Nancy Stewart Interview:
The Characteristics of Effective Learning

Putting how children learn first again.

In this interview with leading early years expert Nancy Stewart, you’ll learn:

  • The power of the characteristics of effective learning, in simple language.
  • How they relate to the Unique Child, Enabling Environments and Positive Relationships.
  • Nancy’s three self-evaluation questions to ask yourself.
  • Six tips for a better understanding of the characteristics, for you and your practitioners.

The characteristics of effective learning are all about how children learn. In a world where people seem increasingly concerned with what our children learn in the early years, they are something that we must protect, foster, and understand – at all costs.

But how children learn is tricky. The characteristics are not easy for everyone to grasp – and making sure that practitioners understand the critical role they play in the EYFS can be a challenge.

That’s why we thought it was time to go straight to the source.

Introducing Nancy Stewart

Nancy Stewart was a key member of the team that advised on the EYFS review in 2012. In fact, she was behind the rationale for why the characteristics of effective learning should be included in the updated framework.

Having worked extensively with Helen Moylett on the review, the two were commissioned to rewrite the highly influential ‘Development Matters’ with these changes in mind. She’s also written a book on the subject – How Children Learn: The Characteristics of Effective Early Learning.

We spoke with Nancy to help explain the characteristics of effective learning and the role they should play in your early years setting.

What are the characteristics of effective learning?

The characteristics help us to see when children are learning. Roughly speaking, they tell us that children are learning when they are:

  • Engaged
  • Motivated
  • Thinking

Let’s see what the statutory framework says about them:

In planning and guiding children’s activities, practitioners must reflect on the different ways that children learn and reflect these in their practice. Three characteristics of effective teaching and learning are:

  • Playing and exploring – Children investigate and experience things, and ‘have a go’.
  • Active learning – Children concentrate and keep on trying if they encounter difficulties, and enjoy achievements.
  • Creating and thinking critically – Children have and develop their own ideas, make links between ideas, and develop strategies for doing things.

“The characteristics of effective learning are what the child brings to that interplay between people and the world,” Nancy tells us. And that is where you step in.

A child and their interactions happen in a place

“The unique child brings who they are and all of their capacities,” says Nancy. “They bring their drive to reach out and learn and develop. They meet people and experiences and that interplay is where learning and development happens.”

This is why the ‘unique child, ‘positive relationships’, and ‘enabling environments’ are so fundamentally linked to the characteristics of effective learning in ‘Development Matters’. Children develop and learn in the context of the relationships and environment around them – that means you and the space that you provide.

“The characteristics sit totally within that child,” says Nancy. “They are that drive. They are the way that children are reaching out into the world.”

Why are the characteristics of effective learning so important?

For Nancy, this all comes back to the focus on how children learn.

“The learner has to do the work,” she says. “You can’t teach someone something as if you’re just putting it in their brain – the learner has to take experience in, make sense of it and have the interest and the motivation in the first place.”

When we’re seeing a child displaying the characteristics as outlined in the EYFS and Development Matters, that means we’re seeing learning taking place.

Another way to understand this is to see the characteristics as part of the journey towards better self-regulation.

“Self-regulation is increasingly seen as one of the most important factors in successful learning and success in wider life. It has two basic components, emotional self-regulation – which sits within Personal, Social, and Emotional Development – and then cognitive self-regulation. That’s the way that we think and learn.”

In other words, if you look after emotional self-regulation, and you see the characteristics of effective learning taking place, then you’re well on your way to providing a quality learning environment.

“The learner does the work and it is the characteristics which are the driver of the whole experience,” says Nancy. “So the stronger those are, the stronger the learning is.”

Nancy’s three questions

Before we get into some actionable ways to better understand and explain the characteristics of effective learning, we wanted to bring up this brilliant, simple breakdown of self-evaluation that Nancy discussed during the interview (of course, the characteristics are still playing a central role).

“You should be looking at your practice at any moment, any time of the day and asking yourself a few basic questions. For me the template is:

  1. Whatever is happening, do you see the prime areas? Do you see the children having opportunities to develop their personal, social, and emotional development, physical development, and language in action?
  2. Do you see the three characteristics? Do you see them really engaged? Do you see them motivated? And do you see them doing their own thinking?
  3. How am I providing the interaction that supports these – that’s positive relationships – and what opportunities have I given to support these? What enabling environments have I provided?”
How to promote a better understanding of the characteristics

While the characteristics of effective learning are relatively simple in their makeup, they can be incredibly complex in their application.

Nancy told us that Development Matters is just dipping your toe in the water of the characteristics – it’s not easy to get a full understanding in the space of four pages. It’s also a big challenge to work out what’s going on if you’re not seeing the characteristics regularly in your cohorts.

Here are some ideas to make that easier.

1. Look after the emotional state of the child

If you’re not seeing the characteristics as regularly as you’d like, it might be time to take it back to basics.

“There’s no point thinking about trying to engage the front of the brain if the child isn’t in a good state emotionally,” says Nancy. “The child bring their emotional state with them, whether they’re feeling well, safe, well looked after – and that is essential to learning.”

Whether you’re using the Leuven Scales of Wellbeing, engaging parents more to understand underlying emotional issues, or just giving each child the time and support they need to be confident happy learners – you need to put their emotional state first.

2. Think big and small

The characteristics of effective learning can be used on your whole setting and on each individual child.

“As you’re watching children and doing constant observation, think ‘Do I see that this particular child is out there exploring, having a go, using their senses?’,” says Nancy. “If not, how do I come alongside them, encourage them, support them? Is it because of their emotional wellbeing? If they are happy and out there and playing and exploring, ask yourself – how motivated are they? Are they really thinking in their play?”

So that’s how you can make the characteristics of effective learning about each unique child, but what about the whole setting? Nancy recommends using the Development Matters as something like an audit. Look at the examples, and see how your setting and your interactions match up.

Think small, and you’ll be able to guide each child in lots of engaged, motivated, thinking learning experiences. Think big, and you can take a step back to make sure that every interaction that child has will help them on that journey.

3. No child fits just one characteristic

“One big misunderstanding about the characteristics is that people think they’re just trying to assess what type of learner a child is,” Nancy says. “That’s wrong.”

“It’s not just about assessing which child is showing which characteristics, It’s about seeing where can you do a better job of giving children an opportunity to use these and develop them.”

So, no more labelling of a child as an ‘engaged’ learner or a ‘motivated one’. You want to do what you can to ensure that all children are displaying all characteristics when they play and learn.

“On active learning specifically, people find it very easy to understand intrinsic motivation and how we can damage that by using praise and external motivators. The more we do that the more we’re making them look for our approval, rather than allowing the children to use their intrinsic motivation. Say things like “You tried really hard didn’t you.” Be specific about the behaviour not the child – that makes them feel ‘Yes, I did do that.’ It helps them to understand their role.”

Nancy Stewart

4. Be inspired by Te Whāriki

Ensuring that practitioners understand different concepts might just be as simple as trying to explain the same concept in a different way. Step in, the New Zealand curriculum Te Whāriki.

“In the New Zealand Te Whāriki curriculum, they have their assessment primarily around dispositions for learning,” Nancy explains “They call it ‘Ready’, ‘Willing’ and ‘Able’. Ready to learn means looking at the emotional side of things – whether the child is safe, happy, comfortable – and looking at the equivalent to Playing and Exploring. Are they comfortable enough to engage?”

“You also have to have the ‘Will’, you have to have that motivation side. So are they concentrating, are they excited, are they following their own goals? And you also have to be able to learn – that’s the thinking side. And you can’t just have one of those characteristics to learn – you must have all three.”

5. Put play first

For those of you who already are big advocates of a child-centred, play-based approach, good news. That fits perfectly with the characteristics of effective learning.

“The main place where they have value is in play,” says Nancy. “There, the child has autonomy, they can push themselves, make relationships. So a good place to start is by looking at your play provision. Is it high-quality play where children are really in charge and displaying the characteristics?”

“On the other hand, it’s much harder to see these being displayed in adult-led activity. In that situation, it’s important that there’s flexibility so that the child can move it around. Ask your team ‘Who is doing the thinking here?’.”

6. Understand how the characteristics look at different ages

While the characteristics of effective learning are not meant to be understood as progressive, or building in the same way the main areas do, it is important that your staff understand how a child at six months may display the characteristics compared to a school-age child.

This is where it’s going to take some more reading and deeper learning from you and your staff. Here are some resources that might help you understand how children display different characteristics at different stages:

The Early Years Pedagogy Guide

Interested in more helpful advice? Download your free copy of our full early years pedagogy guide now.

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