Learning is....
Planting a seed in our brain... learning to water, nurture and grow it.... so we can live on the fruit of our learning and plant more seeds.

Monday, 10 October 2016

ULearn16: Breakout Three - Research and inquiry Symposium: Play and creativity

My theme for choosing my breakouts for ULearn16 was something I am interested in but do not necessarily know enough about.

I am not known as a junior teacher.  I dabble as a reliever in New Entrant and junior classes and the like, but I consider it is a specialist learning and teaching area, an area where you need special and talented teachers.  I, so far, have neither been that special or that talented at this level.  My personal philosophy has always been I preferred teaching kids who can tie their own shoe laces, pack their bag and cover their mouth before coughing and sneezing.

Play-based learning is defined by Wikipedia as:

Learning through play is a term used in education and psychology to describe how a child can learn to make sense of the world around them. Through play children can develop social and cognitive skills, mature emotionally, and gain the self-confidence required to engage in new experiences and environments.

I strongly believe in the benefits of play-based learning in the early years of school, especially for oral language and the soft skills of problem solving, working with others, creativity and so on.  My thoughts have their roots in how I learnt as a child, starting school in late 1978, with the influences of Beeby, Tovey and Richardson still ringing in the ears of my teachers in my primary school years.

I was a bit of a free-range pre-schooler, as my brother and I never went to kindy, and my mother didn't like the way the other children behaved at playgroup, so we were socialised with coffee groups, tennis afternoons, potluck dinners, a truckload of cousins and country freedom.  Our mother read us lots of books and sang songs and did nursery rhymes with us when we were not digging in our sandpit (which was huge as it extended into the carpark for our house), tunnelling through the long grass on our tennis court/calf paddock, charging around on our tricycles, or going for rides in a truck or on a combine or tractor with either Dad or one of the workers.  I was also investigating worms and bees in my spare time.  We had a variety of animals, went to the beach and went on day trips and holidays to visit relatives in far away towns.  We had lots of experiences and talked about them around the table at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Today children often spend much of their pre-school years in an early childhood learning centre.  Most of these are teacher led, supported by untrained "teachers" who should not be referred to as such without training or registration.  Kindergartens have had to adapt from their original purpose of a play-based learning philosophy to a semi-daycare purpose to stay alive.  Parent led services like Playcentre and play groups struggle to stay afloat with the push and necessity of mothers going back into the workforce.  Kohanga Reo nests have faced their own challenges.

The government has a goal to get 95% of children into early childhood education settings, but I am concerned that quantity is overtaking the quality.  There are a number of indicators that not all children are getting the best start in life when they are turning up at school with poor oral language skills, questionable gross and fine motor skills and other questions over their readiness for school.

Several weeks ago the New Zealand Herald published an article exposing the high numbers of five year olds starting school unable to form a coherent sentence.

Some children are starting school without the ability to speak in sentences, sparking a government investigation.
Education Minister Hekia Parata has asked officials to look into what is behind the apparent trend and what can be done to address it.
One school principal has told the Herald that New Zealand-born children at his school spoke with American accents because they'd learned to speak watching the Disney Channel.  (NZ Herald, 15/9/16)

I recall having a student at the school I was at in 2011 starting school with an American accent despite having Kiwi parents and never having gone overseas.  And I have come across an ever increasing amount of children who struggle to speak a proper sentence, lack vocabulary or do not enounce words correctly.  And we all know, as teachers, that without solid oral language skills that children will struggle to learn to read, write and spell, and then there is a flow on to all other learning areas.

These are all reasons why I believe the early years of primary school should be play-based to get the best start in their primary school journey and onwards.  This is why I choose to attend this breakout led by three ULearn16 eFellows.

This is the abstract of the breakout on the ULearn16 website:

PART A: Promoting storytelling through the arts in an early childhood setting - Christine Alford
PART B: Play as learning in junior classrooms - Keryn Davis
PART C: Play is the way - Caroline Bush

PART A: Promoting storytelling through the arts in an early childhood setting - Christine Alford
In this presentation I will share the findings of my CORE Education eFellowship research investigating the use of storytelling for oral language development. My interest in this began when I studied the literature of Ann Pelo and attended the Opal School in Oregon, where their curriculum is firmly founded on the practice of storytelling.

The overall aim of this action research project was to increase oral language skills for children in my early childhood setting. More specifically I wanted to explore using the arts as a medium for storytelling. I began by looking at what children’s perceptions of storytelling were, asking them: Where do stories live? This began my journey of surprises, leading me to rethink the many assumptions I held about how children viewed and perceived stories. Using a qualitative approach I collected data by recording the stories of children and their whānau, through observations, conversations and written reflections.
The findings of this project - which are in progress - will show that children’s understanding of storytelling is very different to what the adults within our setting predicted; how unpacking these understandings took time, yet were the necessary first steps in the process of supporting children to freely share their stories through the arts.
Those attending this session will be challenged to rethink and unpack their own understandings of what stories are. They will gain strategies for developing a storytelling culture which supports all children to share their stories in a manner which fosters and enhances oral language skills.

PART B: Play as learning in junior classrooms - Keryn Davis
his presentation shares the findings of a research project undertaken by a team of new entrant teachers and a researcher as they re-designed the experience of school for new-entrant and Y1 children at Mairehau Primary School in Christchurch. The teachers were interested in how they might provide greater continuity for children transitioning from ECE to school by making changes to the physical environment, the pedagogy, and what learning is valued (and how this learning happens) for children in their first years of school.

The project builds on research undertaken in ECE and school settings in New Zealand on children’s working theories, learning dispositions and key competencies, and transitions from ECE to school. The project also draws on connections to research and literature from similar projects in other parts of the world such as Northern Ireland and Scotland.
The research was framed around the following questions:
  • How might teachers design curriculum (and environments) that support learning outcomes described in the New Zealand Curriculum that also: Supports children’s transitions from ECE to school?
  • Responds to young children’s interests and motivations?
  • What teaching pedagogies encourage children’s thinking, creativity and inquiry in new-entrant classrooms?
By building on from the children’s previous ECE experiences the teachers transformed their pedagogy and in re-making the curriculum found ways to embrace play as learning. The discussion around the findings includes how this new approach fostered agency, engagement and belonging, and creative child-led inquiry and projects, in surprising ways.

PART C: Play is the way - Caroline Bush
My ongoing eFellowship project is exploring ways to better understand the oral language of migrant New Entrant learners. I am investigating play based learning ideas which are inclusive and supportive to our learners whose first language is Chinese. This is to see if making some changes in practice would help the learners to improve their spoken English.
For this research I am interviewing and carrying out conversations and observations with: Parents, Teachers, the Senior Leadership Team and the learners. I am exploring teacher beliefs and their effects on practice and student achievement.
The emerging findings are showing a 2 year + improvement in acquisition of Oral Language, an increased level of concentration and engagement from the learners and a deeper understanding on the part of the teachers as to what constitutes learning.

Below is my Storify of the tweets and photos I, and others, did during this presentation.

Sadly, Storify has deleted itself from the Social Media scene, so all my Storify stories have gone.  😭😭😭😭😭

Some big take-aways for me from this breakout were:
  • how play-based learning strengthened relationships between the teachers and the students.  It enabled the students to develop trust in their teachers.
  • the teachers became better listeners.
  • how play-based learning enabled students to lead the learning and the direction the learning went in, making it truly meaningful and authentic for the children themselves.  It keeps the spark of learning alive in them, when school often extinguishes it due to rigidity.
  • issues from the local environment, such as ants in the class, became a focus for meaningful inquiry and gave authenticity too.
  • because of strengthened relationships and trust between the students and teachers, students were able to express themselves, often disclosing some very private stories (such as the little girl talking about her baby brother dying).  Children used their storytelling to make sense of the world around them and their experiences.
  • children had permission to leave if the learning did not interest them, they were not engaged in the activity.  Caro found that they often came back when they were ready to do that learning and it stuck better.  Children learn when they are engaged.
  • oral language skills increased 18 months on average.  Despite the school age children being below the standard for reading, writing and maths, they progressed faster in later year groups due to improved oral language mastery.
  • children had a lot of stories to tell and were very imaginative in their play and curious about the world around them.
  • they ditched topic and inquiry learning for play... the inquiry reinvented itself organically from the play.
  • the day started with play, and more formal activities for literacy and numeracy (still play-based) did not happen until after morning tea.  Stories were still written, just not in the traditional sense.
  • they cherry picked the best from the traditional class that would fit in with play-based learning.
  • Caro found she had to shut up and let the children lead, not force the literacy and numeracy into the play and learning.
  • Caro changed her mindset and starting asking the children what they were learning and how they were learning it.
  • Caro learned they were more interested in getting the blocks out at reading time than reading... but they soon drifted over to read a book that interested them, even if it was above their reading ability.
  • Caro said they did report on the National Standards, their children were all below, but the parents were more engaged with the learning narratives that gave more information about their children's learning.  This was part of the development of the culture of their school.  They were not worried that the Ministry may take action in their school as a result as they had data from their students showing the effectiveness in student outcomes of their approach and a majority of their students were ESOL.  They had the data to show improved oral language outcomes.
  • Keryn said the school she worked in expected a drop in outcomes for the National Standards, but were surprised to find, for the first time, everyone was at or above the Standard.
  • students learn a lot of soft skills such as team work, communication, problem solving and taking the initiative that they may not learn doing bookwork or solo projects.

Let's just say that at the end of this breakout, I had my thoughts on play-based learning validated.

Some further reading that you may want to consider includes:

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