Learning and Development

“Why are we so Afraid of Talking about Early Years Pedagogy?”

  • “Why are we so Afraid of Talking about Early Years Pedagogy?”

If we’re to be taken seriously, we must embrace the theory and practice of learning, says June O’Sullivan…

For a long time I’ve been troubled as to why the word ‘pedagogy’ is ignored or, worse still, sneered at by so many education policy-makers. This attitude has, I think, resulted in a widespread fear of using the term in teachers and staff across the wider sector.

It’s a sad state of affairs as pedagogy is the best word to describe education, and most importantly how it should look for our children and therefore how we deliver it.

In 1999, Iram Siraj‐Blatchford described early years practitioners as “recoiling” at the term pedagogy. An interesting paper presented by Stengel (2000) to the AGM of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education in Chicago concluded that part of the difficulty we have talking about it is that we haven’t developed a language for teaching that combines the ‘language of technique’ (what is effective) with the ‘language of manner’ (what is ethical, moral or caring).

In 2002, the Study of Pedagogical Effectiveness in Early Learning (SPEEL) led by Janet Moyles argued that the expectation that children should engage in metacognitive processes should equally apply to practitioners and she warned that “the inability to articulate their own practices may put a significant constraint upon effective pedagogical practices”.

In 2005, when Scotland was shaping its Learning and Teaching Plan, those responsible for the policy noted the need to tread cautiously if its plans to encourage practitioners to think about the theory and practice of learning and teaching were not to be rejected.

Today, 14 years later, talking about pedagogy still creates high levels of anxiety and a mixed response. Recently, at a meeting with leaders from across the early years sector, I was struck by their emotive rejection of the need to engage in a deeper conversation about the pedagogy of early years. I am, however, heartened that Ofsted has publicly declared the link between a clearly articulated pedagogy and better outcomes for children.

I have been using a distinctive social pedagogy as core to the delivery of the LEYF social enterprise for the past 10 years. I’ve shaped, researched, tested and amended it to ensure it is right for children.

What is good pedagogy?

Effective pedagogy is how adults lead children to learn. That means we must

  • have a clear set of principles about education,
  • agree a set of educational theories,
  • articulate our view of the child and their rights,
  • understand how children develop and learn,
  • understand the science of play, and
  • understand how to teach children.

Achieving the latter means doing a range of things: we must identify and support children’s interests, capabilities, experiences, learning styles and dispositions; build and nurture relationships with children, adults, parents and the community; create the right environment both indoors and outside; engage, intervene and partner children in the learning process; support children to understand and articulate how they learn and their personal learning tactics; differentiate the learning opportunities across all areas of the curriculum; apply supportive behaviour policies to help them become assertive and able to rationalise and talk through conflicts; develop the skills, knowledge and behaviour to become reflective and thoughtful teachers; lead and extend pedagogical conversations with other adults; and articulate shared educational aims with parents.

All these elements – and those others I cannot reference due to my tight word limit! – are both individual and interconnected. We need to be able to explain them in the context of pedagogy and therefore use the word as confidently as our European colleagues, where it is common parlance.

If we want to be taken seriously and properly valued for the work we do in early years, we need to articulate the art and science of teaching small children and wallow in our pedagogical confidence.


June O’Sullivan MBE is the CEO of the London Early Years Foundation. Visit June’s blog at leyf.org.uk/junes-blog or connect on Twitter @JuneOSullivan.

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