Do children only learn by taking tests?

Where does learning take place?

The answer is everywhere!

As an experienced Early Years and Primary teacher, I can’t help but feel frustrated by current state education practices in the Early and Primary Years. 

The curriculum is heavily loaded towards Literacy and Numeracy and because these ‘skills’ are measured through tests (phonics tests, multiplication tests and SATs- (reading, writing, spelling and numeracy tests) and those results are used to judge a school’s performance, they are taught rigorously from the moment a child enters school - sometimes to the exclusion of just about everything else 

And what is everything else?  Everything else is the building blocks of all learning:  By focussing so narrowly and so early on numeracy and literacy we risk creating unstable foundations for life-long learning potential.

Research shows that 75% of a child’s brain develops after birth. Brains develop faster in the first five years of our lives than at any other time. The 4 main areas of this development are.

  1. Social and emotional development: Social development is a child’s ability to create and sustain meaningful relationships with adults and other children. Emotional development is a child’s ability to express, recognize, and manage his or her emotions, as well as respond appropriately to others’ emotions. 
  2. Physical development (motor skills): Gross and Fine motor skills enable movements performed every day.  Gross motor skills use the large muscles in the body enabling physical strength/walking, running and jumping, along with balance, co-ordination, and reaction times. Fine motor skills are movements that require a high degree of control and precision, using the small muscles of the hand or wrist e.g., fastening buttons, using scissors and demand hand-eye co-ordination.
  1. Language and communication: All the ways a child both understands and communicates- not just talking.
  2. Cognitive development (executive brain function): Cognitive development is growing your brain to think, remember, reason, learn, and concentrate.

The development of these four areas needs to continue throughout childhood and beyond.

To illustrate my point that the foundations for learning need to be nurtured, let's delve a little deeper into a sample of the cognitive development element- according to Dr Jane Yeomans  (Cert Ed., Dip. SE, MEd, MEd (Ed Psych), PhD).

You will realise that we are all doing all of the below, to some extent, all of  the time!  No wonder we feel tired at the end of the day!

A sample of Cognitive Skills

Focussed perception, paying attention-Using all the senses to gather information.

Systematic search/exploration, planning-Gathering information using a system or plan so that nothing is missed.

Conservation-Knowing what stays the same and what changes.

Using labels: Giving the things we gather through our senses and our experience names so that we can remember them more clearly and talk about them

Use of temporal and spatial concepts: Using knowledge about space and time: describing things and events in terms of where and when they occur.

Precision and accuracy: Being precise and accurate when it matters; recognising the need to be precise and accurate when gathering information.

Considering more than one source of information: Gathering information from several sources; organising the information we gather by considering more than one thing at a time (working memory is used to hold information in our head whilst gathering other information)

Defining the problem: Knowing what to do with the information gathered: what do we need to do or figure out.

Relevance: Using only the part of the information we have gathered that is relevant, that is, that applies to the problem, and ignoring the rest

Planning and sequencing: Making a plan that will include the steps we need to take to reach our goal, knowing what to do first, second, and so on, knowing what ‘finished’ looks like.

Comparison: Being able to recognise what is the same and what is different

Categorising: Finding the class or set that new objects or experiences belong to

Projecting relationships: Seeing how things go together; looking for the relationship by which separate objects, events, and experiences can be used together.

Hypothetical thinking: If………. then thinking; thinking about different possibilities and figuring out what would happen if you were to choose one or another.

Working with several sources of information: memory

Working memory: holding information in your head whilst working with it.

Short term memory: recalling recent learning.

Long term memory: recalling previous learning or approaching problem-solving.

Logical justification: Being able to defend your opinion or choice using logical evidence.

Interiorisation: Having a good picture in our mind of what we are looking for, or what we must do.

Visual transport: Mentally lifting something up and placing it elsewhere; Carrying an exact picture of an object in your mind to another place for comparison without losing or changing some details.

‍Children’s brains are, to a great extent, programmed to develop all of these fundamental skills, but we can help by facilitating that development and by trying not to be a barrier to it.

There is indisputable evidence that the activities children engage in stimulate nerve cells in the brain to connect and grow. Play (think exploration) quite literally IS a child’s work. Children will naturally be interested in things that will provoke those nerve cells to grow.  What we can do is to facilitate their play by offering a breadth of opportunities. These opportunities do not have to be expensive - think textures, smells, sounds, levels, slopes, water, soil, gardening, cooking, dressing up, music, mixing, building, mark making, being read to, climbing, getting dirty, getting clean, pets, bugs, sticks… the opportunities are endless.

According to Montessori, the essential dimensions of play are: Voluntary, enjoyable, purposeful and spontaneous.

Watch your child in play/exploration. One of my children at 3 years old went through a phase of throwing things. It used to drive me mad. Eventually the penny dropped, and I gathered lots of various objects that could be thrown (outside) and left him to it. For several days he was fascinated by throwing: how far, how high, could he hit a target, knock something over, heavy things, light things. He was really testing the effects of gravity, speed, force.

One day he stopped and moved onto something else. (He’s now a really good fast bowler!)

Children learn by doing. They learn through what they do, encounter, and discover.  Children learn best when that learning has a purpose and they can connect with it.

If a child is allowed to be curious, feels motivated, enjoys and can persist through a challenge, and has time to experiment and problem solve, he/she will develop those strong building blocks/foundations and the rest will all slot into place. We need to let children feel the joy of learning and discovery.