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Learning at its Best

Early Learning: Changing The Rules of Engagement

This is a cross-post of a piece that I submitted to the newly-established website Inspired by the work that the Cooperative Catalyst has been doing, and dismayed by the polarization that sometimes characterizes online conversations about education, we had the idea that the time might be right for a  collaborative working space dedicated to schooling in Canada. Please know just how much your efforts here have been an inspiration for the initiative. I hope that we might be able to engage in some cross-collaboration over the years!

In our first “writing prompt”, we were asked to consider a practical, do-able change that we would like to see in the near future. Many of our provinces are now involved in taking a serious look at their early learning strategies and this post is based on some thinking around the importance of this.

Two years from now, I want to be looking at an education system in Canada that has made a true commitment to the “early” part of the phrase “early learning”.  Although I think that there’s some hope that this will happen, it is going to require both political and social will to prevent the strategies currently being developed and implemented in all but a couple of Canadian provinces from becoming a mere extension of current thinking about this place we call school.


We need to allow our early learning programs to wake us up to the fact that our schools must change so that they will ready for our children!

I happen to believe that the greatest potential for systemic change in school-based education lies in our handling of the Kindergarten initiatives that are gradually being phased in throughout the country. Although some provinces have committed to sit back and monitor the work being done in other jurisdictions, full day Kindergarten is now on the radar of the entire country. And if we do it right, the groundwork that is laid to provide high quality programs at this level could  have resounding effects throughout the entire system.

Focus on early learning programs has brought back to the table some language that has, in my opinion, been missing for some time: age-appropriate strategies, play-based, experiential learning and nap time! But other things, many of which are politically inspired have also crept into our foundational conversations about early learning: improved student achievement, better transition to school and economic growth.

Now, I’m not naïve enough (anymore) to believe that the impetus behind FDK programs is without political overtones. I do believe, however, that the lasting success and impact that our early learning initiatives could have are only going to be realized if we drop the talk about improved achievement (better test scores) and smoother transition to grade one (better behaved and “school-ready” students). And economic growth? Well…

Our youngest children need programs that deal with the here and now in their lives. These early years, whether at school or at home,  should be filled with discovery, hands-on activity, laughter, group interaction, joy and yes, lots of naps!!! These years should be focused on the today of child development, not the tomorrow of grade one. This is important…really important!

In order to do this our teacher unions, our politicians and those in charge of our provincial testing protocols all need to do one simple thing. They need to get out of the way and let those with the most expertise in early learning do their job. Oh we need to support their efforts, respect their efforts, understanding how important this work is, but we need to let them do it. As long as we’re arguing over contractual, assessment and financial issues, our eye is going to be taken off the prize which happens to be the well-being of our children.

That said, an important side effect of successful early learning programs will be substantial change to the entire system. Think about it. If  we get it right, we’ll  be forced to change our perspective around the way we “do” grades one, two and three.

I predict that children (and their parents) coming out of well-designed and well-implemented kindergarten programs could place significant demands on the way that the subsequent levels of their schooling are conceived. Not only will we, as adults, learn more about the power of play-based, imaginative education at all levels of the system, but we will be faced with the task of continuing to motivate and engage students emerging from these programs. The status quo throughout the rest of the system will be pressured to change in order to accommodate FDK students.

That’s my dream. And it will only come true if we take seriously the recommendations of early learning panels across the nation and around the world. It will only come true if we put aside the desire to use our early learning strategies to get our children ready for school. Instead, we need to allow our early learning programs to wake us up to the fact that our schools must change so that they will be ready for our children!

More to explore here, I know, but I look forward to hearing your thoughts, comments and challenges to my thinking.

About Stephen Hurley

After working for over 30 years in Ontario's public education system, I continue to work passionately throughout Canada, still very committed to the idea of effective, powerful learning experiences for all participants. A musician, technology-watcher, father, husband, I find life in the world of education, even when the conversations get a little contentious. If I were to be doing anything else right now, it would be hosting my own syndicated radio program on--you guessed it--education. I blog in a few spots. My personal blog can be found at I can also be found hanging around and, most recently, I can be found on twitter as @stephen_hurley


5 thoughts on “Early Learning: Changing The Rules of Engagement

  1. Stephen, for secondary school lifers like me, could you speak a bit more about the kinds of methods and outcomes you envision? I fully appreciate the “here and now” in every child’s education and in all of our lives and learning; how does an early childhood learning program help teachers get the right “here and now” pieces into the learning space and get the wrong pieces out of the way? How much of what you propose is something teachers can bring? How much can kids bring?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 18, 2012, 7:27 pm
  2. Hi Chad,

    I appreciate that questions about this. I think that, from the very beginning, many early learning strategies are very wrapped up in the politics of saving “at risk” children, trying to improve what turn out to be ‘trailing indicators’ of student success (i.e. test scores) and saving parents the high cost of daycare. I know it sounds cynical, but that’s what I’m seeing here.

    At the same time, I think that a focus on early learning can help us get on the right track when it comes to the way we view kids, school and the connection between the two. I think that programs that begin with the way that children appear to engage in the learning process when they’re not being watched and directed are valuable learning tools for educators. Principled approaches that try to listen for the interests of students, try to develop schedules and programs that resonate with children, and have built in flexibility are key.

    I think that many of our children bring the necessary resources to the schoolhouse, but I don’t think we spend enough time creating the spaces that allow them to flourish. Four and five year olds really don’t need to be “taught” a whole lot in a really formal way. They need the experiences that will allow for development of understanding in the future.

    That’s not to say that they can’t or won’t learn but I think that the best thing an early years program can offer a child is space and freedom to explore, to ask questions, and to experience the joy of finding stuff out.

    You likely have some more specific questions. Don’t imagine that I have a whole lot of answers. I’m just looking for the right questions to ask!

    Posted by Stephen Hurley | March 18, 2012, 8:03 pm
  3. Stephen, I eagerly jumped to your post because I always enjoy your writing so much.

    This seems like a powerful strategy for transformation here: emphasizing what matters early, as a lever for systemic change. Could you talk a little more (because I’m out of touch with this, or out of date) on some of the data on the effects of high quality educational environments on long term human growth and academic success/attainment? Also, what does the neurobiological evidence say about high-quality kindergarten on human development?

    Thank you for this, and for the Canadian effort to kick ass on the revolution.


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | March 19, 2012, 8:04 am
    • Hi Kirsten,

      Thanks for the comment and for the question. You know, the narrative around the importance of early learning has become so common-place here, that I can’t recall the exact data associated with it.

      But I will pull it out and give you some of the highlights. It will give me a chance to give it a more critical eye!

      Always appreciate the feedback…and the push!

      Posted by Stephen Hurley | March 19, 2012, 11:04 pm


  1. Pingback: “Should” on Again! « Dancing Through Life with Spirit - April 18, 2012

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