Effective observation is a key activity that supports assessment and intentional teaching. To produce quality assessments that deeply understand and can respond to children’s learning, we need to collect reliable and in-depth information. There are a number of ways we can collect such information, and this is the focus of our learning in this part of course. In Part 4, we will look at how you might ensure that assessment information is robustly interpreted by using a range of perspectives.
In this part, we aim to help you:
- Develop awareness of a range of ways of collecting information on learning and teaching
- Learn about and implement effective observation practices
This will involve:
- Watching a video in which Tara McLaughlin discusses different assessment tools and how they promote intentional teaching
- Reflecting on the range of assessment tools you currently use
- Reading about what and how to observe for effective assessment practice
- Putting your learning into practice by observing a learning event in your own setting or trialling a new assessment tool
You can also share your practices for organising and carrying out observations for assessment purposes in your setting in the online forum.
Revisit your learning so far
Can you explain what the implications of each of the underpinning principles of Te Whāriki are for assessment practice? (If you are not in New Zealand, you might prefer to recall the principles of assessment within the curriculum framework of your place.)
- Empowerment ǀ Whakamana
- Holistic development ǀ Kotahitanga
- Family & Community ǀ Whānau Tangata
- Relationships ǀ Ngā Hononga
These principles are also really important to hold in mind as we look more closely in this part about the kind of observational data we collect to inform our assessments of children’s learning. We will want to collect information in ways that are empowering and mana-enhancing for children. We want to use observational tools that enable us to take a holistic view of the child as learner and include their relationships with people, places and things. We will also want the information we gather to be accessible and meaningful for families.
Watch a video
In this video, Tara McLaughlin describes the way in which a variety of observation and information-gathering tools can be used for what she terms ‘data-informed teaching’. By data-informed teaching, Tara means teaching that is informed by assessment and evaluation information. In other words, assessment and evaluation provide us with ‘data’ with which to make highly intentional decisions about children’s learning and our teaching. Tara is a senior lecturer in the Institute of Education at Massey University. Her research interests focus on professional learning and development to support effective teaching, curriculum implementation, assessment and evaluation in early childhood education and early intervention. She has worked with teachers, children, and families in inclusive learning settings in the United States and in New Zealand. She is the lead investigator on Data, Knowledge, Action research projects and has worked with a range of early learning settings to use new tools for assessment and evaluation. She is also leader of the Massey Early Years Research Lab: https://eyrl.nz/
Tara describes the kinds of information that teachers need to collect to support effective and intentional teaching. These are information about the child, gathered through a range of assessment tools; information about the family, and particularly their aspirations for learning, which form a large part of your local curriculum and what it is you choose to assess about children; and information about teaching, and the contexts (both environments and interactions) through which children are learning. Ongoing assessment and evaluation activity is essential for gaining this information and enabling effective and intentional teaching.
Tara suggests using several different approaches to collect the wide range of information that is needed for effective assessment and planning. You might remember Sue Cherrington also recommended using a range of sources for effective assessment practice in her interview in Part 2. An important point to note here is that, rather than using just a vague or random observation of a child, Tara recommends structured observations – in other words, you have a good idea of what it is you want to find out about a child (for example, the quality of their interactions with peers, their ability to retell favourite narratives, or where they spend the majority of their time) and you structure your observations accordingly. This ‘structure’ might be as simple as keeping a notebook with a page entitled ‘interactions with peers’ and writing notes every time you observe something in relation to this for a child. Or it might be that you set up puppets and storytelling props as a provocation to encourage a child to begin storytelling, ensuring you are on hand to video the activity. Or you might ‘time-sample’ their activity to find out where they are spending their time in play by noting where they are playing every 20 minutes through a play period. Notice here that, when teachers are familiar with and competent in a range of assessment methods, they can be very intentional about selecting the right tool for what it is they want to assess.
You can also gather useful information from families both in more formal ways and through discussion and conversation. You might provide families with forms or questionnaires, for example, to find out specific details about their child and their learning and experience at home. Families can be incredibly insightful when it comes to interpreting observational information too – there will be more on this in the next part of the course.
Tara also suggests that knowing about the context in which learning takes place for a child is really important, so she includes information about teaching as important assessment information. This is because it is not really possible to truly assess the capabilities of children without including information about the supports and provocations that make that learning possible. The more you know about the way in which children’s learning is supported by the environment and learning climate that you provide, and by the quality of your interactions with children, the more you can determine how to continue to support learning – with similar kinds of interactions, or with extra resources, or particular structured activities. Tara suggests that you can use a rating scale to assess your teaching, but videoing your practice (often at the same time as videoing children) can also be a really powerful way to capture some of the context in which learning occurs and enable you to reflect on which of your teaching actions are most helpful to children. For our purposes in the course, it is useful to remember that recording details about your own or other teachers’ actions, and about the environment in which the learning took place, is an important part of observing learning.
Importantly, collecting information about children’s learning is not useful unless it is used well. This information needs to be interpreted, analysed and discussed. Tara advocates for teachers spending time doing this as a team. This is a really good idea, as everyone in a teaching team will be able to bring a unique perspective to understanding what is going on for a child. We need to make meaning from the assessment information that we gather, and we will make more comprehensive meanings when we work with others and take on a range of perspectives. This is a message that Sue Cherrington, in Part 2, and Lorraine Manuela, who you will meet in the next part, also emphasise.
Once we have gathered, analysed, and discussed a range of information sources about children’s learning, we are well placed to write a learning story that brings all this information together in a coherent, engaging, and thoughtful narrative. In Part 6 of the course, Tara goes on to explore how the information gathered for data-informed teaching has an important role in the creation of learning stories and assessment portfolios for children. We want to share what we have learned about children, with them, with their family, and with other teachers, present and future, as well as explaining our intentions for supporting their continued learning. In Part 5, you will see that one of the main advantages of a learning story is its role in encouraging children and family involvement in the planning and assessment process.
In what ways do your current assessment practices support you to collect information about the child, about the family, and about your own teaching? Do you have a broad range of practices and tools to collect varied assessment data? Do you think there might be merit in using an expanded range of assessment tools in your practice, and if so, which tools do you think would bring the most benefit?
Next, we consider some of the more practical requirements of effective observation practice.
We want to produce focused and detailed observations that have been carefully and thoughtfully recorded, to enable our assessments to be more relevant and accurate. Read the following information on what and how to observe for effective assessment, thinking about what and how you might observe in your setting.
What and how to observe for effective assessment practice
The first choice in assessment practice is determining what to document for assessment purposes. Teachers are constantly assessing children’s interests, skills and understanding as they play and talk with children. The choice of what to formally document depends on your interests. You will select what is most meaningful for you, but also some learning activity that you think might have potential for extension. You want to document something that can provoke discussions with other teachers, as well as children and their families, that will help them to get to know children and their learning, and help them to plan ways to further learning. You might have used a progression tool or rating scale, and realised that you do not know enough about a particular aspect of a learning area for a child. You might be observing to fill some gaps in your knowledge.
You might have a discussion with colleagues about important priorities for individual children, or develop a shared sense of curriculum priorities in your setting with parents, whānau and teachers, to focus your observation. You might observe children’s participation in a teacher-led experience which has been intentionally planned to extend a child or group’s interests, and here you might have specific aspects that you want to observe, or specific questions about children’s learning to guide your observation, such as ‘how do the children tackle collaborative activity?’ or ‘what strategies do the children use for exploration?’ or ‘what do Daniel and Tzipora understand about looking after animals?’. You can plan this observation as a structured observation.
Another option is to look at when children are intensely engaged and absorbed in an activity or project, or a new or sustained interest, which indicates that this learning is meaningful to them. You might also observe aspects of play and learning that parents and whānau have indicated are important to them. Finally, it can be useful to focus observation on larger projects that include several children, which enables you to explore social relationships and the different roles children take in the development of group interests.
One of the easiest ways to observe children is with a digital camera – you can take photos of the children in action and then use these photos later to reconstruct the event. Photos can provide a lot of detail about context and perhaps the finer detail of things like children’s hand positions as they mould clay and so on, but there is also a lot that they miss. One important element is the dialogue and speech that accompany a learning event, or the subtle non-verbal communication offered by an infant or toddler. This can give great insight into what children perceive to be important about the task at hand. If you’re taking photos, also grab a clipboard and paper or a pad of post-it notes and note down what you can of the dialogue and action. You might also add some of your immediate thinking about what you’re observing at the time.
You could make a voice recording of the dialogue while you are taking photos, and transcribe some of the children’s dialogue and speech later, but this will take time, and may not be all that clear because of background noise. A simple way to record both action and dialogue or the finer detail of non-verbal communication is to use a video camera. Video recordings capture a lot of the context of the learning event (although not all, as sometimes crucial aspects of the context are off-screen) but they can be time-consuming to view. With this in mind, keep video recordings short but focused, and you are bound to get lots of assessment information from them. Videos can also make an engaging contribution when uploaded to an online portfolio.
At other times, you might note information about children’s activity over a larger time period. You might decide to use time-sampling as an observational strategy. This means you will look at what a particular child is doing every 10 minutes or so through a block of time, and make a brief note. This can be useful when you want to see patterns of play and interaction for individual children. Or you might have a more focused intention for your observation, and decide that you want to observe every interaction that a child has in the role play area, so you can learn more about their social play skills. In this case you might conduct an event-sampling observation, and make notes of your observations every time this event (entering the role play area) occurs for a child. Being very clear about what you are interested in observing is crucial to creating useful event-sampling observations.
Relate your learning to practice
Choose a learning event to observe in your early childhood setting– this will be the focus for the learning story you will write during this course. Look for and select something that is meaningful. For example, you might choose something that reflects your setting’s curriculum priorities, something in which your focus child shows new, sustained or intense interest, or something that is important to parent and whānau aspirations for your focus child. It should also be learning that you would like to understand more about in order to better support, expand, and extend it. See the notes below for some tips for getting the most out of this observation.
You might use this opportunity to explore a new observational tool. Choose one of the tools that Tara recommends in her video interview. This might be a new kind of observation structure, such as time- or event-sampling. It might be that you design an activity or experience for children to gather data on their knowledge, skills, and dispositions in a particular curricular area. Or you might choose to investigate one of the published scales for learning progression, with an aim to determine where your focus child’s learning and ability currently sits, and as a prompt for further observation. Tools currently available include:
- He Māpuna te Tamaiti: a Teacher Reflection Tool for teachers to think about their practice in relation to social emotional learning
- Hikairo Schema: published by NZCER, this is available to purchase
- Sustained Shared Thinking and Emotional Wellbeing (SSTEW): In Assessing Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care by Siraj, Kingston and Melhuish (2015), available in bookstores and online.
Remember, the aim here is to use these progression scales and evaluation tools not for creating a summative assessment of a child, but to aid you in formative assessment that feeds into your planning and intentional teaching.
For the most effective observation:
- Use a notebook or clipboard or a pack of post-it notes, and jot down key words and phrases that children utter, or note down the order of the actions they use to complete a task, or the different stages of their activity, such as the way they tackle making a clay house or explore a new object. Write notes or draw sketches, according to your preference. Don’t rely on photographs – an effective observation cannot consist purely of photographs. You might use video or make an audio recording of children. However, it might be wise to limit your recording: a minute or two will give lots of detail for your assessment.
- Pay attention to non-verbal gestures and actions. With infants, look at small details, such as the direction of an infant’s gaze, or the pattern of their hand and feet movements.
- Spend a couple of moments thinking about the significance and meaning of what you have observed (either immediately afterwards or as soon as you have time – at the end of the day is fine). What seemed most interesting or important to you in the moment of observing? You might highlight or circle some of your notes, annotate them with questions to yourself (such as ‘is N drawing on home experience here?’) that help you to make some provisional meaning from what you observe.
After making an initial observation, it can be a good time to engage families and colleagues in shared interpretation of what you have seen, heard and recognised in children’s play. This is the focus of the next part of the course.
The main points about gathering information on children’s learning covered in this part are:
- Teachers need information about children, information about the family, and information about their own teaching, to inform their intentional practice.
- Relevant and accurate assessments depend on focussed and detailed observations that have been carefully and thoughtfully recorded, using a range of assessment tools.
- Assessment tools might include time-sampling, event-sampling, running records, structured or focused observation, and use of profiles or progression scales.
- Observations can be focused on a curriculum priority area or area of interest to parents, an activity that might have potential for extension or provoke discussion, teachers’ inquiry questions and larger projects, identified gaps in teachers’ understanding about children’s learning, or anything that provokes children’s intense interest or absorption.
- Observations can be recorded in writing, through photographs, or through video or audio recordings.
Use the Part 3 forum to discuss what kinds of processes or routines you have for carrying out observations for assessment purposes in your setting. Do you use any particular tools, and what kinds of observations do you carry out? When do you decide to carry out an observation for a child, and how do you decide who will do it?
Take a look at the examples of self-review and progression scales in He Māpuna te Tamaiti, Hikairo Schema, or the Sustained Shared Thinking and Emotional Wellbeing (SSTEW) scale in Assessing Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care by Siraj, Kingston and Melhuish (2015).
Read this paper by Anne Meade and Meg Kwan about the use of scale tools (including the SSTEW scale above) to improve intentional teaching practices and children’s learning outcomes at Daisies Early Childhood Centre.