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Intentional teaching for early childhood

Experienced educator and recognised author, Anne Houghton, sets intentional teaching in its big-picture context to show its potential as an effective pedagogical practice.
Intentional Teaching

It is essential both to understand theoretical perspectives in relation to practice and to know when to use particular teaching techniques, in order to fulfil the unique role we play as early childhood educators in supporting young children’s learning and development.

However, it’s my belief that the theory of intentional teaching is not always clearly understood in our profession, which in turn limits its effectiveness as a teaching technique. In trying to explain it, some early childhood educators have a narrow focus, describing it in relation to practice. A broader description from the EYLF that resonates with me is that intentional teaching involves:

… educators being deliberate, purposeful and thoughtful in their decisions and actions … Intentional teaching is the opposite of teaching by rote or continuing with traditions simply because things have ‘always’ been done that way. (DEEWR, 2009, p 15)

This takes me back to my first day as a new graduate kindergarten teacher, when I was helping set up the playroom environment on a pupil-free day at the start of the term. My teaching assistant, who had worked at the kindergarten for many years, insisted on placing all the furniture and materials where they had always been. When I asked her why, she offered no reasoning beyond, “That’s just where they go!”. As a new graduate wishing to avoid any conflict, I lacked the courage to argue for a different approach.

In the years since, time, experience, professional growth and mentoring support have helped consolidate my understandings about reflecting philosophical values and grounding theory in practice. Thankfully my courage and confidence have developed too so that I can now express a clear rationale to others about my teaching intentions.

Outcomes, goals and strategies

Ann Epstein (2007, p1) tells us that:

Intentional teaching means teachers act with specific outcomes or goals in mind for children’s development and learning. Teachers must know when to use a given strategy to accommodate the different ways that individual children learn and the specific content they are learning.

As well as defining the term, this explanation is significant in clarifying why it’s important to promote an understanding of intentional teaching within the wider community. Families, in particular, can then appreciate what specific planning and strategies the early childhood educator is using in practice to support their child’s learning and development.

A simple example of intentional teaching being reflected in practice is where an early childhood educator has thoughtfully placed a table with a play experience on it against a wall, allowing a child needing support to be seated with their back to the rest of the playroom setting. This strategic planning may help the child to engage in an activity, such as using manipulative equipment, for a sustained, focused period of time because the positioning reduces the distraction of other activities in the playroom. It’s an intentional teaching strategy with a specific outcome in mind, but perhaps it may go unrecognised if no one explains to the family how the strategy supports their child.

The following image offers another example of how educators can use furniture and equipment to give a message to children about how they may use materials and how many children the play experience will accommodate.

Intentional Teaching play set up

The way this play space has been set up may also promote opportunities for children to transition from solitary to parallel play or for a dual learning experience. It’s a strategy that helps to foster relationships and to support interaction and communication through which reciprocal language skills can emerge.

Matching the technique to the intention

Environments for intentional teaching can provide many natural and open-ended resources that give children long periods of time for self-directed hands on learning, e.g. loose materials and objects that offer different possibilities … (Houghton, 2013, p 48)

Among the many other intentional teaching techniques available to early childhood educators are acknowledging, demonstrating, encouraging, modelling, scaffolding, questioning, inviting and prompting. Knowing when to use each of these techniques in a particular situation is important. In the image below, think about the choice of materials the early childhood educator has provided and what their intentions are in provoking exploration of the natural materials. Also consider what role the early childhood educator might adopt for any co-playing.

Intentional Teaching technique

Questions to reflect on include:

  • Why might the educator have chosen natural materials?
  • Why might they have positioned the activity in this way?
  • What intentional teaching techniques could you adopt to support the child’s learning and development?

Strategic positioning

Another example of intentional teaching is strategically positioning a brush and shovel or a small, handled mop at a painting easel to prompt children’s sense of autonomy in cleaning-up routines. In the following image, the play experience clearly defines how many children the activity is planned for, all through the simple action of providing two place mats. This play space could also be intentional in fostering self-directed, hands-on exploration for learning.

strategic positioning in intentional teaching

Early childhood educators who are aware of their intentional teaching are also skilled in planning for a wide range of curriculum possibilities. They understand the importance of noticing what materials children like to engage with and how to adapt the play experience to extend the child’s learning.

In conclusion, I encourage you to reflect on how you might promote intentional teaching. How might you discuss it with staff teams? Is intentional teaching highlighted within any documentation such as planned curriculum, visual diaries, wall plans, written reflections or narrative formats such as Learning Stories? How might it feature in your setting and what might need to change in your teaching practice to make it happen?

References

  • DEEWR (2009) Belonging, Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (EYLF). Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations for the Council of Australian Governments.
  • Epstein, AS (2007) The Intentional Teacher: Choosing the best strategies for young children’s learning. Washington DC: NAEYC.
  • Houghton, A (2013) Intentional Teaching: Promoting purposeful practice in early childhood settings. Port Melbourne: Teaching Solutions.

About the author

Anne Houghton’s 38 years in early childhood education include diverse roles and experiences. She worked as a kindergarten teacher for 32 years, then held various roles at Gowrie Victoria. These included working as a Kindergarten Cluster Management Coordinator, an Early Childhood Consultant in Resources and Advice, Trainer and Assessor of Diploma and Certificate 3 in Children’s Services and Professional Development Presenter.

Anne is also a published author of There Stood Our Dog, a children’s story book, illustrated by Craig Smith and co-author of three publications titled Engaging Families in your Early Childhood Services, Learning Environments: Inspiring Spaces, and Visible Learning in Family Day Care, funded through the Community Childcare Association of Victoria. Anne has had inspiring experiences presenting at conferences in Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Japan and Malaysia. She has also worked as a casual research assistant in mentoring projects with the Bastow Institute and the University of Melbourne.

Anne now works as a sessional lecturer in the School of Education at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) and as a presenter for Play Australia.

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