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Cognitive skills for active learning in the early years

Written by: Sara Baker
9 min read

There is a lot of talk about active learning in the early years, as well as a host of related pedagogical approaches: experiencebased learning, child-led learning, discovery learning, enquiry learning, guided learning. But what does active learning really mean?

The brain is an active agent, not a passive subject

Evidence on the developing brain shows that it actively organises itself and adapts to its environment. It seeks out meaning, and has expectations about the world, such as when we experience visual illusions (Wagemans et al., 2012). The fact that we can visually experience something that we intellectually know isn’t really there tells us that the brain is doing work under its own steam. The brain has a job to do, and it will take the initiative to do it!

While the majority of brains are built to do a fixed set of jobs, like seeing, hearing and remembering, brains are also extremely clever and adaptable. Allowing room for responsiveness to one’s experiences means that individual brains can be customised to suit the specific jobs and circumstances they are most likely to face. In other words, while there are some ‘factory settings’, brain plasticity in the early years allows room for resilience and a multitude of different ways in which individuals learn to respond to what happens to them (Bunge and Whitaker, 2012). The brain is an active agent of learning.

If we can pinpoint the early cognitive skills that support active learning, then we are well on our way to finding out how teachers can nurture these.

Active learning and the prefrontal cortex

Educational neuroscience offers a clue to a key set of skills that support actively engaged learning; the so-called executive functions. Executive functions are a set of skills that coordinate and ‘project-manage’ everything else in our brain, allowing us to adapt to changing circumstances in a context-appropriate way. Executive functions depend on the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that undergoes huge developmental changes during the preschool years. They make it possible to hold multiple thoughts in mind at the same time, to plan ahead and make decisions, to multi-task and switch between different activities, as well as to control impulses and think things through before acting.

Thus, a young child with strong executive functions will play the long game when faced with temptation; they will find it easier to concentrate on their activities in a noisy classroom, and transitions between different parts of the day will not be so challenging for them. A young child with weak executive functions, in contrast, will show more impulsive tendencies, will be distractible and less persistent with their work, and might experience more difficulties moving between activities or parts of their day.

Active learning and academic achievement

Some people are surprised to hear that children’s early academic achievement is more a result of their executive functions than their age or their IQ. For example, in a US study of hundreds of children in Michigan and Oregon, McClelland et al. (McClelland et al., 2007) showed that preschoolers’ maths skills were predicted by the amount of growth they demonstrated in their executive functions over the course of the academic year. In this study with middle-class children, the amount of previous school experience was less important in shaping their early academic skills than were the children’s executive functions.

In a similar UK study of three- to six-year-olds, Steele et al. (Steele et al., 2012) showed that children’s ability to direct their own attention, a form of executive function, was correlated with their emerging maths and literacy skills, even when age and other factors were accounted for. These are two amongst many examples of research studies showing that early executive functions are key skills for early learning. We must bear in mind, however, that almost all of the existing evidence linking executive functions and early learning is of a correlational nature, and does not therefore imply that executive functions are necessary or sufficient for school achievement (Jacob and Parkinson, 2015).

Supporting active learning in the classroom

Cross-curricular competences like executive functions are best fostered through active, child-led approaches where children can practise these skills ((Diamond and Lee, 2011); (Perry et al., 2007)). As someone recently wrote on Twitter, brain training works, and it’s called school. Amadio (Amadio, 2013) highlights the challenges that school leaders and teachers face when trying to implement more active learning approaches that may support such key skills as executive functions. This is echoed in my team’s current collaborative work with a group of Reception and Year 1 teachers in the UK. Our teacher-collaborators recognise the potential benefits of supporting children’s agency in their own learning, but they are also realistic about the practical challenges that need to be overcome (Kittredge et al., under revision). For example, they are unsure about how much support to give children and when to step back. The lack of teacher-friendly assessment of executive functions in classrooms means that teachers won’t necessarily find it easy to identify and track the development of key learning skills like executive functions. As with any development in teachers’ practice, it will take time to embed Kittredge A et al. (forthcoming)(n.d.).

On the following pages, we offer some examples of strategies that teachers might try in their Early Years classrooms to support active learning, with examples and some indicative research studies that may be useful for further reading. It is worth noting that these strategies can be applied further up the years, beyond the Early Years foundation stage, to support active learning and executive functions in older learners, too.


Offering children choice means that they have to weigh up different options for themselves, exercising their reasoning skills and taking different factors into consideration in a sustained way throughout their daily lives (Diamond and Lee, 2011). They may really want to build a pipe-cleaner tower, but if that station is very busy they may choose to do another activity until there is more space for them. Offering them the opportunity to make some choices for themselves gives them practice and develops their decisionmaking skills. If a teacher always assigned children to stations, the children would miss out on the chance to exercise their executive functions.


Another way that teachers can support children’s executive functions is by exposing children to multiple different ways of approaching a situation (Diamond and Lee, 2011). For this to work, the activity has to be open-ended enough for there to be multiple avenues to explore in pursuit of the answer. This exercises children’s flexibility and problem-solving, by getting children to think outside the box. This can be done in maths, for example, which is often thought of as a recipe box. Can teachers build up a range of approaches with children, for example, by showing children a variety of ways to add up? Problem-solving and puzzling through different options will force the children to actively think ahead and weigh up different solutions, rather than becoming adept at reproducing the same set of actions over and over in the exact same way every time.

The role of the teacher

What these strategies have in common is that they require appropriate support. Left to their own devices, choice and problem-solving could lead to chaotic classrooms where children have no sense of direction or boundaries. The role of the teacher, therefore, remains critical. In some cases this means contingent scaffolding that tunes in to the young child’s perspective (Sanders and Mazzucchelli, 2013). Teachers will recognise that this is easier done in a small group or one-to-one than in large groups. This has implications for the structure of activities, such as how much whole-class carpet time is planned (Weisberg et al., 2016). Of course, plenaries have value, in building a sense of community and conveying important information that everyone needs. The point to remember is that the learning skills children are practising during whole-group direct instruction versus working in smaller groups will be very different.

The teacher can use the structure of the classroom to build additional scaffolds for children’s executive functions, so the children can also be their own teachers (Barker and Munakata, 2015). Small things can make a difference, like curtains hung between stations to support concentration, and books arranged on a shelf from least to most advanced so that children know where to find the level of challenge they are looking for.

Active learning for all

Teachers will immediately ask themselves how such approaches are suited to learners of varying abilities. In a regular classroom full of eight-yearolds, some may have the executive functions of a typical five-year-old while others may have the executive functions of a typical 12-year-old (Gathercole et al., 2006). If teachers adopt strategies for active learning, with more onus placed on the child to lead their own learning, how does a child with weak English language skills make their own interests known to the teacher? If a child tends to day-dream and struggles to stay on task when given specific instructions, what will happen to them when they are given more freedom to select their own activities and ask for help at the appropriate times? In the face of such questions, teachers can reflect on the specific cognitive skills that might be holding a child back.

Psychology and neuroscience can help teachers understand the underlying cognitive skills of the vast range of children in their classrooms. Armed with this understanding, teachers are in a better position to make evidence-based decisions about applying research in their own classrooms. We know from our team’s work with teachers as co-researchers that there is no magic formula. Professional judgement on a teacher’s part is a critical skill that undergoes continuous development. Finding out which approaches work best, for which kinds of learning and for whom, is a key factor in supporting high-quality teaching in Early Years classrooms. This very important question requires teachers and researchers to work together to extend evidence-based practice and practice-based evidence on cognitive skills for active learning.


Amadio M (2013) A rapid assessment for general education focussing on cross-curricular themes and generic competences or skills. Background paper for the UNESCO Education for All. Background paper for the UNESCO Education for All. UNESCO Education for All.
Barker J and Munakata Y (2015) Developing self-directed executive functioning: Recent findings and future directions. Mind, Brain, and Education 9(2): 92–99.
Bunge S and Whitaker K (2012) Brain imaging: Your brain scan doesn’t lie about your age. Current Biology 22(18): R800–R801.
Diamond A and Lee K (2011) Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old. Science 333(6045): 959–964.
Gathercole S, Lamont E and Alloway T (2006) Working memory in the classroom . In: Pickering S (ed.) Working Memory and Education. Burlington, MA: Academic Press, pp. 219–240.
Jacob R and Parkinson J (2015) The potential for school-based interventions that target executive function to improve academic achievement: A review. Review of Educational Research 85(4): 512–552.
McClelland M, Cameron C and Connor C (2007) Links between behavioral regulation and preschoolers’ literacy, vocabulary, and math skills. Developmental Psychology 43(4): 947.
Perry N, Hutchinson L and Thauberger C (2007) Mentoring student teachers to design and implement literacy tasks that support self-regulated reading and writing. Reading & Writing Quarterly 23(1): 27–50.
Sanders M and Mazzucchelli T (2013) The promotion of self-regulation through parenting interventions. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review 16(1): 1–17.
Steele A, Kermiloff-Smith A and Cornish K (2012) The multiple subfunctions of attention: Differential developmental gateways to literacy and numeracy. Child Development 83(6): 2028–2041.
Wagemans J, Elder J, Kubovy M, et al. (2012) A century of Gestalt psychology in visual perception: I. Perceptual grouping and figure– ground organization. Psychological Bulletin 138(6): 1172.
Weisberg D, Hirsch-Pasek K and Golinkoff R (2016) Guided play: Principles and practices. Current Directions in Psychological Science 25(3): 177–182.
(n.d.) Kittredge A, Day N, Janik-Blaskova L, Zhang H and Baker S (under revision) Teachers coresearching child-led approaches: Supporting self-regulated learning in early science classrooms. Teaching and Teacher Education.
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      Author(s): Bill Lucas