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Engagement, Opinion, Promising Practices, Teaching

If It’s Good Enough For Our Early Learners…

Informal Learning Across the Ages

Consider the following description of one of the most popular and most powerful learning spaces in many kindergarten classes:


A popular learning center for early childhood classrooms is a housekeeping center.  To create a housekeeping center, a teacher sets aside a certain area in the classroom to create a setting that may resemble students’ home environment.  The area is filled with familiar materials, furniture, and tools. Objects that are not so easily recognized may also be included.  The students are given the opportunity to work in small groups in the space to learn to manipulate and properly use all of these tools.  They will often use a trial-and-error method to complete their task until they are successful.  In this setting, students informally learn how to interact socially and learn about the processes that occur in a household environment as well as the workings of household tools. (Retrieved from https://uni.edu/, April 29.2012)


Now, take a look at the key principles that ground the In At The Deep End approach, the core of the Musical Futures program referenced in my last entry:



  • Learning music that students choose, like and identify with

  • Learning by listening and copying recordings

  • Learning with friends

  • Personal, self-directed learning

For me, the only real difference between what happens in the informal learning environments that define high quality early years programs and the environments being nurtured by approaches like Musical Futures is age. In a typical kindergarten class, the range of students is somewhere between 3 and 5 years. Musical Futures was designed to engage the imaginations of young people from ages 11-18. And research is showing that the principles and approaches that allow us to create rich and effective learning environments at the earliest stages of schooling are also proving to be just as applicable and just as effective in the later stages as well.


So what is true about this type of learning that contributes to its power? For me, one of the most obvious features is connected with the level of choice that is woven through the experiences. At both the house center, and in the MF “deep end” project, students are given the freedom to choose roles, materials, and relationships. While there may be some limits placed on each of these, the ultimate choices are worked out as part of the group interaction. The choice and the ability to make some important decisions become key components in the learning dynamic.


The second feature of both learning environments is the ability to play around with ideas and situations that they have encountered previously. There is no pre-defined right or wrong approach or strategy. (You won’t find the term best practice in either situation.)  Instead, imitation and a spirit of working it out in a play-based context are really the key to learning in both scenarios.


The social nature of the environment is also key to successful learning. In both the house centre and the musical combos formed in the MF program, the ability to play off one another is crucial. The importance of interaction with and feedback by friends has been identified as an essential component of learning by many, including Lorus Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emila approach, who went as far as identifying peer influence as a “second teacher”.


Finally, there is a sense in both situations that the learning is participant-driven. Listen in on a group of kindergarten-age children negotiating meaning and direction and you have a snap shot of just how capable they are of assuming responsibility; it’s often more than we think of giving them, isn’t it?


I’ve learned that the same can be said for adolescents. We often assume that young people at this age need to be directed, controlled and surveilled if they are going to “learn”. Projects like Musical Futures are beginning to challenge that common sense by opening our eyes to the incredible degree of focus, dedication and insight that students can bring to their learning when given the opportunity to participate more in creating the work through which they learn.


Since my last post, I’ve received responses from Canadian teachers who have embarked on similar explorations into informal learning. I invite you to let us know about how you are playing with the teaching and learning structures in your own classroom or school. I would also ask you to consider some of the ways in which you could imagine integrating a more informal approach to learning into your own practice? Do the principles outlined here resonate? Could you imagine an area of your program that might be enlivened and deepend by an informal approach?

Meet the Expert

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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