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The Ausbelian Preschool Program: Balancing Child-Directed and Teacher-Directed Approaches
By Heidi Haywood Dowell

What is considered developmentally appropriate practice for preschoolers (i.e., four- and five-year-olds) has been widely debated in recent years. Two primary schools of thought have emerged, each at a different end of the spectrum. These are the child-directed approach and the teacher-directed approach.


While their methods are at opposite ends of the spectrum, teacher-directed and child-directed advocates agree on many educational goals such as promoting self-esteem, encouraging emerging literacy, using materials and activities which are of interest to children, and encouraging parent involvement, among others. They differ, however, on practices such as the use of highly structured and teacher-directed lessons; the demand for children to sit down, attend, listen, and participate during lesson time; asking children to provide answers to closed questions which may have a single correct answer; and instructing in specific content areas.


The Child-Directed Approach
The child-directed approach dates back to the 1700s when Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that the child is to be viewed as an active constructionist who engages in experimentation and exploration as he or she moves through biologically unfolding stages of development. Programs built on this premise focus on informal child-directed learning practices (Rescorla, 1991).


In the Child-Directed Program (Hyson, 1991):

·        Children select and initiate their own activities from a variety of learning areas prepared by the teacher. Areas usually include dramatic play, blocks, science, math, games, puzzles, books, recordings, art, and music. The teacher allows each child to choose which activity he or she wants to participate in and when.


·        Children are involved in concrete, three-dimensional learning activities. Learning materials closely relate to children's daily life experiences.


·        Teachers ask questions that encourage children to give more than one correct answer.


·        Teachers use activities such as block building, measuring ingredients for cooking, wood working, and drawing to help children learn concepts in math, science, and social studies.


·        Children use a variety of media such as finger paints and clay in ways of their own choosing.


·        The sound of the environment is marked by pleasant conversation, spontaneous laughter, and exclamations of excitement.


·        Teachers use redirection, positive reinforcement, and encouragement as guidance and discipline techniques.


The expectation of the child-directed preschool is that children will be motivated to explore when exposed to an environment rich in a variety of stimulating materials and events. Through interactions with objects and events children will construct an understanding of cognitive operations (e.g., identification of objects, relationships between and among objects, cause and effect relationships).


The child-directed preschool believes that allowing children to choose the activities in which they will participate promotes enthusiasm for school, self-confidence, and creativity (Hirsh-Pasek, 1991).


Crosser (1996) defines the child-directed preschool program well when she states, "The teacher is seldom center stage. Children are the actors–the players. The teacher is on the sidelines coaching, observing, asking probing questions, and providing an island of security and comfort when needed." Crosser adds, "An age-appropriate schedule for preschoolers is built around large blocks of time during which children move freely about the classroom, self-selecting activities in which to engage alone or with others." The child-directed philosophy believes that teacher-directed academic instruction creates pressure, inhibits creativity, and deprives the children of self-motivated learning (Hirsh-Pasek, 1991).


The Teacher-Directed Approach
In the teacher-directed classroom the teacher is primarily responsible for creating and presenting lessons to the children. From a historical perspective, John Locke characterized the child's cognitive development as shaped by the environmental experiences and learning opportunities provided by adults. Programs associated with this view are concerned with developmental and instructional theory and believe that children can benefit from structured learning (Fowler, 1983).


In the Teacher-Directed Program (Hyson, 1991):

·        Large-group, teacher-directed instruction is the primary form of instruction. Separate times (periods) are set aside to learn material in specific content areas such as math, science, or social studies. The teacher tells the children what they will do and when.


·        Children use workbooks, ditto sheets, flashcards, or other abstract or two-dimensional learning materials.


·        Teachers expect children to respond correctly with a single correct answer. Memorization and drill are emphasized.


·        Reading and writing instruction emphasize direct teaching of letter recognition, reciting the alphabet, and being instructed in the correct formation of letters.


·        The sound of the environment is characterized by alternating excitement and noise or enforced quiet.


·        Teachers use rewards or disapproval to get children properly (as prescribed by the teacher) involved in activities.


Advocates of the teacher-directed approach argue that formal academic experiences provide enrichment which gives children an important and valuable early start to school (Eastman & Barr, 1985). They believe that there is information that is both interesting and beneficial to young children and which young children, with limited life experiences, are not in a position to be aware of and seek knowledge about.


The teacher-directed preschool maintains that young children benefit largely from formal instruction. The teacher is expected to plan specific lessons based on well-defined subject matter and conduct classes usually using abstract or two-dimensional materials. Direct teaching methods are preferred over discovery.


The importance of preparing preschoolers for school, exposing them to new technologies, and capitalizing on their amazing ability to learn is at the very core of the academic preschool (Rescorla, 1991).


The Ausubelian Approach
While many early childhood professionals believe in the philosophical orientation of either the child-directed or teacher-directed approach, in practice many teachers use a combination of the two philosophies. These preschool teachers alternate teacher-directed formal instruction with child-directed exploration and play. Part of the daily program is planned and directed by the teacher and involves direct instruction of concepts and skills. Other parts of the day are set aside for free play and discovery time.


One such model that combines child-directed and teacher-directed approaches is the Ausubelian approach. The Ausubelian approach is based on both what educators know about child development and what is known about how children learn. Created by David Ausubel, this approach strongly reflects the developmental views of Jean Piaget and the educational and developmental theories of Jerome Bruner (Fowell and Lawton, 1992).


According to Ausubel, developmental change involves a decreasing dependence on concrete materials when learning or solving problems. Ausubel states that providing learning materials and concepts in careful sequence sets a strong foundation for learning. He also contends that the structure of learning activities and demands made on the child's processing of information must be geared to the young child's limited ability to understand subject matter concepts and immature skills for processing information (Ausubel, Novak, and Hanesian, 1978).


In his theory of meaningful learning, Ausubel refers to the learning of general subject matter concepts. For instance, the teacher might introduce the idea of living things through an instructional activity called an advance organizer lesson. The intention of the lesson is that children will organize within their cognitive structure an understanding of a basic concept in advance of learning related subordinate concepts and particular information. Children come to know properties of living things such as that they move by themselves, make babies of their own kind, and need food and water to live. Immediately following the advance organizer lesson, a number of task-like or game-like activities are provided to support the general concepts of the lesson. Such activities might include looking at pictures of mothers with their young, meeting live pets and their babies, and working puzzles which match mother animals to their young. This group of activities provides considerable information pertaining to the general concept that living things reproduce. The intent of the sequence of instruction is to promote progressive differentiation of the concepts being learned. As the higher-level concepts supplied by the advance organizer lesson are learned, fundamental concepts are progressively refined, better understood, and retained longer in memory (Fowell and Lawton, 1992).


Bruner's Influence
Jerome Bruner, like Ausubel, is concerned with both developmental theory and the theory of instruction. He believes that preschool children experience their world through actions or images and suggests that as children develop they have a growing capacity for symbolic representation. Bruner believes that the teacher is responsible for identifying meaningful concepts to describe, demonstrate, and explain to children. Like Ausubel, Bruner believes that identifying properties of a particular general concept and prompting the children to make associations using those concepts develops a strong and clear understanding of the subject matter while developing thinking skills. Bruner suggests that the curriculum be organized so that basic concepts are introduced and reintroduced at increasing levels of abstraction over time (Bruner, Olver, and Greenfield, 1966).


Piaget's Influence
Jean Piaget's developmental theory states that knowledge arises from an interaction between the child's mental structure and the environment. He contends that learning takes place as the active child explores and manipulates the real world of objects and events. Piaget identifies four stages of development. These are sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete-operations, and formal operations. The concrete operational stage includes opportunities for children to interact with a wide variety of objects and events while exploring their environment. In learning about objects and events, children develop intellectual skills such as classification, relationships, reversible and irreversible change, and concepts of time and space. These rules are practiced as children apply them to basic subject matter concepts, relationships between concepts, and problem solving (Forman and Hill, 1980).


The Ausubelian Program in Practice
A typical morning session in an Ausubelian program might be arranged as follows (Fowell and Lawton, 1992):


8:00 - 8:30 Arrival time and free play
8:30 - 9:00 Free choice activities
9:00 - 9:30 Small group activities
9:30 - 9:45 Snack time
9:45 - 10:15 Large group organized activities
10:15 - 10:45 Small group activities
10:45 - 11:15 Free choice activities
11:15 - 11:30 Clean up
11:30 - 12:00 Outside/large group activities


This program suggests a four-hour day including time for large group activities, large and small motor skill experiences, free choice, outdoor play, and snack time. Children in such sessions are usually in the same age group and travel to their respective elementary school the same fall. This would appropriately suggest that the program is much like traditional child-directed programs.


During small group time, however, the teacher presents an advance organizer lesson to one small group of students (preferably four or five children), to be followed by related activities. Of a 30-minute small group lesson, ten to 15 minutes are spent in an advance organizer lesson led by the teacher. The remainder of the half-hour provides the children with opportunities to manipulate learning materials related to the basic concept of the lesson. While the teacher is presenting the lesson to one small group, the other children are engaged in activities related to previous lessons. By the end of a cycle (usually a week) all children will have participated in all advance organizer lessons and related activities (Fowell and Lawton, 1992).


As many as three advance organizer lessons can be introduced in a three-hour morning or afternoon preschool session by dividing a group of 20 three- or four-year-olds into four groups of five children each. Two of the small groups should be involved in teacher-directed activities while the balance are engaged in independent activities that support the advance organizer lesson's main theme.


The Ausubelian approach can easily be applied to full-day preschools and child care center environments by repeating a similar schedule during the afternoon portion of the day, using a different advance organizer lesson theme or topic.


The Advance Organizer Lesson
When planning advance organizer lessons the teacher uses a sequence of instruction that proceeds from general to specific. It is the responsibility of the teacher to create a hierarchy or clusters of concepts and begin the unit of study with the most general concept. During the lesson the teacher asks questions to discern the initial level of understanding of the concept and start the thinking process. A variety of materials such as books, flannel boards, pictures, or music should be used to support and exemplify the theme. It is important to note that although the advance organizer lesson is teacher-directed, the children should be actively involved in thinking, conversing, and manipulating materials. Each of the basic concepts is supported by related learning activities with limited direction from the teacher (Fowell and Lawton, 1992).


To the practicing preschool teacher, advance organizer lessons can be those topics that are commonly called themes or concepts (e.g., animals, weather, rhyming words, the circus, ocean life). In order to implement the Ausubelian approach in a preschool classroom, teachers must consider which subject matter the students in a particular classroom should learn. This may vary depending on prior student experiences, cultural differences, geographic differences, and religious affiliations. Themes and concepts should encompass traditional and non-traditional topics. At the Beech Tree House Center for Child Development in Indianapolis, Indiana, master teachers come together each August to choose specific themes and concepts in each of the content areas for every week of the year. Classroom teachers take those advance organizer lessons and build activities which support and elaborate on the main theme for each week. Activities are scheduled on a day-by-day basis.


The purpose of the related activities is to provide children with hands-on learning experiences that further illustrate the properties of the basic concept. The teacher circulates among the children, posing and answering questions, making suggestions, and modeling possibilities. Daily observation and questions to children provide the teacher information about the extent to which each child acquired and is able to apply the new concept (Fowell and Lawton, 1992).


The Ausubelian approach provides a middle ground between the completely child-centered preschool program and the completely teacher-directed preschool program. It provides information about traditional subject matter (e.g., family, community helpers, animals) and non-traditional (e.g., body systems, famous artists, the history of language) and helps to expand and enrich a child's world. The Ausubelian approach makes connections between basic concepts and their related properties. Finally, it provides a structured environment which is rich in stimulation, interaction, discussion, and activity, while teaching children to seek additional information.


Heidi Haywood Dowell is Director of Beech Tree House Center for Child Development, Inc., and Principal of Curtis Wilson Primary School in Indianapolis, Indiana. She has a B.S. in elementary education and an M.S. in school administration, and has taught both preschool and kindergarten. Haywood has also served on the board of the Indiana Licensed Child Care Association.


Ausubel, D., Novak, J.D., and Hanesian, H. (1978). Educational psychology: A cognitive view. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Bruner, J.S., Olver, R.R. and Greenfield, P.M. (Eds.). (1966). Studies in cognitive growth. New York: Wiley.


Crosser, S. (1996, Sep/Oct). The butterfly garden: Developmentally appropriate practice defined. Earlychildhood NEWS, 8, 20-24.


Eastman, P. & Barr, J.L. (1985). Your child is smarter than you think. London: Jonathan Cape.


Forman. G.E. and Hill, D.F. (1980). Constructive play: Applying Piaget in the preschool. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.


Fowell, N. & Lawton, J. (1992, March). An alternative view of appropriate practice in early childhood education. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 7, 53-73.


Fowler, W. (1983). Potentials for childhood: Vol. 2 Studies in early developmental learning. Lexington, MA: Heath.


Hirsh-Pasek, K. (1991, Fall). Pressure or challenge in preschool? How academic environments affect children. New Directions for Child Development, 53, 39-45.


 Hyson, M.C. (1991, Fall). The characteristics and origins of the academic preschool. New Directions for Child Development, 53, 21-29.


Rescorla, L. (1991, Fall). Early academics: Introduction to the debate. New Directions for Child Development, 53, 5-1.