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Good learning environment
A still from Beverly Falk’s film “Walking Alongside the Learner: Curriculum in Yvonne’s Pre-K Classroom.”

A recent explosion of research from the neurobiological, behavioral, and social sciences has illuminated new knowledge about how children learn.

Research from neuroscience now confirms that the first years of life are critical for developing the architecture of the brain and future capacities to learn.

These understandings have led policymakers to recognize the importance of the early years and to call for investments in “high quality early learning.” But what does “high quality early learning” mean? And what does it actually look like in practice?

Related: The state of American preschool, in six parts

One prerequisite to high quality early learning is the need for children and their families to have access to the basic necessities of life — homes, jobs, healthcare, nutrition, and safety. The natural human drive to learn cannot flourish when children are hungry, tired, sick, or living in unsafe, chaotic, unstable conditions. Social safety nets need to be in place in our society to ensure that all children and their families receive these basic rights.

Support for the development of the whole child – physical, social, emotional, as well as cognitive – is a central tenet of high quality learning. Evidence from brain research now confirms long-standing theories of human development: That all aspects of humans are involved in the learning process; that the social/emotional aspect of life is integrally connected to cognitive functioning.

Abilities to learn are enhanced when children experience warm, caring, reciprocal relationships, when they can trust those who care for them, when their needs are heard and responded to, when their feelings of self-efficacy and self-esteem are nurtured, when they are supported to develop skills of self-regulation and perseverance along with the ability to understand and empathize with others’ perspectives.

Related: The state of American preschool, in six parts

High quality learning environments intertwine supports for these elements of growth along with supports for cognitive/academic work.

“Support for high quality learning cannot be achieved without educators who are responsive and respectful to children’s diverse backgrounds.”

Teaching the way children learn – through active experiences with materials and relationships and through multiple modalities– is a central tenet of a high quality learning environment. This important aspect of learning, once only theorized about, also now is supported by brain research.

Brain imaging actually demonstrates how neural connections are constructed through experience and how, for different kinds of learners, these connections take place in different areas of the brain.

Related: Is universal preschool the answer? Britain says ‘yes’

Optimal learning is realized when young learners are offered opportunities for varied and active experiences as they acquire new knowledge, skills, and understandings.

Support for high quality learning cannot be achieved without educators who are responsive and respectful to children’s diverse backgrounds. This requires educators to be knowledgeable about children’s diverse cultures, languages, family structures, and socioeconomic circumstances. It involves engaging families and communities as both resources and partners in the learning enterprise.

Optimal learning takes place when caregivers and educators understand general patterns of development as well as the fact that variation – in learners’ strengths, styles, and paces — is not a problem but rather a norm. High quality learning takes place when educators are able to provide opportunities for different kinds of learners to learn and be supported in their unique learning journeys.

Related: What do preschool teachers need to do a better job?

To support the unique journey of each learner, educators need to use assessments (observations and work samples viewed in reference to continua of development) to inform their understandings of the needs, interests, understandings, and strengths of the children they serve.

This means closely observing what children know and can do, where their curiosity leads them, how they make sense of what they are learning, and what feelings they express while doing so. Neuroscientists call this serve and return – a process of observing and responding between child and adult.

Related: Hillary Clinton’s preschool revolution?

The late psychologist Jerome Bruner described it as a “meeting of the minds” between an adult and a child that helps young learners experience their own agency, and offers them deeper, more engaging, more nuanced ways of knowing the world and themselves. The late educator Lillian Weber referred to it as “joining with the learner.”  And my colleague Yvonne Smith, a 40 plus year veteran teacher in New York City schools, refers to it as “walking alongside the learner.” For Smith, it means making sure her teaching is informed and shaped by input from her learners — meeting learners where they are and guiding them from there to help move them forward.

The past several decades of research on learning leave no doubt that children’s educational environments need to be caring and provide lots of opportunities for active, exploratory, child-initiated experiences responsive to children’s learning styles, interests, backgrounds, and needs. This same research also reveals that if children are nurtured in these ways, they develop greater language skills, better social skills, more empathy, more imagination, more self-control, and higher levels of thinking than those who have not had such opportunities.

Meryl Feigenberg and I have just produced a new video called “Walking Alongside the Learner:  Curriculum in Yvonne’s PreK Classroom.” In it, Smith explains how she supports young children to be thinkers and questioners through active experiences, interdisciplinary connections, and responsiveness to children’s diverse backgrounds, interests, and abilities. The video premiered earlier this week and be viewed here.

Beverly Falk, Ed.D., is professor and director of Graduate Programs in Early Childhood Education, City College of New York.

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