What does rigorous PreK look like–and what can I do to support it?

Rigorous instruction, in PreK and beyond, supports children to reach learning targets and expands their cognitive capabilities. Rigorous PreK helps close achievement gaps—as we discussed in our first blog.

So, what does rigorous instruction in PreK look like?

Let’s Take a Look

First, let’s start by comparing two brief video clips of PreK instruction.

Both teachers are focused on math measurement, specifically estimating/measuring volume. This learning objective is aligned to the Virginia Learning Standards for Grade Three Measurement 3.9: “The student will estimate and use U.S. Customary and metric units to measure…liquid volume in cups, pints, quarts, gallons and liters”. But you’ll see that how they teach this content to 4-year-olds is quite different across the two clips.

As you watch, ask yourself, which clip shows more rigorous instruction?

Clip A (1:09) :

*Click to play video in new tab
Source: Office of Head Start

Clip B (1:30):

*Click to play video in new tab
Source: Erikson Math Collaborative

Now keep in mind what you saw in these two clips as we walk through some key features of rigorous PreK instruction.

3 Key Features of  Rigorous PreK

#1 No matter how good a lesson looks on paper, children must be actively engaged to benefit!

Four-year-olds need frequent opportunities to move, interact with others, and touch interesting materials.

Source: istock.com/X-star

You may have noticed that in Clip A, materials were available, but not accessible – children weren’t having hands-on learning experiences. [Note: Maybe the teacher was about to do that, we just didn’t see it in the clip.]

In Clip B, children were manipulating the materials, freely talking to each other and the teacher. Engagement was consistently high during this play-based instruction.

Oops, we said PLAY! Is that a bad word?

Source: istock/YiorgosGR

The teacher in Clip B facilitated the play (that children were clearly enjoying) and turned it into a teachable moment. Why is that important?

We need to keep in mind that young children have limited capacity to stay still and listen passively. Have you ever observed a teacher begin a lesson on a high note, but then lose children’s engagement as the lesson goes on (past 10, 15, 20, minutes)? Maybe you see children getting restless, off-task, disruptive?

When children are manipulating interesting materials (especially materials chosen by them), not only do they absorb more of the content, but they are less likely to show challenging behaviors.

So finding ways to keep children actively engaged—using hands-on materials, questioning, or movement opportunities— is an essential component to rigorous instruction.

#2 Learning should be contextualized — connected to their real world!

Learning happens most effectively when new content is connected to prior experience and knowledge.

Children need to understand teachers’ learning targets in their own terms. Then they need active engagement with hands-on materials and real-life experiences to fully comprehend and remember the content.

Source: istock/ matka_Wariatka

As we saw in Clip B, the children are primed to understand volume as the teacher connected this learning objective to their play at the sand table. The teacher facilitated their learning by relating it to their actions (filling up the buckets and comparing which is “bigger”).

Whether teaching happens in large or small groups, learning centers, transitions, or routines, children should be learning in the context of real-life experiences.

Worksheets or flash cards won’t cut it.

How will you know when it’s working? Children will be talking and making connections to their lives. Again, there’s that active engagement.

#3 Instructionally supportive interactions are necessary to build children’s thinking, skills, and knowledge.

Students need to learn facts—but facts alone are not sufficient to build depth of knowledge that can be applied to real world situations. If we want school to teach children to be good thinkers, creative problem-solvers, persistent learners—drilling facts won’t get us there!

A smarter approach is to focus on effective instructional interactions, which provide children rich opportunities to think deeply, answer challenging questions, receive feedback on their learning, and develop their growing language skills.

Source: istock/kali9

We saw this happen through questioning and discussions facilitated by the teacher in Clip B. She asks children a series of thought-provoking questions, including “how do you know it’s bigger?” They respond and a back-and-forth dialogue ensues. We can see children using their math thinking and language skills.

Studies show that when teachers engage in moderate to high quality instructional interactions, children show significant gains in math, language, and literacy.

The bad news: Most PreK classrooms—even K-5 classrooms— studied around the nation have low levels of quality instructional interactions.

Source: http://curry.virginia.edu/uploads/resourceLibrary/CLASS-MTP_PK-12_brief.pdf

The implications: We have some real work to do to improve instructionally supportive interactions.

So which clip above demonstrates more rigorous instruction?

Clip A looks good in some ways: the teacher clearly focuses children on learning objectives. The materials (water, buckets) are interesting and children are outdoors—not sitting inside doing worksheets. (This teacher clearly put effort into planning this activity!) The teacher even asks children prediction questions—like: “How many do you think will fit?” However, we see limited child engagement and lacking evidence that children are gaining a deeper understanding of what “volume” means.

Clip B hits all 3 features of rigor: #1 Active Engagement, #2 Connection to real life, and #3 Instructionally supportive interactions. Because of this, we’d predict that students in Clip B would remember more and have a deeper understanding about volume (with regular teacher-student interactions like this across the day.) Think about how powerful these moments are for children’s school readiness!

What can I (as an administrator) do to support rigorous instruction?

Action Step #1: Challenge assumptions

Like ‘learning happens best in large group’ or ‘play isn’t REAL learning.’

Maybe this is a philosophy in your schools for older children in later grades, but encourage your team to look at what’s working for your 4- to 8-year-olds.

A few resources on the topic of play in early childhood are worth mentioning: This article by VPI+ partner Marilyn Rice reviews the role of play in early childhood, including how teachers can facilitate play intentionally to promote thinking (like we saw in Clip B.) This NAEYC article nicely summarizes research showing the need for both play-based learning and direct instruction in PreK. Even children 5 years and older benefit from a balanced view of how children learn best. This EdWeek article by Dr. Daphna Bassok delineated how Kindergarten can—and should—be both developmentally appropriate and focused on rigorous instruction. It’s not an “either/or” scenario – it should be “both/and.”

Action Step #2: Look for the most important things in your observations

Examine the tool you use for observing classrooms.  Does it include indicators of positive instructional interactions? Is it providing useful data for guiding improvements to classroom rigor?

Virginia’s Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS), called “Virginia Quality,” will be used to collect CLASS-PreK observation data in every VPI+ classroom this fall (Fall 2017), which includes measurement of instructionally supportive interactions mentioned in Takeaway 3. If you are an administrator in these classrooms, you will have the opportunity to look at this CLASS PreK data and use it for program improvement and planning targeted PD.

Action Step #3: Create shared PD experiences so everyone works to improve academic rigor together

Talk with your preschool team — better yet, your PreK-5 vertical teams—to explore options for shared PD that gets at ‘academic rigor’ in developmentally appropriate ways (as explored above).

Know that there are great free resources available, like the Head Start 15-minute In-service Suites, which break apart effective teacher-child interactions and environments into practical, actionable steps that teachers and programs can use for improvement. You can find this resource and others in the searchable VPI+ Resources directory (tip: select “Teacher-child interactions (CLASS)” on the left side of the page).

Remember that although content-specific PD is useful, foundational aspects of instructional rigor cut across content areas.

Like we saw in the clips, effective instruction is more than just exposing children to content—it boils down to how it’s delivered through teacher-child interactions that support engagement, build knowledge and expand thinking skills.

What’s next?

Look out for our upcoming blog posts diving into the 3 features of rigor: active engagement, connection to the real world, and instructionally supportive interactions!


What can I do now?

Share your experience 

What is an example of rigorous instruction in PreK that you’ve recently observed in your school or center?

How do you plan to support rigor in your classrooms next year by challenging assumptions, cueing in on observations on supportive instructional interactions, or creating shared PD?

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