Re-defining ‘instruction’ for early childhood

‘Instruction’ is not a popular word in early childhood education and care. The term often carries connotations of ‘direct instruction’ and ‘formal teaching’. And yet, every day we ‘instruct’ children when we remind them to wash their hands, pack away the blocks, and share the fruit. In another sense, we ‘instruct’ when we explain how a story book works, demonstrate strategies for conflict resolution or introduce a child to a piece of technology.

The questions become:
How well do we do it? And, Could we do it better?

Professor Collette Tayler, who holds the Chair in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) at Melbourne University, is the Director of E4Kids (Effective Early Educational Experiences), a five-year longitudinal research study. Looking at the findings so far, Collette suggests we need to reconsider what quality ‘instruction’ looks like.

Aspects of quality

E4Kids aims to track children’s learning and development over time as they participate, or not, in approved home and centre-based ECEC, kinder and preschool programs and outside-school-hours care. The study is particularly interested in the cohort of children two years before they enter school, in order to develop a complex picture of how each set of experiences contributes to their learning outcomes, now and into the future. The study uses a range of measures to monitor children’s health, academic and social achievements and personal competence, and includes an assessment of the learning programs on offer.

The study examines dimensions of pedagogy and measures the process aspects of ‘quality’; that is, it focuses on interactions between adults and children, rather than on structural issues such as staffing arrangements and ratios.

It identifies three variables of quality:

  • Emotional support from a child’s perspective—emotional climate, consistency and sensitivity of response to children’s needs.
  • Organisation for learning—the kinds of experiences offered and productivity in terms of children’s time on task, engagement and satisfaction with the activities.
  • Instructional support—the quality of back-and-forth exchanges through which educators model language, introduce maths and literacy concepts, provide feedback to children and expand children’s language repertoire to build communicative competence.

Tentative conclusions

All types of services score relatively well on emotional support; all come in as ‘solid’ on classroom organisation measures; all are relatively low on the instructional dimension—there appears to be a limited sense of ‘educator intentionality’ and there is insufficient adult–child dialogue.

Collette stresses that this does not suggest that we now focus on rote learning, but that we should consider how we can deliberately strengthen conceptual learning and language in informal, play-based contexts to ensure the best outcomes for children.

Having clear educational intentions and a rich repertoire of pedagogical strategies is important for high-quality early childhood practice that ‘adds value’ for all children’s development and learning; it is particularly vital for vulnerable children to receive high levels of emotional, organisational and instructional support as they set foot on their life-long learning pathway.

Jenni Connor
Early Childhood Consultant

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Re-defining ‘instruction’ for early childhood by Jenni Connor was featured in Every Child Vol. 19 No. 2—Reconciliation, recognition and respect. Click here to purchase your copy today!