagogical practices that reflect knowledge of diverse perspectives and contribute to children’s well-being and successful learning
  • whether there are sufficiently engaging experiences for all children
  • what evidence demonstrates children are learning
  • how to expand the range of ways they assess to make assessment richer and more meaningful

Early learning curriculum frameworks from Canada and other countries have adopted similar approaches when assessing children’s learning and development. While the language used to describe these approaches may be different, the message is the same:

  • New Brunswick and New Zealand describe “learning stories” as part of the assessment and documentation process
  • British Columbia refers to “pedagogical narration”
  • Saskatchewan, Ontario, Reggio Emilia, and Sweden refer to “pedagogical documentation”
  • Australia describes the process as “action research”

This framework refers to authentic assessment to capture the broad range of strategies used in early childhood education programs.

Children, like adults, are natural assessors of their own progress and achievements. The adult can enrich and extend children’s learning through assessment by identifying learning and development, feeding information back to children, celebrating their progress and achievement with them, and adapting practice and planning for further learning. In this way, assessment helps the adult create portraits which show the richness of children’s learning and development. In doing this, assessment also guides the journeys children make as they go. [6]

Content copied from pages 37-43 in Capable, Confident, and Curious: Nova Scotia’s Early Learning Curriculum Framework

Province of Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. (2018). Capable, Confident, and Curious: Nova Scotia’s Early Learning Curriculum Framework. https://www.ednet.ns.ca/docs/nselcurriculumframework.pdf

  1. Australian Government Department of Education and Training. (2011). My Time, Our Place: Framework for School Age Child Care in Australia. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. www.docs.education.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/my_time_our_place_framework_for_school_age_care_in_australia_v4_1.pdf 
  2. Epstein, A. (2014). The Intentional Teacher—Choosing the Best Strategies for Young Children’s Learning (Revised Edition). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
  3. (Barnes, S. (2012). Making Sense of ‘Intentional Teaching’. New South Wales: Children’s Services Central; John-Steiner and Mahn 1996).
  4. Ontario Ministry of Education. (2014). How does Learning Happen? Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years (p.15). Toronto, ON: Government of Ontario. www.edu.gov.on.ca/childcare/ HowLearningHappens.pdf
  5. Rice, M. (2014). “What Can We Learn from Children’s Play? Using Authentic Assessment in
    the Early Childhood Classroom.” Innovations and Perspectives, (p.1-3). Virginia:
    Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Department of Education’s Training and Technical
    Assistance Center.
  6. (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment 2009,102)


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