Rich Learning Opportunities

Learning: what matters to children

Learning: what matters to children (2008)
An alphabet of what learners do
by Diane Rich, Mary Jane Drummond and Cathy Myer


The authors are experienced and respected education consultants. They have come together to work on a variety of projects for many years, and have always been committed to promoting what matters to children.

Diane Rich has been involved in children’s learning for many years, as play worker, teacher, advisory teacher, researcher, consultant, author, trustee for children’s charities. She co-ordinated the work of the What Matters to Children team from 2005-2013. Diane recently worked as a visiting lecturer at the University of Roehampton. She continues to work as a freelance consultant and runs Rich Learning Opportunities: keeping creativity, play and first-hand experience at the heart of children’s learning.

Mary Jane Drummond is a writer and researcher with an abiding interest in young children’s learning. Before retiring she worked for many years at the University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education.

Cathy Myer has been a teacher, advisory teacher, university lecturer and freelance education consultant. Although now retired, Cathy remains passionate about children and their capacity to learn from their experiences of the real world.

What is this book?

This book explores the characteristics of effective learners, describing the internal processes of the play, exploration, enquiry, and talk of active learners, discussing their importance. With foreword by Gareth Malone, it is a continuation and development of the elements represented on the alphabet pages of its sister book, ‘First-hand experience: what matters to children’ (new edition 2014).
The book takes the form of an alphabet of what learners do, designed to help educators of children from birth to 11 see more clearly and more completely the richness of what learners do. It explores learning both from the child’s point of view, and from the educator’s in terms of the choices they might make in their provision. In every chapter a single verb of learning is considered, active children belonging, choosing, feeling and representing and so on, but each of these, stitched together with play, links with other verbs to make a joined-up, worthwhile whole.
This book encourages educators to think about the most appropriate curriculum for children, starting with the children themselves, the people who do the learning. The authors examine closely the characteristics of effective learners, describe the internal processes that accompany the play, exploration, enquiry, and talk of active learners and discuss their importance, drawing on their own work with children from birth to eleven, their work with educators, their reading, research, evaluation and development projects.
The text is enriched with a variety of ‘learning stories’, first-hand accounts of learners who, in spontaneous and purposeful activity, play, enquiry and interactions, illustrate the ideas examined, and underline the central purpose in this book: to demonstrate that looking at what learners do is a good way for educators to learn more about learning.
The ‘map of the book’ on page eight, shows it main elements- The main body of the alphabet book consists of 21 chapters about what learners do. There are four chapters (corresponding to the four letters D, G, N and P) which take the form of short essays on writers whose work seems especially relevant to a consideration of what learners do: John Dewey, Susan Isaacs, Nel Noddings and Lawrence Stenhouse, included as a way of opening doors onto ideas and approaches that may be unfamiliar, but which the authors believe merit a closer acquaintance.
At the end of chapters B to Y there is an outline of one relevant book for educators and one for children.
Chapters A and Z are different again: A contains a fairy tale (of sorts) for educators, and Z, the final chapter, is a review of the main themes of the book, which remain constant through the whole volume.
The authors hope that educators will use this book to think deeply with.
To think deeply about what precisely?
About children as learners, about what learners do, and about their own learning as educators.


About the authors
A note about terms
Foreword by Gareth Malone

Part one

What is this book?
The four domains of learning: what matters to children
Big ideas
Food and exercise
P is for play
A map of the book: the richness of what learners do
How can educators use this book?
Why should educators of children from birth to 11 use this book?

Part two
An alphabet of what learners do

A is for learners learn ALL THE TIME
B is for learners BELONG to a community of learners
C is for learners CHOOSE
D is for John DEWEY: experience and education
E is for learners learn EVERYWHERE
F is for learners FEEL
G is for learners need a GENEROUS ENVIRONMENT
H is for learners HOPE
I is for learners IMAGINE
J is for learners do JOINED UP LEARNING
K is for learners KNOW more than adults think they know
L is for learners need LIBRARIES of books
M is for learners MAKE MEANING
N is for NEL NODDINGS: learning to care
O is for OBEDIENCE V DESIRE in learning
P is for PRINCIPLES OF PROCEDURE: the work of Lawrence Stenhouse
Q is for learners QUESTION AND ANSWER
R is for learners REPRESENT their learning
S is for learners MAKE STORIES
T is for learners TAKE TIME
U is for learners thirst for UNDERSTANDING
V is for learners VOICE their learning
W is for WE learn with friends
X is for learners EXPECT the help and truthfulness of grown ups
Y is for YIPPEE! Learners love learning
ZZZZZ is for educators need time to sleep on it

Books for educators
Books for children

National book reviews

ReFocus Journal Issue eight Spring 2009 (April 2009)

Forum Journal for promoting 3-19 comprehensive eduvcation (April 2009)

ReFocus Journal Issue eight Spring 2009 (April 2009)

ReFocus is the UK network of early childhood educators, artists and others influenced in their practice by the preschools of Reggio Emilia.

Review by Solveig Morris of
‘Learning: what matters to children’ by Diane Rich, Mary Jane Drummond and Cathy Myer

Those readers who bought and valued the content of ‘First hand experience: what matters to children’ (reviewed ReFocus Journal issue three), will welcome this sequel, a continuation of the authors’ desire to develop the theme of a rich curriculum diet based on the principle of what really matters to children as active learners.

Using the metaphor of food and exercise, the new book is again arranged using the format of the alphabet to lead the reader through a wealth of knowledge, pedagogical thinking and learning stories, but this time the authors delve more deeply into what learners do, emphasising ‘exercise- the verbs of learning’ and their significance to help educators support both children’s and their own learning.

To benefit from using this book, I would strongly recommend that the reader reads and inwardly digests Part One, the introduction. Here the rationale of the book is clearly laid out but it also gives a conceptual framework by which an appropriate curriculum can be developed, whatever the age group. The authors have extended the age group from birth to eleven years (previously birth to 8 years) but their approach makes it fitting for all ages.

The book is based on sound key principles which are closely matched to those of Reggio Emilia who believe that:
• children are powerful and active learners;
• educators think for themselves;
• learners are more curious, ask questions and continue to explore their own learning.

Thus both children and educators (with parents and others) act as co-researchers, belonging to a community of learners. The expectation is that educators, to be effective, must think, question and be curious about life as well as having sound knowledge of children’s cognitive development and interests.

Part Two is a treasure box. The authors have drawn on their own research work with children and educators, using additional material from the What Matters to Children team – all respected consultants. I found myself being pulled in by new material and learning stories, reminded of the words of past great thinkers such as John Dewey and delighted by the connecting threads of the authors’ thinking. So a new learning journey begins with different paths followed with constant deviations and retracing of steps.

The book sits comfortably with the new Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum – and the National Curriculum, but past experience has proved that the interpretation of curriculum content can be extremely variable. For thinking educators this books is more than a guidance, it’s an invaluable resource.

We hope that educators of children from birth to 11 will use this book to think with.
To think about what precisely?
About children as learners.
About what learners do.
About their own learning as educators. p115

Forum Journal for promoting 3-19 comprehensive education (April 2009)

Volume 51 Number 1 2009

Review by Jenifer Smith
School of Education and Lifelong Learning, University of East Anglia

This spiral bound ‘alphabet of what learners do’ is an extraordinarily attractive book which invites the reader’s active involvement in issues that are of crucial importance to learners and educators. Its manageable format perhaps belies the seriousness of its content, because this is a book that excites the intellect, the imagination, and the desire to act. ‘Learning: what matters to children’ builds on the work of the first book written by this team, ‘First hand experience: what matters to children’ (2005) which is designed to help educators think more deeply about children’s active learning and the ways in which they might create the opportunities for ‘high quality first hand experiences’. ‘Learning: what matters to children’ builds on and extends that thinking by inviting the reader to look closely at the characteristics of children who are actively engaged in learning and as a part of that close examination to consider and reconsider the choices that they can make to ensure ‘worthwhile learning’ for the children with whom they work. The authors declare their commitment to the principle of educators who think for themselves and have conceived and presented the book, it would seem to me, in the same way that one might plan an inviting setting for learners from birth to 11. As a reader, I feel free to navigate my way around its pages, to pick and choose what I read and how I will work with that and so the experience is stimulating in many different ways.

The organisation of the book combines careful patterning with serendipity. The use of the alphabetic principle avoids a text which swells to a rhetorical conclusion, but rather offers many facets of the things which the authors openly declare to be important. Each chapter heading, shaped in part by the alphabet, makes an assertion about what learners do: learn all the time, hope, know more than adults think they do, make stories, take time. The authors present a clearly defined and principled viewpoint which firmly sets aside the view of a curriculum defined by subject areas and replaces that way of thinking with four domains of children’s learning, ‘what matters to children’. These are expressed in the open ended non-finite form: being, acting, exploring, thinking. The necessity of first hand experience as the basis for worthwhile learning is embodied in text which is redolent of a pleasure in the world that children share with us –its beauty, its physicality, its challenge. The text enacts ways of thinking. Verbs –actions- are emphasised; the metaphors of food and exercise act as a vehicle for considering a child’s diet and the opportunities to exercise their growing powers and ‘big ideas’ challenge readers to set all this in theoretical context.

The book begins with an adapted fairy story that reminds us that learners continue to learn whether the experiences they are offered are rich and challenging or meaningless and undemanding and ends with a review of the whole. Each chapter is a patchwork of stories, questions, quotations, introductions to reading, provocations and lists, defined by frames and shading. The resulting juxtapositions and white space on the page invites readers to make their own connections as they navigate an individual path through the pages and between pages. It is possible to dwell on a single section or to surf the pages in search of repeated elements in each chapter.

Twenty-one of the twenty-six chapters focus on what learners do and include ‘learning stories’; accounts of children’s activities which not only demonstrate how looking at what learners do is a good way for educators to learn more about learning but invite discussion and reflection. The stories often challenge common assumptions and insist on the value of observing, and noting, what might otherwise seem unremarkable. The setting of such stories alongside other stories and the ideas of educators reveals the depths and complexities of small moments. One of the things I particularly like is that each chapter includes two suggestions for reading: one is always a book for children and the other a book for educators. In this way, the authors point the reader beyond the boundaries of the book, not only towards further reading, but also in terms of thinking of other titles that, particularly in the case of books for children, might at least be as good if not better than those suggested! I was particularly pleased to find writers and thinkers mentioned whom I was unfamiliar with as well as those whom I am glad to see introduced to a new readership. Three of the chapters are devoted entirely to the work of three such thinkers: John Dewey, Nell Noddings and Lawrence Stenhouse. These chapters succinctly and enticingly introduce key ideas of those thinkers and certainly have prompted student teachers to find out more.

One of the strengths of the book is its combination of easy reading (you could start with a seventy word snippet) and uncompromising seriousness of ideas. It is a bit like a high quality Hello magazine for the staff room, because you can read a page or more quite quickly, but the snippets that you read provide you with much more to think about and the desire to find out more. I find that the format provokes thought in a very pleasurable way. I find myself impelled to go to the library, to try things out, to talk to others and to dream in the way I love to do when I am plotting and planning opportunities for learning. It acknowledges that the educator reader may continue to possess that ‘thirst for understanding….a veritable passion’ that Susan Isaacs attributes to young learners. In acknowledging the potential passion that all educators may possess the book provides an inspiration and encouragement to teachers who may feel tied down by the curriculum or who may have forgotten what is possible. This is an ambitious and generous book which includes a wide sweep of ideas within its 120 pages. The authors draw on contemporary thinkers as well as those writing at the beginning of the last century and it is instructive to observe how strong is the influence of early years educators; and how one might continue to hope that their influence will extend beyond the reception classroom and into the rest of the primary years. It is also an immensely serious book which rejects the word play for its frivolous connotations and embraces the activities of children who are ‘profound thinkers, grappling with challenging and complex ideas.’ Consequently it is an immensely exhilarating book. Every educator’s home should have one!

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