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…

Arohanui

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