Sayeh Mariner, SLE and EYFS Lead, Essa Primary Academy, UK
Matt Shurlock, Teacher, Brookburn Primary School, UK
This reflective article considers the steps taken to apply research recommendations within Early Years classrooms to encourage pupils to be independent and competent learners. The focus will be on a dinosaur-inspired, talk-based classroom activity designed to practically apply accepted theories (Zimmerman, 2002; Muijs and Bokhove, 2020) on the effectiveness of self-regulated learning (Mannion and McAllister, 2020). Self-regulated learning is the application of metacognition and self-regulation to learning (Mannion, 2020). Evidence suggests that metacognition and self-regulation approaches to teaching have a very high impact on learning for a very low cost (Education Endowment Foundation, 2020). The dinosaur learning behaviours activity was designed to be accessible for Early Years learners within a community in the north-west of England.
The aim of the activity was to develop learners’ self-regulation habits. Early Years teachers explored a range of self-regulated learning strategies and selected the explicit teaching of learning behaviours. It was anticipated that teaching pupils three specific learning behaviours would promote exploratory talk within stimulating metacognitive discussions in the classroom (Mercer, 2016). If successful, this would encourage pupils to be independent and competent learners, defined by Zimmerman (2002) as learners who are:
- proactive in their efforts to learn
- aware of their strengths and limitations
- guided by personally set goals and task-related strategies
- able to monitor their behaviour in terms of their goals
To make self-regulated learning accessible for Early Years pupils, each of the learning behaviours was assigned a dinosaur character (see Table 1). These were based on the Characteristics of Effective Learning (CoEL) (The ministerial department responsible for children’s serv..., 2012), which until recently were statutory requirements for Early Years reporting. By introducing the dinosaur characters, pupils would also be able to articulate their CoEL. Furthermore, although the CoEL are no longer statutory to report on, they still feature prominently in our feedback to parents.
Table 1: Each behaviour was assigned a dinosaur character, a memorable name and associated sentence stems
|Learning Dinosaur: Early Years-appropriate names||Characteristic of Effective Learning
|Typical sentence used by adults to model verbal interactions||Impact on self-regulated learning|
|Try-o-saur||Active learning||I have been a try-o-saur because I tried again when I found writing the word ‘SOME’ tricky||Promotes inquisitive learners who are motivated to learn and actively seek challenge in the environment|
|Explore-o-saur||Playing and exploring||I explored the OUTDOOR INVESTIGATION AREA and used what I know in my play||Promotes application of skills and consolidation of prior learning through high engagement|
|Think-o-saur||Creating and thinking critically||I thought of my own idea in the HOME CORNER and used my imagination to…||Promotes children identifying connections in their learning and making sense of their experiences|
Each dinosaur was introduced at transition into Reception during key worker time. Pupils were taught each dinosaur’s name and what it represents, how we can be this dinosaur and specific examples of learning behaviours within provision – e.g. ‘I noticed Mo being a try-a-saur in the home corner when he…’.
During twice daily reflective moments (five minutes at the end of each morning and afternoon), pupils were taught how to reflect upon their learning, share their reflections with the class or their learning partner and give positive praise to peers about their learning reflection. The activity was implemented over a number of stages from September to July.
Establishing learners’ self-regulation behaviours is part of a wider suite of approaches taken by adults in the classroom to ensure that all pupils make good progress in their first year of school. Through regular reflective interactions with peers and adults, learners made further progress in learning outcomes. This progress built on the foundations established during an earlier project based on engagement in learning (Mariner and Shurlock, 2019).
Continuous provision refers to the environment created in many early years settings that supports pupils’ learning. Often, this will contain a core range of engaging challenges and activities that become familiar to the children and are then further enhanced over time to enable them to develop their learning. Continuous provision works well in different ways – with an adult or without an adult. With an adult, pupils can work with scaffolds to move their learning on where necessary. However, adults are not ever-present, and therefore pupils need to be independent decision-makers in order to articulate how they have learnt and relate it to themselves as learners.
Through observing pupils’ and monitoring their progress, staff found that the dinosaur learning behaviour activity supported pupils to be more resilient learners and understand how they can improve. Triangulation of key worker observations, pupil feedback and comparisons with observations made within continuous provision earlier in the year, formed a process to identify greater resilience and understanding. Furthermore, the activity has enhanced pupils’ self-satisfaction and motivation to continue to improve their methods of learning.
The activity was further improved when staff noticed that pupils avoided scenarios within which they anticipated failure. Pupils were not accessing new areas and were remaining where they were comfortable with the familiar. A further step was needed to build greater resilience to maximise pupils’ learning. Therefore a fourth dinosaur – Mistake-o-saur – was introduced to support adults to model mistake-making and discuss how mistakes were useful to learning.
The ability to be an effective learner is important in Early Years – indeed, throughout school. Therefore it is right to set aside time during pupils’ first year of school to explicitly teach learning to learn. In doing so, teachers support meaningful interactions with the curriculum, rather than the two elements being mutually exclusive.
Explicitly teaching pupils how to manage their learning, independently, is vital to future success. Early Years is the place to learn how to be an effective learner. As pupils progress through school, these skills remain vital in order to be organised, aware and independent learners. The investment of time in the reflective moments pays dividends through the rest of the day. This approach encourages independent learning, develops effective communication between pupils and adults, and maximises the learning opportunities in provision moving forward. Other schools have adopted and adapted this activity. The core activity remains the same, though many change the dinosaurs to other characters that meet the interests and learning needs of their pupils.