Tes

The struggle for the heart of the early years

Between the paint pots and the wooden blocks, around the sandpits and the water tables, among the role-play sets and craft areas, there is a struggle going on in the Early Years Foundation Stage. It’s a struggle for the soul of early education.

It is a struggle between those working in the EYFS and, seemingly, everyone else – and both sides claim they have science in their corner. On one side, there are those pulling for change using the findings of cognitive science. On the other, there are those resisting that pull using the findings of developmental science.

Neither side is holding back. The stakes are high. What happens in EYFS matters – it underpins every other stage of education. We need to get it right. But no one, it appears, agrees what “right” looks like.

Does it really have to be this way? The answer – perhaps surprisingly, given the level of animosity between the two camps – is no.

Cognitive science has been dripping into schools for decades, but in the past 10 years its influence on what happens in the classroom has increased rapidly. Among the most popular findings are theories on how memory works and how this impacts learning.

For example, information “retrieval” is one of the much-discussed ideas. Then there’s cognitive load theory, which encompasses the cognitive science theory that our working memory has limited capacity and if we overload it, we can’t process information to store it in our long-term memory.

Broadly speaking, these – and other – ideas springing from cognitive science seem to have been embraced most by secondary school practitioners (partly owing to the research that is most prominent being conducted with this age group and older – see box on page 22 for more). In primary, teachers are usually more agnostic.

In the early years, however, things are different. Here, there is caution among many – and hostility from some – about how cognitive research could be implemented in EYFS, and why.

That is largely down to a feeling that cognitive science is being pushed – by government and by teachers in other phases – as an alternative to the developmental science that the sector has based its work on for decades (though,

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