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Date: February 7, 2020

Exploring the importance of the Characteristics of Effective Learning

Time to Reflect on the Characteristics of Effective Learning

As we know, the EYFS framework is currently under a process of review that will lead to changes being made to the documentation of the EYFS framework and the ELGs. The team carrying out the review have stated that the main elements of the current framework will not be changed and that the Characteristics of Effective Learning will remain a valued part of the EYFS documentation.

This is good news: the Characteristics of Effective Learning have been a central part of the EYFS since 2012. At a time when teachers and practitioners often feel under pressure to focus on what learning is taking place, the CoEL provide a useful structure to use when reflecting on not just what is being learned, but on the quality of that process.

So, at this point of review on the EYFS framework, this is the perfect time to reflect on the Characteristics of Effective Learning and how they are used as part of our practice. Do we use the Characteristics effectively? Is the process of learning reflected on as much as it could be?

Observing the Characteristics

I often ask Teachers and Practitioners how they use the CoEL as part of their practice. The most common answer tends to be that schools and settings use the CoEL as part of the observational assessment process. Schools and settings will often have observational assessment proformas where staff will tick off the characteristics as shown by children when accessing provision. Including the Characteristics of Effective Learning in observations of our children is vital. Even more importantly, we need to be using this information to make decisions about what each child needs. The CoEL need to be just as much a part of our planning processes as ‘what’ we are expecting children to learn.

What Do Our Observations Tell Us?

A focus on the individual child’s characteristics, however, can sometimes lead to blind spots in our practice. It’s important to ask whether our observations tell us about the children or about the environment that they are accessing. If we don’t reflect in this way, then there could be a danger that limitations within our areas of provision could be creating a false ceiling for some children. Using the CoEL as an audit tool of our practice is a great way to structure our action planning and create a clear vision for development.


Draw a simple plan of your classroom. Discuss with your EYFS team which areas of your room are ‘hotspots’ for the CoEL and which spaces are ‘coldspots’.

It might be, for example that the workshop area has a high number of possibilities (differently sized boxes, containers, lids, material, fastenings) and that as a team you agree that children show high levels of engagement, problem solving and exploration. The CoEL can also be used to identify where such opportunities might be missing.

For example, do you feel confident that effective learning is happening within other areas?
Can you observe high levels of involvement?
Are children making connections between experiences?
Are staff valuing resilience and a high degree of exploration?

If not, why not? Are there are a high number of possibilities? Do children know what can be done with the resources? Are there lots of resources or lots of learning possibilities-one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other. All the discussions that flow from reflecting on our environment in this way are also a great way to support staff development within your team.

Exploring the importance of the Characteristics of Effective Learning

When OFSTED talk about the importance of having a clear understanding of your intent, its implementation and the impact of what you do, the Characteristics provide a framework that can be used to structure your reflections. Our intent should always be effective learning and using the CoEL as an audit tool will enable us to reflect on how well this is being implemented. If we follow this through, then the CoEL can be used by the school or setting to monitor the overall effectiveness of the teaching and learning in the EYFS. By using the CoEL, Headteachers, Senior Leadership teams can observe and monitor a breadth of the practice-not just the directed teaching elements.

And what about the impact? We frequently discuss how much or how little, progress children make and rightly so. Tracking progress, however, is only one part of the assessment process. If we focus too much on the progress that the children have made and not enough on the effectiveness of the learning process, then how do we really know how much impact we have had? If children have made progress but are not learning effectively then more progress could have been made. Conversely, the work we do to support CoEL can be used to demonstrate impact on children who are making slower progress than anticipated.


Finally, it’s important to remember that the CoEL are not restricted to any age or stage within the EYFS and similarly can be used to reflect on the learning process for older children too. Some primary schools have successfully used the CoEL as a framework to reflect on effective teaching and learning across the different age ranges. With this in mind, the CoEL can also be used as a great tool as part of the transition process between EYFS and KS1. It’s easy to focus on the differences between the two key stages: what doesn’t change however, is what effective learning looks like. Whilst the teaching content may change, the effectiveness of the learning process is still paramount and the CoEL can provide us with a very useful common language.

So, a lot to consider:


  • How do you use the CoEL?
  • Do you consider them as part of your observation processes?
  • Do you use them to reflect on the effectiveness of your learning environment?
  • Does your Senior Leadership Team use the Characteristics as part of lesson observations?
  • In pupil progress meetings, are the CoEL used as a way of evaluating progress?
  • Are the CoEL used to reflect on the transition process to KS1 and beyond?

However you currently use the Characteristics of Effective Learning, there’s usually scope to develop this further. So, start here. With a new EYFS framework, aim to make more of one of the key features that we’ve had all along.

Discover our series of webinars focussing on the EYFS and KS1 – click HERE

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