Characteristics of Effective Learning Parent Guide:
Part 2 - Critical Thinking

Sue Allingham tackles the final vital characteristic
  • In Sue Allingham’s first guide for parents on the characteristics of effective learning, she explained why the characteristics matter, and took us through the first two: Playing and exploring and active learning.
  • This time, we’re exploring the third and final characteristic, critical thinking, packed with plenty of ideas you can try at home right now.

As we continue exploring how we can make the best of home learning, it’s worth thinking about exactly what we’re learning.

Formal subjects like phonics or maths might be more difficult right now. But parents and caregivers need not have a background in education to help their children learn the fundamental skills that support the process of learning. These skills are called the Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning. They are the bedrock of skills that lead to more formal learning later in life — and we can all develop them at home.

In the first of these articles, we looked at why the Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning are so important to develop as a basis for secure future learning.

Before looking we dive back in, here are some important reminders:

  • Remember that your home is not Nursery or School, and will offer its own unique opportunities.
  • It is important not to impose false structures on your time. Go with the flow, and welcome learning opportunities throughout the day.
  • You don’t need any expensive tools or resources. Anything and everything involved in your daily life can help support learning.
  • Encouraging children to develop the Characteristics of Effective Learning isn’t difficult, and you don’t need to be a teacher to do it.
  • It’s all about switching children on to learning and using what they know to make links and think about things in different ways.
Critical thinking

This leads us into looking at the third characteristic, which is critical thinking. You could define this as helping children have their own ideas — thinking of ideas, finding ways to solve problems, or new ways to do things.

Here are some behaviours that exhibit critical thinking skills:

Making links

  • Making links and noticing patterns in their experience
  • Making predictions
  • Testing their ideas
  • Developing ideas of grouping, sequences, cause and effect

Choosing ways to do things

  • Planning, making decisions about how to approach a task, solve a problem and reach a goal
  • Checking how well their activities are going
  • Changing strategy as needed
  • Reviewing how well the approach worked
Critical Thinking – A grown up skill?

‘Critical thinking’ sounds like such a grown up skill, but the skills can be encouraged from very early on. Take getting dressed in the morning for example. Deciding what to wear is about solving a problem involving various bits of information. For example:

  • What is the weather forecast? Will the weather change during the day? How can we find out?
  • If a certain item of clothing is dirty what could be worn instead? What would go with it?
  • Are we walking, going in the car, on public transport? Or a mix of these?

Even if you’re in a hurry, it’s still possible to build some problem-solving. This can be quick and informal — helping your child choose between a limited set of clothes for the day, or what to eat for breakfast, and the plates or bowls they might need. But you shouldn’t have an answer in mind before you present this challenge — keep it meaningful and open-ended.

Finding ways to solve problems and finding new ways to do things was something that was being introduced in the first two Characteristics that we looked at in the last article, so now we are moving that thinking forward to making links and choosing ways to do things.

Where does an idea come from?

Ideas always come from somewhere. They are based on experiences that we’ve already had that enable us to bring some experience to a new situation. For example, it’s a lovely sunny day. What does your little one want to do? Perhaps you might go for a walk to the park, sit in the garden, get the paddling pool out or have a water fight?

As adults, we have these ideas because we have had the experiences. But in order for children to have these ideas too, they’ll need to experience them first. These experiences do not need to be expensive outings, or new toys and equipment. For example, looking out of the window could provide the potential for all sorts of ideas, no matter what the view may be. It’s all a matter of recognising the little details and opportunities that are all around you.

Building the right experiences

Using the window as an example, let’s think about what you might notice to talk about with your child. Any of these could be the basis for a conversation, a learning experience, or an outing:

  • Cars
  • Lorries
  • Emergency vehicles
  • People
  • Trees
  • Flowers
  • Birds
  • The weather
  • Planes
  • Day time/night time

The crucial part of any experience are the interactions you have while you are together, whatever you are doing. Remember the ‘wondering questions’ from the first article? These are all about forming ideas. Once the ideas are flowing, the learning starts.

It’s not about trying to rush them to writing their name or counting to a million

This was recently said to me by someone when I was explaining the Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning to them. Too often, being in a Nursery or School is seen as just being about learning to read, write and count, but there’s a lot more to teaching and learning than this.

Building interactions and independence

Let’s think of our children as capable learners, because they all are. They are all mathematicians, readers, writers, scientists and artists in various ways. Of course, we want our children to be able to investigate, explore and embed the skills and knowledge they gain at their settings — so we want to give them the skills to connect what they’ve already learned.

Let’s look at how what we’ve covered so far can help us. These five things are key:

  • Wondering questions
  • Interactions
  • Noticing things
  • Independence
  • Quality time (this doesn’t have to be hours, a few minutes can make all the difference)

It’s all about realising the meaning of what you are doing, and noticing the potential of what your child is demonstrating. Let’s just look at our routines as we’re waking up and getting ready for the day, and how we might find some ‘hidden skills’ in everyday tasks.

  • Looking at the calendar (sequencing, numbers and reading)
  • Talking about cereal (vocabulary of quantity, reading, counting etc)
  • Television or radio (Talk about what you’re hearing/ watching)
  • Look at the clock (analogue or digital) and talk about the time. How long does it take to….? What time is your favourite programme on? Talk about the time throughout the day.

Often enough, all we need to support these core learning skills is a bit of structure. Here are some activities and questions you can use throughout the day to help your child start thinking and learning.

Ideas for when you’re going out and about
  • Make a shopping list together, even if you don’t really need one. Let your child write some of it.
  • Reading shop names, advertising, road signs, bus numbers etc.
  • Talk about what road signs tell us to do or not to do
  • Read makes and models of cars, and look at number plates
  • Talk about your shopping using language of quantity, and weigh things if you can
  • Count things — How many trees, dogs or prams do you see?
  • Where appropriate, touch and feel things to talk about texture
  • Collect natural objects to take home
  • Take photographs to talk about later
Ideas for when you’re spending time at home
  • Prepare meals or snacks together. Remember to use language of quantity as you read recipes and packaging. Also encourage the independent use of kitchen utensils, whenever appropriate
  • Read a story together
  • Write a diary together when you can. Use the photographs you’ve taken, or draw what you have seen or done and each write a piece. Recounting experiences is a vital thinking skill
  • Watch television together
  • Dance and sing to the radio
Ideas for when you’re getting ready for bed
  • What time is bath time or bedtime? What does that look like on the clock?
  • Use your bedtime routine to reflect on the day, and think about tomorrow.
  • Perhaps check the weather forecast and decide on the clothes for the next day
  • If you share a story, let your child talk about the pictures or their favourite bit

Your home and the environment you live in, wherever you live, are a powerful source of opportunities to explore the Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning with your child. You will both be teaching and learning together when you become aware of these opportunities.

Dr Sue Allingham has both an MA and a Doctorate in Early Childhood Education from the University of Sheffield. She is the author of Transitions in the Early Years and writes regularly for Early Years Educator – EYE – magazine where she is Consultant Editor. Sue is also an independent consultant and trainer with her company Early Years Out of the Box Consultancy.

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