Towards a definition of formative assessment Supporting learning and development 8 8 8 9 9 10 11 12 12 Section 2: The nature of early learning Characteristics of early learning The complexity of early learning Key theoretical constructs for assessment Ecological perspectives Socio-cultural perspectives Activity theory Children’s agency Children’s collaboration in learning Intersubjectivity and collaboration Children as co-constructors of knowledge Play as a context for formative assessment Emerging approaches to assessment Performance assessment and authentic assessment Summary 13 13 13 3 14 14 14 15 15 17 17 18 18 19 21 Section 3: What to assess in early learning The essentials of learning Dispositions A range of cognitive abilities Emotional well-being Self-concept and sociability Summary 22 22 22 23 23 24 24 Section 4: How to assess early learning A narrative approach to assessment of learning in early childhood learning stories: A credit-focused approach A fully-contextualised account of learning Methods for collecting information on children’s learning Observing and empathising Conversations with children Clinical interviews Making sense of children’s learning
Sustaining learning and development through documentation Portfolios Summary 25 25 25 26 27 28 29 29 30 30 31 33 3 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Section 5: Assessment and the practitioner Professional knowledge Skills base Ethical considerations Manageability of assessment Tensions 34 34 34 35 35 36 Concluding comments 37 References 38 Table 1: Gardner’s understanding of human development and assessment and Shepard’s guiding principles of assessment 19 4 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Glossary Glossary Agency: Children are active in their own learning.
In 2004, the British Journal of Educational Psychology releases a report on a research that was conducted by Eir ini Flouri and Ann Buchanan dealing with the correlation of early interaction of parents and the future assessment of their children in school. Previous to this article, little research was given to the individual long-term contribution that early parent involvement had in a child's ...
Some ways in which they display their agency is by taking the initiative in learning situations, by observing and becoming involved in ongoing events, or by initiating conversations with others. Authentic assessment: Assessing children on tasks that are part of their ordinary everyday experiences in their early education and care settings. Co-construction: This occurs when children and/or practitioners construct meaning and knowledge about the world together in interaction. Collaborative learning: This is learning that takes place in social contexts and using the resources of the environment.
Formative assessment: This is assessment that informs teaching and learning. It is concerned with the shortterm collection and use of evidence for the guidance of learning. Intersubjectivity: This is the mutual understanding achieved by people in communication. Meta-cognition: This refers to what children think about their own learning, thinking and remembering and how the act of thinking about these processes affect the ways in which children then go about intentionally learning, thinking and remembering. It is a process whereby children become aware of their own thought processes.
Pedagogy of mutuality: This perspective recognises that both child and adult bring beliefs and ideas to the learning situation and that discussion and interaction are the means by which a shared frame of reference is established. This results in an exchange of understandings between the child and the practitioner. Pedagogical content knowledge: This is a form of professional understanding which brings together content knowledge and knowledge about pedagogy. It is based on an understanding of how best to organise and present ideas and adapt them in response to the diverse interests and abilities of children.
Performance assessment: Assessing children’s early learning and development through observing, recording, and evaluating children’s performance or work. Scaffolding: This refers to the practice of providing guidance and support to children as they move from one level of competence to another. It is a metaphor that is used to describe interactional support for children’s efforts. The assistance offered to the child is sensitive to and contingent on the amount of support needed. Schema: These are patterns of early repeatable behaviours which children engage in and which lead them through a process of co-ordination, to make generalisations.
... Pupils in need of Remedial Teaching (Learning Support). Pupils with Specific Learning Disabilities. Pupils with Specific Speech and ... Early Intervention Program; Report of the Guideline Recommendations; Autism / Pervasive Developmental Disorders; Assessment and Intervention for Young Children ... recommends that schools adopt a phased process of assessment. The model of assessment has 4 phases and is ...
Socio-cultural theories: These are a family of theories that have arisen from the work of Vygotsky and which have in common their emphasis on the role that social and cultural factors play in children’s development and learning. Theory of mind: Children gradually acquire the understanding that other people can hold beliefs about the world that differ from what the child him/herself believes or appears to be true. Transformation of participation: From a socio-cultural perspective, children are seen as developing through a process of participating in activities of their communities, and in doing so their participation changes.
They become progressively more expert through engagement in cultural practice and through social interactions that guide them in taking on new roles and responsibilities. 5 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment Introduction This research paper, Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment responds to the questions – What’s the purpose of formative assessment in early childhood? What should we assess? How should we assess?
The paper is one of four research papers commissioned by the NCCA to set out the theory trail behind the Framework for Early Learning1. This paper is being used to develop guidelines on assessment for inclusion in the Framework. While there are a number of different types and functions of assessment this paper focuses on formative assessment as this offers most potential in terms of assessing to support learning in the day-to-day interactions between adults and children in early childhood. Section 1 of the paper, General background explores the meaning of assessment and its relationship with teaching and learning.
... of children in early learning and child care settings receiving developmental assessments. •Number of children in early learning and child care referred ... are new and three are expanded: •Professional Development •Family Engagement and Outreach •Preschool •Kindergarten ... Ahead Early Childhood Education and Assistance Programs (ECEAP) , Neighborhood House Head Start Tier IV – Comprehensive Child Care ...
Though still very much an emerging area, what we know about how to support early learning and development through the formative assessment process has advanced somewhat in recent years. In many ways the advances in assessment practices in early childhood education and care mirror those in the field of assessment generally. In particular, the articulation of the interrelatedness between teaching, learning and assessment and the complexity of the relationships between these processes and curriculum is of as much importance to those concerned with early learning and development, as it is to those concerned with later stages of development.
The term assessment, as applied in early childhood education and care, generally implies the intention to provide a rich picture of the ways in which children act, think and learn. In order to orient the discussion about assessment in early childhood education and care, the initial section of the paper outlines the general context in relation to the assessment of early learning and development. While a number of different reasons for assessing early learning and development can be identified, this paper focuses on using formative assessment to support teaching and learning.
Section 2, The nature of early learning begins from the premise that in assessing early learning and development it is critical to acknowledge and take account of the nature of early learning and development. We know that in early childhood learning and development is rapid, episodic and holistic. It is also highly influenced by the extent of support that is available for that learning. The adults around the child, and the extent to which they can and do support early learning and development, are crucial elements in determining the extent of learning.
Because of their stage of development, children’s abilities in some areas are not yet mature. Their verbal abilities are still emerging, and so assessment of learning and development is often through observation of, and inference from, the children’s actions and reactions in particular situations. It is also essential to acknowledge and take account of the fact that there are considerable cultural variations in children’s experiences. These will result in differences in the course and content of early learning and development. They may also result in considerable differences in how children learn and in how they display their learning.
Early Child Development There are many key factors that play up to the role of early child development, starting from before the child is nonexistent, until the child is a full grown baby. Bodily Processes of Reproduction There are numerous hormones in the human body that play key factors in allowing a human being to reproduce successfully. Spermatogenesis Spermatogenesis is the 65 to 75 day ...
It is important to focus on the breadth of children’s early learning and development. Section 3, What to assess in early learning focuses on assessing children’s dispositions, well-being, cognitive abilities and self-concept and sociability. Assessment in early childhood is shaped by how children from birth to six years learn and develop. A narrative approach offers great potential for making assessment of early learning visible. Documentation of evidence of early learning and development in various ways, using a variety of media and tools, is important for both reflecting on and communicating about children’s achievements.
There appears to be general agreement that assessment of early learning and development should be informal, carried out over time, and in the context of the child’s interactions with materials, objects and other people. It should also be authentic in the sense that it should take place in real-life contexts where it is embedded in tasks that children see as significant, meaningful and worthwhile. Informal assessments, carried out as children engage in experiences they see as relevant and meaningful, are likely to produce the best assessments of early learning and development.
These issues are considered in Section 4, How to assess early learning. 1 The Framework for Early Learning was renamed Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework in 2009. 6 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment Section 5, Assessment and the practitioner discusses the need for professional development for early childhood practitioners. Good assessment practice requires understanding about how children learn and develop, the process of assessment, and skills to manageably assess in ways that respect children and that are ethically sound.
The concluding comments clarify and summarise the key messages across the paper. Key points arising from the discussion are presented in shaded boxes throughout the paper. Some of these points relate to key messages arising from theory and research while others are aspirational. 7 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment Section 1: General background This section of the paper explores what is meant by assessment in early childhood and discusses its relationship with teaching and learning.
Explain the function of assessment in learning and development To meet timely a required predetermined standard with evidenced learning. Unlike the course work we were required to do at school which when marked showed the standard we had achieved. Assessment learning breaks down the required knowledge into bite size pieces which are topic specific, when completed and assessed each piece must ...
Informed by this, a definition of formative assessment is presented. The section concludes by describing the current practice and legislative context in which assessment takes place in Ireland. Purpose of the paper The purpose of this paper is to review issues related to formative assessment of early learning. The findings of the paper will be used to support the development of the assessment guidelines in the Framework for Early Learning2. The paper responds to questions related to the what, why and how of formative assessment in early childhood. Assessment and curriculum
Ways of assessing children’s learning and development cannot be separated from features of the curriculum (for example, the degree of formality or informality that characterises it), and from views of learners and learning which are embodied in that curriculum. Kelly (1992) identifies the interrelating of curriculum and assessment as … a highly complex and sophisticated matter (p. 16).
He argues that the interplay of one with the other is crucial in determining the effectiveness of either. The NCCA is developing a curriculum framework for children between the ages of birth and six years.
The Framework embraces a particular view of the child, of learning and of how that learning may be celebrated and extended. In the Framework for Early Learning, learning is presented in four broad and complementary themes: ¦¦ Well-being ¦¦ Identity and Belonging ¦¦ Communicating ¦¦ Exploring and Thinking. Some of the principles related to how children develop and learn which underpin the Framework include the following: ¦¦ holistic learning and development ¦¦ active learning ¦¦ play and first-hand experiences ¦¦ relevant and meaningful experiences ¦¦ communication and language ¦ a well-planned and well-resourced outdoor and indoor learning environment. It will be important to identify an approach to assessment that will help practitioners identify and support children’s learning as it relates to the Framework’s principles and themes. Assessment and teaching are now generally considered to be as much inseparable processes in early childhood as they are in any other period of life (Shepard, Kagan and Wurtz, 1998; Bowman et al. , 2001).
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We now know that children learn by building new understandings on those that they already have (Wood, 1998).
In order to support children’s learning then, practitioners first collect information about children’s well-being, identity and belonging, communication, and exploration and thinking. What children engage with, think, know, feel or can do are all of importance in the assessment process. Reflection on this information helps the practitioner to establish 2 As noted earlier, the Framework for Early Learning was renamed Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework in 2009. 8 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment ow best to advance children’s learning and development. Once this is established the practitioner is then in a position to plan worthwhile, interesting and challenging learning experiences to further progress learning. Clearly then, assessment in early childhood is not something that can be considered independent of either curriculum or learning. It is critical that the assessment of early learning recognises the unique nature of development in early childhood. It is also critical that we learn from the experiences of countries with a longer history of appraising assessment practices and processes than we have here in Ireland.
Working in the context of the United States, where there has been considerable interest in finding appropriate assessment formats for use by early childhood practitioners, Shepard et al. (1998, pp. 8-9) devised a set of principles to guide practice and policy for the assessment of children’s learning. These represented a synthesis of understandings in respect of the most appropriate approaches to assessment in early childhood and the authors advised that they should apply to any situation in which assessments are used to make decisions about children’s learning: ¦¦
Assessments should bring about benefits for children. ¦¦ Assessments should be tailored to a specific purpose and should be reliable, valid and fair for that purpose. ¦¦ Assessment policies should be designed recognising that reliability and validity of assessments increases with children’s age. ¦¦ Assessments should be age-appropriate in both content and the method of data collection. ¦¦ Assessments should be linguistically appropriate, recognising that to some extent all assessments are measures of language. ¦¦
Parents should be a valued source of assessment information, as well as an audience for assessment results. The Irish context The practice context Assessment in the early years of a child’s life can be viewed from a number of perspectives. David (2003) identifies three perspectives ¦¦ the day-to-day informal assessments made by the adults with whom the child comes in contact. In most cases these are early years practitioners who may or may not document such assessments. ¦¦ the physical assessments by paediatricians, public health nurses and family doctors.
These aim to identify any physical problems that may impede children’s progression and seek to alleviate them as much as possible. ¦¦ diagnostic assessments that can have a range of functions, including identifying children with special educational needs, and helping practitioners to support their learning more effectively. No single type of assessment can serve all of the purposes identified in the perspectives outlined above. Each perspective has a role to play, especially in the case of children with special needs where diagnostic assessments are of paramount importance.
Babies, toddlers and young children may experience various types of assessments in early childhood. Some may occur frequently, others occasionally. Multi-agency and multi-disciplinary communication is a critical means by which information related to the child’s development and learning can be shared for the benefit of the child. It is imperative that practitioners in early childhood settings have access to any information that is of use in making sure learning opportunities in the setting are appropriate for each individual child.
The practice of practitioners building on assessments carried out by other professionals such as therapists can be facilitated by significant levels of inter- and/or multidisciplinary teamwork. 9 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment Where children spend some or all of their day in out-of-home settings the practitioners with whom they are in contact engage in ongoing assessment for supporting learning and development.
Traditionally, observation is the primary method used in assessing children’s learning and development in the range of early education settings in Ireland. For instance, close observations of children’s play in a range of childcare services in Ireland provide the basis for learning and teaching stories (Brennan, 2004).
Many practitioners use checklists to record aspects of their observations. These are often used to record observations in relation to the assessment of children’s skills and understandings, particularly in the area of identifying children with special educational needs and in supporting their learning and development.
In relation to their use of assessment practices to support children’s learning in curriculum areas, only about half of infant teachers who participated in Phase 1 of the Primary Curriculum Review (NCCA, 2005) reported that they used observation and about three-quarters reported using documentation. Infant teachers in primary schools also use a range of developmental and diagnostic assessments, for example, in the area of early literacy, to assess specific aspects of children’s development and learning. (See Section 4 for a more extensive discussion on observation as an assessment method. )
Increasingly there is an awareness that children live different childhoods: their social, cultural, linguistic and ecological experiences and opportunities differ and all of this influences assessment. Practitioners who are in daily contact with children are in a good position to familiarise themselves with these diverse aspects of children’s lives and of their possibilities for early learning and development. Consequently, on a day-to-day basis, the practitioner’s own assessments are the ones that have the most potential in terms of planning for children’s learning and of making judgements regarding children’s progress.
Using assessment for this purpose is the central focus of this paper. Key point A range of assessments are appropriate in assessing children’s learning. The focus of the assessment depends on its purpose. The central focus of this paper is on formative assessment where practitioners’ own assessments are used to support and plan for children’s learning. The legislative context There is a long history of informal assessment of children’s learning in Ireland. However, for various reasons early childhood practitioners now find it necessary to document learning in ways that were not general practice previously.
Both legislative requirements and practitioners’ own desires to better understand early learning and how best to extend it, are to the fore in encouraging the documentation of information related to children’s early learning and development. In relation to young children attending primary schools, The Education Act (Department of Education and Science, 1998) requires principals and teachers to regularly evaluate students and periodically report the results of the evaluation to the students and their parents. The implications of this requirement for teachers and schools include ¦ developing assessment procedures which provide an accurate account of children’s progress and achievement ¦¦ creating and maintaining records of children’s progress and achievement while they are attending the school ¦¦ providing parents with assessment reports which contain accurate and clearly accessible information about their children’s progress and achievement (NCCA, 2007a, p. 95).
The Equal Status Act (The Equality Authority, 2000) has implications for the assessment policy in early education settings.
In particular, it requires settings to be aware of the effects of context, culture and language in assessing children’s learning and development. 10 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act (EPSEN) (Department of Health and Children, 2004) requires that where a child has or may have special educational needs an assessment of those needs should be carried out. With children not attending formal schooling this is the responsibility of the relevant health board.
Where the child is a student then the Act requires schools to identify when a child is not benefiting from the education programme on offer and to investigate the reasons behind this. The school, or in the case of a child not at school the relevant health board, is mandated to ensure that an individual education plan (IEP) for an appropriate education for the child is drawn up in consultation with the child’s parents. The Act outlines the statutory requirements for educational planning for children with special educational needs (SEN).
It requires that a multi-disciplinary assessment be carried out in situations where it is considered that the child may have special educational needs. An IEP must then be prepared for each child identified as having such needs. Discussion and agreement regarding the abilities, skills and talents as well as the nature and degree of the child’s special educational needs, together with an analysis of how these needs affect the child’s learning and development is required. The plan must include these and must also specify goals for learning and development for the child over a period not exceeding ne year. It must also specify the supports that need to be put in place to enable the child to participate in and benefit from education. The Disability Act (Department of Health and Children, 2005) enables provision for the assessment of health and education needs for persons with disabilities, arising from their situation. The Act provides for access for people with disabilities to health and education services. In relation to educational needs, Part 2 Section 8 (9) states that where an assessment is applied for it must be carried out by or at the request of an assessment officer who then identifies the need for the provision of an educational service to the child, he or she shall, in case the child is enrolled in a school, refer the matter to the principal of that school…in any other case, refer the matter to the council for the purposes of an assessment. The Child Care (Pre-School Services) (No 2) Regulations (Department of Health and Children, 2006) set out the regulations and requirements pertaining to all aspects of the operation of pre-school settings. Regulation 5 explicitly requires that:
A person carrying on a pre-school service shall ensure that each child’s learning, development and well-being is facilitated within the daily life of the service through the provision of the appropriate opportunities, experiences, activities, interaction, materials and equipment, having regard to the age and state of development of the child and the child’s cultural context. To fulfil this requirement it is necessary for practitioners to engage in making important judgements about children’s learning and development and how best to extend and enrich it. By implication this involves the practitioner in assessing learning and development.
Indeed, the explanatory guide directs practitioners to be pro-active in ensuring that appropriate action is taken to address each child’s individual needs with his/her parents and following consultation, where appropriate, with other relevant services (p. 39).
While there are other pieces of legislation which impact on aspects of assessment such as the transfer of assessment information between settings, the focus of this paper is on the actual process of using assessment to support early learning and development. How best to comply with the above demands in ways that are respectful to hildren; capture the complexity of early learning; and are helpful in planning future learning experiences has now become a key issue for consideration for early childhood practitioners. Key point Assessment takes place within a particular legislative framework in Ireland. Ethical Issues The nature of the power relations between babies, toddlers and young children and the practitioners with whom they come into contact needs to be acknowledged in the assessment situation. The power of the adult and the relative dependency of children make it imperative that ethical issues are given serious consideration by practitioners.
Some of these issues are discussed later in Section 5. 11 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment Towards a definition of formative assessment Bowman, Donovan and Burns (2001) suggest that the term assessment, as applied in early childhood education and care, generally implies the intention to provide a rich picture of the ways in which children act, think and learn. Such a picture focuses on the individual’s learning, is built up over time and provides evidence of learning in a number of different contexts.
In relation to its importance, they argue that: Assessment has an important role to play in revealing a child’s prior knowledge, development of concepts and ways of interacting with and understanding the world so that teachers can choose a pedagogical approach and curricular materials that will support the child’s further learning and development. (p. 259) Pelligrini (1998) describes assessment in early childhood as being about the collection of information about children. This is generally understood to encompass a number of other processes besides collecting. For example, Lally nd Hurst (1992) describe how assessment also involves practitioners in documenting, analysing and reflecting on the information collected, and using this to plan and support further learning. This definition is very similar to that used in Assessment in the Primary School Curriculum: Guidelines for Schools (NCCA, 2007a).
While similar methods may be useful in both early childhood settings and in primary school settings, in early childhood assessment particular account needs to be taken of the characteristics of babies, toddlers and young children and to the unique ways in which these children learn.
Early childhood assessment focuses specifically on finding out what children are interested in, understand, think, feel, and are able to do. It seeks to document this information in order to understand children’s thinking and learning styles, to chart children’s progress and to support further learning. It is developmental in that it focuses on processes rather than on content or product. Key point Assessment of early learning provides a rich picture of children’s learning by collecting and documenting information. Through reflecting on and using this information, children’s future learning is supported and enhanced.
Supporting learning and development Assessment in early childhood has been identified as having a number of functions – ipsative, diagnostic, summative, evaluative and informative (Wood and Attfield, 2005).
Assessment in early childhood has enormous potential to support learning and development. A recent large-scale longitudinal study of early learning settings in England confirmed the importance of assessment in meeting children’s needs and in supporting their cognitive progress (Siraj-Blatchford, Sylva, Muttock, Gilden and Bell, 2002).
The ultimate purpose of assessment in early childhood is to make learning more interesting, enjoyable and successful for children. Drummond (1993) suggests that assessment must work for children: We can use our assessments to shape and enrich our curriculum, our interactions, our provision as a whole: we can use our assessments as a way of identifying what children will be able to learn next, so that we can support and extend that learning. Assessment is part of our daily practice in striving for quality. (p. 13) Key point
Assessment in early childhood promotes the extension and enrichment of children’s early learning and development. The following section looks at the nature of early learning and the implications for assessing early learning. 12 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment Section 2: The nature of early learning This section of the paper discusses the characteristics of early learning and identifies some key theoretical constructs that guide the teaching, learning and assessment processes during early childhood.
Theoretical considerations have been influential in shaping new and emerging approaches to assessment and the most salient of these are discussed in relation to their implications for the assessment of early learning and development. Characteristics of early learning During the early childhood period children’s learning across the various dimensions of development (for example, physical, motor, linguistic, emotional) is greater than at any other period, but is also highly variable across the dimensions.
It also occurs very rapidly, is episodic in nature and is very susceptible to environmental conditions (Shepard et al. , 1998).
These factors contribute to making the assessment of early learning and development very challenging. The complexity of early learning We have a great deal of evidence that early learning and development is both extensive and complex (e. g. Drummond, 1993; Bowman et al. , 2001; Carr, 2002).
The research paper, Children’s early learning and development (French, 2007) provides information on many facets of early learning and development.
Early childhood educators have consistently sought to convey the extent of this complexity and over the years they have provided evidence of exactly how much learning children can demonstrate, provided that it is approached in appropriate ways. For instance, Donaldson (1983) clearly demonstrates how children display different levels of proficiency/learning in different contexts. In her seminal work, Children’s Minds, she reviewed research that illustrated the dramatic effect of the inclusion or omission of a single adjective in questioning children on so-called ‘logical’ tasks.
She argues (p. 59) that the young child … first makes sense of situations (and perhaps especially those involving human intentions) and then uses this kind of understanding to help him make sense of what is said to him. Looking not at what children say but at what they do, the work of Athey (1990) and that of Nutbrown (1999) clearly demonstrates how, as children pursue certain schema for considerable periods of time, these can be identified and supported by practitioners. Early learning is seen, for instance in Athey’s work, to have its own recognisable and valid characteristics.
Nutbrown (1999) draws out the implication of that work for the assessment of children’s pathways and patterns of development and interest. This work along with that of Drummond (1993) exemplifies vividly how much of children’s learning there is to see if practitioners are open to seeing it by looking beyond what children can tell us and instead observing what they actually can do. Play provides an important vehicle and context for this work. Key point During the early childhood period, children’s learning is highly complex and is made visible through assessing carefully and thoughtfully.
Key theoretical constructs for assessment Dahlberg, Moss and Pence (1999) observe that in recent years, especially in Western Europe, there has been a process of rethinking childhood that has led to new constructions of the child. They locate this process in a number of interrelated developments with respect to learning theories; philosophy; psychology; sociology; and a concurrent questioning of previous understandings in these fields. From this post-modern perspective, the young child is seen, from the start of life, as a construction of his or her own world.
This is very similar to the perspective adopted by Malaguzzi (1993), the founder of the world-renowned Reggio Emilia pre-schools in Italy. Dahlberg et al. (1999) describe how in Reggio Emilia pre-schools, the young child is understood as a unique, complex individual who is rich in the sense that he or she is equipped from the start to engage fully and actively in their world. A wider discussion of these perspectives follows. 13 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment
Ecological perspectives Ecological and socio-cultural theories of learning have largely dominated explanations of development and learning in early childhood in recent years. For instance, ecological (Bronfenbrenner 1979) and bioecological (Bronfenbrenner and Morris, 1998) models of human development have been influential in efforts to understand learning and development and associated processes such as assessment. These models emphasise the role in human development of both the environment and of processes.
The research paper, Perspectives on the relationship between education and care (Hayes, 2007) in turn highlights both the importance of care and education in facilitating children’s overall development. From this perspective, human development is seen as taking place as a result of progressively more complex reciprocal interactions (p. 996) between the young child and the people, objects and symbols in the environment. To be effective the interactions must occur on a fairly regular basis over extended periods of time (p. 996).
These enduring forms of interaction (proximal processes) are seen as key to learning and development and we must study these interactions over time and alongside the observation of behaviour in natural settings. From an ecologicaltheory perspective, Bronfenbrenner (1979) describes how the learner can participate in increasingly more complex learning situations and in doing so take increasingly greater responsibility in the learning situation. The perspective also emphasises the agency or active nature of children in their interactions with adults, objects and symbols.
The model can be used to draw attention to the interpersonal and situational aspects of assessment, for example: the importance of the personal characteristics of the child and the adult in the assessment context, the importance of reciprocal interactions between child and adult and the importance of assessing children’s level of engagement with the objects and symbols provided in the immediate environment. Thus the ecological approach emphasises assessment of children engaged in real tasks in natural settings.
This perspective sits very well with the socio-cultural perspective that we look at next. Socio-cultural perspectives In the past two decades socio-cultural perspectives, that is perspectives that highlight the social and cultural nature of learning, are increasingly used to explain the ways that learning and development occur in early childhood (Anning, Cullen and Fleer, 2004).
Socio-cultural theories of learning suggest that the process of learning is as much a social construction as it is an individual one. Rogoff (1998, p. 91) describes development as transformation of participation. Transformation occurs at a number of levels: for instance, the learner changes at the level of their involvement, in the role they play in the learning situation, in the ability they demonstrate in moving flexibly from one learning context to another, and in the amount of responsibility taken in the situation. Activity theory also concentrates on the social aspects of learning. Activity theory Activity theory, which is a development of aspects of Vygotsky’s work (See for example, Engerstrom et al. 1999), is also being highlighted as a theoretical framework that may be useful in explaining the complexity of learning–related issues in early childhood. Fleer, Anning and Cullen (2004) explain how activity theory, in common with Rogoff’s discussion of socio-cultural theory, focuses on the study of the complexity of human behaviour in social groups and in specific contexts. The theory is premised on the notion that the contextual features of a task contribute to … performance on that task (p. 178).
Furthermore, children use tools such as language, a particular action or resource to mediate knowledge in interactions with others. But the cultural features of the context in which they use these tools influences the way activities are performed and understood. Key point If socio-cultural theory informs our understanding of how children learn, it also by implication informs our understanding of assessment. 14 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment
What all of these perspectives hold in common is their emphasis on the socially constructed nature of learning and of assessment. There are a number of other important constructs that also unite them to greater or lesser degrees. These include children’s agency, the importance of collaboration, and the co-construction of meaning and knowledge. These constructs are particularly helpful when thinking about the quality of the interactions between practitioners and young learners. Quality interactions are increasingly recognised as central to pedagogy (Black and Wiliam 1998a; Siraj-Blatchford et al. , 2002).
The next sub-section discusses these ideas in some detail, and in doing so, draws out the implications for assessment practices in early childhood. Children’s agency Bruner (1999a) argues that advances in the study of human development provide us with a profile of the child as an active, intentional being; with knowledge as ‘man-made’ rather than simply there; with ways to negotiate with others in the construction of knowledge. (See French (2007) for more detailed information. ) A crucial aspect of identity and self-esteem is that the child sees him/her self as an agent in control of his/her own actions.
Some ways in which children display their agency is by taking the initiative in learning situations, by observing and becoming involved in ongoing events, or by initiating conversations with others. Agency is about taking more control of your own mental activity (Bruner, 1996, p. 87).
Bruner argues that the agentive mind is not only active in nature but it seeks out dialogue and discourse with other active minds (p. 93).
Bruner (1999a) identifies efforts to recognise children’s perspectives in the processes of learning as highly significant and he uses the term pedagogy of mutuality (p. 3) to describe the pedagogy that arises from such endeavours. It is premised on the belief that children are able to reason; to make sense (both alone and in discourse with others); to reflect and to hold theories about self and about the world. The practitioner, according to Bruner (p. 12) is concerned with understanding what the child thinks and how he/she arrives at what he/she believes. He identifies four key research constructs which have enriched this perspective on teaching and learning (and by implication assessment): ¦¦
Intersubjectivity – how the child develops the ability to read other minds ¦¦ Theory of mind – the child’s grasp of another’s intentional state ¦¦ Meta-cognition – what the child thinks about learning, remembering thinking ¦¦ Collaborative learning – how children, through talk and discussion, explain and revise their thinking. These theoretical ideas are important also in the analysis of assessment as it relates to early learning and development. Children’s collaboration in learning is also important and this is considered below. Key point
The active role which children themselves play in their interactions with others needs to be recognised and taken into account in any assessment of learning. Children’s collaboration in learning Zone of proximal development Vygotsky’s theory of learning (1978; 1986) has been highly influential in helping to explain the processes of learning in early childhood. In particular, his notion of the zone of proximal development has provided the foundation and potential for some of the most important recent initiatives in the assessment of individual children’s learning (Lunt, 2000).
Berk and Winsler (1995) describe Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) as a dynamic zone of sensitivity in which learning and cognitive development occur. Tasks that children cannot do individually but they can do with help from others invoke mental functioning that are currently in the process of developing, rather than those that have already matured (p. 26).
It appears that Vygotsky originally introduced the ZPD in the context of arguing against intelligence testing which he felt was seeking to assess something static and did not reflect the dynamic and ever-changing 5 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment nature of human cognition. Adult-child collaboration within the ZPD is critical for effective teaching and learning interactions because it is within such interactions that the practitioner identifies how the child may be assisted in learning and what the child is capable of doing with appropriate support. The practitioner also has the opportunity to assess the impact of such support on the child’s progress.
This approach to assessment effectively merges the teaching and assessment processes. It is commonly referred to as dynamic assessment. When Feuerstein (1979) first proposed this form of assessment he was envisioning, in essence, a joint problem-solving situation during which the practitioner gauges the nature and extent of assistance required by the child in order to solve the problem. Children’s responsiveness to appropriate instructional interactions is a key factor in dynamic assessment situations and it is now considered to be an important predictor of learning potential (Berk and Winsler, 1995).
Lidz (1991) emphasises that: The focus of dynamic assessment is on the assessor’s ability to discover the means of facilitating the learning of the child, not on the child’s demonstration of ability to the assessor (as cited in Berk and Winsler, 1995, p. 139).
Dynamic assessment is considered by Berk and Winsler (ibid. ) as especially useful for making visible the learning potential of those children whose early experiences do not include experiences that prepare them for learning in group/institutional settings. (For a comprehensive discussion of dynamic assessment and emerging approaches to such assessment, see Lunt, 2000).
The concept of scaffolding is often associated with ZPD and it is this which we turn our attention to next. Key point Practitioner’s interactions with children often incorporate both teaching and assessment. It is critical that the practitioner is capable of engaging certain interactive skills in such situations since these will be necessary to ensure optimal learning and development. Scaffolding Effective scaffolding (Wood, Bruner and Ross, 1976), where the adult guides the child’s learning in the ZPD, is an important feature of the engagement of the child in joint problem solving.
Here, the child interacts with the practitioner while the two are jointly trying to reach a goal and this results in the establishment of intersubjectivity (Newson and Newson, 1975).
Intersubjectivity refers to the process whereby two participants achieve a shared understanding whilst undertaking a task that they approach from different perspectives. The parties co-construct meanings in activities that involve higher–order thinking (Vygotsky, 1978).
Rogoff (1998) emphasises the ongoing mutual process of understanding, which is inherent in joint problemsolving interactions.
She also draws attention to the institutional and cultural aspects of joint problemsolving activities. She distinguishes between her socio-cultural approach to studying experts’ support of novices’ learning and other approaches which focus on particular techniques such as scaffolding. Rogoff distinguishes between the concepts of ‘scaffolding’ and of working in the zone of proximal development. She describes scaffolding as a specific technique focusing on what experts provide for novices; it focuses on the tutor’s efforts as they relate contingently to the novice’s successes and failures (p. 699).
However, working in the zone of proximal development is, in her view, wider than scaffolding. It focuses on the processes of communication that builds a continually evolving mutual perspective. It is a way of describing an activity in which someone with greater expertise assists someone else … to participate in socio-cultural activities in a way that exceeds what they could do otherwise (p. 699).
Mutual contribution is an essential consideration so interactions and communicative and collaborative processes all form part of the picture, rather than just the child’s successes or errors as in scaffolding.
Rogoff argues that The concept of scaffolding does not refer to the institutional and cultural context in which it occurs, whereas the concept of zone of proximal development requires attention to processes of communication and the relation of the interaction at hand to institutional, cultural and historic processes. (p. 700) 16 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment Key point Supporting children’s learning is an important part of assessment. For the practitioner this is often far more complex than simply applying a technique such as scaffolding.
Learners make an equally important contribution. Intersubjectivity and collaboration are important in scaffolding children’s learning and we look at these two concepts below. Intersubjectivity and collaboration Rogoff (1990; 1998) has illustrated how children make an important contribution in collaborating in the process of establishing joint understanding. Children, including infants in the first year of life, can sometimes be observed to be deliberately taking the lead in collaborative activities by seeking information or by directing activities.
Rogoff’s analysis, consistent with Vygotsky, suggests that the intersubjectivity as achieved by adults and babies is different from that achieved by adults and children who can use linguistic (verbal and gestural) communication to achieve mutual understandings. This then has implications for the assessment process across the age range birth to six years. Working in the zone of proximal development with a toddler will include the adult engaging in the demonstration of objects, collaborative activity with objects and the focusing of the child’s attention.
Rogoff (1998) points out that the child, for example in seeking to help the adult in everyday chores, very often initiates such activity. Older toddlers and young children will often seek to assert their independence in doing a particular task themselves but Rogoff’s analysis of the research suggests that they also will actively seek assistance when they are stuck. Recently a question has arisen about the capacity of early years settings to support the kinds of relationships and shared experiences that enable children to engage in the types of social participation that promote optimum learning (Parker-Rees, 2007).
The research indicates that the nature and scope of babies, toddlers and children’s interactions with parents, the playful quality of these interactions and the extent to which relationships can influence reciprocal imitative behaviour (an important process of learning especially in the first year) must all be fully appreciated by practitioners and be seen as desirable conditions for learning in the setting. Key point The concept of collaboration is key when considering assessment from a socio-cultural perspective.
In collaborating, the child and the practitioner are involved in each other’s thinking processes through shared efforts. In order to assess certain aspects of learning by babies, toddlers and young children, it is essential for adults to collaborate with the children in order to understand their learning. The co-construction of knowledge is supported by intersubjectivity and collaboration and it is to this that we next draw our attention. Children as co-constructors of knowledge
In recent times the term ‘co-construction’ has featured prominently in influential early childhood publications, although it was implicit in the last century in the work of Dewey (1933) who emphasised the ways in which children construct their learning by actively engaging in, and shaping, their experiences and environments. For instance, Jordan (2004) discusses the term scaffolding and compares it with coconstruction. The specific pattern of interaction that characterised early accounts of scaffolding, according to Jordan (ibid. and Rogoff (1998), generally maintained the power and control with the adult. They argue that the term co-construction emphasises the child as a powerful player in his/her own learning. An example of how this process of co-construction works in practice is illustrated in the discussions of the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education (Edwards, Gandini and Forman, 1998).
Co-construction refers to adults and children making meaning and knowledge together (MacNaughton and Williams, 2004).
Co-construction recognises the child’s expertise and in order to understand this, the practitioner needs to interact with the child and become aware of the child’s thoughts and thereby to establish intersubjectivity. 17 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment Recent research (Siraj-Blatchford et al. , 2002) also highlighted the process of co-construction and found it to be a key factor in terms of promoting children’s learning.
Essentially a co-construction perspective emphasises understanding and meaning on the part of both child and adult, rather than the acquisition of facts by the child. Jordan (2004) concludes that the two concepts, scaffolding and co-construction have different applicability depending on whether the goal of the practitioner is the exploration of thinking or the achievement of pre-specified learning goals. Key point Co-construction of meaning and knowledge is central to teaching, learning and assessment and it occurs when both child and practitioner engage together in achieving mutual understanding.
Play as a context for formative assessment As this paper demonstrates, children’s learning is complex and assessment approaches need to take cognisance of this. In early childhood, this complexity is abundantly evident as children engage in play. The importance of play to young children’s learning and development is a key principle for early childhood practitioners (Wood, 2004).
Assessing children’s understandings and progress as they play, either alone or with others, is a crucial activity in early year’s settings. In assessing the child’s learning through play the adult can use a range of approaches and methods.
Practitioners make assessments by focusing on children’s play interests, their levels of engagement and participation. They make assessments while skilfully engaging with children in play. Skilful engagement includes intervention in play as and when appropriate. Such interventions may serve to initiate or sustain interactions, thereby leading to shared talking and thinking. They may also involve scaffolding children in order to enable them to reach their potential at a particular time. (See the research paper, Play as a context for early learning and development (Kernan, 2007) for detailed information on play. Children’s learning is a complex matter and assessment approaches need to take cognisance of this. The paper now looks at emerging approaches to assessment, all of which take account of play as a vehicle for learning and development. Key point Assessing children’s understandings and progress as they play, either alone or with others, is a crucial activity in early year’s settings. Emerging approaches to assessment The rationale for using assessment to enrich and extend children’s learning can be located in recent developments in society’s understandings of learning in the early years.
For instance, in recent decades there have been very big changes in our understandings of human nature and of learning. Gardner (1999, p. 91) reviews what he describes as several lines of evidence from the cognitive, neural, and developmental sciences which point to a far more capacious view of the human mind and of human learning than that which informed earlier conceptions. He presents a picture of assessment that builds on the newly emerging picture of human development (see Table 1).
Gardner’s principles complement the earlier principles presented by Shepard et al. 1998).
(See pages 16-17. ) 18 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment Table 1: Gardner’s understanding of human development and assessment and Shepard’s guiding principles of assessment Features of human development Features of assessment In understanding human development, there is Assessment should ¦¦ be simple, natural and occurring on a reliable schedule evidence for the existence of multiple faculties or ‘intelligences’ ¦¦ have ecological validity (be done in situations hat are real) ¦¦ recognition of vast individual differences; ¦¦ ¦¦ the desirability of assessing learning in context utilise instruments that are intelligence-fair and not dependent on language or logical faculties ¦¦ locating competence and skill ‘outside the head of the individual’. ¦¦ use multiple measures ¦¦ be sensitive to individual differences, developmental levels and forms of expertise ¦¦ use materials which are intrinsically interesting and motivating ¦¦ yield information to be used for the learner’s benefit. ¦¦ a necessity for a developmental perspective ¦¦ n emergence of a symbol-system perspective ¦¦ Performance and authentic assessment incorporate some of Gardner’s ideas and a discussion of these follows below. Performance assessment and authentic assessment Emerging approaches to assessment take account of developments in theories about learning and about human development. Performance assessment is currently seen as an approach that is particularly appropriate for assessing many aspects of early learning and development (see Bowman et al. , 2001).
Meisels (1999) describes performance assessment as assessments that are ounded on the notion that learning and development can only be assessed over time and in interactions with materials, objects and other people. In this approach to assessment, the expectation is that tasks must be practical, realistic and challenging for children (Torrance, 2001).
Performance assessment implies observation of children as they undertake a number of routine tasks in early learning settings. According to Meisels (1999, p. 58) these should meet a number of criteria: ¦¦ tasks should bring together various skills that children display and demonstrate during the course of interactions ¦ children should be assisted to perform to the very best of their ability ¦¦ tasks should be guided by developmental standards ¦¦ tasks should engage children in reflection about their work and in articulating their ideas about their learning. Authentic assessment is a type of performance assessment. It is described as compatible with the prevailing philosophy that emphasises whole child development (Puckett and Black 2000, p. 6).
This philosophy explains development across a range of domains (for example social, moral, emotional, language and cognitive).
It also recognises the diversity of early learning and the role of environmental factors in shaping that learning. From an authentic assessment perspective, curriculum and assessment are interwoven and emphasise relevant and meaningful experiences. Assessment focuses on what children do, and on how they do it in the context of meaningful tasks. Authentic assessment has a number of identifiable features (Puckett and Black, 2000, p. 7), including the following: 19 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment ¦¦ an emphasis on emerging development ¦ a focus on the young child’s individual strengths and weaknesses ¦¦ is based on principles of child growth and development ¦¦ emanates from logical, meaningful, relevant and applicable curricula ¦¦ is performance based ¦¦ recognises different intelligence and learning styles ¦¦ is reflective and analytic ¦¦ is ongoing and occurs in many contexts ¦¦ is collaborative with learners, parents and others involved in children’s learning ¦¦ is interwoven with teaching. Key point Authentic assessment is compatible with a whole child perspective on learning and development. 20 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework
Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment Summary Where the purpose of assessment is to promote further learning, assessment becomes a particular type of teaching strategy. (See Marshall and Drummond, 2006).
Assessment from a socio-cultural perspective takes account of the key learning processes as determined by socio-cultural theory. In particular, collaboration and the importance in that process of the establishment of mutual understanding (intersubjectivity) need to be emphasised, as do ideas about children’s agency and those related to the co-construction of knowledge and understanding.
An understanding of the different processes that contribute to children’s learning, and the types of interactions that promote it are key to understanding how such learning can best be assessed. The recognition of these processes at work is also central in conceptualising assessment approaches that take account of and display the key role of children themselves in the assessment process. Authentic assessment reflects new understandings about learning and about human development, and recognises the holistic, contextualised and dynamic nature of learning in early childhood.
Having discussed the interconnection between how children learn and approaches to assessment, the next section looks at what to assess in children’s early learning and development. 21 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment Section 3: What to assess in early learning This section of the paper identifies aspects of learning that are of concern in assessing children’s early learning and development. The challenges of assessing a wide range of learning and development in a balanced way are discussed.
The essentials of learning Skills and knowledge are important in respect of early learning. However, increasingly there are calls for a wider view of what it is that children are learning in the years from birth to six, and for explicitness about other areas of children’s development that are now recognised as critical for long term success. For instance, Bertram and Pascal (2002) identify social competence, emotional well-being and dispositions to learn as core constituent elements of the effective learner.
In relation to each of these areas they identify elements that characterise the effective learner. Indicators related to disposition include independence, creativity, self-motivation and resilience. Those related to emotional literacy include empowerment, connectedness, and positive self-esteem. Those related to social competence incorporate effective relationships; empathy; taking responsibility; assertiveness and awareness of self. The Framework for Early Learning describes early learning in terms of the themes of Well-being; Identity and Belonging; Communicating; and Exploring and Thinking.
The assessment of children’s progress in these areas is dependent on practitioner judgement, and from this perspective relatively subjective. As practitioners assess these they will look for evidence of development and learning in dispositions, knowledge, skills, values and attitudes. The early childhood literature demonstrates how, in some instances particular consideration has been given to specific aspects of learning by prioritising that aspect above others.
Depending on the particular aspects of learning foregrounded, there are obviously implications for the assessment of that learning, since these are what must also be looked at in the assessment process. For example in Te Whariki, (Ministry of Education, 1996) the New Zealand early childhood curriculum, the particular aspect of learning that is highlighted is dispositions. Consequently, the assessment of that curriculum emphasises dispositions in the accounts of children’s learning (Carr, 2001).
Further details of the rationale for this approach are discussed below.
Also discussed are examples of situations wherein an alternative focus is adopted. Dispositions, cognitive development, emotional well-being or sense of self and sociability are the aspects of learning that are highlighted. Dispositions Over the last few decades the idea of dispositions has emerged as important in the debate about what is of lasting value in learning. Carr (1999) describes learning dispositions as tendencies that dispose learners to interpret, edit and respond to learning opportunities in characteristic ways.
Perkins, Jay and Tishman (1993) suggested a characterisation of disposition as having three components: inclination, sensitivity and ability. Some commentators have used this three-dimensional characterisation to argue that dispositions cannot be taught directly but that they flourish over an extended period of time (e. g. DeCorte, Greer and Verwschaffel, 1996).
Children play an active role in the development of their dispositions by participating and collaborating in related activity. Indeed, Rogoff (1990, p. 171) draws our attention to what she refers to as … the essential nature of children’s own eagerness to partake in ongoing activity.
Dispositions can be described as relatively enduring habits of mind and action, or tendencies to respond to categories of experience across classes of situations (Katz and Chard, 1992, p. 30).
Desirable dispositions might include perseverance, risk-taking and curiosity. An undesirable one might be helplessness. Increasingly, early childhood curricula provide for the development of desirable ‘learning’ dispositions, alongside the development of skills and knowledge. The assessment of learning dispositions has received a good deal of attention in recent years and continues to do so.
Carr herself (2001) describes the process of assessing dispositions as one of assessing complex and elusive outcomes. Claxton and Carr (2004) conclude that, such is the complexity of tracking and assessing learning dispositions, no one method of assessment is adequate but what is required is the development of instruments and strategies that will integrate approaches such as learning stories with others, in order to 22 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment track and support the development of learning dispositions.
The work of Smiley and Dweck (1994) illustrates clearly why identification of developing dispositions (both desirable and undesirable) is important. They found that children (under five years) were already displaying learning dispositions which in some cases would support optimum learning and development (where they displayed an orientation towards learning goals and a consequent tendency towards persisting and having a go), but in other cases would serve as obstacles (where they displayed an orientation towards performance goals and a consequent tendency to avoid taking a risk or avoid getting it wrong).
Assessment that identifies developing dispositions will serve to alert practitioners to areas of development that need to be addressed. Looking at cognitive abilities in their broadest sense is also an important part of assessment. A range of cognitive abilities Krechevsky (1998) explains how Project Spectrum was set up with the explicit aim of developing a new means of assessing the cognitive abilities of pre-school children. It is described as a research and development project based on the theories of Gardner and Feldman (Krechevsky, 1998).
Both theories emphasise a broader view of human cognition than that offered by previous theories. Krechevsky describes how Gardner’s theory emphasises a wide range of intelligences not previously identified or documented in assessing children’s learning, while Feldman articulated a theory of universal and non-universal domains of development. During the course of the project curriculum and assessment materials were devised which tapped a wider range of cognitive and stylistic strengths than typically had been addressed in early childhood programmes (p. ).
According to Krechevsky (1998), the project provides early childhood practitioners with an alternative assessment tool to those traditionally used, and a framework for curriculum enhancement. Gardner (1999) describes how children are surveyed in a variety of intellectual domains (movement, language, mathematics, science, social, visual art and music) and in each case the approach used is one where children are exposed to experiences in the particular domain of interest and then an observation is made of how the child becomes involved in that domain.
Specific tasks and measures that are engaging to children, for example mathematical games in the case of mathematics, are introduced in the course of natural classroom activity and children are assessed using these. Observation of children in potentially challenging situations that arise in the ordinary course of events (for example, an argument with another child) is regarded as appropriate in assessing certain areas of development. Sometimes a fully quantifiable scoring system is used, on other occasions checklists are used or more subjective observations or judgements are made.
Intellectual strengths and working styles are the focus of the assessments. Individual child-profiles are drawn up at the end of the year and these draw on both the informal and formal information gathered in each of the seven different domains of knowledge. They incorporate information from both the Spectrum assessments and the teachers’ regular classroom observations. Krechevsky (1998) argues that in recognising abilities in music, movement, mechanical science and other areas not usually emphasised, Spectrum provides a way to build children’s self-esteem and find ways that they can display competencies.
The Spectrum system of assessment can be used in conjunction with any other means of assessing children’s learning. It claims to embed assessment in meaningful real world activities; to blur the lines between curriculum and assessment; to attend to the stylistic dimensions of performance; to use measures that are intelligence-fair; and to avoid using language or logic as assessment vehicles (Krechevsky, 1998).
Assessing children’s emotional well-being is also part of a holistic approach to assessment. Emotional well-being
Laevers (2000) argues that well-being and involvement of children are key to enabling them to enter into what he terms a flow state. This he defines as a manifest feeling of satisfaction and a stream of energy felt throughout the body… Young children usually find it in play (pp. 24-5).
This in turn is important, from Laevers perspective, because it enables learning that effects deep structures on which competencies and dispositions are based. Laevers’ approach to pre-school education is known as Experiential Education (Laevers, 1994), the essence of which is a focus on the child’s experiences in the educational setting.
Practitioners using this model carry out systematic observation of children using well-being and involvement scales at least three times a year. These scales were also used in England in the Effective Early Learning Project (Pascal, Bertram, 23 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment Mould and Hall, 1998).
As with emotional competence, assessing self-concept and children’s sociability is also important and yet challenging. Self-concept and sociability
Rogoff (1990; 1998) building on the work of Vygotsky, emphasised the social nature of cognitive development. From a socio-cultural perspective then the ways in which children operate in social contexts is clearly important for their learning and development and also has implications for assessment of learning and development. Broadhead’s (2004) work explicates the links between intellectual development, the growth of language and the emotional well-being of children. Her Social Play Continuum offers the practitioner an observation tool; a tool for assessing children’s social development; and a means of developing children’s sociability.
The continuum focuses on children’s play activity and their language across the age range three to six years and it illustrates the increasingly complex ways in which children are able to operate socially and co-operatively. Recent research concluded that one of the critical features of highly effective early year’s practitioners was their ability to support children in the area of social relations (Siraj-Blatchford et al. , 2002).
In the most effective settings practitioners … supported children in being assertive, at the same time as rationalising and talking through their conflicts (p. 12).
For example, the use of story books and group discussions to work through common conflicts, and the subsequent documentation of children’s reactions and interactions could provide important evidence of learning and development in this area. Assessing social development is an important part of the assessment process and it is clear that assessment in early childhood needs to assess the child’s overall development and not just very specific skills or abilities. Summary Early childhood practitioners need ways of assessing each and all of the various aspects of learning since they are all critical.
It is particularly important that we pay close attention in early childhood to the assessment of the constructs that we know are essential for later achievement and the enhancement of life chances (Meisels and Atkins-Burnett, 2006).
The Framework for Early Learning identifies these as well-being, identity and belonging, communicating, and exploring and thinking. Each of these contributes to children’s development and none is sufficient in itself. Adams, Alexander, Drummond and Moyles (2004) make the following point: … it is the quality of the whole that must be continuously reviewed and evaluated.
When children are demonstrably secure, happy, confident, even joyful, it is not necessarily an easy task to ask oneself whether they are, in fact, experiencing a challenging and worthwhile curriculum. (p. 27) While these remarks were made in the context of reporting on their findings regarding the extent to which the play-based Foundation Stage curriculum was being implemented in schools in the United Kingdom, they nevertheless raise a very crucial issue regarding the importance of assessing a range of aspects of early learning. Now that we have more information on what to assess we move on to looking at how to assess early learning. 4 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment Section 4: How to assess early learning This section of the paper explains the significance of a narrative approach to assessment in early childhood. A number of methods of assessing children’s early learning and development are discussed. The process of documentation of information derived about children’s learning is described with specific reference to the work of practitioners in Reggio Emilia, in Northern Italy.
A narrative approach to assessment of learning in early childhood Narrative or story approaches have been used by a number of educationalists both to understand practice and to communicate with others their thoughts about that practice. Bruner (1999b, p. 175) describes narrative as a mode of thought and a vehicle for meaning making. However, he also cautions that if narrative is to be made an instrument of mind on behalf of meaning making, it requires work on our part -reading it, making it, analyzing it, understanding its craft, sensing its uses, discussing it (p. 76).
The implications then for narrative assessments are that they are not ends in themselves, but must be used as tools for reflection and for sharing with others in order to seek out possible other meanings. From Bruner’s perspective then, narrative has both a meaning-making function and a communicative one. Paley’s work (1979; 1981) provides us with an example of a practitioner who has made extensive use of narrative in order to share her ethnographic observations of children.
Her case-study narratives have been published in a series of books beginning in 1979 and have continued for over two decades. They illustrate her careful listening and deep reflection on what children had to say. Paley’s work is of interest in relation to assessment since it clearly illustrates how this particular practitioner continually modified her teaching in response to her observations of children. Her use of the tape-recorder illustrates how reflection can be achieved even in a busy early education setting and especially how it can be done in discussion with children.
Genishi (1992) too emphasises the importance of storying for conveying aspects of everyday experiences in early childhood settings. The potential of stories as powerful tools was expressed by Witherell and Noddings (1991, p. 280) when they stated; They provide us with a picture of real people in real situations, struggling with real problems… They invite us to speculate on what might be changed and with what effect. Learning stories involve a narrative approach to assessment and we look at this credit-focused approach next. Learning stories: A credit-focused approach
Carr (2001) and her colleagues in the early childhood community in New Zealand developed the learning stories approach to documenting children’s learning. This was developed in response to a need to develop a pedagogy that was consistent with new conceptualisations of early learning and development as encapsulated in Te Whariki, the New Zealand early childhood curriculum (Ministry of Education, 1996).
The work on assessment in early learning that Carr and her colleagues undertook over several years was inspired by the work of Black and Wiliam (1998b).
In particular, their strategies for how to improve learning through assessment provided some important starting points for progressing the work on early childhood assessment in New Zealand (Podmore and Carr, 1999).
Influential ideas were developed in relation to a number of issues: the quality of practitioner-child interactions; the encouragement and support for children to take responsibility for their own learning; the specifics that enable children to move out of the low-attainment trap; and the development of positive learning dispositions.
Carr (2000, p. 32) describes learning stories as structured observations, often quite short, that take a ‘narrative’ or story approach. They keep the assessment anchored in the situation or action. The structure in Carr’s approach is provided by the categories of observation that are directly linked to the strands of Te Whariki, the New Zealand Early Childhood Curriculum. What is different about Carr’s approach is the emphasis on assessment of learning dispositions through structured observation.
Hers is a credit-based approach in the 25 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment sense that it involves identifying and building on the child’s current abilities. The model takes a holistic view of learning and development and so gathers evidence in relation to children’s developing dispositions and also their achievements and their progress over time (Carr, 2002).
In this way it sets out to track children’s learning journeys.
In the learning stories approach telling the story of children’s learning requires, then, rich and deep accounts of selected events as they are observed through specific lenses (in the case of the NCCA the themes of the curriculum).
Carr (2001, p. 181) argues that Learning Story assessments mirror and protect the complexity of learning by using a narrative approach. These assessments are learner-centred as opposed to content-centred. They do not fragment children’s learning and they pay attention to the positive, rather than focusing on need and deficit.
Contrasting this credit-focused approach with her previous assessment practices, Carr comments as follows: In my folk model, assessment was designed to highlight deficits. This notion of the developing child as incomplete, a jigsaw with parts missing, means that the areas in which the child is ‘unable’ become the sites of greatest educational interest. Competencies that can be ticked off the checklist will attract little interest… The alternative approach is a credit model… The relevant community decide what domains of learning disposition are important…These are the sites of educational interest… (pp. 1-12).
The learning stories approach, as developed in New Zealand (Podmore and Carr, 1999; Carr 2001), is a really important development in assessment practice in early childhood since it is an attempt to bring coherence between the socio-cultural approach to the curriculum Te Whariki and the assessment of children’s learning in early childhood education and care settings. It serves to illustrate one way in which early childhood practitioners, both in New Zealand and elsewhere, might approach socio-culturally oriented assessment. Some practitioners in Ireland are currently using the learning story approach.
Brennan (2004) demonstrates its use by practitioners to interpret and present children’s learning in play situations (Brennan, 2004).
A recent study which sought to implement the learning story approach in a junior infant class in a disadvantaged school in Ireland found that using this approach had a number of beneficial outcomes including tracking the development of crucial learning dispositions; highlighting aspects of subject-based learning; promoting collaborative assessment; and engaging parental participation and interest (Ennis, 2006).
Learning stories are accounts of specific instances of learning that capture its complexity and richness. The stories make both early learning and the assessment of that learning visible. Learning stories are a useful approach to assessment, but developing them in a way that is really coherent with a socio-cultural approach is, as we shall see next, challenging. A fully-contextualised account of learning The extent to which the learning stories approach, as developed in New Zealand, can be said to be truly consistent with a socio-cultural approach to learning is challenged by Fleer (2002).
She argued that the extent to which practitioners would, in reality, move beyond an individualistic account of learning whilst using this approach is questionable. Fleer’s position is that a truly socio-cultural approach takes into account all of the aspects of the situation in which the assessment takes place. In her view, a socio-cultural approach to assessment makes it imperative to look beyond the influence of context on children’s learning (the social influences approach) and also look at the adult-child sequences; the culturally mediated tools in use in the situation; and the culturally or institutionally derived ideals present.
Meisels (1999) also argues strongly for a dual focus on the child and on the environment in which the child is learning. From this perspective there is integration between an emphasis on the child’s development and a recognition that the practitioner’s perceptions shape the content of what is taught, learned and valued. His interactionist view draws attention to the fact that children are in interaction with the learning environment and they change the environment (as a result of actions and interactions) and the environment influences what they can accomplish.
Meisels and Fleer both share the view that assessments must focus jointly on the child and on the educational environment. Fleer (2002, p. 113) suggests that what is interesting about 26 Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Supporting early learning and development through formative assessment the socio-cultural approach to assessment is that the adult’s participation in the lived teaching-learning context, the cultural tools that are being used (e. g. board games, books, technological tools), and the children’s participation are all examined.
In this approach three perspectives on the learning that occurs are taken account of: the individual (focusing on the individual child); the social (focusing on the interactions that take place in the situation); and the cultural (focusing on the institutional and cultural aspects of the context in which the assessment is taking place).
Fleer and Richardson (2004) describe assessment from a socio-cultural perspective as assessment that takes account of the whole learning journey of the group of children, rather than individuals.
They describe how, in their own cutting edge research on assessment from a socio-cultural perspective, a number of aspects of the situation are recorded. These include the intentional interactions, the adult modelling, the use of cultural tools (for example, writing), the child-teacher interactions and the child-child interactions. In fact, Fleer (2002) suggests that Rogoff’s (1998) elaboration of researching development from a socio-cultural perspective has been particularly useful for thinking about assessment practices in early childhood education.
However, based on their own research, Fleer and Richardson (2004) argue that, when assessing learning, moving from an individualistic approach to a socio-cultural one is a major paradigmatic shift and will present many challenges to early childhood professionals. Challenging as it may be, Fleer (2002) nevertheless argues strongly that such a change is essential if there is to be coherence between prevalent pedagogical and assessment practices. Key point
In assessing early learning and development, interactions and context are key to understanding the learning and development of the child. In summary, recent developments in socio-cultural learning theories strongly suggest that as practitioners assess children’s learning, there is a need to move away from focusing on individual thinking and move towards a focus on distributed learning and thus on assessment that uses multiple lenses, including the social and institutional.
There is a seemingly irrefutable argument that assessment practices in early childhood education must move towards coherence with a socio-cultural view of learning and development. This implies an approach that reflects the complexity of the interactions between the child, the context and the people or objects that contribute to the learning at any given time. Both Carr and Fleer above represent efforts