The invisibility of children’s learning

An experience a couple of week ago raised questions for me about educators’ awareness of children’s learning. I facilitated a professional learning session on babies’ and toddlers’ learning for around 100 educators. My aim was for participants to remind themselves about some of the less obvious important learning that occurs in the first two years and hopefully to expand their understanding of how the Learning Outcomes in the EYLF apply to very young children.

The reason for that aim is that although there are some obvious milestones – crawling, self feeding, walking and first words, for example – much learning in the first two years is subtle and easily overlooked or misinterpreted unless you know what you are looking for.

I asked participants to watch three short videos and make notes about:

  • insights or reminders about what children are learning or demonstrating that they have learned
  • implications for practice in programs and what educators do.

Interestingly, most people struggled to focus on learning and found it much easier to talk about practice – for example, materials and equipment and what educators were doing and saying.

My efforts to focus the discussion on learning were mostly unsuccessful.

I wonder how common this is, and why it might occur. Is it because the requirement to focus on learning, not simply on what children are doing is more challenging? A developmental perspective focuses mostly on observables, that is, what children are doing or saying. Learning is subtler, less obvious, not always something you can see or hear. Observing learning demands interpretation and analysis. At times you’re making an educated guess, speculating about what you think children are learning or have learned. It may be challenging to move away from a developmental perspective to a learning perspective.

The plea from many educators to ‘just tell us what to do’ may reflect evidence of a focus on practice at the expense of learning.

Is it easier to observe learning in older children because they can communicate in words – they can ask questions and tell you what they know and understand?

How adequately does pre- and in-service education for educators address learning (as opposed to practice)?

Is the oft-heard statement that ‘we build on children’s needs, interests, talents and strengths’ just one of those early childhood clichés? Having deep knowledge of children’s learning in general and knowing well each child you work with are essential starting points for effective practice, the foundations on which good quality programs are built. In other words, if you don’t know what children have learned, are learning and need to learn you can’t offer a good quality program.

The EYLF and FSAC Learning Outcomes describe categories of learning that matter. Maybe we need to make a concerted effort to pay more attention to them – to go beyond the headings, understand them in detail and use them as foundations for practice.

Do you and your colleagues focus sufficiently on learning as a basis for your practice?

Anne Stonehouse

Anne Stonehouse AM lives in Victoria and works as a consultant, writer and facilitator of professional learning in early childhood. She has published many books, articles and other resources for educators and parents. Her main professional interests are the nature of good quality curriculum for babies and toddlers and family-educator relationships in early learning settings. She was a member of the writing team in the Charles Sturt University-based consortium that developed the national Early Years Learning Framework. She is currently engaged in a number of projects related to the national and Victorian Frameworks.

18 thoughts on “The invisibility of children’s learning”

    Gael Nash says:

    ECEC atracts mediocre people. Cert 111 and Diploma trained people in charge of educational programmes for under 3’s generally do not have the educational training necessary, the time or inclination to go deeper into theory or philosophical thinking. Ratios still too high and poor wages and often poor conditions impact heavily on the quality of programmes. Early childhood teachers coming out of university have to just shut-up to keep their jobs or leave the sector to work in school system.
    The underbelly of Early Childhood Education and Care – public and private -it’s not being exposed as it really is – dysfunctional.

    Gowri says:

    Very true

    jean webb says:

    Yes. At last someone is telling how it reall is. It’ s not useful to rush to defend early childhood services when they should be improved qualitatively. And properly trained teachers should actually feel confident to express this rather than pretend we are all ” educators” now.

    Joe purcell says:

    Yes so true! My mate Hitler thought less of a whole group of people too… Lucky you dont need a uni degree in order for true reflection or growth to take place.. See ya round im off to TAFE.

    S b says:

    Hiding in the anonymity I can say the theorists are so busy theorising they have left the educators behind. Much too much waffle and way too little substance. We are an industry considered the lowest of the low hence extremely low wages and poor conditions… So it is an industry where people might need more specific guidance and all we are fed by Anne stone house and her friends is theoretic dribble and very little practical input. For years our industry has been drowning in a sea of words and ideas yet none of the so called experts have lifted a finger to give any practical ideas or to even try to express their ideas in clear and concise waster might understand.

    Alice says:

    While this may be true of some people, it is incredibly insulting to read this gross generalisation. I am currently studying a Diploma through TAFE. I originally started my training at university, however my personal situation meant that university was no longer an option for me. Not everyone who takes the path to being an educator through TAFE is mediocre and disinclined to delve into philosophical thinking. I can tell you that almost every spare moment of my time is spent researching and going over my university materials in order that I can be the best educator I can be. I am passionate about working in Early Childhood Education and I would thank you to reserve your judgement on those of us who may be required to take a different path.

    Sue Louise Summons says:

    I totally agree, I also trained through the TAFE system for the same reasons & also find it insulting. I always felt proud of my 32 year career educating & caring (ECEC) under threes. I was accepted into degree courses on two occasions but because I put my family first I upgraded my 1978 qualification to the modern qualification of Diploma in the late nineties early two thousand again through the TAFE system which was more adaptable to my needs. I now have the Certificate IV in Training, Assessment & Education & proudly train adults into rewarding careers educating & caring for young children in a very reputable Adult Education Community Centre called Sandybeach Centre in Bayside, Victoria. I have a 95% success rate for students gaining employment once they achieve their Certificate III in ECEC! They are all well educated & many of them have gone onto Diploma & Degree courses in ECEC.

    Lynne says:

    What a great article Anne. I will be sharing this with all our educators. Staff in our service take their roles seriously and are constantly looking at ideas and provocations which can challenge and improve their practices. Making learning visible, combined with the idea of connecting with children’s ‘voices’ and ideas, will support deeper learning and planning for children’s education from birth.

    Sue Louise Summons (née Dyson) says:

    Thank you for such an interesting article, Anne. I train students in Certificate III in Early Childhood Education & Care at an Adult Education Community Centre. I teach my students that when observing babies & toddlers focus on what they are learning not what they are doing because they are always learning something! I remember many years ago in the late seventies doing an evening course called “Infant Caregiving” with you, Anne, at what was Prahran Technical College. In that course I recall you saying that you can always guide & support babies & toddlers learning by looking further than what they are doing but what they are learning!

    Helen says:

    you have hit the nail on the head. Educators are struggling with understanding what they can’t see. why? Because the quality of training has dropped out with the pressure to pass people for the $$$. I don’t blame educators. They don’t know what they don’t know. I blame the system for putting cert3 trained educators into lead roles with mentor ( ed leader ) who doesn’t need to hold a qualification. I see over and over again the blank faces of educators when I ask them to explain the planning cycle and show it in action. They( not all) simply don’t have the knowledge to apply the theories, and early childhood understandings. They seem to be only found on a shelf somewhere in the programming room. Just my say

    GIna says:

    I have worked in the industry for over 20 years and I am sorry but I am ONLY Dip trained….I am offended by the comments….how about Ann come and do everything she helped to implement? How about Ann work as hard as we do and earn the wage we do and that includes Degree trained we loose many awesome Degree trained teachers as the school system has better conditions better pay and less scrutiny from governing bodies. Ann please advocate for better working conditions for educators rather than adding more stress.

    GIna says:

    Plus I have educated many children over the years and trust me the children that I educated many years ago have become awesome adults…..and they had no portfolios, no outcomes to link, no justification for any activity,there was no such thing as A and R and NO STRESS……personally I feel that there is way to many people saying this is the way it has to be done and not taking into consideration the educators on the floor…and really there is no evidence to support all this craziness,children are children they need to play and feel secure…noy have their lives documented even the parents do not care…they just need care for their child while they work and are happy if their child is happy

    Sue Louise Summons says:

    Anne, please tell me the name of the three videos you showed the group of 100 educators you referred to in “The Spoke”. I’m very keen to show them to my ECEC group of students. I am happy to purchase them through my workplace, Sandybeach Centre. Thanking you in advance, Anne. Best wishes from Sue Louise Summons (née Dyson) – one of your Infant Caregiving students from 1978 or 1979

    Glenda says:

    I wish there was not such an emphasis on status ie qualifications rather than professionalism and currency. I believe we have not stayed current with the practices of EYLF even though it is a new curriculum those who were used to looking at babies’ development alone rather than seeing their abilities through learning are finding it difficult to make the transition. Sometimes we think we have arrived when we have acquired a qualification but we need to keep learning. I have found TAFE has fullfilled this need in my learning because they are hands on and very current. I have had the best trainers as I have updated both Cert 111 in 2011 and then recently Diploma. I agree with Anne’s observations especially with babies. When the EYLF was introduced I remember hearing Educators saying babies were not able to meet the outcomes however, I have learned how to look at what they are learning rather than just their development and they do meet outcomes. I can then continue to plan in a way that extends on that learning.

    Maree Aldwinckle says:

    Anne as tertiary teacher I can only agree that encouraging people to focus on learning is an issue. However, I do not agree that this is because a focus on development gets in the way. I firmly believe that you cannot understand learning with out understanding development. Learning and development go hand in hand. I would even go further to say that learning is part of development. Unfortunately, what seems to have happened in recent years is that development has become a dirty word for the extreme socioculturalist who have hijacked the early childhood agenda. No wonder practitioners are confused. I teach across cert3, diploma and bachelor levels. The differences are plain to see. My main concern is that the ‘we are all educators’ melting pot does not acknowledge or value the differences in types and levels of understanding or allow for specialist knowledge. The idea that all practitioners in the early childhood workforce can contribute equally to programming and documentation is just a furphy. We need diversity in understanding. To expect the same level of understanding and competence from people of different educational levels and achievements is as inappropriate as racial stereotyping or assimilation policies.

    Antonio says:

    Yup, that’ll do it. You have my apaiceiptron.

    Elsje says:

    I worked in early child care as ECEC diploma trained, cert 3 working along side me said that she found working with babies boring ‘as they don’t do anything’.
    I believe Early Childhood requires teacher degree with diploma trained to support, with eventually only teacher trained from early childhood onward.

    Nafisa C says:

    So true! And it is so unfortunate that despite we all knowing about it, nothing’s been done about that!

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