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[Sweden] Theoretical Based Learning activities in Early Childhood Education and Care

This article describes what learning study is and in what way it has been used in Swedish ECEC to enhance and facilitate young children's learning during playful activities and assess the learning gain by the use of interviews or observation. Learning study is a model for teams of teachers to study children's learning in pre-school. It is an iterative process, where the results from the first research lesson are the starting point for a revised and implemented lesson in a new group of children. The model takes its departure in a theoretical framework of learning but as a process, it is very much inspired by lesson study. The first step in a learning study is to define an object of learning, the ability or content intended to be developed by the children. After that, an analysis of the children's abilities is made to find out what they already know and what they have to discern to develop new knowledge. The design of the learning activity is implemented in one group of children, and the zone of gain (the difference between the pre- and post-assessments based on observations) is analyzed. A new refined design is implemented in a new group of children, and the zone of gain is compared between the interventions to find out what seems to be of importance for the children's learning. The learning study cycles are repeated until the teachers have found what seems to be crucial to facilitate the children's development.

learning study, pre-school teachers' professional development, Swedish ECEC, variation theory, zone of gain

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ECEC in Sweden (See the basic data of Sweden)

Early childhood education and care in Sweden is organized in three different pre-school activities. There are pre-school for children between 1 and 5 years, family day care and pre-school class for children aged 6. The pre-school classes (which cover at least 525 hours a year) are non-compulsory education free of charge and aim to stimulate development and learning. In pre-school classes there is a combination between the pedagogical methods in pre-school and school, which makes a platform for the children's future schooling. The pre-school is voluntary, unlike school which all children between the ages of 7 and 16 have to attend. The Swedish school-system is goal-based and has a high degree of local responsibility. Pre-school for children between 1 and 5 is not free of charge but is income-based. All education between 6 and 16 is free of charge and the pupils are not streamed or divided into different schools for more or less skilled children. In 2011 we instituted a new curriculum in Sweden, and pre-school also has its own curricula including all children between one and five years old (Ministry of Education and Research, 2010). Pre-school is also not streamed and does not divide the children into different age groups.

The Swedish pre-school mission has over the years fluctuated between focusing mainly on care or education. From the beginning the Swedish curricula were mainly inspired by Friedrich Fröbel, who advised the preschool teachers to follow the children's interests and development without steering them. This may to some extent have meant that learning activities, which are used in elementary school, are automatically considered to be unsuitable for preschool and vice versa, instead of using the best of both and adapt them to the situations appropriate. All kind of steering, even telling the child the right answer (if there is such) has been abandoned from time to time, as it has been estimated as a risk for inhibiting the children's natural curiosity and learning. The correlation between not answering the children's questions and stimulating curiosity has been questioned as such an approach. It leaves the child uncertain and might have a contradictory result in a feeling of giving up searching for answers instead of stimulating to develop new questions. In combination with the results of an evaluation of the Swedish preschool, which indicated a situation where preschool had failed to use its resources to stimulate children's learning (Promemoria U2008/6144/), learning has become discernable in the revised curriculum for pre-school, especially in the areas of the development of language and communication, mathematics, science and technology (Ministry of Education and Research, 2010). Consequently, there is a growing interest in finding new ways to facilitate children's learning in pre-school among the teachers, and in developing teachers' professional development to design for learning activities in pre-school.

Learning Study in Swedish ECEC contexts

Learning study (Marton & Tsui, 2004) has been used to develop the quality of teaching in primary and secondary education for a decade in Sweden. But the question of how to work with learning study in ECEC is a much later phenomenon, and it also differs from how learning study is used in school. Learning is an area all human beings are involved in and develops every day, no matter who or where they are. The focus in a learning study is still on intentional learning, learning that takes place in situations where someone (usually a teacher) has the intention to teach someone else (usually a child or a pupil) something (usually an ability or the content) called the object of learning. This means there is a triangular focus on; 1) the object of learning, 2) the way in which someone who intends to teach goes about providing opportunities for learning and 3) how the learner develops their ability. It is in the encounter between these three perspectives that learning occurs. A learning study is framed by a theory of learning; variation theory (Lo & Marton, 2012). By using the theory as a guiding principle, the aspects offered to discern a learning situation varies against a background of invariant aspects, as in the example below of wooden blocks.

Even if there are similarities in what to focus on and how to carry out the learning study process, there are differences between pre-school and school settings such as the activities used and in what way the learning outcomes are assessed. In ECEC environments, there is a strong focus on the child's development as a human being, and a tendency to use activities like play instead of lessons during the learning situation. What remains the same is the systematic and small grain analysis used during the learning study process to find out what it takes to learn or develop different abilities. A learning study is not a method to be used in teachers' daily work, but an in-service training used to develop teachers' ways to facilitate and assess learning and to learn to work with theoretical based activities, aiming to increase the quality of the learning. By that you can't claim learning study can't be used in all settings as all teachers working with learning activities have to develop their own professional knowledge about the conditions for learning. During the learning study process, the teacher gains knowledge about a theoretical framework on learning, which afterwards can be used in every learning situation to design and assess learning. This explicit way of seeing learning can be seen as a way to enhance the common understanding of learning which we usually do not have in the Western traditions of learning instruction. This is unlike the common way I have seen, in for example Japanese traditions, where the teachers have a shared knowledge on seeing learning as creating patterns of differences and similarities among instances of the content to be learned, although it is not always explicitly articulated.

A learning study starts with defining the object of learning, a common understanding among the teachers about what is to be learned and what issues they have found regarding learning this specific content. After that, the children's abilities are studied, to get a better picture of what they already seem to have discerned and what is not yet discerned but needs to be discerned to gain a more qualitatively deep and developed knowledge. This can be made by playing games, interviews or observing how the children handle prepared material, namely activities normally used in ECEC. The teachers design the learning activity aiming to put the aspects needed to be discerned, but not yet discerned by the children to be taught, in the foreground. If they, for example, would like to teach the children to see the difference between geometrical shapes, they might find that using wooden blocks in different colors result in a situation where the children focus on the colors, and sort by colors instead of shapes. By putting the shape in the foreground, and just use wooden blocks in one single color to challenge the children, the aspect color is removed. When the children sort the blocks, they will not be able to sort by color and by that they are more likely to discern the shape as an indicator of how to sort. The design is thereby based on natural activities used in pre-school settings but designed to further develop the children's ways of acting and gain new qualitatively developed knowledge about the world.

Before implementing the first learning activity, the specified knowledge of the children in the first group is assessed, and after the first intervention a new assessment takes place. The difference between the pre- and post-assessments is the zone of gain, and the greater the difference the more powerful has the activity been in developing the chosen objects of learning. The results of the first intervention are taken into consideration in a post-collegium conference where the design of the second intervention, to be implemented in the second group of children, is made. This cyclic process is repeated until the teachers have found what seem to be crucial for learning the targeted object. Usually three or four interventions are compared in as many groups of children. The differences in zone of gain are compared between the interventions to better understand what is crucial in the activity, and what is not, creating a shared knowledge product on learning (not a lesson design) to be used by other teachers teaching the same topic.

Research findings on Learning Study in Swedish ECEC

The research has been focusing on three different levels; the children's learning, the teachers' learning and the effectiveness of using learning study in pre-school teachers' professional development. The findings of the first study, where variation theory (Lo & Marton, 2012) was tested in the design of a learning activity aiming at three children (aged 4, 5 and 6 years) to learn the concept of "half," showed that the theoretical assumptions also worked in learning situations for small children. The design was built on no variation of cutting an object into two identical parts (halves) but variation regarding the representation (cake, apple and pear). The children where asked how many halves there would be, and then they saw how the object was cut in two halves. The children were very uncertain about how many halves there would be when the representation changed. We found that the children used the concept "half" in the same way as divided (not whole). This means there was no number of how many halves there will be of an object as it depends on how many times you chose to cut it into pieces. The definition 'two identical parts' was not discerned (Holmqvist & Tullgren, 2009).

Based on the fact that there is a curriculum in pre-school, focusing on mathematics, one of our studies focused on how the goals in the curriculum can be reached by finding ways to design learning activities by the use of learning study (Holmqvist, Tullgren & Brante, 2012). Another way to focus on this issue has been to study pre-school teachers' abilities to assess learning and predict what activities benefit the children (Holmqvist, Brante & Tullgren, 2012). The way learning study has been adapted to pre-school settings is described in a study of 24 pre-school teachers in in-service training on learning study with one implementation of a learning study per group (7) (Holmqvist Olander & Ljung-Djärf, 2012) and the way learning study has been used by pre-school teachers to understand pre-schoolers' learning has been reported based on five learning studies (Ljung-Djärf & Holmqvsit, 2013).


Different kinds of projects in the perspective of learning study have recently been described in a Swedish book (Holmqvist, 2013). The book aims to inform active pre-school teachers, as well as pre-service teachers, how to meet the new requirements about higher quality regarding learning in the subjects mathematics, language and science. The published studies, as well as the results from the research projects mentioned above, are promising for the future use of learning study in pre-school, but even more important in developing the quality of pre-school learning. The Swedish pre-school tradition has in some years been based on single observations aiming to assess each child's cognitive ability. After this period, a change has been seen and assessments of single children have more or less been abandoned, which has resulted in more focus on the activities, teachers and environments. There are some issues about how to find out if the quality is high or not regarding the children's development, as this has been based mainly on a general view from an evaluation which is made by the same teachers that have planned the activities. By assessing the children's development at a group level, to revise and improve the activities instead of grading or scoring the individual child, a new way is tried out. Instead of arguing about if children mainly should learn or play in pre-school it is now time to focus on purposeful play that unify these two parts of children's activities in pre-school instead of seeing them as competing.

  • Holmqvist, M. (Ed.) (2013). Learning Study i förskolan. [Learning Study in Pre-School]. Lund: Studentlitteratur.
  • Holmqvist, M., & Tullgren, C. (2009). Pre-school children discerning numbers and letters. Forum on Public Policy.
  • Holmqvist, M., Tullgren, C. & Brante, G. (2012). Variation theory - a tool to achieve preschool curricula learning goals in Mathematics. Curriculum Perspectives, Vol 32, No 1, April 2012, pp 1 - 9.
  • Holmqvist, M., Brante, G. & Tullgren, C. (2012). Learning Study in Pre-school. Teachers' expectations for children's learning and what they actually learn. The International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, Vol 1, No 2, pp 153-167.
  • Holmqvist Olander, M. & Ljung-Djärf, A. (2012). Using Learning Study as In-Service Training for Preschool Teachers. In Sutterby, J. (ed.): Early Education in a Global Context. Advances in Early Education and Dau Care, Vol. 16, pp. 91-108.
  • Lo, M. L., & Marton, F. (2012). Towards a science of the art of teaching: Using variation theory as a guiding principle of pedagogical design. International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, 1, 7-22. Doi: 10.1108/20468251211179678
  • Ljung-Djärf, A. & Holmqvist Olander, M. (2013). Using Learning Study to Understand Preschoolers' Learning: Challenges and Possibilities. International Journal of Early Childhood, 1(45), 77-100.
  • Marton, F. & Tsui, A B M. (Eds). (2004). Classroom Discourse and the Space of Learning. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.
  • Memorandum U2008/6144/S (2008). Uppdrag till Statens skolverk om förslag till förtydliganden i läroplanen för förskolan [Assignment to the National Agency of Education on proposed clarifications in pre-school curriculum]. Stockholm: Ministry of Education and Research.
  • The Swedish National Agency for Education (2010). Curriculum for the preschool Lpfö 98/2010, Retrieved July, 2013.

Mona Holmqvist Olander (small).jpg Mona Holmqvist Olander

Mona Holmqvist Olander, PhD, Associate Professor in Education at University of Gothenburg, Department of Pedagogical Curricular and Professional Studies, Sweden, and a part-time Assistant Professor at Kristianstad University, Sweden. Specialized in research on learning, in particular, intentional learning in preschool and school settings both regarding people with and without neuropsychiatric diagnosis. Her special theoretical interests in phenomenography and variation theory form the basis of her research as well as the methodological approach to learning study. Born in 1961. Graduated from Lund University 1995 (PhD), worked as a researcher and taught as an instructor in the teacher training programme at Kristianstad University from 1996 until assuming the current post at University of Gothenburg 2011.
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