Fluffy Ducks All in a Row

In the early years we have a term: ‘Fluffy Duck Syndrome’. It is very useful to understand what this term means when discussing the ‘best’ methods for young children’s learning. ‘Fluffy Duck Syndrome’ describes a situation where the adults decide that the children are going to make an piece of artwork for their parents. The adults prepare a set of resources that are all the same – same size, same materials, same ‘end result’ as the goal. The adults give the children step-by-step instructions as to how to make their cards. At the end of the activity, all the children have a card that looks exactly the same. The cards are the same size, with the same art materials stuck on in exactly the same places to create exactly the same pictures. The Fluffy Ducks are officially all in a row. The cards look lovely and neat, and the parents are pleased. But there are some important learning opportunities that get lost in this approach: not least, creativity, individuality, choice, experimentation and decision-making.

There are times when ‘direct instruction’ is entirely the right approach to use with young children. This is what some might call ‘teaching’ but what people in the early years often refer to as ‘adult-directed learning’. When our children are helping prepare the snacks for snack time at preschool, it is completely appropriate for the adults to show them the best way to do it. In this situation, it is the best and most efficient way for learning to happen. ‘You should hold the knife like this when you cut, to be safe’ and ‘it’s best to cut the chunks this way so they are bite size’ and of course ‘shall we count the chunks to check that we have got enough for everyone?’ Similarly, if you want to help a young child learn how to get dressed independently, you would help them understand how best to do it. Why on earth would you not? (Although this is definitely not to say you should not at least encourage them to try and do it by themselves as well.)

Interestingly, it is not just the adults who use ‘direct instruction’ in the early years. You will often find the children using this technique brilliantly as well. When the children teach us, we tend to refer to this as ‘child directed’ or ‘child initiated learning’. ‘You have to put on the chef’s hat, Lynne, because you are going to be the cook in our café and we don’t want hair in our food. Remember to wash your hands before you start cooking, so you don’t spread germs.’ The adults are highly responsive to this kind of instruction from the children, because it is such a wonderful way to help them build confidence and vocabulary, and to find out what they already know. It’s a bit similar to saying to the children ‘you be teacher’ at primary or secondary level.

And then there is ‘play’. It strikes me that the term ‘play’ is sometimes misunderstood when it comes to learning in the early years. ‘Play’ is not some kind of random, free-for-all where children race around the setting chucking toys at each other. (Yes, we too have an agree set of ‘rules’ to ensure everyone is safe and can learn.) ‘Play’ is a cleverly structured set of learning opportunities, devised by the adults in response to an in-depth knowledge of their children. The ‘play’ sometimes begins with the adults putting out a set of resources that they know will inspire their children to learn a specific skill, attribute or piece of information. (In the early years we would usually refer to this as ‘adult initiated learning’.) If yesterday the children were really keen to play on the ride-on toys, then today you might create a ‘road network’ together, and encourage them to ride the cars and bikes along the roads. You might also offer resources so that they can create a set of road signs to use in their play. In doing so, you guide their play, and you also create opportunities to learn – in this instance, building physical dexterity, identifying symbols in the world around us, and learning how and why we follow ‘the rules of the road’.

Early years practitioners also love to give children a choice of resources, as a method both for differentiating learning and also encouraging children to make considered decisions. This is often referred to as ‘child initiated learning’. The children’s ‘choice’ will always be limited by the resources you have available in your setting, and this is why creating an ‘enabling environment’ is such a key factor in a great early years setting. You provide the ‘best’ resources to ensure that learning can happen. The children can only play with what you offer them (although often they will not play with it in quite the way that you had anticipated.) However, when children initiate play of their own accord, the adults do not stand back and let them get on with it. They make subtle but crucial interventions to ensure that the play builds learning. One of the best techniques for this is ‘sustained shared thinking’. As you join in with the child’s play, you talk together about what is going on. You ask the children questions to guide and build their thinking, as they play. These are mainly open-ended questions (‘What do you think will happen if we add another block to your tower? Why do you think it might topple over?) At exactly the same time, you can encourage learning to happen in other ways (‘Shall we count how many blocks were in the tower when it fell over?)

If we go back to those Fluffy Ducks with which I began this post, why then, in some instances, is adult directed learning (a.k.a. ‘teaching’) the ‘wrong’ thing to do? If your goal is to create a setting full of children who know how to follow adult instructions, surely that activity is entirely justified? The point is this: a set of identical cards is one possible outcome of the activity, but it is not necessarily the most appropriate outcome for this particular activity. One of our aims as educators is surely to encourage children to think for themselves, to take creative risks, to experiment with different art resources and to end up with artwork that is an expression of their own imaginative thinking? This is an art activity, after all. And if that is the case, then the best method for this particular activity is to give them the resources and then let them decide what is ‘best’ by themselves. To let them learn through that wonderful technique that us adults might refer to as ‘play’, but which, for small children, is simply what they do.

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11 Responses to Fluffy Ducks All in a Row

  1. Ian Lynch says:

    I define play as the stuff you want to do whereas work is the stuff you have to do. So I get to play quite a lot as an adult but I have to work too. Optimising the work play balance in favour of play seems to me a reasonable life goal. But of course what is work to some is play to others and vice versa. Sometimes I have to work to enable the play. Play is only pejorative if it is assumed to be non-productive in achieving a goal when that goal is an important enabler of future play. So if I need to learn my tables to enjoy getting paid for playing with numbers later in life I can learn them through things I want to do or I can be forced to learn them through things I don’t want to do. So learning tables could be work or play based on my definitions. The same activity could be work for one individual and play for another. (OK not necessarily appropriate for EYs but just to illustrate a general point)

    What matters in the end is do I know my tables? This is back to the OFSTED debate. In this example, OFSTED is interested in how many children do know their tables and at what age. If too few know them they can then look at the methods used and see if it looks to be working or not. If not they should comment on it, that is their job. They will say “children spend too much time playing in sandpits and not enough time learning tables” or “teachers are unsuccessful in engaging children in learning tables” or something similar. Someone is going to say they are expressing a preferred teaching method. Their job is to identify weaknesses in outcomes and comment on why these might occur so its difficult to see how they would not make such comments. We can say we think they are bad judges but we can’t complain about comments that are part of the job. The comments should under-pin judgements on outcomes. That is why they do things like results analysis and comparisons first. If they are not doing this well or objectively, then let’s get them to do it better rather than make it into a big ideological issue.


  2. suecowley says:

    Thank you for your comment, Ian. I do understand what you are saying.

    A couple of thoughts in response. Firstly, an EY inspection can be as short as 2.5 hours, our last one was. I’m convinced they cannot possibly make an accurate judgement in this time. Also, the Ofsted letter *was* expressing a preference on teaching methods, it’s just that the language tends to hide that if you don’t understand how EY settings work. The word ‘teach’ indicates ‘adult directed’, the word ‘play’ indicates ‘adult initiated’ or ‘child initiated’. There is a big difference, as I have tried to explain above.

    A big part of the issue for Ofsted in EY inspections is that we don’t have ‘data’ for them to study, in the way that a school would have, so essentially they will have to make a judgement on methods. It’s also important to note that some children might attend a preschool setting for as little as a couple of hours a week, so how much impact you could make on their progress would be open to question.

    One last critical point to note is that an EY setting is *not* the end of the key stage – this is the end of the Reception class. Any ‘outcomes’ required by the end of the EYFS should be achieved by end Reception, and not be seen as a stick to measure preschool settings.


    • Ian Lynch says:

      Depends on the judgement. I don’t think the OFSTED letter was expressing a preferred teaching method, mostly it was about outcomes and targeted on inspectors not teachers. I’ll check…

      help children to learn
       teach children to listen to instructions and be attentive
       teach children to socialise
       motivate children to try things for themselves
       support children to manage their personal needs
       challenge children to think and find out more
       encourage children to speculate and test ideas through trial and error
       provide good models of language
       develop children’s ability to express their ideas and use their imagination
       extend children’s vocabulary and teach them to use new words
       teach children the early stages of mathematics and reading.

      All of the above are outcomes, not methods, apart perhaps from providing a model for language. I can’t see any of those outcomes being things I’d not want for my grand children. I really don’t know what the fuss is about. HOW you teach children to socialise or HOW you extend a child’s vocabulary is not specified. In fact the letter goes on to say they should not specify such things and simply look at the outcomes. If I got any reasonably educated person to read that letter and comment on it, I doubt anyone would find any reason for the frenzy it seems to have thrown up.

      If they go round hundreds of classes and find some where the kids are clearly achieving these outcome a lot better than others they are going to look into why. Whether 2.5 hrs is enough is difficult to say. I have certainly walked into secondary schools where within an hour of walking round I know walking round for another 10 really isn’t going to change much. But each situation is different so its not possible to generalise. I have never inspected primary never mind EYs so I don’t know. Its 15 years since I did any inspections so things might have changed but the main point of contention is that one set of humans hates being judged by another so there is never going to be rational debate about it.


  3. suecowley says:

    Thanks again, Ian. My blog post didn’t specifically refer to the Ofsted letter (and actually was more about trying to explain the different methods that we use and the difference between ‘teaching’ and ‘play’ for those who do not have experience of the EY sector). However, there are a few key quotes for me from the letter:

    * “should focus on evaluating whether children are being adequately prepared for the start of their statutory schooling” – this needs definition, as many EY professionals suspect that this means one thing to inspectors/gov’t and another to us. It should also be remembered that an EY setting, is not end of KS, that happens *at* school. There seems confusion here about our role, and the part we play in delivering the EYFS, which to the vast majority of us is *not* mainly about ‘preparing’ small children for statutory schooling.

    * “children as young as two … can be taught a range of things” – the list that follows can all be learned through child initated or child directed learning, rather than ‘teaching’ (adult directed). Again, perhaps what would be useful would be to define what is meant by ‘teaching’ in this context – my reading is that Mr Wilshaw is saying that this should be done through adult directed approaches, which to my mind would be a ‘preferred teaching style’.

    * “teach children to listen to instructions and be attentive’ – teaching a small child to ‘be attentive” is a fine aim, but tends to suggest the ‘fluffy duck syndrome’ as described above – that this is something that an adult can ‘direct’ them to do, rather than something that comes about through the child’s motivation to learn (i.e. through self directed play).

    Perhaps in the end it is all a matter of semantics, but it is clear that some (many?) in the EY sector are reading this letter in a particular way. As I think I’ve mentioned to you previously, this needs to be taken in context with lots of other things that have been going on in EY recently. The ‘schoolification’ agenda is one I think it is right to challenge. At the end of the day, this is not a statutory part of schooling, but an important period in a young child’s life in which they develop and learn in a complex variety of ways.

    I don’t have a problem with being judged, so long as that judgement is balanced, fair and most importantly, accurate. Because of the lack of numerical data in the early years, this means that what the Inspector sees in those 2.5 hours, and what your SEF says, take on a disproportionate importance in terms of what they judge are the ‘outcomes’ for children. If the inspector is focused on ‘teaching’ in the sense that a primary or secondary teacher might understand it, then this could slant inspection judgements and encourage settings to do more adult directed learning than they might do otherwise.


    • Ian Lynch says:

      OK a bit off topic I agree but worth some discussion. “Prepared to start school” I ‘d say was ready to socialise and join in, toilet trained, able to engage in typical activities etc. All education is about preparing for the next stage in life to one extent or another – just like secondary has to prepare them for college, jobs etc. Not exclusively but it’s important. What reasonable parent wouldn’t want their child prepared and ready for “big school”? Prepared for employment?

      I think Wilshaw deliberately does not say adult directed. You are making an inference there – you are saying it not him so you can’t then accuse him of something you are saying you think he means. All they are interested in is outcomes. (That’s largely what I would be interested in as a parent, after safety etc) On the one hand we have extreme “teacher from the front” and the other “keep the teacher out of the way”. OFSTED people are mostly not in these religious camps. They look at a lot of examples and try to pick out what works. They have no reason to do otherwise.

      Teaching children to be attentive could be finding what engages them and repeating it. Sesame Street is a good example. The Count, repeating counting engaged kids better than what a lot of people thought would. Little kids like repetition – certainly mine did. Favourite book read to them over and over, nursery rhymes etc. So 2 egs watching TV and listening to a story. Am I going to be pilloried now for these being passive? Well justifiably if it was the only thing but I wouldn’t do only this with my own kids so why would I think doing this all the time was good for other people’s? It’s about balance, not cherry picking one thing as if it was the only part of the diet. The letter isn’t a comprehensive framework for EY ed, its just a reminder to inspectors to look for outcomes in a subset of all that can be achieved. A letter to inspectors not teachers.

      I think you are right about people reading things in that are not there. If I had £1 for every myth conjured up about OfSTED I’d be a rich man. Rumours and misinterpretations spread like wild fire largely as a result of paranoia and some of that is understandable given the pressures on people. It is not helped by people that have an agenda to discredit anything OfSTED does or to use anything they say mostly out of context to prove an idealogical point. There is great temptation to do that because it is a “them” and “us” situation but it detracts from looking constructively at the real issues and how to get improvements for children. I really don’t see the content of that letter as being particularly controversial, in fact I’d have been more surprised if it had been a lot different.


  4. suecowley says:

    Thanks again, Ian. I do wonder how much political pressure Ofsted face from politicians (I’m not saying they respond to it, but I think you might agree it is there) so I’ll just leave you with this thought: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/apr/22/childcare-minister-elizabeth-truss-nurseries
    And to quote Ms Truss: “Ofsted inspectors will be told to mark down nurseries which do not … provide more structured learning.” 🙂


    • Ian Lynch says:

      There is always going to be some political pressure but the system as a whole is quite resistant to change – hence Gove’s reference to “the Blob” and Blair to scars on his back trying to achieve change in education. In the end though being in a democracy means taking the rough with the smooth. Politicians are there to make policy. One of the reasons I went and started my own company was that I have more flexibility to use what I know to get things done. My only constraint is I have to be able to generate enough income to do it. I don’t think that is a bad discipline though. If you want to do it badly enough you’ll find the means to do it.


  5. Pingback: Now! That’s Primary Blogging Volume Ten | prawnseyeblog

  6. As an ingenuity coach and writer, with 60+ years life experience, I believe some fluffy ducks must die.

    I look about and see so many kids who are institutionalized in “Kentucky Fried Daycare” places… Where creativity and individual spirit is often extinguished.

    Are we quashing tomorrow’s authors, leaders, artists?

    Is this society doomed to over produce comic book movies? Will Godzilla arise on theater screens every 15 years?

    There are glimmers of hope. Educators, give fertile soil to these gardens.


  7. Reblogged this on Ingenuity Guru and commented:
    Some Ducks Must Die.


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