Welcome to the course! This course describes two of the foundational practices for quality early childhood education: intentional teaching, and effective, formative assessment. Intentional teaching is an approach that grounds teaching practices in the interests and motivations of children, and is flexible and adaptive while remaining focused on key goals for children’s learning and development. Assessment is crucial for understanding where children are at in their learning and how to support them, and thus is a highly important component of intentional teaching.
This first part of the course is focused on introducing these key concepts. Our aims are to:
- Understand the concept of intentional teaching
- Consider how intentional teaching aligns with educational theory
- Unpack the relationship between assessment and intentional teaching
This will involve:
- Watching an introductory video
- Reading about intentional teaching
- Reflecting on how intentional teaching fits with your personal teaching philosophy
- Watching a video in which Sue Cherrington discusses what intentional teaching looks like in practice.
- Reading about the relationship between assessment and intentional teaching
- Reflecting on the use of formative assessment in your own practice
- Selecting a child or group of children for your assessment and intentional teaching activities over the remainder of the course.
You might also like to introduce yourself in the discussion forum for this part of the course, and spend time reading the introductions of other participants. You should be automatically subscribed to this forum – it appears in the sidebar on this page. There’s also a section of links for further reading to learn more about effective curriculum practices and strategies for intentional teaching, including sustained shared thinking.
Watch a video
As you now know, I am passionate about the importance of assessment and intentional teaching for early childhood and believe it is a crucial ingredient in effective early childhood education that supports children’s learning and wellbeing. So let’s get started by looking at the concept of intentional teaching in greater detail.
Read ‘What is intentional teaching?’ and think about the different ways in which intentional teaching hinges upon quality assessment practices.
What is intentional teaching?
Learning and teaching in early childhood involve complex interactions between teachers, children, contexts and content. Intentional teaching approaches recognise that teachers have a large role to play in orchestrating these interactions in order to bring about learning for children.
Intentional teaching involves constantly thinking about what you are doing as a teacher and how it will support or enable children’s development and learning. It requires an awareness of, and being deliberate, thoughtful, considered and purposeful in, your teaching behaviours. It means actively planning and acting with specific goals or outcomes for children’s learning in mind so that you can select the most appropriate ways to interact and extend children’s thinking and development. It involves being intentional across all decision-making areas including curriculum, relationships, and administrative responsibilities.
Being intentional originates in your aspirations for children – knowing what valued learning you are aiming for children to achieve. It then requires that you be deliberate in your teaching to support or scaffold children towards those learning outcomes.
Intentional teaching is a dynamic process of decision-making, involving both planned experiences and spontaneous responses to children’s emerging inquiries. Teaching actions and interactions must be constantly adjusted to adapt to children’s responses and current level of competence in ways that promote teachers’ aspirations and learning intentions.
Intentional teachers need a range of pedagogical strategies, an understanding of how children learn, and knowledge of children’s individual learning capabilities and processes. Teachers also need to recognise children’s intentions and be in tune with their interests so that curriculum is co-constructed rather than teacher-determined. Co-construction involves more than just learning alongside and from children – it requires teachers to support children with deep-level conversations to critique understandings and develop a range of skills for inquiry and critical and creative thinking.
Intentional teachers might:
- sensitively observe children and intentionally plan to deepen, extend and sustain children’s interests through provocations, tools and resources, documentation and dialogue
- organise and maintain the physical environment to ensure access to appropriate resources and optimal support for positive experiences
- create specific challenges and plan interactions designed to extend children’s capabilities and higher-order thinking skills
- participate in child-initiated play activities and develop complex imaginative role play narratives with children
- model and demonstrate skills as well as providing specific direction or instruction
However, developing a more intentional role should not be interpreted as requiring didactic techniques, nor should teachers neglect to focus on children’s learning and their interests in favour of teachers’ desired outcomes.
How does intentional teaching fit with teaching theories and philosophies?
Both developmental and constructivist approaches to early childhood curriculum emphasise teachers’ intentionality in providing an environment appropriate to the child’s current cognitive level that will facilitate learning and natural development. These approaches to early childhood education are often labelled ‘child-centred’ and are dominated by principles of freedom, children’s interests and learning through play. While not entirely incompatible with intentional teaching, these approaches position the teacher as facilitative, non-directive and reactive, focused mainly on establishing and maintaining the learning environment, which makes teachers and teaching less visible.
Sociocultural theory emphasises children’s cognitive activity occurring through social interaction with more knowledgeable adults and peers who are directly engaged in and guide the process of the construction of new understandings through participation in shared activities, including play. These approaches re-position teachers from a non-directive role to include intentional teaching and active involvement in children’s play. While a constructivist or developmental perspective might emphasise children’s free play as a means of developing abilities, sociocultural theory considers that children’s interests, abilities, thinking, skills, and knowledge, as expressed through child-initiated play, emerge as a result of stimulation by the people, places and things in their communities.
When quality play-based learning is considered to involve social relationships, interactions, and modelling, intentional teaching can be balanced with child-centred and play-based environments in which children are perceived as intentional learners. Children need opportunities to initiate activities and develop their own interests, but teachers are not passive observers. Instead, teachers can consider teaching to be a legitimate part of their professional practice as they support children to explore and extend their interests and learning experiences.
Why should I adopt intentional teaching?
Early childhood teachers have over 1000 interactions with children during a day, many of which are spontaneous and unplanned. Being intentional can help teachers make the most of these interactions. International and local research finds that sustained, reflective interactions are important for promoting increased learning for young children. Children are found to be engaged in more complex cognitive activities and effective learning when they play with and have positive social interactions with teachers.
Intentional teaching techniques such as scaffolding and extending children’s learning are found to contribute to greater learning and positive outcomes for children. A key characteristic of quality early childhood settings associated with higher outcomes for children in the UK is the prevalence of high quality social and learning exchanges between teachers and children. These exchanges involve sustained shared thinking, scaffolding, explaining, questioning, modelling and extending children’s ideas and activities, teachers’ active involvement in children’s play, and planning of challenging activities. In settings in which children’s achievement is lower, staff are found to spend most of their time monitoring and observing children’s play rather than interacting with children.
Well-resourced free play is not always found to be a sufficient condition for learning: for example, research finds that opportunities for free exploration within a richly resourced environment do not lead to sustained and meaningful encounters that support learning. A ‘hands off’ or laissez-faire approach in relation to free play, which relies solely on children taking the lead in their own learning and places responsibility for learning progress on children, can result in missed teaching and learning opportunities.
To read the full version of this research review, with references, click here.
Reflect on the following question, and write a personal response:
What kinds of approaches to early childhood education do you value, and inform your philosophy of teaching (for example, sociocultural, co-constructed, developmental, child-centred)? In what ways can the concept of intentional teaching be integrated with these approaches?
Watch a video
Sue describes intentional teaching as a mindset in which we are constantly asking ourselves how we can further support children’s learning, wellbeing and development. We might think in terms of long-term plans for the whole group, such as an emphasis on learning about sustainability, developing social competence, or other important goals and local curriculum priorities (curriculum priorities that are specific to our settings). Here Sue reminds us that, rather than always taking our lead from the child, as teachers we have an important role in introducing ideas, concepts and interests to children. Indeed, we limit children’s opportunities for play and exploration when we don’t contribute to the possibilities but leave children to continue repeating what they know and have experienced already.
Outside of the broad goals from our local curriculum priorities (which we discuss more in Part 2), Sue suggests that it is important to have a good idea of the individual progressions you hope to facilitate for individual children. Recording these can help you to be really explicit and clear about what you hope children will achieve, and will focus your intentional teaching. There is a danger, however, when putting these goals and plans into writing, which is that we feel we must stick to them. Sue clarifies that intentional teaching is not actually about carrying out a plan in a slavish way. Intentional teaching is about intentions rather than plans. After you spend time identifying your intentions for individual children and how you might achieve them, you keep these ideas tucked away ready to adapt and put to use in the informal and spontaneous encounters you have with children.
Another important point Sue makes is that, while it is easy to focus intentions on environments and planned experiences (such as a walk, a visitor to the centre, or reading a particular story), preparations should also focus on your role – the things you will say and the strategies you will use to support learning. In other words, we need to be prepared with a range of pedagogical strategies and tools so that we can intuitively select the right one for supporting children’s learning in the moment. These are not necessarily complicated strategies, but may involve some very simple and intuitive actions, such as positioning yourself near the context of play, listening to children, and asking questions. You can read more about different intentional actions and strategies in the Further Reading provided for this part. Now let’s have a look at where assessment activity fits into the concept of intentional teaching.
Read this short piece which highlights how important effective assessment is to the practice of intentional teaching, and introduces some more key concepts.
The relationship between assessment and intentional teaching
Effective assessment practice is hugely important in supporting children to achieve positive outcomes because effective assessment practice is as much about informing teachers’ intentional actions so that they best support learning, as it is about making judgements about children’s achievements. Assessment in the early childhood context is about figuring out the meaning of children’s play and learning in order to take appropriate and intentional action to support it. With knowledge of children’s learning progress, and clear goals for their development, intentional teachers help children make the most of the varied opportunities and experiences that their settings and programmes have to offer through techniques such as active involvement in play, questioning, scaffolding, and co-constructed and sustained conversations involving shared thinking. Research suggests that when teachers use these kind of intentional teaching strategies, children make more progress. Ultimately, the quality and responsiveness of our intentional teaching depends on the quality of our assessment of children’s play and learning. Assessment can help us with the following aspects of intentional teaching:
- planning interactions and activities with children that are meaningful and responsive to their current learning and interest
- evaluating and improving our pedagogies, environments and teaching interactions
- sharing information about children’s learning with families to enable families to effectively participate in supporting children’s ongoing learning
In this course we’re going to look at how we use assessment for all of these functions. We will also focus on a particular type of assessment: formative assessment. Formative assessment is the kind of assessment activity that informs the next steps for teachers to support children’s learning, such as planning and providing activities, interactions and environments that will extend children’s learning. In contrast, summative assessment is about ‘summing up’ a child’s current achievements, skills and knowledge at a specific point of time, and might be useful, for example, at school entry. However, summative assessment is much less useful for informing subsequent teaching. Rather than assessment of learning, assessment should be for learning, for informing and improving the effectiveness of subsequent learning and teaching.
Formative assessment is going on all the time as we observe and interact with children. It is involved when we respond in the moment to something we hear the child say or see them do, as well as when we record our observations and reflect on them through the format of a learning story. Formative assessment is best understood as including the range of ways, informal and formal, in which we observe children’s learning, try to interpret and understand what is happening for the child, and then put that understanding to good use by being intentional in our teaching and planning.
In this course, we’re going to be looking at formative assessment in a more formal sense, involving reflection and analysis in relation to documented observations. We will provide a few different tools and strategies that you might use to collect assessment information about children and their learning, and then explore how you might put these together within written assessments such as learning stories and other forms of pedagogical documentation used to inform learning and teaching. The learning story is the tool for documenting assessment practice that we are going to use in this course, although the skills we employ for writing a learning story can be applied to all kinds of written and reflective forms of pedagogical documentation. Not all assessment is formal (in fact, much is informal assessment that occurs in the moment when you play and learn alongside children) and not every recorded assessment needs to be in the format of a learning story. However, learning stories are a method of assessment recognised by both the Ministry of Education and the Education Review Office.
Have you thought about the different uses of the assessments you make on a daily basis in terms of the concepts of formative and summative? How often are these truly formative (feeding into learning plans and teaching responses) and how often do they remain at a summative level (summarising a current level of competence but not moving beyond that to inform ongoing teaching and learning)?
Often in the time-poor and pressured environments of our early childhood settings, assessment can remain at a summative level – something is documented and recorded for a child and the child receives a learning story in their portfolio. We might even see that product (the learning story) as the act of assessment. However, these written records of what children are learning are only a small part of the assessment process, with the major acts of assessment practice involving reflection, discussion, and decision-making around what has been observed or documented. One of the most important reasons to assess children’s learning is to feed into and inform ongoing teaching and learning. It might also be to report to parents and whānau about their child’s experiences, and to offer children a record of their learning, but even these functions should be focused on enabling parents and children to respond to, extend and enhance learning. Assessment, done well, enables an understanding of children as individuals, as members of their families and communities, and as learners, which facilitates highly intentional actions and interactions with children. This aim for a greater understanding of children as learners should always be at the forefront of our reason for assessment, rather than providing a record of experiences, or meeting an expectation for a certain number of pages in a portfolio.
Relate your learning to practice
In each part of the course, we are going to invite you to engage in an assessment or intentional teaching activity in your own setting, related to what we have been learning together on the course. By the end of the course, you will have worked through an assessment cycle in relation to a particular child or group of children’s learning and developed some intentional teaching in response. For this first part of the course, we invite you to select a child or group of children to be the focus of your assessment practice in the course, and make some notes on what you already know about the child (their interests, culture, strengths, and existing goals) that you can draw on and build into your assessment and planning.
The important points to take away from this introductory module are:
- Intentional teaching involves actively planning for and being deliberate and thoughtful in your actions and interactions to support children’s learning.
- Intentional teaching is theoretically aligned with sociocultural perspectives on early childhood curriculum, in which children’s learning is seen to take place through participation and interaction with more knowledgeable adults and peers in shared activities. Intentional teaching is both compatible with and necessary to the practice of co-constructing curriculum with children.
- Research has established that strategies employed in intentional teaching, such as active involvement in play, scaffolding, questioning, sustained dialogue, and shared thinking, contribute to greater learning progress in early childhood programmes.
- Assessment practice supports intentional teaching because it involves teachers seeking to understand children’s current learning in order to support future learning. Documented assessments provide opportunities for considering a range of intentional teaching behaviours in order to respond effectively to children’s learning.
- Assessment can be formative or summative. Formative assessment is assessment undertaken to plan for and support future learning, and is more relevant to intentional teaching than summative assessment, which is focused on ‘summing up’ a child’s current achievement.
- Assessment can be formal or informal. In this course we focus on formal, documented assessment, although a great deal of formative assessment and intentional teaching occurs spontaneously throughout the day and goes unrecorded.
What steps do you think you need to take to become more intentional in your teaching practices with children? Please join other course participants in the Part 1 online forum to discuss.
Learn more about the principles that underpin effective pedagogy and curriculum design in this guide.
Find The Education Hub’s resource on intentional teaching here and read the additional sections on ‘How to teach intentionally’ which covers intentional practice in several aspects of ECE (curriculum, pedagogy, environments and interactions, and evaluation).
Watch this webinar about the concept of sustained shared thinking as an intentional teaching practice.