‘Formal’ learning: Yes or no?

This is a question parents often ask early childhood teachers. They want to know if their child should be ‘tutored’ before they start school. The answer depends on what you believe about how young children learn and about the environments and activities, the relationships and interactions that promote rich learning.

For me, the key word in this question is ‘formal’. By formal learning we usually mean that the teacher sets the learning goals and controls the learning process whereas in informal learning the learner has control over much of these.

No-one doubts that children begin learning from the moment they are born. Through interactions with their immediate world, young children develop the ability to make meaning from their environment and this drives their learning. They learn how the people around them go about their daily lives, how they interact, talk, eat, play, work, celebrate, communicate and do all the things that contribute to their society. And they begin to try out, imitate and develop as a person within this cultural context.

In developing language, for example, children learn very early that the speech sounds they hear have meaning and they begin to associate these sounds with objects, actions and events. Children learn more when adults respond to their early utterances by focusing on meaning and by replying in ways that include modelling and scaffolding, rather than correction. No ‘formal’ lessons are given, but almost every time a spoken interaction happens, the adult is supporting, extending and stretching the young language learner.

In this scaffolded learning, every utterance or speech exchange occurs within a real-life or play-based context that governs how language is used. This is informal learning—closely tied to its context and content. This learning works almost effortlessly because it is child-centred, sensitive to a child’s needs at a point in time, able to build on and take account of what they already know and can do—their store of prior learning.

Up to school age and beyond, these structured, but not ‘formal’ interactions scaffold and strengthen the young child’s growing knowledge and skill as a learner. This is an active process on the child’s part—they are actively constructing new knowledge by relating the new experiences to what they already know. When children strive to make meaning, for example, using ‘ed’ on the end of a word to show an action happened in the past and producing examples such as ‘runned’, they are active learners. No one has taught them to say ‘runned’, they have never heard it in adult speech—instead they have constructed this verb form for themselves using all their current knowledge of how English works. Although this is an error, it is a sure sign of an active language learner.

So we can see how important contextualised learning is for children—learning that draws its purpose and meaning from its immediate context. As adults we make sense of new situations and information by relying on our bank of stored knowledge. But young children have much less stored knowledge than we do so, for them, trying to make sense of new learning presented in a formal de-contextualised way is confusing. If we put young learners into de-contextualised learning situations we are asking them to learn independent bits of information rather than parts of a whole linked to what they already know.

If we look at ‘formal’ programs of learning for young children we often see de-contextualised learning at work. We see programs sequenced with a mythical ‘average’ child in mind. We see content selected without reference to a child’s needs or stage of development. We see pencil and paper take the place of real experiences. We see letters and word fragments take the place of real stories. And most of all, we see tasks divorced from the real-life contexts that give them meaning and purpose. All this makes learning more difficult for the child.

The Australian Curriculum: English contains clear statements of learning content for the early years of school, but these statements do not specify formal teaching. So, where does the impetus for more formal learning come from? I think it has to do with the very real concern parents have for their child to do well at school, and so they search for a magic bullet—something that will give their child an edge over ‘the competition’. They forget that their child is already a competent learner—has learnt to communicate in their own language and much more besides. And perhaps they are not aware that a formal learning program may hinder their child’s established learning practices.

A child’s perception of being a ‘failed learner’ is a possible adverse side effect of early formal learning. From success in informal, scaffolded learning situations the child is thrust into an unfamiliar context—previously acquired knowledge might be of no use and the child is without help from mum or dad. There are just lots of unfamiliar numbers and letters to contend with and if errors are regarded as ‘failures’ rather than a natural part of learning, the child may come to see the process of learning as fraught and frightening.

So, back to the question: Should my child have tutoring before starting school?

My opinion is that we should encourage parents to continue to provide the rich, contextualised experiences that have been so successful in their child’s early development—experiences that involve both spoken and written language within a varied mix of home-based and out-of-home authentic activities. These should include reading to the child every day, self-chosen drawing, writing and numeracy activities and the opportunity to use technology for a range of authentic purposes. And children should enjoy guided experiences such as cooking, gardening and shopping. But, most of all, they should experience a variety of play-based activities. We must remember that play is the real work of children—play that is imaginative, exploratory, engaging, and most of all intrinsically motivating and intensely absorbing, play that is worth doing for itself but which also leads to deep learning.

As early childhood educators, we should resist the temptation to provide the ‘formal’ learning experiences that some parents want. Of course, we should provide targeted, child-centred experiences that focus on particular learning goals, both in early childhood settings and in the first years of school, but these should grow out of authentic contexts that give them meaning. The more real-life or life-like a learning experience is, the more a child will be able to take real, authentic learning from it.

Marcelle Holliday
Author, Primary Teachers English Association Australia
Former Lecturer, Australian Catholic University

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‘Formal’ learning: Yes or no? by Marcelle Holliday was featured in Every Child Vol. 19 No. 3—Celebrating 75 years of ECA. Click here and purchase your copy today!