Why your preschool child needs to develop their ‘learning abilities’ more than knowledge and skills

By Galina Dolya and Katie Burns

“Abilities are those qualities that provide successful learning.” Nikolai Veraksa

What are learning abilities? Where do they come from?

The answer to these questions may appear obvious. Learning abilities are whatever it is that determines the speed and flexibility with which we acquire, and are able to apply, new knowledge and skills. There is a window of opportunity until the age of 7 to secure these abilities.

We all know how abilities reveal themselves. Some children are more able than others. They are quick to learn new things, surprise us with their verbal fluency, their precocious achievements in reading and mathematics, in art or in music. If they surprise us enough, we may call them gifted or talented. If they do not, by the time they are seven, we may have decided that they are ‘just average’ (the majority), or even ‘less able’ and already marked down for a future full of educational challenges.

All of us find ourselves thinking about and judging young children’s different abilities in this way from time to time. We also tend to believe that while children’s educational and life experiences may affect for better or for worse the way they put their abilities to use, the abilities themselves are a given. We behave as though they are a part of our genetic inheritance, like the colour of our eyes, or the number of fingers on our hands.

However, Vygotsky considered that we must view human psychological development as a social achievement rather than an individual one. Young children’s abilities are not innate, or simply determined by biology. Children acquire their abilities with and from the others around them — from the social, cultural and educational context of their lives.

The core of what young children learn is not a particular body of knowledge or a specific set of skills. After all, the skills and knowledge children need for survival depend on where they happen to be born, and vary from place to place.

At the heart of what all young children learn, are the universal higher mental functions required to analyse reality. How deeply and securely children are able to acquire them ultimately determines the differences in their abilities.

The classification of abilities

When we think about what our children might be good at, we often have in mind a specific list. For example, we might think about Linguistic, Mathematical, Musical, Physical, Visual, Intra-personal or Inter-personal abilities. The Russian psychologists Olga Diachenko and Nickolai Veraksa stress that young children must develop communicative, self-regulative and cognitive abilities. Children need to be able to understand others and to make themselves understood. They need to be able to plan and to manage their own attention and behaviour. And they need to be able to build mental models of how the world works. These are the general abilities we need. They are the learning abilities that are the prerequisites for success at school and for creative and intellectual achievement.

More than 12 outstanding thinkers — prominent Russian educationalists and developmental psychologists — including Leonid Venger, Olga Diachenko and Nickolai Veraksa, over a period of 30+ years, have extended and adapted Vygotsky’s ideas about learning and development in young children. Their work has led to the development of principles, curriculum content and methods, called Key to Learning, aimed at developing the cognitive abilities of young children (3–7 year olds). The approach makes it possible to substantially increase the developmental effect of education and its influence on the development of cognitive abilities.

The Key to Learning curriculum offers a unique and specific approach to the development of each of this trio of general learning abilities -communication, self-regulation and cognition - through shared play. It is already being used in specialist schools worldwide but will shortly be available for home use too. Click here for more information.

Changing the world of preschool/early years education www.thepreschoolrevolution.com