There are processes without defined products, play being probably the best example of it. Art and music don’t have a clear definitions of quality either, but we do recognize a masterpiece when we experience it. Learning works the same way. Each student has a unique learning experience, due to their diverse abilities and expectations, so the end result of learning must be open-ended, too. When students are forced into one definite learning outcome, i.e. product (think of 27 nearly identical pieces of “art work” on the classroom wall, copies of a model/template, provided by the teacher), something important of the learning quality is lost.
We already know how important play is for learning, as numerous studies show the positive effects of engaging in free play. One important part must be how play employs our creativity and curiosity. While guided play is sometimes important for concept development, it is necessary for anyone working with early childhood age students to be able to follow the child’s lead and verbally add new dimensions or elements to the play. Sitting the child down to perform a task an adult has planned has less effective learning components than enhancing the free play. Just because we will never create the same competence while following the thinking of someone else, as we do while thinking things through on our own. Playing is the visual part of children’s thinking! Helping students to engage with their own thoughts is a huge accomplishment.
There is also evidence about how social-emotional choices made during free play, like negotiating about taking turns, actually strengthen the same processes we need in scientific problem solving. This makes me think how important it is to share our knowledge of learning and how it actually happens with students, so that they can be empowered to engage with their own learning process. Meaningfulness defines the quality of the play, as there is not an objective criteria for children how to conduct “good play”. This is equally true with learning process, too, where meaningfulness perceived by the students drives their curiosity and engagement in class.
Measuring quality in education is hard, partly because there is not one universal definition what good quality learning looks like. People have different connotations about educational quality, and the cultural perceptions are also very diverse. Learning, like play, is individual and very situational and contextual.
One way of approaching educational quality is to see it as perfection of the learning process, where everybody involved is required to contribute to the quality of outcome, and can be held accountable for her/his own part. Isn’t this what we want for our students? For every student to be successful in their studies, and also have ownership over their achievements?
I bet every teacher knows about “teachable moments”, and those are the key components of a good quality learning process: to receive the information and inspiration at the right time, so that learning is perceived to be meaningful by the student. Learning quality in those moments is very high, due to engagement and ownership student experiences. These experiences are more likely to be saved in long term memory, because the ownership of learning process makes the transfer of learning to happen almost automatically.
In the classroom it looks pretty much as the following: We plan for optimal instruction, but students’ learning is something more than perfectly written, measurable performance objectives. Involving students in their own learning process helps them to become more accountable for their own learning. Teachers cater for students’ individual needs and preferences to make learning more meaningful for them.
Excellent educational quality emphasizes the transformative learning process that involves both cognitive and personal growth of students. It is learning for life, not just for school. This transformational type of learning happens in individual interactions. Teachers have very big role in supporting these interactions: the younger the student the more important it is to have a teacher as a trusted adult to facilitate these interactions between students and their learning environment and resources.
 Wittek, L., & Kvernbekk, T. (2011). On the Problems of Asking for a Definition of Quality in Education. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 55(6), 671-684.