Why are so many young children disengaged from learning?
How do we know if children are, or are not, engaged in learning? GILLIAN KIRK and MARIANNE KNAUS explore this through research and share findings from a case study examining classroom interactions. Gillian and Marianne interviewed teachers and asked children to draw how they felt about being in an early learning service. They will delve further into this concept at the 2020 ECA AJEC Research Symposium on Friday 14 February.
The Grattan Institute (Goss, Sonnemann & Griffiths, 2017) found that, in Australia, as many as 40 per cent of students are not engaged in learning in any given year. So, what does engagement in learning mean in relation to early childhood? and how do we know that children are, or are not, engaged in learning? Many definitions of child-engagement centre on complying with rules and routines, and time engaged in work-related activities (Fredricks, Blumenfeld & Paris, 2004; Hughes & Kwok, 2006). However, in early childhood, it involves so much more. In the early childhood context, not only are children actively engaged in tasks, but they are also actively engaged with people—adults, peers as well as the materials that are available to them (McWilliam, Scarborough & Kim, 2003). These interactions were identified by Pianta, La Paro and Hamre (2008) as the ‘primary mechanism of student development and learning’ (p. 1).
The Early Years Learning Framework (DEEWR, 2009) recognises that learning occurs in social contexts and that interactions are essential for learning. This is termed as intentional teaching, and quality intentional teaching maximises learning. Pianta et al. (2008) found that the quality of these interactions can be measured through three overarching domains that are common from Foundation through to Year 3. These domains include emotional support, classroom organisation and instructional support. Emotional support considers positive and negative climates, teacher sensitivity and regard for student perspectives. Classroom organisation involves behaviour management, productivity and instructional learning formats. Finally, instructional support looks at concept development, quality of feedback and language modelling. These are packaged in an instrument referred to as CLASS® (Pianta et al., 2008), which has been used in many studies Australia-wide—including the longitudinal study, ‘Effective Early Education Experiences (E4Kids)’ (Tayler, 2016).
We used the CLASS® instrument to examine classroom interactions in seven Foundation classrooms. We also interviewed teachers and asked children to draw how they felt about being in their early childhood setting. What did we find? First, we found that all three data-collection methods provided consistent responses. Let’s look at what we found that is already commonly known:
- Teachers who were organised were more likely to keep children engaged. They spent minimal amount of time on classroom management, as they had activities ready and prepared before the children entered the room.
- Similarly, well-prepared lessons allow teachers to flow from one lesson to the next and, with this, the children’s engagement flows with them. Children feel safe when the teacher is comfortable in what to do.
- In regards to the former, activities need to involve children. Teachers need to build on from what children already know, so that children are positioned to contribute to the activity while learning something new.
- Environments that were emotionally positive were more likely to engage children. Children became disengaged in emotional environments that were either negative or unpredictable. Even a short outburst by the teacher unsettled some children.
- Teacher interactions that were fixated on children’s behaviours disengaged children. Teachers who were constantly correcting behaviour tended to create more ‘misbehaviour’ and took time away from learning.
Now, for what is less commonly known or talked about:
- Teachers who only use the technique of asking open-ended questions during activities are not always engaging children in learning. Asking young children open- and close-ended questions is a good technique—when combined with additional, expert information and sophisticated language from the teacher. Children only know so much. Teachers need to add to children’s current knowledge to engage them in learning.
- Early childhood teachers are less likely to engage children in learning while children are engaged in their most engaging activity, play. Why this conundrum? It appears that they don’t know how to use play as a learning opportunity. Possibilities could include that teachers spend so much time engaging children in their own interests, they don’t stop to think that it could happen in reverse. Or, maybe they fear that their input would damage the integrity of children’s play. Perhaps, teachers feel that adding sophisticated language to this context would be too challenging? That is an ironic thought though, given that the most challenging experiences children engage in are during play. Finally, is it possible that, deep down, as teachers, we don’t really see the educative value that is presented in play?
- Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). (2009). Belonging, Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia.
- Fredricks, J. A., Blumenfeld, P. C., & Paris, A. H. (2004). School engagement: Potential of the concept, state of the evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74(1), 59–109.
- Goss, P., Sonnemann, J., & Griffiths, K. (2017). Engaging students: Creating classrooms that improve learning. Grattan Institute.
- Hughes, J. N., & Kwok, O. (2006). Classroom engagement mediates the effect of teacher–student support on elementary students’ peer acceptance: A prospective analysis. Journal of School Psychology, 43(6), 465–480.
- McWilliam, R., Scarborough, A., & Kim, H. (2003). Adult interactions and child engagement. Early Education and Development, 14(1), 7–28.
- Pianta, R. C., La Paro, K. M., & Hamre, B. K. (2008). Classroom Assessment Scoring System® Manual K–3. Charlottesville, VA: Teachstone.
- Tayler, C. (2016). The E4Kids study: Assessing the effectiveness of Australian early childhood education and care programs. Overview of findings at 2016. Melbourne, Vic.: Melbourne Graduate School of Education.
Gillian Kirk is a lecturer and researcher at Edith Cowan University. She mainly lectures in play and pedagogy, family and community partnerships and contemporary early childhood issues in the early childhood program. Gillian’s research interests are varied having conducted studies on young children’s social and emotional development, the implementation of the National Quality Standard in schools, innovation projects in schools and retention of students at university. A sense of belonging, and the need for belonging, has been a unifying theme underpinning many of the research topics and remains a key interest in her studies.
Marianne Knaus is the Associate Dean (Early Childhood) in the School of Education at Edith Cowan University. Marianne coordinates and teaches the early childhood mathematics programs (birth to eight years) and other units in the undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Her research interests include mathematics, play pedagogy, and the influence of family and community in the transition to school. She has over 30 years’ experience as an educator working in a range of early childhood settings in Queensland and New South Wales.