Cognitive learning in the Tejasvita Preschool Classroom

– BY GAYATHRI TIRTHAPURA, CO-FOUNDER TRUSTEE AT TEJASVITA TRUST

We often hear that children are naturally curious and love to learn. How can we set up a classroom environment that awakens this natural interest in learning in children? At Tejasvita, we believe that when learning goals and the environment are oriented towards building adaptive expertise in children, children’s natural interest gets awakened. Adaptive expertise is a broad term and involves many different dimensions. Very simply put, it’s the ability to apply your skills to problems, set in completely new contexts that you haven’t encountered before, and solve them. While research on adaptive expertise is a lot more prevalent in teaching and learning for higher age groups and for very complex problems, it is not difficult to stretch this idea to the domain of preschool education for foundational concepts too. 

For example, if you are trying to build adaptive expertise in pattern recognition in preschoolers, you would set a goal for the children to develop the expertise to recognise not just intentionally arranged patterns on a worksheet or with learning materials in the classroom but also in many different random contexts –  such as on a dress that someone is wearing or in nature and so on. Or in the case of counting from 1 – 20, the child should not just be able to count and tell us the number of objects in their textbook worksheet but also count in many different random contexts – such as the number of cooking vessels in your kitchen or the number of vehicles that you passed by in the street and so on.

One of our teachers displaying exploring patterns in real-life contexts with children. Observe the Pant Pant Shirt Shirt pattern on the clothesline.

So, how does one go about developing adaptive expertise? To develop adaptive expertise, one needs to develop conceptual understanding. In addition, the degree to which the child is exposed to random contexts within which they can apply their conceptual understanding helps build adaptive expertise.  For example in order to be able to independently recognise any new  patterns that the child encounters, the child needs to deeply understand what a pattern is, at a conceptual level. For this, we need to offer a variety of experiences where the child is able to have her “aha” moments about what a pattern truly is. Apart from lessons and demos, the child needs to be given exposure to a plethora of contexts in which the she can apply the concept and be scaffolded if necessary.  It is not enough if the child with the help of the teacher identifies the different “patterns” in a chapter in the textbook. This would only remain as factual knowledge in the child’s memory in the context of the textbook. If the latter is the only type of  lesson that is offered in the classroom, it would be akin to rote learning.  

Children creating colour patterns with hands-on materials

In Tejasvita classrooms, for every cognitive skill we aim to teach, we offer a variety of experiences to build adaptive expertise. For example, pattern recognition is an important curriculum goal for our children. Following are a few of the experiences that children have towards development of this skill. Every child is exposed to hands-on activities with lessons, demos and appropriate scaffolding for identifying and copying colour, shape, size , object based patterns through a variety of materials like felt, coloured paper, lacing boards and worksheets. We conduct interactive storytelling activities with props which showcase visual and sound patterns in the stories. Children get to explore the concept through appropriate educational manipulatives too. We sing rhymes and songs containing simple sound patterns in them. We bring a variety of materials showcasing patterns in real-life contexts into the classroom. We also read-aloud many wonderful books showcasing patterns.  As children progress, we increase the complexity of the patterns and also move them to higher order skills like creating their own patterns.

A teacher narrating a story “Beep Beep Vroom Vroom” that involves the arrangement of cars in a pattern

Research also shows other factors that aid the development of adaptive expertise. Fewer rewards encourage children to experiment, and emphasis on development of skills rather than the speed at which the child performs a task helps them focus on conceptual learning. Tejasvita’s preschool classroom processes are designed to offer self-paced learning experiences for each child. We don’t offer any extrinsic rewards in the classroom for any child who finishes early or to perfection. Our assessments of the children are indirect and based on teacher observations, and are used only to determine where each child is in the learning curve so that our teachers can decide what to offer next to the children. 

One may argue about the importance of repetitive activities that enhances the speed at which a child performs a skill. For example, unless the child practiced writing alphabets, she would never be able to write efficiently. Or unless children practiced doing math sums, they would never be able to do arithmetic mentally and move on to more complex math. Yes, this is true. Repetition and practice have a place in learning. But these types of activities don’t need to consume all of the learning time. When  children spend a majority of their time in developing adaptive expertise through conceptual learning, they see the value in repetition in order to master the skill, on their own. They are also more likely to remain interested in learning. And we certainly see this happening in our classrooms. We often have children asking for second “servings” of materials so that they can repeat the activity. Children also spontaneously display their understanding of concepts in contexts that are new to them – for example in case of concept of patterns, they recognize a pattern in an all new story we share with them or they create an art piece with an innovative pattern in it during process art activities.  

Pattern recognition is just one of the preschool curriculum goals for which we expose the children to an environment that builds adaptive expertise. A few other curriculum goals for which we use this method are matching, classifying, seriating, problem solving, English language comprehension and so on. For a complete list of our preschool curriculum goals, please refer to our 2019-20 Learning Outcomes Report. Our data from the 2019-20 academic year shows that more than 80% of parents (N=54) and partner school management and staff (N=13) who we interviewed say that children’s interest in learning has increased as a result of our program. More than 70% of the partner school management and staff report that children’s academic abilities have increased as a result of our program. 

At Tejasvita, we believe that cognitive learning in children should happen in a way that boosts their interest in learning. Setting up an environment that focuses on adaptive expertise and conceptual understanding awakens the natural process of learning in children and hence bolsters their interest in learning. 

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