Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Celebrating children's learning: assessment beyond levels in the early years

I have always wanted to work with a group of people who pull together to create a book.

So I am genuinely really chuffed to be involved, as co-editor and contributor, with Celebrating Children's Learning: assessment beyond levels in the early years.

The book comes out of a year-long project by the East London Partnership which is all about improving the quality of early years assessment, and reducing the focus on quantity, bureaucracy and data. You can access the whole project freely online.

Dame Alison Peacock has written a tremendous endorsement of our collective work. "Within these pages you will find rich stories of children’s development, play and learning that offer profound glimpses and insights. Practitioners in these nursery schools offer expertise in assessment that truly starts with the child and puts learning first. The rest of our education system would do well to remember this premise and to act upon it."

You can buy Celebrating Children's Learning at a special introductory price of just £13.59, with free shipping, from Routledge's website.

The final paragraphs of my chapter pretty much sum up my feelings about assessment, and teaching, in the early years:

Now is the right moment for all of us - practitioners, leaders and managers - to be much bolder. We need to resist the “datafication” of the early years, and focus instead on improving the quality and depth of our assessment practices. We need to ensure that our assessment practices support us in making our very best pedagogical efforts, rather than getting in the way and overwhelming us.

Every day, children in the early years show huge courage in their learning: they put something unfamiliar in their mouths and taste it, they wobble and fall off two-wheeled bikes, they try and try again to write their name or to build a tower that is higher than they are. Surely it is time for us to show the same courage in our practice, and to do the right thing for children?

For a sneak preview, here is the opener of my chapter Beyond Data in the Early Years.

20 years ago, I moved from my role as a primary school Early Years co-ordinator to a new position as the Deputy Headteacher of a London nursery school. It was a pioneering integrated centre with babies and toddlers on roll as well as three and four-year olds, and there were programmes of family support and close, positive links with social workers. My daughter was about a year old and the whole place just felt like it was the “right place” for children and their families. But I had also unwittingly become a participant in the large-scale Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) project (Sylva et al, 2010) and soon found myself being interviewed by one of the researchers. As the questions flowed about children’s early learning, assessment, and leading the team, I could hear that much of what I was saying was quite simply nonsense. I have never forgotten that feeling: it dawned on me that I had been busy teaching young children, caring for them, leading a team of practitioners and so on, yet I had never really examined my own theories and ideas. 

That is why I now believe strongly that practitioners working in the early years need encouragement and opportunities for reflection and thinking.  Early education is not just a programme that anyone can simply be trained to deliver. If we want children to be thinkers, problem-solvers and creators, then we need to prioritise the same attributes in ourselves as practitioners: as Robin Alexander has argued, with reference to primary education, “pupils will not learn to think for themselves if their teachers are expected to do as they are told” (Alexander, 2010, p. 308). 

Yet all too often, the actions and decisions taken by early years practitioners are shaped by the tyranny of “data”. There is little time for practitioners to meet and reflect with senior leaders in schools, or managers in other settings. The precious time that is available ends up being dominated, all too often, by discussions about who is “below expected”, where “the gaps” are, or what proportion of children are going to achieve a “good level of development.” Parents find themselves receiving baffling tables of data, describing their three-year-olds development  as “16-26 secure” - leaving them wondering what on earth that might mean. Holmes (2015, p.20) has described this ugly state of affairs as the “‘datafication’ of early years teachers and children”.

In this chapter, I am going to discuss one of the main findings of the Celebrating Children’s Learning project - that we need to go beyond these obscure and dry discussions about “data”. I will be arguing that good early education can enable children to develop a wider network of relationships, to play, to practise skills, to find multiple ways of communicating and sharing ideas, make new connections and gain new knowledge. 

I will be arguing that practitioners need to get to know each child, using “keen observation” (Dalli et al, 2011), and that in order to notice what is important about children’s development and learning, we need to offer a broad, rich and varied curriculum. After all, where there is little for children to do, there will be little for us to notice.

I will be arguing that where there is a rich learning environment and a rich curriculum, practitioners will have more opportunities to find out what children know and can do, how they think and develop their ideas, and what sorts of misconceptions and barriers to learning they might have. This relationship between noticing important things about children, and developing effective early education, is explored in the next section. 

Children as active constructors of their learning

Jan Dubiel (2016, p.10) makes the important point that “assessment is never an objective activity, nor can it ever be value free.”  We could not possibly attempt to notice everything about each child in a group: we have to be selective, and one of the ways we are selective is that we draw on our theories about how children learn. We select things which seem to be significant, because they tell us about the child’s learning; and we ignore things which seem to be irrelevant. We should be open about this. As Margaret Carr (2001, p. 20) argues, “early childhood practitioners … have to make some assumptions about learning, assessment and evaluation…that are informed and reflective.”

As Carr’s statement implies, learning, assessment and evaluation are all bundled together. You cannot carry out assessments if you are not thinking about learning; and you cannot be an educator and help a child to learn, if you are not thinking all of the time about assessment. Learning is not a “natural” process of development from one stage to another, like a caterpillar morphing into a cocoon, and then into a butterfly. Nor is it the case that children have to be taught everything through repetition, reinforcement and practice. The research and evidence is in almost complete agreement:  children are active learners and creators of meaning (Evangelou et al, 2009; Dali, 2011; Bertram and Pascal, 2014). Smith (1999, p.86) puts it neatly when she states that “models of development which emphasise the child’s natural and spontaneous development from within or of development as being shaped entirely through learning processes have been strongly criticised.” For this reason, commonly-used terms like “tracking children” in early years education are problematic. We could only “track” children if, as practitioners, we played no role in their learning and development, just as a hunter tracks an animal by following it discretely rather than helping to guide its journey.  Early years practitioners are not just spectators, “tracking” the child’s unfolding development.