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Focusing on the Interactions that Matter Most Across Content Areas

28 Jun 2021 by Allie Kallmann

InterAct is Teachstone’s practitioner-focused summit. We’ll be highlighting key sessions from Spring 2021 in the coming weeks.
The breezy spring we had this year might just be our collective sigh of relief. With vaccination rates rising and COVID case rates falling, the education community has turned its attention to re-opening. Alongside that opportunity comes the challenge of making up for lost time. While children are resilient and have learned plenty of academic and non-academic skills in the past year, it’s also true that the early years are uniquely important for brain development and setting the stage for later learning.

How, then, to make sure all children are receiving great instruction? And will that instruction come at the expense of already-dwindling play opportunities in early childhood? Let out that other deep breath you’re holding - play and instruction can coexist. In fact, they’re both critical parts of developmentally appropriate practice. As the National Association for the Education of Young Children puts it: “Educators who engage in developmentally appropriate practice foster young children’s joyful learning and maximize the opportunities for each and every child to achieve their full potential.”

We know that’s easier said than done. That’s why at this spring’s InterAct summit, Teachstone brought together Dr. Bridget Hamre (Teachstone), Dr. Sonia Cabell (Florida State University), and Dr. Darryl Greenfield (University of Miami) to share their perspectives and suggestions on the seeming disconnect between rigor and play, the connections across content areas, and supporting preschool educators’ professional development. Here are some of the highlights.

It’s not either-or.

Educators have dozens of often-conflicting demands placed upon them across the day. Focus on literacy, but don’t forget about math. Make sure the classroom stays clean, but let children make messes. Follow children’s lead, but don’t forget to indicate the state standards on your lesson plan. Use the curriculum, but don’t sound scripted. Use academic language, but make it accessible to children from a variety of backgrounds.

At its worst, these requirements can result in a series of teacher-led, 20-minute focus blocks that are not fun, engaging, or meaningful to students. However, at its best, having curriculum, standards, and research-backed practices can contribute to an appropriately challenging, playful learning experience that also pays off in student outcomes. That’s what savvy teachers learn to do and exactly what our experts recommend. When asked to identify what they look for in a classroom that’s doing an amazing job, both Dr. Cabell, who focused on language and literacy, and Dr. Greenfield, who focused on math and science, shared similar things: multi-turn conversations on a specific topic, supporting children’s inquiry, incorporating ideas that are meaningful to children, asking questions, adding information and clarification to help children more deeply understand, using different materials to reinforce key concepts, using specific language around a topic, and other overlapping ideas.

The experts also pointed out that there don’t need to be tradeoffs between play and explicit instruction. Teachers who are well-informed about the learning goals can make intentional plans to meet them. In an example shared by Dr. Greenfield, understanding the concept of sinking and floating can be done through open-ended exploration in the water table. But if the teacher wants students to understand that the type of material affects whether an item sinks or floats, they might guide children’s learning by only putting out the same kind of object (e.g., spoons) made of different materials (plastic, metal, rubber, wood) and comment on children’s exploration. Or, it could take the more intensive form that we think of as “science”: a structured experiment, organized and facilitated by the teacher, that asks children to formally predict, observe, and document what happens. Play wasn’t sacrificed to get to content - play enhanced children’s understanding.

It’s yes-and.

“Doing it all” is different from “doing each thing on its own.” Dr. Cabell called out the perception of reading and literacy as the “curriculum bully,” because early elementary schools’ focus on assessing these areas means that, even in preschool, other topics can get pushed to the side to devote additional time to the topics that get measured. But in fact, building knowledge is inherently related to building language and literacy skills, and instructional dialogue is critical to content understanding.

Think back to the sink and float example. In this science activity, teachers might intentionally plan to use new vocabulary, model writing in their observations, give opportunities to practice printing, emphasize different sounds within words and how they relate to printed letters, ask open-ended questions about sinking and floating, and have back-and-forth conversations around the topic. All of those actions support children’s science learning, but they also support children’s language and literacy learning. Additionally, Dr. Cabell reminded educators that when children are building knowledge, regardless of the kind, they are building up a basis for later reading comprehension. With intentional planning, teachers can better meet curriculum goals through activities that cut across content areas.

It’s just as important to plan for learning to be fun, engaging, and relevant. Dr. Greenfield suggests that programs capitalize on children’s current interests and local context: what do children ask about already, what ideas do they share from their home lives and culture, and how can it relate to concepts you want to teach? When educators incorporate children’s ideas and interests, their family life and culture, and the context of children’s daily life and surroundings, they’re able to cover ground more efficiently, more deeply, and more authentically.

Teachers want and need support.

Clearly, opportunities to provide great instruction are abundant. Early childhood classrooms - and young children themselves - are filled with nearly endless chances for inquiry and learning. But how do teachers learn to identify which kind of learning opportunities to use and which content areas to address, when the variety makes it both exciting and intimidating? Job-embedded professional development can make a difference. Our experts all emphasized that meaningful professional development isn’t going to happen in one-off learning experiences. Instead, just as for their students, educators’ learning should be engaging and meaningful. In professional development, that can look like coaches using classroom video to help educators see teaching practice, or practicing with materials straight from the classroom to help teachers plan to use them effectively, or building targeted questions into planned lessons and learning opportunities. Dr. Greenfield identified a cycle of knowledge-building, knowledge-to-practice, and reflection as critical components of teacher support that really makes a difference.

This kind of coaching may be different from the workshops and single-day training sessions that teachers and professional development providers are used to. But the differences in its intensity, its ongoing nature, and its teacher-driven focus on practices are what make it impactful. After all, as Dr. Greenfield pointed out, the types of professionals who have coaches, such as athletes or singers, are the ones who excel in their field. Research shows that seeing teaching transforms teaching - when you get better at seeing, you get better at doing. Those improvements translate into better learning outcomes for children, and, importantly, better early childhood experiences.

Are you looking for job-embedded professional development that is backed by research? Take a look at Teachstone’s offerings.