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Why Learning Dispositions Matter

Tanya Valentin Professional Early Childhood Education Services

In my experience as a SELO provider and a facilitator for teacher professional development I work closely with centres on their assessment, documentation and planning. More often than not I have noticed that teachers seem to focus exclusively on the interests of the child when identifying the learning that has been happening in the learning story.

I have often asked why? Knowing the interests of the child is an important aspect of curriculum design. Could this be because interests are easy to see and easy to plan for?

However, when we focus all our attention on interests this is only half the picture and we only scrape on the surface of what is really happening and it can be misguiding.

Let me give you an example: Tui is a teacher in the toddler’s room. She has noticed Aria at the puzzle table diligently trying to place the puzzle pieces into the frame. Aria spends most of the morning doing this and finally after lots of concentration and effort she manages to place all the pieces of the puzzle into their correct place. She looks up at Tui and gives her a big grin – proud that all her hard work has paid off.

Now Tui could look at this situation and think Aria is interested in puzzles and she would probably be right, Aria is probably interested in puzzles. However, if Tui just documents the interest she might only end up with a singular learning story about Aria’s interest in puzzles.

If Tui chose to dig a bit deeper into the learning that is happening for Aria. If she chose to consider Aria’s dispositions for learning, she would notice that there something more complex afoot. If Tui noticed Aria’s persistence and determination while at the puzzle table, she might be aware of her inclination to this learning disposition in other interest areas.

Suddenly a singular story about and interest in puzzles becomes the starting point for a learning journey about Aria’s persistence, resilience, determination and perseverance. Very soon a learning thread emerges about who Aria is as a learner.

What are learning dispositions?

The object of assessment and documentation is to inform planning and curriculum design.

Assessment are the foundation for planning the curriculum. Documentation and assessment have little value unless they directly inform the curriculum.

Anne Stonehouse


Another function of assessment and documentation is help children to understand who they are as a learner and a thinker. Interests alone don’t really do this accurately. If we are wanting positively influence children’s identity as capable and competent lifelong learners, then we need to take a closer look at their learning dispositions.

By the time this [early childhood] period is over, children will have formed conceptions of themselves as social beings, as thinkers, and as language learners, and they will have reached certain important decisions about their own abilities and their own worth.

Kei Tua ote Pae Booklet 10

Te Whāriki talks about dispositions as “habits of the mind”. We can think of them as our inclination to think, act and to behave in a certain way and this shapes who we are as a person and a learner.

Some dispositions you might have come across are: Courage, Kindness, Playfulness, Creativity, Curiosity, Perseverance, Shyness, Collaboration, Adventurous, Resilience, Flexible, Assertive, Brave, Optimistic, Methodical.

How are dispositions formed?

We are born with some of these dispositions. You might have inherited the shy gene from one of your parents or you might be naturally curious or adventurous, or perhaps you might be more cautious and observant.

Other dispositions we learn through experiences with the environment and people around us.  Children especially in the first three years of life are programmed to be data gatherers. They gather evidence through their interactions with the environment and the significant people in their lives as to what dispositions are valued and those that we don’t value. 

Think about yourselves for a moment:  What are some of your dispositions? How has your experiences and environment shaped you as a person, as a teacher, as a learner as a thinker?

What dispositions where valued by your parents, your teachers, your peers, your culture or perhaps the media?

Dispositions are environmentally sensitive and can be weakened or strengthened by the interactive experiences of educators and teachers. It is critical in the early years to support children’s positive learning dispositions to enhance their overall motivation and engagement as capable learners with unique strengths

Dispositions are not fixed traits, rather responsive to and developed by the experiences and the people around us. They are lifelong learning capabilities that require nurturing.

Kelly Goodsir

How can we spot dispositions and how can we plan for them?

You can spot dispositions by how children approach learning and through their interactions with others around them.  Dispositions can’t be taught through a structured learning experience or at specific places or time. 

Reflect here about your own learning. Under which circumstances did you do the most learning about who you were as a person and what you are capable of?

For young children, play is the best way to foster and nurture dispositional learning.  Play is interactive and complex learning and allows children to integrate and to test out their dispositions across all learning contexts. Another way is when we allow children to be part of authentic real life experiences – when they are part of a culture or a community.

When we are communicating with parents about their children’s learning it is important that we highlight how and why dispositions are important for their children’s learning and how critical this is to their success as a human being.

When planning for dispositions, I believe the best way to foster this is through complex experiences. Think about the dispositions listed below; what experiences could you plan in order to nurture a child’s inclination towards:

Responsibility

Collaboration

Leadership

Persistence

Enrich the experience by using empowering language when talking to children or about your children’s learning.

Guiding questions

When we plan we should be guided by:

Is the child ready? Is it developmentally appropriate?

Are they willing? Do they want to do it? Is this demonstrated by the sensitivity to the occasion ?

Are they able? Do they have the knowledge and skills?

Remember we can encourage and make the experience available, but this type of learning can’t be a forced. If we force our intentions on children this just causes stress and stress hampers learning.

Perhaps after reading this you might feel inspired to take a closer look at some of the dispositions for learning that you might notice in your setting.

I have included a free resource to get you started.

Click here inorder to download a free dispositions resource.

TIP: print this off and keep it next to your computer for a quick reference when writing your learning stories.

I would love to here how this went for you.

Until next time…

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Unpacking the learning – Carpentry in Early Childhood Education

I recently had the privilege of observing two children playing at the carpentry table.  The two boys (around the age of three and four) had been working side by side, when one of the boys wandered over to where a piece of wood had been fixed onto a small bench with a vice.  He started to saw the wood but was battling because the bench was wobbling.  His friend who was still at the carpentry table seeing his struggle went over and sat down on the bench to steady it.

Not many words were exchanged between the two but the manaakitanga between them was so touching to observe, that it made an instant impression on me.  When the boy with the saw tired of his efforts, his friend swapped roles with him, having a turn to saw the wood while the other boy steadied the bench. They worked together like this for some time reversing roles and sharing the workload with each other, until they got distracted by another friend and ran off to play robots.

Unpacking the learning

As the observer I was really touched by this powerful learning experience.   I could have so easily intervened, and the magic would have been lost.

In unpacking some of this learning I have interwoven some of the principles, strands and goals of Te Whāriki , MoE 2017 as well as dispositions for learning.  I have also made links to Te Ao Māori learning concepts found in Te Whatu Pōkeka, MoE 2009 and Tataiako, MoE 2017.

Firstly, these two children did not need my help at all.  They did not need to me to mitigate risk, to extend their play nor to provide a mediator for social competence.

It was all part of Ngā āhuatanga o te tamaiti – their way of being (I contribute my own ideas and participate, I can take responsibility for myself, people and things.)

They were empowered, capable, confident and the experts in the moment, learning how children learn best through play. This was such rich learning which encompassed many learning dispositions and holistic learning.

In an empowering environment, children have an agency to create and act on their own ideas, develop knowledge and skills in areas that interest them and, increasingly, to make decisions and judgements on matters that relate to them. (Te Whāriki, MoE 2017)

I was immediately struck by the confidence and the mana with which the children approached the experience. They had a plan that  they knew how they were going to implement .

The kindergarten that I was working at has a philosophy based in a strong sense of Whakamana (seeing children as competent and able.)  Kaiako encourage tamariki to take calculated risks and the children are trusted in their own abilities to use the carpentry tools safely.   The boys returned the trust shown by the teachers in their abilities, by making responsible choices and managing themselves. This is a wonderful example of Tangata Mauri (knowing the rules of the kindergarten and being trusted to make decisions.)  This also links strongly to the well-being and belonging strands of Te Whāriki .  (Well-being goal 3 – keeping themselves and others safe from harm and Belonging goal 4 – knowing the limits and boundaries of acceptable behaviour.)

There was a lot of turn taking, give and take. and both children shared responsibility for helping and taking care of each other.  The kindness they showed each other and camaraderie of accomplishing a shared tasks helps to forge a friendship and fostered a feeling of connectedness and belonging.  This is at its core, Ako (I am confident to share my ideas with and learn from others.) This also links to the contribution strand of  Te Whāriki – (Contribution goal 3 -Children are encouraged to learn and work alongside others.)

During this process the children where developing working theories about the physical and material world and problem-solving skills. As well as experiencing ways to become confident with their bodies and developing their fine and gross motor skills (Exploration goals 2,3,4).  This experience helped to develop persistence, perseverance and resilience which relates to Hinengaro – (I think and know, I can think in abstract ways) and Taha Tinana – (I challenge myself physically.)

Getting past the barriers

I know for some teachers and parents the carpentry table is a bit of a pain point.  Parents feel wary around the risk of allowing young children to play with real tools such as hammers, nails, saws and drills.  Teachers sometimes struggle with articulating how the benefits outweigh the risks to parents.

It is often a bone of contention for teachers, because someone must supervise the carpentry and the outdoor area. It can become a power struggle of reinforcing safety “rules” and asking children to “bring that back to the carpentry table”.

Often, we are unsure of carpentry ourselves as it is not something that we grew up with or were encouraged to play with as a child.  There can be different cultural barriers for teachers and whanau.  It is often an area of the curriculum that we dump in the “too hard” basket.

However, as you can see, this one experience of carpentry encompasses so many strands of the Early Childhood Curriculum.  In fact, if loose parts play is defined as “materials that can be moved, redesigned, put together and taken apart in a variety of ways” then carpentry is loose parts play at its core. It is the very essence of a holistic learning experience.

Because children develop holistically, they need a broad and rich curriculum that enables them to grow their capabilities across all dimensions…A holistic approach sees the child as a person who wants to learn, the task as a meaningful whole greater than the sum of its parts. Te Whāriki, MoE 2017.

How can we improve the carpentry experience we offer at our ECE settings?

Some of the ways that you can improve the carpentry experience for the tamariki in your place are:

  • Get comfortable and excited about carpentry yourself.  Research carpentry PD in your community, attend a free workshop at your local hardware store, watch Youtube videos.  Building stuff with your hands is fun!  Your attitude to the experience is key.
  • Create ground rules with your tamariki, get them to come up with responsible choices at the carpentry table.  Use mat times and group times to go over this with everyone.  Get buy-in from the children, if they help to make the rules they will be your allies in reminding each other about making good choices.
  • Review your carpentry area, do you have a range of quality, child sized tools in good working order?  You don’t need to get everything right now, make a list prioritise and get a few things each month.
  • Have a variety of untreated pieces of wood in different shapes and sizes available for tamariki to use creatively.
  • Provide a wide range of loose parts and “junk items” to fuel the imagination, invention, allow open ended play and problem solving.
  • Provide occupational, safety gear in your carpentry area.  Hardhats, gloves, safety goggles, ear-muffs and high-viz vests are great for provoking creative play as well as discussions about how to keep ourselves safe and making responsible choices.
  • Don’t forget, carpentry is a great way to provide meaningful literacy and numeracy opportunities through play.  Stock your carpentry area with tape measures, builder’s pencils, clipboards, paper, blueprints, plans and books on architecture, building and engineering.

The wider the range of possibilities we offer children, the more intense will be their motivations and the richer their experience – Loris Malaguzzi

Happy building!

Arohanui

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Use the promo code  WOOD20 for a sweet discount.

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