Here we are at the start of September, the start of the English academic year. “You only have three days left at Nursery,” I overheard a mum say last weekend, “and then you’ll be at big school.” Perhaps that deserves capitals and I should have put Big School: the large institution, the institution for people who are grown up enough. In common parlance it means Primary School, and for most children hearing that term it will mean the Reception Class in that school. If they are lucky – and it shouldn’t be a matter of luck – those four or a year five year olds will experience a curriculum in which the demands of year one impinge but do not dominate. The experience of Big School will reflect previous Foundation Stage learning, but may also have elements of adult-framed learning (including socialisation) that will continue for many years.

Many years? Well, this weekend sees the (COVID-delayed) doctoral degree ceremony for my friend and mentor Julie Fisher. I am pretty sure she will be remembered in the history of education for the book Starting from the Child, which lays out principles for learning and teaching the the early years which have been adopted by so many. The book I am turning to, however, is her illuminating celebration on the Oxfordshire Adult-Child Interaction Project, Interacting or Interfering. In it she makes an impassioned plea for communication skills to be seen as the heart of good early years practice. She explains that interactions need to matter to practitioners as they:

  • Build warm relationships
  • Get to know and understand children better
  • Model language
  • Model thinking
  • Scaffold, affirm and consolidate children’s learning
  • Extend children’s knowledge and understanding.

This is the heart of the research findings and at the heart of what one might expect to see the adults engaged in whatever kind of setting you visit, but I find myself pondering, as I revisit this book to start my year teaching in Higher Education (and my work as a governor at a local school), how far these criterai can be applied outside the precious time of the Foundation Stage. In other words, when I read the chapter Questions that Work and Questions that Don’t, how can I challenge myself about questions and discussion in the classroom in which I am working with those whose course will take them into practice in the early years.

How do we build relationships with students from their first days in University? How do we model rather than correct language and thinking, so as to consolidate learning rather than prepare for assignments?

One of the problems is that of the position of the lecturer; the very word carries with it a history of teacher-as-expert, something that can both open up effective thinking about a topic and close it down. Guess what’s in my head is something that can feel unavoidable when the tutor has read the texts, been in the practice of an early years classroom, taught this before. Questions can be what Julie Fisher (and others) categorise as “known questions.” The challenge her take-down of pointless questioning is answered as she discusses listening to children’s answers.

Considering how many questions educators ask, one would think they would be very practiced at listening to answers. Bt research has shown that the hardest thing for someone asking a question to do is to listen to the answer they receive. It seems to be particularly difficult for educators, who all too often ask a question with the answer they want to hear already in their mind. This closes them to the range of possible answers they might hear, or stops them from receiving an unexpected answer with interest…

Fisher, Interacting or Interfering? p153

I think the key here is interest. If we look at the Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage in England, the four Overarching Principles seem clearly to me to point to a relationship, and I cannot conceive of a genuine relationship in which an Early Years practitioner values a child as

  • Unique;
  • Learning to be strong through positive relationships;
  • In enabling environments with support from adults;
  • Allowed/supported to develop at an appropriate rate [My precis],

without a genuine interest in what the child is thinking. Did you like that book? How can we make sure that tower doesn’t fall over? “in response to their fascinations” is how Development Matters puts it.

Let’s move then from what one Secretary of State patronisingly called the happy chaos of sandpit and water tray to the business of Higher Education. It must be more important, more cerebral, less involved with experimentation and more with doing the work and understanding it, right?

Clearly this isn’t a question, and the answer I expect is obvious. I think the Foundation Stage practitioner and the university tutor (and workplace managers and coworkers, I think) can step up to their role with the list Julie Fisher proposes (excerpted here, with learner’s substituting for child’s: read the book if you want to go further into this!). Here she asks that the practitioner:

  • Shows a desire to get to know the [learner] better…
  • Is attentive both physically and mentally;
  • Is respectful of and responsive to the [learner’s] ideas and opinions;
  • Takes a pleasurable interest in the [learner’s] thinking and ideas;
  • Is sensitive to the [learner’s] level of interest and involvement.
Pedestrian gate through shadows into brightly lit field
Gateway to Raleigh Park

I really want to sell the undergraduate project, the work they will be involved in for the next three or more years, to this year’s cohort of entrants – but I wonder if the repair to the teaching and learning contract is yet in place. How can we teach in response to the “fascinations” of Early Years, when part of our job is to talk deadlines and reading lists, and for some students the need to complete the school/college based requirements has dominated their previous learning? And when we think, not of the day-to-day negotiation of the lecturer/student relationship, but of the first few weeks, that first gateway of hope, a second of bewilderment, a third of socialisation, leaving home, attachments, and in here where is the lecturer (not to mention pastoral staff) in this?

This view crystallises for me the walk I took when I was pondering leaving my post as Programme Lead in the Oxford Brookes School of Education. I walked down through Raleigh Park to catch the bus on Westminster Way. In that respect it felt like an ending – but an ending that was also a beginning.

Our graduands for Saturday are beginning something new. To change the metaphor from gate to building (in line with the Foundaion Stage), what we have given the undergraduate students is simply a foundation. And as Julie encouragingly writes in another of her books:

Foundations take longer to create than buildings… The higher the building , the firmer the foundations have to be.

Julie Fisher (ed) Foundations of Learning

Patience. Attentiveness. Professional judgement. I hope this is what we have given our students leaving Brookes; I hope this what we can offer those joining us at the end of this month. But it is hope? No: this is what I plan to do, not some vague hope.

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