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The Primary Classroom
Grades K-2
by Victoria Fu

  • What is your image of a primary classroom?
  • What is your image of a community of learners?
  • How can you decide whether a classroom is developmentally appropriate?

While you are pondering these questions, you are invited to visit a primary classroom.

As you enter the classroom you see small groups of children talking and working at child-sized tables with snap-together blocks, modeling clay, tape, paper, crayons, markers, scissors, and rulers. One group is building with blocks on the floor. Toy vehicles and play people are scattered around, and the children talk, pause, examine their structure and then make modifications in it. On a nearby shelf are sheets of construction paper, markers, and modeling clay—the children help themselves to these materials. The teacher moves from one group to another, taking time to sit with the children: observing, listening, answering and asking questions, giving suggestions to the group and to individual children. All the while, she is reflecting on what she sees, providing support and guidance to help the children make sense of what they are doing.

Two children are looking at the books in the book corner. They select a book and bring it to their table. Then they show a picture of a bridge in the book to the other children. They look at the picture, talk animatedly, then begin to take apart and rebuild a structure constructed with the snap-together blocks. A girl brings a model she has built to show to the teacher. She and the teacher examine the model and they talk about it. Then the girl walks briskly back to her seat, picks up a crayon and starts to write on the model. After a while the teacher goes to the middle of the room and speaks to the whole class. She asks the children to get ready to complete their work and reminds them that they will meet together in ten minutes to talk about what they have done. The children turn their attention back to what they are doing, adding the final touches to their work. Some write their names and a few words on their pictures; others scratch their names on modeling clay and together write something on a piece of paper about their creation.

You recognize, while observing all the “goings on” in this classroom, that the children are making representations in a variety of ways that demonstrate what they know about bridges. They work purposefully alone, in pairs, or in small groups — sharing their knowledge and ideas, finding answers and information by asking questions, experimenting with materials, and reading books.

The teacher calls the children together in a carpeted area and asks the children to report on what they have made and learned. The children “show and share” their work with the group. The teacher and the children make comments and ask questions. All the children participate in this activity. The teacher takes pictures of the constructions and the drawings. She tells them that she will make prints of their work to be posted later on the bulletin board and for them to keep in their portfolios.

This scenario illustrates a developmentally appropriate classroom. The classroom is a learning community, in which the teacher and the children create opportunities for learning. The children are encouraged to be active learners by participating in meaningful tasks that support their social and intellectual development. In this community of learning, there is a lot of interaction and interchange, as children share information and help each other make sense of what they are learning.

The teacher recognizes and respects the children's differences in learning styles, ways of knowing, interests, and talents by providing a variety of materials and resources that the children can use to explore, learn, and demonstrate what they have learned. He or she provides a learning environment that supports and is responsive to the children's individual learning needs and goals.1 The role of the teacher is to facilitate and guide the learning process by encouraging the students to explore, to play with ideas, to recognize connections, and to seek information. The teacher challenges students to think by asking meaningful questions.

There is an underlying structure in this classroom. As with other communities, this classroom is “. . . a place where individuals share common values, goals, and activities. It is a place where each member takes on roles to provide sufficient services so that the community's goals are reached. In communities, everyone does not do the same thing at the same time, but groups work together to achieve common goals. A community is a place where social bonds are established and individuals can flourish.”2

As you reflect on this classroom, you may see that the members of this community have a shared understanding of what is expected of them and what the rules of conduct are—the customs and rules of this classroom culture. This shared understanding encourages the students to feel comfortable in taking initiative in their learning. They are self-directed and are able to make choices of how to learn.

This community encourages different approaches to learning and to solving problems. In a developmentally appropriate classroom, the curriculum is integrative, with each activity contributing to the understanding of the big concepts.3 For example, the bridge-building task, described above, is only a part of a bigger project on learning about transportation. The children have explored various aspects of land transportation through books, stories, videos, maps, and models and pictures of vehicles, roads, and bridges. Guest speakers, observations in and out of school, and, most recently, a visit to a transportation museum have been part of the learning process. Their learning is chronicled in diverse ways in the classroom — with posters, charts, models, and writings done by the children and individual records kept in their portfolios. Developmentally appropriate practices also recognize the importance of curriculum integration in early childhood education. The children in the classroom draw on their skills and knowledge of mathematics, science, reading, writing, social studies, art, and technology to explore and to demonstrate their understanding of bridges.

In developmentally appropriate practice, assessment of children's learning is embedded in the teaching-learning process. The teacher observes the children at work and discusses and reviews with the children their work samples. Through this process the teacher assesses what the children have learned and makes plans for additional curriculum activities that will further their learning. The students, in collecting items for their portfolios, and reviewing with the teacher what they have included over time, learn to assess and evaluate their own progress.

In summary, a developmentally appropriate classroom is a learning community in which each individual takes responsibility for his or her own learning. The teacher is aware that the children in the classroom are unique individuals. He or she has a good working knowledge of childhood characteristics, including developmental (emotional, social, cognitive, physical) and individual temperament, learning styles, experiences, interests, special needs. Last but not least, he or she understands how children learn. In this process of solving real problems, the children can construct their own knowledge.

Dr. Victoria R. Fu is Professor of Child Development at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia, and is a Houghton Mifflin Science DiscoveryWorks author.
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