Why understanding the Characteristics of Effective Teaching & Learning is key to our Practice & Provision

Dr Sue Alingham

"It is important that all adults understand the Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning and how they must weave through and inform all our work throughout the whole Stage, from birth to five..."

Dr Sue Alingham

In my work over the years I have noticed that there are four core points about the Characteristics that are not always clear to people. These are –

  • That the actual full title is ‘The Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning
  • That they are part of the Statutory Framework, both currently and in the 2021 edition. As such a knowledge of them must be evident in our work
  • That they underpin the Ofsted definition of teaching and learning which remains in current documents
  • That they apply to all settings within the Early Years Foundation Stage, including Reception Classes in schools

There are many reasons for these points being missed, but it is important that all adults understand the Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning and how they must weave through and inform all our work throughout whole Stage. From birth to five.

The Characteristics have a base in research and are the skills and attitudes that we all need to be successful learners as well as teachers. But how often do notice them in what we do? And how often do we notice them in what the children do? What are we enabling to happen? Without the opportunities to play and explore, learn actively or create and think critically how will any teaching that we do become embedded and useful?

We are very fortunate in Early Childhood Education that a core part of what we do is observation. This is a key skill that we use to inform what we teach, why we teach, how we teach and, in this context, when we teach a new piece of knowledge or further embed some existing learning. And this is where knowledge of the Characteristics and how they apply to our practice and provision underpins what we do. The first step is to make sure that everyone understands the definitions and vocabulary of each aspect of the three Characteristics –

Playing and exploring – engagement

  • Finding out and exploring
  • Playing with what they know
  • Being willing to ‘have a go’

Active learning – motivation

  • Being involved and concentrating
  • Keeping trying
  • Enjoying achieving what they set out to do

Creating and thinking critically – thinking

  • Having their own ideas
  • Making links
  • Choosing ways to do things

A good way to do this would be to look at the new video packages from Siren Films that address each of these. This will give you, or your team, time to reflect away from your own environment. As you watch use the words from the detailed definitions in the current Development Matters to inform your notes, these will then help you review your own provision and practice. This professional reflection will also stand you in good stead when the reformed Statutory Framework comes in September 2021. The Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning are also in that Framework, but there is a danger that the definitions given in our current, non- statutory, guidance may become lost.

Remembering the word ‘teaching’ is included in the title of the Characteristics is very important indeed. If we forget this, there is a danger that an assumption is made that children will develop these skills and habits automatically –

As adults, we are responsible for ensuring that a child’s early experiences are an action call for robust development as a learner. It is important for early years educators to have a clear understanding of what children need to learn – the curricular areas that are needed for success in their society such as language, literacy, ICT, mathematics and so on. But it is not enough for a child to have a particular skill or know some facts. These are of little value in the end without the desire, confidence, motivation and control to use them, and the mental abilities to look at something in a new way, link ideas together and plan and manage the ways forward.
(Stewart, N. 2011 pp8-9)

Stewart calls children ‘agents of their own development’. This is so often missed in practice. I would argue that we are in danger of forgetting this altogether in the current climate. Thus it is more important than ever to remember the four core points I opened with, alongside this quote from Stewart –

Focussing on how children learn implies a particular way of looking at the relationship between teaching and learning. It turns on its head a view that teaching comes first – that the teacher decides what needs to be learned, tells or presents it to the child, and the child then soaks up the knowledge by remembering what has been said.
(Stewart, N. 2011 p15)

The Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning must inform all our practice and provision so that children are not ‘passively receiving knowledge, but are making sense of all the information that surrounds them’ (ibid). In these times of change it is crucial to keep yourself informed so that you provide the best for the children. If you use the Siren Films to support you in this, the impact of really understanding the Characteristics will be clear, and it will also make your job easier as you will have a clearer vision of teaching and learning and curriculum through an enabling environment.


  • Stewart N., 2011. How Children Learn. London. Early Education
  • Tickell, Dame Clare. 2011. The Early Years: Foundations for life, health and learning An Independent Report on the Early Years Foundation Stage to Her Majesty’s Government

Written by Dr Sue Allingham

Dr Sue Allingham holds an MA and EdD in Early Childhood Education from the University of Sheffield and is one of the country’s leading practitioners in early years teaching and learning.

The Characteristics of Effective Learning

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