Whatever happened to lifelong learning?

June O'Sullivan
Friday, May 17, 2019

The debate about what is education continues unabated. The DfE annoyed and baffled many last month when they announced that they did not advocate using the word learning because it is a weak term; they want to use the term attainment instead.

Whatever happened to lifelong learning? Learning not to attain anything but to enjoy the experience, to deepen and interest to just know and understand more. An essential attitude to rekindle people with the idea of learning for the love of it.

One of the reasons, we have so many people who struggle with maths and all things number is because they have been "scarred" by poor experiences in school and never want to have anything to do with formal learning, exams or books. This causes us endless problems as we try and encourage adults to become reflective teachers, interested in action research and open to learning as the basis of great early years teaching.

Developing the narrative on creativity is one way to address this. Creativity is often referred to as a success factor for business and the economy linked to an ability to think flexibly, develop new ideas and be able to play with ideas and imaginatively. There is no mention of attainment! Vygotsky believed that creativity is something that exists in all people and present when major artistic, scientific and technical discoveries are made. It is also existent whenever an individual alters, combines, imagines or makes something new. Bernadette Duffy (1998) described creativity as the means of connecting the previously unconnected in ways that are new and meaningful to the individual concerned, to make real something that you have imagined.

In an effort to ensure we were developing creative adults, who just enjoy the learning process we have been working with Dr Evgenia Theodotou, better known to us as Dr E, she has develop a programme called PLA (Play and Learning through Art). The intention is to extend social literacy through child-led art projects. The aims were for both children and teachers:

  • To build up confidence using children and adult's social literacy skills
  • To better understand the importance of reading and writing on our everyday lives
  • To encourage children and adults to love reading and writing activities

What happened in the nurseries was that the adults stepped back and really let the children lead on their interests in a very relaxed play-based way. It was not a project-based activity but a more relaxed and liberal approach. We didn't want a defined outcome but we ended up with lots of learning. For example, the children all wrote letters to the local fire station to book a visit following a lead from one of the children. They then visited and wrote a selection of thank you letters at their own initiation.

The approach, with just a subtle twist resulted in much more creative teaching.  Staff got clearer about the need for children to expand their curiosity without us getting in the way. The children were able to take risks, empowered to raise their own voices and allowed to wallow in ideas with no planned learning outcome. There wasn't a hint of attainment!   The staff were confident to tune into children, expand their thinking and deepened their ability to use a great range of open questions.

We saw much more advanced literacy and language skills. Those children and boys chose to do more writing and written work.  They developed an ability to create in-depth analysis and explanations, used different techniques to participate in discussions, found solutions, reasoning, and developed their own  storytelling, print awareness and emergent reading techniques.

Overall, the children developed confidence and pride (especially the shy children). Their concentration was powerful and they wanted to get involved. Our children chose to do their writing because they wanted to make the art and create their letters. They chose to stay indoors when all their friends were outside. They wanted to miss their lunch to do their activities.  They spent a lot of time walking around the nursey making lists.

There is no doubt that the simple act of focusing on creative teaching by letting the children lead their learning in the true pedagogical way saw a notable and measurable benefit and nowhere in the process was it necessary to talk about attainment.

We need more of this….its all about learning in a healthy child focused which depends on deep play

June O'Sullivan is chief executive of London Early Years Foundation. This blog first appeared on the LEYF website