Teacher's Desk

Leverage 7 learning zones to boost children’s conceptual understanding

Imagine you enter a preschool or early primary setting, and find children at a water tray table actively pouring rose-coloured water from one container to another…

They have access to tubes, funnels, straws, and other containers of all sizes from thimbles to a 400ml measuring jug. The activity is fun and absorbing.

Now ask yourself why it’s there? And there are many answers. It could just be that a teacher found the bits and pieces in a crate neatly labelled ‘water play’ in the storeroom. At the end of the week, the activity is disassembled and placed back in there. The play is an interlude and not connected to anything beyond the immediate sensory enjoyment.

Free play like this is a highly valuable learning zone allowing children to observe and experiment with materials, and which gives them control over their own time and space. But if left at that, their learning won’t spiral upwards and their opportunity to master important concepts may be lost. The thing is that by five years of age, our human brains are already 90 percent formed and so these years are critical for learning, especially conceptual language learning.

Even though concept formation would seem to be the core work of early educators, play is such a key theme in early years’ frameworks that some teachers suffer decision paralysis about how and what to teach young children. They are regularly warned not to engage in a top-down curriculum.

If kids need to play, how do we teach them?

The fear is that as we scale up the cognitive expectations, we drag children away from what they want to be doing. Of course, we want children to be motivated and follow their own interests and goals. But we also want them to learn stuff, so structured learning is vital. What is needed is a framework of presentation modes that respect the roles of both student and educator. This article proposes seven different learning zones within which teachers can confidently monitor and present learning content.

Agile teachers

Preschool and early primary teachers are adaptive and able to present content to children in different ways at different times. They can follow the child, but they can also attract the child to follow them! Within education settings teachers regularly change their proximity to the child. Maya Angelou, the US author, and philosopher says, ‘When we know better, we can do better’. Imagine an agility wheel which, like a pie graph, maps seven different zones. Each zone denotes a different learning relationship between the teacher and the student with different degrees of involvement and direction. Sometimes, in the larger triangles of the agility wheel, the child has more freedom to follow his or her own goals and there is less or no direct mediation from the educator. In the smaller zones, or triangles, the teacher mediation is much closer and the content more directive and specific. Teachers can assess what they need to teach and plan a particular method in advance, or in a moment they can dramatically pivot from what they are doing to employ an alternative zone, technique and strategy. In each zone the role of the educator and the student is clearly defined.

What are the 7 zones?

  • Free play
  • Mediated play
  • Embedded concepts
  • Concept clarity
  • Closed-ended mobilisation
  • Open-ended mobilisation
  • Auto-generative creativity

The water activity above can help to explore the zones. Perhaps the teacher didn’t randomly select it. Rather, the water play is part of a well-planned project on the value of water as a life source on our planet and it is the start of an intensive and structured investigation.

The next stage of the project will not be to pack it away, but to ask children to tell us what they are doing and share their ideas about the water. In this mediated play, the teacher is closer in proximity and assesses the level of children’s vocabulary, asks questions, and might even add more materials. But the flow is still in the direction of the child’s exploration.

Adding to the initial water investigation, new activities are provided elsewhere in the room. In these activities materials are purposely selected to surface embedded concepts. There might be melting ice and a place to draw or write on a small blackboard using only water and a small paint brush. The information about states of water which freezes or evaporates is not directly taught but is latent in the activity and ready for children to wonder about and discover. New vocabulary is made available in the immediate context. This vocabulary includes content words like evaporate, condense, volume, liquid; but also process words like plan, predict and compare, alerting students to their thinking processes.

At a stage when the experimentation and discovery are advanced, we enter a zone of concept clarity. The logical relationships are so well understood that students can confidently articulate them.  The educators mobilise the information in either closed-ended tasks, where the outcomes are known and predictable, or open-ended challenges, where children might solve small (or large) problems in variety of ways. And they can explore them in movement, mathematics, dance, music, science and stories!

 An example of a closed-ended mobilisation might be a maths challenge to find out precisely how many small containers of water are needed to fill a large one. There is only one answer, but there is learning along the way, because if the small ones aren’t filled to the brim, they aren’t full, and the correct outcome won’t be reached. But an open-ended project to make a raft so that some toy animals make it safely across the pond, might result in many wonderful inventions, solutions, paintings and stories.

Throughout the 7 zones children’s mastery of concepts is scaling upwards. Their knowledge is being connected both within and across the different activities, experiences, discussions, and challenges. After all that, they go back to free play, but this time, they use all the knowledge they have mastered along the way. When they create something that you haven’t planned or even imagined, using the collaborative learning that has been consolidated, the students enter the realm of auto-generative creativity.

So not one or two, but seven learning zones, give teachers permission and options to add important learning to free play, but also to make formal learning look and feel like play.

Lili-Ann Kriegler (B. A Hons, H. Dip. Ed, M.Ed.) is an education consultant and author of Edu-Chameleon. Lili-Ann’s primary specialisations are in early childhood education (birth-9 years), leadership and optimising human thinking and cognition.  Her current part-time role is as an education consultant at Independent Schools Victoria and she runs her own consultancy, Kriegler-Education. Find out more at https://kriegler-education.com

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