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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Early Years Developmental Learning at Mount Evelyn Primary School

Phil Comport
Cathy Sanders
Phil Comport is Principal, and Cathy Sanders Vice-principal, at Mount Evelyn Primary School

Mount Evelyn Primary School (MEPS) has in recent years implemented a new approach to the early years curriculum, which emphasises the development of oral language skills as a foundation for the later development of literacy and social skills, and also increases teachers' ability to provide personalised learning opportunities for their students.

The school and its community

The school, based in Melbourne's outer east, currently supports learning for 400 students from 280 families. The great majority of students come from English-language backgrounds. Approximately 30% of families served by the school qualify for the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA).

The school occupies a position in the middle of the range of the State Government's Student Family Occupation (SFO) index, which measures the capacity of families to support children's learning. However, this measure does not indicate the degree of socioeconomic diversity among families served by the school.

The school's performance in the early years

Implementation of the Victorian Early Years Literacy Program had earlier brought significant gains in students' literacy skills. However, in 2003–04 staff identified several areas in which the school still needed to move forward.

First, Mt Evelyn's sound performance against early years benchmark data far exceeded its performance on AIM tests in Grades 3 and 5, generating concerns that while basic skill development in reading and writing was in place, the development of children's comprehension skills needed for later literacy and numeracy was less certain. A second concern was to increase the school's capacity to cater for an increasingly diverse range of entry knowledge, skills and behaviours among Prep students. The school was determined to have all students engaged in their learning. A third driver for change was the desire to enhance the children's skills with oral language in the early years. A range of early years learning literature provides a clear correlation between effective use of oral language and children's social skill development, which in turn supports their cognitive development.

Planning for reform

In 2005, school staff discussed these reflections extensively with a consultant highly regarded for her expertise in early years learning. The consultant and the Assistant Principal undertook focused reflection sessions with individual early years teachers and with the team as a whole. Classroom observation and visitation to each other's classrooms were key elements of a shared approach.

Initially, much time was invested in determining just what truly child-centred, open-ended learning and teaching looked like. We drew most significantly on two works related to the role of play in student learning (Walker 2005, 2007). However we also examined the seminal work of a range of highly regarded early years researchers and practitioners. They include Berk and Winsler (1995), who refer to Vygotsky's earlier advocacy of the importance of play in the early development of conceptual and social skills, memory, language, reasoning and imaginative inner speech; Dewey's writings regarding the importance of experiential education and the simultaneous learning of theory and practice; and Piaget's view that children pass through key developmental stages at different times, and learn in 'fits and starts'. We also drew on the descriptions provided by Mooney (2000) of the Montessori method, with its emphasis on self-directed learning and teacher observation; and of the Reggio Emilia method, which places importance on learning through doing, social relationships and open-ended opportunities for children to have a say in what and how they are learning.

The outcome of these discussions was the MEPS Developmental Learning model, a restructuring of early years learning at the school. The model was first trialed in 2006 as a form of action research. The program continued in the form of consecutive AGQTP projects undertaken in 2007 and 2008, and then as a DEECD research project in 2008–09.

The characteristics of the Developmental Learning model

The Developmental Learning model makes extensive use of play for learning. Oral language skills are promoted through socio-dramatic play, but play may also be imaginative, explorative, constructive and investigative; sometimes the emphasis is on the richness of sensory experience.

This play-based learning is clearly distinct, however, from play in the preschool setting. Expectations are more clearly articulated and the play is more purposeful and linked to learning objectives. In the Developmental Learning classroom the teacher is active in suggesting, prompting, guiding, scaffolding and providing clear directions if and when needed. The teacher ensures that learning is scaffolded; literacy and numeracy learning are integrated; children are observed and assessed; and active recording of progress takes place. Learning is integrated across the day, with skills sessions linked to investigations.

The model calls on teachers even at the Prep level, to encourage children to engage in purposeful conversation around their investigations, to negotiate, problem solve, share ideas and resources, and tutor one another. Even reluctant writers are encouraged to write. 

The physical space includes areas for socio-dramatic play, reading, writing and physical construction, as well as a 'sensory area'. These arrangements are designed to provide hands-on, creative and open-ended learning experiences; promote a sense of choice and belonging; and engage children in real and relevant life experiences. The learning environment is designed to allow the children to self-regulate and self-select activities, and for stimulating experiences to become extended projects over time.

Evaluation and feedback

Improvements in children's oral language skills were captured through an assessment tool selected for its strong capacity to measure children's use of oral language in their learning (further details are available in the research report). Formal analysis of results was undertaken by an experienced researcher.

Another form of evaluation was through teacher and parent judgements of student knowledge and skill acquisition. Teacher judgements were informed by a wide range of achievement tracking tools, in addition to developmental checklists and Prep entry assessments. Benchmark data has also been regularly analysed.

Results to date

The first group of students to have passed through their Prep–2 years under the Developmental Learning approach undertook Grade 3 NAPLAN tests in 2008 and the results are very positive indeed. The percentage of MEPS students achieving at or above the National Benchmark in Reading and Writing was very high. Year 3 Reading exceeded the State mean, which is very encouraging for a school in the mid-range of the State Government’s SFO index.

Reading Benchmark Data for Prep and Year 1 showed a lesser level of performance than prior to Developmental Learning, but this had fully recovered by the end of Level 2. The school's view is that this is to be expected if more learning time is invested in the social and emotional learning domains.

Some student reflections have included: 'You have lots of choice like stores, collage, projects and construction'; 'Investigations is just about having a go'; and 'You can use your imagination'.

MEPS teacher reflections have included: 'Developmental Curriculum has changed how I teach and given the children freedom to follow their interests'; 'As a teacher you can put on a different hat every session. One time you will be taking photos, another time scaffolding learning with individuals, or working with a small group'; and 'You get to know the individual students better, see kids achieving things you never expected and provide more targeted teaching'.

The following Prep parent reflection says a great deal. 'The Developmental Curriculum has provided a very positive start to my children's lifelong learning journey. They love going to school, they have certainly built great social and learning practices and I believe this program has delivered a very positive primary school experience for my children. As a parent of twins it can sometimes be difficult not to compare the abilities of each child to their sibling. The Developmental Curriculum has enabled both girls to develop individual strengths in learning, whilst enjoying great social interaction.'

Conclusion

The project team sought empirical evidence that the Developmental Curriculum approach was helping the students across a wide range of learning domains, including the social and emotional domains, without comprising the important focus upon literacy and numeracy. In particular, the school sought to find out whether or not oral language, as a critical precursor to literacy learning, was more developed in children undertaking a Developmental Learning approach. The research project report, a copy of which is soon to be available from the school website, clearly demonstrates great gains across these domains. Although early reading development occurred a little more slowly, by the end of year two the children were reaching expected benchmarks and many were exceeding these in numbers never before seen at the school.

There is a clear evidence base for a focus upon oral language as a 'first port of call' in the early years. In addition to its clear links to reading and writing development, oral language may hold the key to the development of appropriate social skills in young children. This, in turn, supports the establishment of the type of environment that other research shows is so important to the student's safety, security and connectedness to school, which may determine their future.

References

Berk, L. E. & Winsler, A. (1995) Scaffolding Children's Learning: Vygotsky and Early Childhood Education, National Association for the Education of Young Children, Washington DC.

Fullan, M. & Crevola, C. (2006). Breakthrough, Corwin Press, Canada.

Mooney, C. (2000) Theories of Childhood, Readleaf Press, St Paul, Minnesota.

Robinson, V. (2007) What Works and Why, ACEL Monograph Series, Sydney.

Walker, K. (2005) What's the Hurry? Reclaiming Childhood in an Overscheduled World, Australian Scholarships Group, Melbourne.

Walker, K. (2007) Play Matters, ACER Press, Melbourne.

KLA

Subject Headings

Educational evaluation
Educational planning
Play
Speech
Primary education
Literacy
Child development