Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning




By Stacy Mann

Published July 2021

The COETL are described as how children learn. When we know how children learn we recognise and by identifyingtheir motivation for learning, allowing practitioners to develop higher quality teaching and learning experienceswill take place.

This is a switch to process over product outcome, which is highly important when working with children in the Early Years, recognising that the attitudes about learning formed in the Early Years will last a lifetime.


“Everyone is born with an intense desire to learn. Infants stretch their skills daily. Not just ordinary skills but the most difficult tasks of a lifetime like learning to walk and talk. Babies don’t worry about making mistakes or humiliating themselves…. they just barge forward…. what could put an end to this exuberant learning?”

 (Carol Dweck, Mindset, 2008)


An interesting question to ponder, what could put an end to this exuberant learning?  When we are working with the children, there are most definitely times in the day when we stop the learning journey, whether that is for a nappy change, a meal time or another part of the daily routine that adults impose.  Whilst a lot of these elements are needed, as we really do not want children walking around in soiled nappies, there are some elements that we could be more flexible with to allow the learning journey to continue.  This brings us back to the Principles of the Early Years Foundation Stage in terms of our environment, are we allowing the child to critically think and create their own ideas, or do we set up a challenge with an adult imposed expectation?

It is important in these instances to tune in and think about how we learn from a different perspective.  Consider how you learn; have you been influenced by higher quality learning?  Was this because a certain approach was used? For example, I have never forgotten the French alphabet because it was taught in an army march!! The combination of talking whilst moving enhanced the way that my brain received the information.  We refer to this in teaching a learning styles, Visual, Auditory, Read/write and Kinaesthetic, we consider how the students will learn best and to their potential by adapting sessions and ensuring that there is a space for all.  We can and must do this in Early Years too, through the characteristics of effective learning and the opportunities that we provide.

The three characteristics: Playing and exploring, active learning and creating and thinking critically.  It is also important to recognise when we are tuning in, that these are called ‘Characteristics of Teaching and Learning, so not just how the children learn but also how we teach.


Playing and exploring is all about engagement.  Are we giving children the time to explore and revisit the experiences we are providing?  Are we engaging in conversations around what they doing and how they are doing in it?  This needs to be carried out in a way that is open ended and allows the children to think about what they are doing and having the freedom to do it in their own way.  This could also take on board the children’s interest and the things that fascinate them in order to motivate other areas of learning.

“Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.”

– Kay Redfield Jamison

Active learning is a ‘hands on’ approach where children are able to learn through discovery. This needs time for them to become involved and concentrate enabling them to keep trying, enjoying the achievement of their own success.  We can provide lots of open-ended resources to support this, and the time and space for children to play freely, with less interruptions.  An example of this would be to not tidy up every time there is a transition within the daily routine.  If a child is engrossed in a building of an amazing tower but it is lunchtime, could we provide an area that is ‘a work in progress’, so they can return when they have had their lunch?  

Creating and thinking critically is about the children using their own ideas in play, creating, and imagining.  As adults, we can sometimes stifle this important characteristic with too heavily structured routines or a lack of flexibility.  Dr Dan Siegel (2020) discussed the River of Well Being, with one bank being the bank of rigidity and the other being the bank of chaos.  This is a great way of visualising the way that we would like to adopt the characteristics in the setting-not too much structure or rigidity and lots of flexibility not chaos, a river of well being to ensure that all the children can grow and develop to the best of the ability and potential.  This does not mean that there is not scope for adult planned and adult led experiences, there absolutely is, there just needs to be opportunities within the experience for the children to build on their own interests and motivations.


“Imagination is more important than knowledge”



What are the first words that come to mind, when you hear the word ‘teaching’?

There are many ways in which we teach throughout the day and these can be defined in the following ways:

  • Interactions with children
  • Communicating and modelling language
  • Showing
  • Explaining
  • Demonstrating
  • Exploring ideas
  • Encouraging
  • Questioning
  • Recalling
  • Providing
  • Facilitating and setting challenges


Consider how these teaching points link with the characteristics.

An adult's role in the EYFS - Tuning in and following children's interests, building confidence and a growth mindset, encouraging autonomy, providing a stimulating and flexible environment, motivate and challenge children's thinking, allow time for children to think and reflect


Metacognition is much more than just thinking. It is, as Flavell (1976) explains, as ‘knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes, or anything related to them’.  It is a myth that children are not able to do this or cannot begin to build the skills to do so.  We can support them in metacognition by considering the characteristics of effective teaching and learning, applying them into our provision and reflecting on them with each unique child.  It defines one of the many ways that each human is unique and has their own way of making sense of the world.  

‘Knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes or any

thing related to them’

 (Flavell, 1976)

A report by the Education Endowment Foundation says that evidence shows that developing children’s metacognition can be particularly beneficial for disadvantaged children. (2020)

Adults' role: Choice, time, space, open ended plentiful resources, freedom to follow ideas, warmth and responsiveness, Sensitive support, playfulness, thinking and talking together

EEF (Education Endowment Foundation) reiterates this in their report on metacognition and self-regulation in stating that developing children’s metacognition can be particularly beneficial for disadvantaged children and goes on to discuss how this can be adopted in the classroom and within teaching.  In the Early Years, some of the ways we can support this is by:

Open ended questions-this is very much about quality interactions and being skilful in knowing when to interact and when to step back.  Using questions can be an amazing tool to support children’s higher order thinking skills, when using effectively.

Sustained shared thinking-consider the times when as an adult you have an interest in something, and your friend seems so engaged in what you are telling them that they ask to hear more, remember how that feels and how you can be that person for the children.  Listen intently, ask questions, be curious about their knowledge and how you can move that knowledge forward.

Solution focused-we do this in our everyday practice, but by doing it with intention, it will serve a greater purpose.  For example:

Two children arguing over a pair of wellies that they would both like to put away.

Teacher: Right, so we have two wellies and two children, how could we make this fair?

Child A: We could both have a welly each.

Teacher: What a great idea!  Well done for thinking of a solution.

There are plenty of opportunities throughout the day for solution focus and the children will be able to use their voice, creativity, and critical thinking.

Process orientated-consider how we discuss with children what they are doing and how they are doing it?  Do we ask, ‘what are you making?’  This question implies that there is something to be made, maybe the child had no intention of ‘making’ anything.  We could reframe that conversation by saying ‘tell me about what you are doing’ or ‘that looks interesting, can you explain it to me?’.

Making sense of the world-metacognition is a way of making sense of the life experiences around us and having the Time and freedom to explore the fascinations.

Practice and repetition-how many times do you have to repeat something before you are an expert?  Interesting question when you really think about it, as its different for everyone and it depends on what it is, right? So, we need to provide plenty of opportunity to revisit and repeat experiences and allow the children to navigate the way they like to engage best.

Teach children about their brain-this may seem far too complicated for the Early Years but in fact, children learn about the brain very quickly when it is explained in appropriate ways.  It is great to use animals to support this and to discuss with the children what parts of their brain help them in their daily tasks.  For example, the elephant never forgets!  The elephant could be a symbol of our hippocampus and how we have part of our brain that stores information for us to use again and again.  

Reflections-the children are very good at evaluating-they are very honest!  Are we asking the children what they like and what they dislike, as well as asking their suggestions?  For example, a child was asked ‘where would you like the quiet area to be?’  The child said that they would prefer it to be inside the tent and so they tried, it did not work because there wasn’t enough space but what that child did learn, was that it is ok to get it wrong sometimes, that they experiment and learn for next time and that their voice has value.  Imagine if more children had got involved in this and they could have come up with a solution.  I also think that it is beneficial for the children to discuss the photos that they are in, they often discuss these photos and naturally reflect on what they were doing and what they could do next time.

Blooms Taxonomy

There has been lots of discussion throughout regarding ‘questioning’ and extending children’s learning through open ended discussions and interactions.  Bloom (2001) identified a hierarchy of cognitive domain starting with what he described as ‘lower order’ thinking skills and progressing to ‘higher order’ thinking skills.


Blooms Taxonomy outlined as a pyramid

Bloom's new taxonomy supports deeper thinking by promoting good questioning through a sequence of six categories of questions. Practitioners can use this to reflect on the types of questions they ask, as well as to model effective questioning. Lower-level queries such as "remembering”, and "comprehending" demand a literal response.  Creating and assessing questions at the higher end of Bloom's scale present a larger challenge and encourage more independent thinking. Bloom's Revised Taxonomy can be used to create a planning framework that includes low to high level thinking tasks.


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