Kate Umpleby, Acting Deputy Head of Lower School Harrow International School Bangkok, explores High Performance Learning in Early Years Education. 

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From Learning - to Learning to Learn About 18 months ago, our school - Harrow International School Bangkok, embarked upon a journey to become a World Class; High Performance Learning School. The High Performance Learning framework developed by educational leader and writer Deborah Eyre is, in essence, an educational philosophy that ALL students have the potential for high performance, drawing on the latest research in neuroscience, metacognition and growth mindset.

Teaching to the top, and scaffolding support for those that need it to get there, is something that I have strived to practise throughout my 16 years as an educator – but metacognition, although not a new concept to me or within education, was something that definitely caught my attention and got me thinking.


Teaching from the top

Teaching and Learning - teachers teach and students learn – simple, right? For centuries, as teachers we have been imparting our superior knowledge and understanding on to our students. A simple transaction between teacher and student. The quest to find the most effective, efficient means of completing this knowledge transfer has dominated educational research for decades. 34 years ago, in Patricia Cross’s 1987 paper ‘Teaching for Learning’ she stated that ‘when students are actively involved in learning…they learn more’ and ‘if teachers set high but attainable goals academic performance will usually rise to expectations’. More recently, there has been a shift in focus to what a teacher brings into the classroom, their subject knowledge and pedagogical understanding. But is this enough? Is this really the best way to prepare the workforce of the future? I can’t help but feel we were missing something.


The “New Norm”, are our students ready?

‘Roughly seven in ten people are currently in jobs where we simply cannot know for certain what will happen.’

-Hasan Bakhshi, Jonathan M. Downing, Michael A. Osborne and Philippe Schneider; The Future Of Skills Employment In 2030

No one can predict the future. Is the ‘superior’ knowledge that we are imparting upon future generations going to even be of any use to them when they are applying for jobs as Extinct Species Revivalists, Organ/Body Part Creators, Mind Transfer Specialists or Drone Traffic Optimisers? Yes, we can shift our focus to developing skills in STEM. We can teach our students to be better global citizens and learn from our mistakes, but are we, as teachers, being naive and egocentric to believe that what WE know NOW, will be enough for our students in the future?

Ultimately as teachers, we are preparing our students for the future, that is our job. However, if the future looks different (and we know it does) how can we do that when we don’t know what we are preparing them for? We need to do more. If we continue as we are, we are setting our students up to fail. We need to press reset on education; we need to go back a step. I believe that the future lies in providing our students with the understanding of HOW they learn. If we do this, it doesn’t matter what happens in the future, our students will be prepared, they will have the toolkit, whatever is thrown at them, they will know how to ‘learn’ it. I am not saying that we don’t need to teach children how to read and write, of course not. But we alongside this, we need to be teaching them to be aware of the processes and skills that they are using while learning to read and write. For these very same processes may well be needed in the future when they are learning to read and write computer algorithms, or languages that don’t yet exist and if they know how to use them, it will make it a whole lot easier.

Now, I am not arrogant enough to think that I am the first educator to have these ponderings. So, as one does, I took to Google. As expected, there is some great research being done worldwide. A 2019 collaboration between Flinders University, University of Melbourne and Arizona State University is exploring ‘Teaching How to Learn’ promoting self-regulated learning in STEM classes. Gail Ellis and Nayr Ibrahim’s 2015 book ‘Teaching Children How to Learn’ offers a practical methodology for Primary foreign language teachers. However – there is very little out there regarding making this shift from simply learning to learning to learn, in Early Years Education.

Why? Yes, EYFS is primarily skills based already – physical, communication and language skills are all covered, but not the skills of learning. The Characteristics of Effective Learning again ensure practitioners are aware of how to ensure students are learning effectively, but it’s still neglecting to teach our children exactly HOW to learn in the first place. Being willing to ‘have a go’, Having their own ideas and Making links are nods in the right direction, but I can’t help but think we need to be more explicit than this.

Studies have shown that by 18 months old, children are already using spontaneous strategies to correct their mistakes during problem solving (DeLoache et al., 1985) by 3 years old children are able to monitor their problem-solving behaviour and at 4 years old they are able to use metacognitive processing in puzzle tasks (Sperling et al., 2000). Scientific evidence shows us that pre-school children are capable of the meta-cognitive processes involved in basic forms of planning, monitoring and evaluating. If they are doing it spontaneously, I believe we need to jump on that bandwagon. I believe that through our interactions in Early Years classrooms we can, and should, explicitly teach our students to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning. To question and guide students through the thought processes which lead to learning and to highlight it when we do so. Using questions to guide learning through play and challenges in Early Years.


The link between cognition and metacognition

However, this itself brings me to my next pondering – yes, we know they are capable of it at a subconscious level, but how can we expect children who are still learning to communicate full stop, to communicate at such a complex level? The answer is simple, and it is what we do every day, we teach them. We teach them the vocabulary they need to do it. Alongside the normal nouns, verbs and adjectives we need to be teaching our students the language of learning and thinking. I believe language is the link between cognition and meta-cognition. It is the link between children using problem-solving and critical thinking skills subconsciously to complete one task, and children using those same skills purposefully to solve future tasks.


The keyword sign for Thinking

This is exactly what we are doing at the Little Lions Early Years Centre, Harrow Bangkok. We are providing our young learners with a language of learning. Our youngest Harrovians at 18 months are learning and beginning to use the keyword sign for ‘thinking’. Our teachers are modelling it – ‘I am thinking about how Bobo is feeling’ - and as children do, our students are absorbing it.

Through Harvard University’s - Project Zero program – our Reception children are using visible thinking routines, such as See, Think, Wonder, to learn and understand that in order to learn, they need to question, and in order to question, they need to think critically. This is just the beginning, but I have to say, it’s quite exciting.

It is our responsibility as Early Years Educators to lay the foundations of learning – and we need to make them as strong and flexible as possible. From the very beginning we need to teach our students HOW to learn and by doing this, I believe, we will be preparing them in the best way possible for a future that no one can predict.

Kate Umpleby - 19th January 2021 Acting Deputy Head of Lower School, Harrow International School Bangkok


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