This essay debates play-based and formal approaches to teaching and learning for 4-5 year olds (Foundation Stage children) and for Key Stage 1 pupils. The essay will begin by looking at what is expected of Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1 level pupils, in terms of the desired learning outcomes, as framed by the Foundation Stage Profile assessments and the National Curriculum for Key Stage 1, and the various assessments this embodies. The essay then moves on to look at the factors that are generally agreed to be important in successful learning, and the various models of ‘play-based’ and ‘formal’ learning as applied to these ages of children, within the context of the Foundation Stage Profile assessments and the National Curriculum for Key Stage 1, and the various assessments this embodies. The essay concludes that whatever learning approach is used, other factors (such as age, gender and socioeconomic) are often more important in determining learning outcomes and that, as such, the methods that are employed in teaching children at Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1 are relatively unimportant: what is important is that children are taught, that children’s learning process is enabled through an adequate assessment of children’s abilities and preferred style of learning and that the teaching of children is attempted on as individual a basis as possible, given that children of this age all have individual learning needs, based on their specific developmental stage and other, external, factors that influence how well the child learns and how much motivation the child has to learn.
In terms of what should be being taught at the Foundation Stage level, the document Curriculum Guidance for Foundation Stage (see DfEE, 2000) sets out six areas of learning that are intended to form the basis of Foundation Stage learning: communication, literacy and language; knowledge and understanding of the world; personal, social and emotional development; mathematical development; physical development and creative development (QCA, 2008). Each of these six areas of learning has a set of related early learning goals that the teacher should aim for completing, in terms of recording the child’s achievement on their Foundation Stage Profile (DfES, 2007). By Key Stage 1, children should have mastered all of the necessary early learning goals and should, through this, be enabled to begin the learning process that will take them through the programme of study as set out in the National Curriculum for Key Stage 1 right through to their National Curriculum Assessments (see DCSF, 2007).
Thus, from an early age, children have an extremely structured learning pathway, in terms of the learning outcomes that are desired under the current National Curriculum framework for Key Stage 1 children and due to the Foundation Stage Profiles that need to be filled out for every Foundation Stage level child (DfES, 2007). How this learning pathway is delivered to children, and how these learning outcomes are achieved is, however, not so rigid and teachers are free to deliver these learning outcomes in the way in which they see fit, although in most Government-run places of education in the UK, this is usually performed under the framework of dependence on previous models of success (i.e., the long-established routes for achieving learning outcomes in children).
The different modes of learning are usually labelled ‘play-based’ and ‘formal’ but this, however, tends to ignore the fact that there are many modes of learning. As Vosniadou (2001) argues, children learn in many different ways, through active learning, social participation, meaningful activities, by relating new information to prior knowledge, through strategic thinking, by engaging in reflective thinking, by restructuring prior knowledge, through understanding, not simply memorisation, and through practice, amongst other methods, all of which are subject to individual developmental differences. Choosing the ‘correct’ method for learning (i.e., the method most likely to achieve the desired learning outcome) is usually a case of matching the method of learning to the individual child in terms of their abilities, thus fostering an atmosphere of motivated learning.
This approach can, however, be difficult in classrooms with children of mixed abilities, leading to situations of frustration occurring in the bright children, who do not feel sufficiently challenged, and in the less able children, who feel they cannot cope with the things that are asked of them and is difficult when there are so many assessments to prepare children for. One of the skills, therefore, that a good Foundation Stage or Key Stage 1 teacher needs to possess is the ability to match a child’s ability to the best learning method for them in order to achieve the most efficient mode of learning for each and every child. This can, however, in practice be very difficult, with teachers at these levels being pressed for time and under pressure to deliver certain learning outcomes, with the development of the new Foundation Stage Profiles (see DfES, 2007 and QCA, 2008), for example, which have basically set a curriculum for Foundation Stage children and through the National Curriculum which begins at Key Stage 1 level.
Bransford et al. (1999) argue that the design of learning environments, however that learning is presented to children, needs to be based on what needs to be taught, how this needs to be taught and on how the success of the learning approach is to be assessed. As Bransford et al. (1999) argue, different learning goals require different learning approaches, and different learning environments should be developed according to the degree to which these environments need to be learner-centred, knowledge-centred, assessment-centred or community-centred. For learning to be successful, three principles generally need to hold: i) that learning environments encourage children to be active, and thus effective, learners; ii) that learning environments encourage collaboration with other students and iii) that learning environments encourage the use of meaningful tasks and authentic materials (Vosniadou, 2001). Without such a learning environment, under whichever teaching regime (i..e, ‘play-based’ or ‘formal’), the child will fail to learn and the teacher will have failed that child (Bransford et al., 1999; Vosniadou, 2001).
If the teacher decides to use child-initiated (‘play-based’) learning in the classroom, the three principles should hold. Child-initiated play should enable children to use resources in their correct manner within their correct settings and to behave in appropriate ways according to the particular setting and the role-play contexts that are being encouraged, whilst teaching them about responsibilities such as tidying up after themselves and sharing toys and spaces with other children (Vosniadou, 2001).
As such, play-based learning can be a valuable learning tool but a tool that needs to be appropriately supported by teaching staff with adequate resources and support and systems in place for adequately monitoring, observing and recording how the children under their care play, and providing suggestions for modifications to their mode of play if their play is not responsible, for example, or is causing problems for other children under the teachers care (i.e., is accompanied by rowdy behaviour) (Vosniadou, 2001).
Similarly, formal learning should be conducted on the basis of fostering the three principles, namely the encouragement of active learning, the encouragement of active sharing amongst children and the encouragement of meaningful tasks through authentic learning materials (see Vosniadou, 2001). In terms of the Foundation Stage Profiles and the National Curriculum Assessments for Key Stage 1 level children, it is perhaps seen as the easier option for teachers to use formal approaches to learning rather than play-based approaches, in terms of directing children’s learning in the ways that will fulfil the requirements of the assessments.
Studies have shown that this is perhaps not the best way of fostering an atmosphere of motivation for learning, and such heavy slanting towards testing and fulfilling Curriculum ideals can actually actively de-motivate children, especially children so young as Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1 levels (Strand, 2002). Strand (2002) concluded that continuous assessments of children does little more than de-motivate those children who are not attaining good scores on such tests, does not encourage motivation to do better on subsequent tests, does not increase overall attainment year-on-year and, as such, does little more than put a massive administrative burden on teachers and schools.
Whatever the teaching method employed, many research studies have shown that attainment at Key Stage 1 is more dependent on factors other than school organisation and teaching methods, because background factors (such as gender, age, socioeconomic status) lead to variations in individual possibilities for attainment, in terms of expectations and motivations for learning (Sammons et al., 1997). These findings seem to suggest that the actual teaching method is often unimportant in determining learning outcomes as other factors have far more of a hold over a child’s educational achievements than the particular teaching method that is employed in the classroom the child attends. It has long been known, for example, that parental input in to a child’s education can convert in to higher educational achievement, thought to be due to the fact that this encouragement enables and facilitates confidence, which then translates to higher educational achievement (see, for example, Hoover-Dempsey and Sander, 1995 and Christenson and Sheridan, 2001), not only for ‘able’ children but also for those children with special needs, be these gifted children or children with physical or mental disabilities affecting how they are able to learn (see Will, 1986).
This essay has debated ‘play-based’ and ‘formal’ approaches to teaching and learning for 4-5 year olds (Foundation Stage children) and for Key Stage 1 pupils. The essay began by looking at what is expected of Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1 level pupils, in terms of the desired learning outcomes, as framed by the Foundation Stage Profile assessments and the National Curriculum for Key Stage 1, and the various assessments this embodies. It was concluded that, from an early age, children have an extremely structured learning pathway but that how this learning is delivered to them is, essentially, up to their teachers.
The essay then moved on to look at the factors that are generally agreed to be important in successful learning, defining three principles for successful encouragement of learning and achievement of learning outcomes, namely that i) learning environments should encourage children to be active, and thus effective, learners; ii) that learning environments should encourage collaboration with other students and iii) that learning environments should encourage the use of meaningful tasks and authentic materials (Vosniadou, 2001). If these principles are followed, through whichever approach to teaching (i.e., ‘play-based’ or ‘formal’) and under whatever learning environment, then the child’s learning will be enabled to the maximum.
The essay concludes that whatever learning approach is used, other factors (such as age, gender and socioeconomic) are often more important in determining learning outcomes (see Christenson and Sheridan, 2001) and that, as such, the methods that are employed in teaching children at Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1 are relatively unimportant. At these stages, and indeed throughout the child’s education, what is important is that the child’s own learning process is enabled through an adequate assessment of children’s abilities and preferred style of learning and, through this, that the teaching of children is attempted on as individual a basis as possible, tailoring the specific learning needs of the child to the specific learning outcomes that are desired. This is because children of this age all have individual learning needs, and preferred styles of learning, based on their specific developmental stage and other, external, factors that influence how well the child learns and how much motivation the child has to learn (Bransford et al., 1999). A child’s learning should, ideally, be fitted to the style through which the child learns best (be this ‘play-based’ or ‘formal’), to facilitate the child’s learning: in this day and age, however, targets are more important than this fundamental truth, and so this is often not possible in the context of Government-run UK schools, which are more interested in testing than developing teaching plans suited to children’s individual learning needs. In this context, thus, more than ever before, parents have a shared responsibility to enable their child’s education.
Bransford, J.D. et al. (1999). How people learn: brain. Mind, experience and school. National Academic Press.
Christenson, S.L. and Sheridan, S.M. (2001). Schools and families: creating essential connections for learning.
DCSF (2007). National curriculum assessments at Key Stage 1 in England, 2007.
DfEE (2000). Curriculum guidance for the foundation stage. Available from http://www.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/eyfs/resources/downloads/5585_cg_foundation_stage.pdf [Accessed 29th February 2008].
DfES (2007). Foundation stage eProfile. Available from http://schoolsportal.suffolkcc.gov.uk/schools/FSP/FSPUserGuideV25.pdf [Accessed 29th February 2008].
Hoover-Dempsey, K. and Sander, H.M. (1995). Parental involvement in children’s education: why does it make a difference? Teachers College Record 1995.
Hutchin, V. (2003). Observing and assessing for the foundation stage profile. Hodder Murray.
Kyriacou, C. (1997). Effective teaching in schools. Nelson Thornes Ltd.
Vosniadou, S. (2001). How children learn. International Academy of Education. Educational Practice Series, Number 7.
QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) (2008). Foundation stage profile assessment. Available from http://www.qca.org.uk/qca_11958.aspx [Accessed 29th February 2008].
Sammons, P. et al. (1997). Accounting for variations in pupil attainment at the end of Key Stage 1. British Educational Research Journal 23(4), pp.489-511.
Strand, S. (2002). Pupil mobility, attainment and progress during Key Stage 1: a study in cautious interpretation. British Educational Research Journal 28(1), pp.63-78.
Will, M.C. (1986). Educating children with learning problems: a shared responsibility. Exceptional Children Feb, pp. 411-415.
Wood, E. and Atfield, J. (1996). Play, learning and the early childhood. Paul Chapman Publishing.
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