The Characteristics of Effective Learning- More than a slogan. 

January 2022

Anyone who read my recent blog “The Early Years Curriculum- or how to tend to your (kinder)garden”, scroll down if you didn’t, may recall this wonderful image I shared from our fabulous colleagues at the East Midlands West NCETM EYFS Maths hub.  

Well for this blog I want to go back and consider those essential roots of our Early Years curriculum- in short the Characteristics of Effective Learning.


Now firstly let me remind anyone working in England that these essential characteristics are part of the statutory EYFS framework. They bring to life the "how" of learning.  In these days of an inspectorate focussed on a sequenced curriculum for the under 5’s formed of composite and components of learning (if anyone would like to explain to me what exactly this means for the under 5’s please drop me a postcard) alongside a view of learning as “remembering more”- there is a real danger that the curriculum on offer to our youngest children, who are just beginning their educational journey, could become narrow and focussed on  “what” is learnt from adults in direct teaching sessions (even in nursery settings) and the “how” pales into insignificance.

This is also not helped by the Department for Education’s reframing of the Characteristics of Effective Learning as: “Children develop and learn at different rates.” (DFE 2021). This is a significant shift from “…the different ways that children learn” (DFE 2012).


Add into the equation the fact that Reception teachers no longer have a statutory duty to report to parents/carers on these essential characteristics (actually my favourite part of the report to write) and instead will only send a report to parents of whether their beloved 4 or 5 year old has reached/not reached arbituary goals (which are in parts are wholly developmentally inappropriate and more aligned to a Ks1/2 curriculum)- and I think it is fair to say we have a serious problem. 


A plant cannot grow without roots.

A child cannot learn for life without these roots of learning. 


The “how” of learning appears to be no longer important. The subject content, the components of the curriculum seems to reign supreme-  with an increased focus on children learning largely from being read to about historical figures and events, life in other countries and the recalling by heart of abstract maths facts. All of which I will add, there has been no evidence shared to show this is the right approach for young children- despite repeated requests.


Personally I still plan to report to parents/carers about the “how” of their childs learning and will use the wonderful, sector led Birth to Five matters to shape our practice and thinking around learning.

Recently I have been trying to get my head around documenting our early years curriculum.  We work in the moment, we don’t have set topics- so I have been looking online for inspiration- wondering how other schools are documenting their curriculum. In reality I don't think any of this extra work and plotting out is really for teachers, children or parents. It is for those who come in to judge us. 


To be honest what I have found takes me back to the 90’s. Lists of termly topics with Development Matters statements plotted out term by term so that coverage can be ticked off. This is not a curriculum. Its just an adult plotting out the unplottable- the unique development of a large group of individual children. It also perpetuates the misconception that children move through learning at the same time. After working in the sector for over 20 years, after spending hours observing and studying the children in my care. I can assure you they don’t. 


The issue is that with Reception teachers under pressure to get children to goals (whether they are 4 or 5) that to be honest reflect a top down curriculum more akin to the National Curriculum than early education- the journey back to the 90’s and a “people who help us” topic was always on the cards. 

How has it gone so wrong? If we go back to the brilliant “How Children Learn- The Characteristics of Effective Early Learning” (Early Education 2011), Nancy Stewart- one of the authors of the original Development Matters (2008) states:


“…in our earliest years we are building habits of mind that will support us to continue to learn and be successful throughout our lives” (p8)


The Characteristics of Effective Learning are these habits of mind: focus, exploration, connection making, problem solving… a topic on Florence Nightingale when you are 4- just doesn’t cut the mustard. It won’t set you up for life. Perhaps you will remember it for a week or a few more- but it won’t open doors, open your eyes to the wonders of learning, it won’t lift the lid and make the sky the limit. 

So in short. The Characteristics of Effective Learning, these "habits of mind" matter- no matter how they have been reduced and slighted in the latest framework and some of the accompanying guidance- by those who let's remember do not work with young children.


Luckily,  such experts as Stewart and her colleague Moylett- author of “Characteristics of Effective Early Learning- Helping Young Children Become Learners for Life (2013)- which has a second edition coming very soon- are a part of the early years coalition and involved with the sectors response to the highly controversial EYFS reforms- the fantastic Birth to 5 Matters guidance. Along with voices such as the amazing Dr Mine Conkbayir- this guidance puts the spotlight well and truly back where it belongs on to these characteristics along with an essential and authentic, informed focus on self regulation- note to DFE- self regulation is more than following instructions. So if you really want to strengthen those roots then check out the amazing resources here on the Birth to 5 website. It is a treasure trove of resources- I promise!


In addition- this wonderful Birth to 5 Matters video focussed on the Characteristics of Effective Learning, expertly produced by Siren Films is an essential bit of 10 minute CPD for EVERY early years team!

This leads me to another point. These "habits of mind", these essential learning dispositions and behaviours need to run through all we do.


Run through our interactions (how do we model being an effective learner)


Run through our environment (how does what we offer stimulate problem solving, curiosity, perseverance, concentration, connection making, pattern spotting, creativity)...


...and always begin with the unique child (where are they on their journey, what do they bring with them, what are their interests, fascinations). 


This is when the conditions are right for truely deep, powerful, rich learning and development.


Not just learning for tomorrow or next week- but for life. 

The plant will grow.

The child will flourish.

And just like that- we are back again to the essential STATUTORY overarching EYFS principles...

We don’t need children to recite “I am an explorer” or “I am motivated”.


We don’t need to tick off a list.


We don’t need to fill our settings with animals, dinosaurs, superheroes, tv characters on posters or anything else stating these behaviours for children to repeat back to us.


That is not what the Characteristics for Effective Learning are. Just keep on coming back to that wonderful Nancy Stewart quote "habits of mind". Actions (and play) speak much louder than captions and cartoon characters!


The problem is that in our quest to get it right, perhaps pressures to show we are getting it right to anyone who drops in- and again due to top down curriculum pressures- perhaps the child can tell us they are “Trudy try hard” or “Persevering Peter”- but does that mean they really are? Does that mean they are demonstrating these behaviours in their play? Or are they literally repeating a phrase we have drummed into them during a very long carpet session on "learning behaviours". 


I have seen so many of these posters doing the rounds (many for a fee) and in my opinion (and it is only that) they reduce something amazing, complex, joyful and intricate- the power of learning to a slogan, a caricature. Young children's learning, their self chosen, unpredictable, complex, joyous play is so much more than this. And deserves more respect. No poster, no cartoon can capture that. 


And at this point my mind began to wonder- and my inner rebel came out!


  • What is it that doesn't work for young children?
  • What sorts of things are ineffective in promoting learning but perhaps sometimes expected or even demanded (often by those who have never worked with nor studied young children). 
  • What might the Characteristics of Ineffective Learning look like on a poster?


Well maybe something like this! 




To be honest this is just hysteria setting in based on the endless messages received from teachers under pressure...

Joking, satire and hysteria aside. Hold tight everyone. Know that you know.


You know your children

You know what they need

You know what matters


So get on your gardening gloves, get out into your (Kinder)garden, get your hands in to that mud and start tending those roots. Nurture those habits of mind for life: The Characteristics of Effective Learning.


And from those carefully nurtured and tended roots the most beautiful, unique and intricate plant will grow. 


A learner for life. Not just tomorrow. 

A learner who feels learning within the fabric of their being and not just the learned phrases they have been taught to recite upon request.


Anyone with me?


Please enter the code
* Required fields
There are no entries yet.