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What are the 4 essentials of early pedagogy?

…and some examples from the classroom.

Early and foundational learning in India is about to undergo a sea change. This is thanks to the recently-released National Curriculum Framework for the Foundational Stage, which emphasises on a no-textbook, play-based and activity-centred approach to learning in the early years. Over the next few years, teachers will have to rapidly adapt to the requirements of this new curriculum framework, doing away with textbook-based learning completely and focusing on ensuring that all children meet learning outcomes through real experiences and hands-on practice.

A few schools have now begun to use our no-textbook early learning curriculum, and through our work with teachers in these schools – observing classrooms and conducting teacher professional development sessions – we have distilled our learnings into a list of 4 essentials of early pedagogy. We believe that these 4 principles should be the main focus of trainings and upskilling workshops over the next few years. Here, we explain each principle along with examples.


Facilitating multi-sensory learning

When we first encounter information, it enters our mind through our sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin) and then passes into our working memory. Our working memory is where information is actively processed, but working memory can hold very little information at a time, and only for a small amount of time. If we process that information and make connections with previous knowledge, it passes into our long-term memory. Learning is the forming of connections and memories in our long-term memory.

There is ample research that tells us that the more senses we use, the easier it is for our working memory to hold information within it, and the stronger the connections in our long-term memory become.

In the early years, children have very limited working memory capacity, which makes it very difficult for them to hold information in their minds for more than a few seconds. At the same time, they can form rapid connections in their brains and learn deeply, given the right experiences.

The following is a learning outcome in Pre-K: Expresses using the position concept of ‘behind’. How do we make a language learning outcome multi-sensory?

We start by ensuring that we are engaging at least 3 senses. We warm up children with a game in which each student has a ball and must place it behind the object that the teacher calls out: Sahil, place your ball BEHIND the desk. Neha, place your ball BEHIND the toy box. Here, children are using their sense of hearing, sight and touch. Next, children give each other similar instructions (instead of the teacher doing so) and continue the game. Finally, they may be asked to draw a picture in which they are standing BEHIND their favourite person. Here, children are using their sense of touch and sight, while also being imaginative.

In the following picture from a school implementing the unboxED Early Learning Curriculum, Pre-K children are learning position concepts of on, off, in front of and behind by running an obstacle course and calling out their positions.

Holding student-centric conversations

Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham says, “Memory is the residue of thought.” Simply put, this means that the more we think about something, the more deeply it gets stored in our long-term memory. Think back to one of your favourite subjects in school or college. If you enjoyed the subject, you probably studied it thoroughly and performed well in exams. Yet, today you may struggle to remember even basics of that subject, if it isn’t an area you continued to study and work in. You stopped thinking about your favourite subject, and so you can’t remember much about it.

Memory is the residue of thought – and this is true for people of all ages. In the early years, children have a very short attention span. If we want them to think about something, we must give them ample opportunity to talk about it. A thumb-rule teachers can follow is this: teachers must talk 10% of the time, and children must talk 90% of the time in the classroom.

The following is a learning outcome in LKG: Uses the term 'greater than' using concrete objects up to 5. How do we ensure that children get ample opportunities to talk about a Maths concept?

We start by having all children say the numbers 1 to 5, and this is repeated a few times. Next, they count from 1 to 5 on their fingers – holding up a finger one at a time and counting out loud. The children must lead the counting with the teacher’s support in both these mini activities – the teacher must not be the one saying the numbers out loud alone, while children watch her; instead, the children must be the loudest, with the teacher being the softest and observing who is able to do the activities correctly.

Next, the teacher revises the ‘crocodile mouth’ and explains that the crocodile always turns towards the number that is greater than. Each student get a ‘crocodile mouth’ cut-out, and each child gets plenty of chances to point the mouth towards a number that is greater than.

Finally, children get groups of objects that they have to count, say the number out loud, and then point the ‘crocodile mouth’ towards it, explaining that it will eat that group because it is greater than the other group. Throughout this, the teacher prompts, listens and observes, while the children do the talking.


Making connections to existing knowledge and real life

Connecting learnings in the classroom to existing knowledge and the real world helps make the connections in our long-term memory stronger and helps children develop higher-order thinking skills by focusing on how concepts can be applied to different situations.

In the early years, teachers have to make a conscious effort to make these connections. This can be done by directly telling children about these connections and then asking them questions to help them make these connections.

In the previous points, we focused on two learning outcomes. How can we connect those concepts to children’s existing knowledge and real life?

Expresses using the position concept of ‘behind’. We can connect the concept of behind to children’s existing knowledge of other position concepts, like in front of. This we can do in many ways – like placing an object in front of another and asking if we placed it behind, by creating a game in which children have to follow instructions with in front of and behind, so that they understand that the two are opposites, and so on. We can connect the concept to their real life by asking them when they use this word at home (My brother was hiding behind the bed!) or where they have noticed the concept outside of school (We were stuck behind a big truck on the road.) This ensures that when students go back home, they can connect their learnings to their life and use the new concepts to communicate.

Uses the term 'greater than' using concrete objects up to 5. We can connect the concept of greater than to the words more and big, which they may have learnt before. We can also ask them questions about when they have behaved like the crocodile and eaten the bigger chocolate or tried to ride the bigger cycle. Just like the crocodile, we also turn to the group that is greater than the others. This can then connect nicely to a larger conversation about sharing and feelings.


Managing the classroom

While classroom management is usually considered separate from pedagogy, in the early years, it becomes an integral part of pedagogy. How the classroom is prepped, organised and managed plays an important role in how children learn in the early years. The reason for this goes back to children’s working memory – at that age, children are easily distracted and can hold limited information in their mind at a time. If a classroom is disorganised, if resources are not ready for activities, if structures and routines are not in place and if behaviour management is a problem, children will not have enough working memory space to process what they are to learn.

The following is a learning outcome in UKG: Describes at least 2 attributes about an object. A successful learning activity based on this outcome needs clear routines and ample prep in terms of resources and questions.

On the previous day, the teacher must prep a basket of familiar and unfamiliar objects that children can describe. She must keep in mind all the adjectives that children know and also ensure that the objects chosen elicit a good variety of adjectives from the children.

For the activity, students must sit in a circle. Right from the beginning of the year, the teacher must implement a routine for sitting in a circle, prompted by a song or clapping rhythm that tells children it’s time to sit in a circle. Children must also know where exactly to sit – based on pre-decided spots marked by stickers, or any other such structure. Such routines save precious minutes that children may otherwise spend arguing or wondering what to do, and they also free up children’s working memory to focus on the learning outcome instead.

The teacher must then have a routine in place to pass around the objects so that children do not fight over them, specific instructions ready to let children know what they must do, and clear expectations that each child will share their adjectives one at a time while others listen. Routines and structures free up working memory – a limited and valuable resource for early learners!


Useful Links:

  1. Memory is the residue of thought: Read the article by cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham explaining this concept.

  2. Preschool classroom management: Refer to this list of 11 proven classroom management tips for preschool teachers.


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