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I have always considered it essential to identify learning and more importantly document this learning in our working environment. The first workshop dealt with research on assessment practices specific to four year old children. The second was an ERO presentation on what's happening in curriculum in early childhood services.

This musing on assessment and practices is centred around two workshops that I attended recently.

 

Workshop 1 – Assessing four year old children's learning – presented by Monica Cameron

The speaker described assessment as an act of interpreting information collected through a multitude of practices, and is used to give useful information. A popular current approach is Learning Stories as a narrative assessment method. Research, however, suggests a mismatch between espoused theories and actual practices. She mentioned that ERO claimed that assessment practices varied across services and need to be improved. Assessment practices with reference to transition to school have been identified as an area of significant variation and challenge, and ECE services need to improve their assessment practices in this area.

The speaker said that the aim of her research was to explore NZ EC teachers understandings in their assessment of four year old children's learning, and spoke about why she thought assessment of four year old children is important. She called it a tool to see “where children were at and where to from there”. It is important to share learning with families, as well as recognise concerns that require further assistance. Assessment of four year old children helps towards their transition to school as it identifies learning at different stages. The response that she got from teachers suggested that they were assessing learning, growth, improvement, and development. Learning dispositions were a significant focus and other learning was highlighted but with less frequency.

Non contact time was indicated as a significant factor on when assessment information is documented. 37% agreed that most ECE teachers understand how to conduct good assessment, 94% agreed that PD was important, 28% indicated that they had less than two hours of PD on assessment in the last 12 months. When I read my notes again, this statistic perplexed me as I wasn't sure if it was per week or the entire 12 months.

The speaker expressed her surprise during the research. Some teachers felt that assessing learning was taking time away from play, they felt that assessment was important but place documentation as less important, and that assessment has become too complex for families to understand, and, therefore there is a place to use other assessment methods like checklists. She was also surprised that teachers felt that children should be assessed only if they needed extra help.

After listening to the findings of her research my thoughts are that assessing and documenting learning is extremely important, but it is also newcessary to follow up on this documentation to assess the progress of a child during four years of age. Based around a recent ERO report on assessing school readiness, the centre I work at has reflected on our current practices that we thought were quite strong. In the process of a self review we intend to introduce changes to highlight and focus on each four year old child's development leading to their transition to school.

I was keen to attend this particular workshop to see what the findings were with regard to opinions from the participants who are qualified EC teachers. An interesting fact that the presenter found in her research was the indication of little non-contact time towards documentation. Opinions also varied amongst practitioners as to why we should document and record learning. I firmly believe that any centre that provides quality early childhood services needs to showcase the evidence through assessment practices before they can boldly state that quality education is truly provided by their early childhood establishment.

Workshop 2 – What's happening in curriculum in early childhood services? An ERO perspective

I was keen to attend this particular workshop which was an ERO presentation, especially after the publication of two booklets in relation to transitioning to school and infants and toddlers. The presenters were a team of three from ERO and they began by offering evaluation insights that they said would hopefully stimulate thinking. These were:

  • The metaphor of the mat is an important concept to continue discussion.
  • Curriculum requirements – Regulation 43 of the ECE Curriculum Framework.
  • Curriculum framework – must implement Principles and Strands.
  • Te Whāriki talks of working theories and dispositions.
  • The outcome of a curriculum are knowledge, skills, and attitudes (working theories and dispositions).
  • It is not a prescriptive curriculum but there are expectations.
  • ERO specifically asks what early childhood services were doing with Te Whāriki as well as other influences on each service's curriculum.

The above evaluation insights led the presenters towards asking the following questions:

  • What is the purpose of a curriculum?
  • Is the framework of Principles and Strands too broad?
  • Has Te Whāriki become too familiar?
  • Does Te Whāriki offer enough stretch and challenge?
  • Is Te Whāriki still useful in guiding the implementation of a bicultural curriculum?

The thematic analysis was that Te Whāriki was a:

  • Philosophical curriculum.
  • Implicit curriculum..
  • Selective curriculum.
  • Reference point curriculum.
  • Basis for a bicultural curriculum.
  • Basis for evaluating a service's own curriculum.

The presenters offered a sheet with reflective questions around working with Te Whāriki to initiate discussions and self-review. Some of these were:

  • To what extent is our service's curriculum based on all of the aspects of Te Whāriki?
  • What aspects of Te Whāriki are included? For example, principles, strands, goals and outcomes?
  • Does our service give greater emphasis to some aspects of Te Whāriki than others? Why?
  • Are we just using the language of Te Whāriki or do we have a deeper understanding of what the principles and strands mean for curriculum in our service?
  • What informs and guides our bicultural practice?
  • What framework(s) do we use to evaluate the quality and effectiveness of our service's curriculum?
  • What aspects of Te Whāriki might help us to undertake such evaluation?
  • To what extent is Te Whāriki referenced in our statement of philosophy? Which aspects were included, and why?
  • What do we know about how well our philosophy is enacted in practice?
  • How explicit is Te Whāriki in our service's curriculum? Which aspects are implicit and which are explicit?

The presenters continued with what ERO found within EC services in relation to curriculum practice. They mentioned that priorities for children's learning were identified and expressed in philosophical statements, however, they weren't always aligned with self-review. Aligning practice with philosophical statements involves curriculum design, self-review of teaching practice, and assessment to reflect what the priorities are. They also referred to their May 2015 report on 'Continuity of learning: transitions from early childhood services to schools' and referenced dispositional learning, independence and social competence, and Te Whāriki as well as the key competencies referred to in The New Zealand Curriculum.

The presenters spoke about good practice that involved assessment highlighting strengths, dispositions, and skills as well as identifying the next steps towards informed planning. Parent's aspirations as well as summative reports were also important. They felt that improvements need to take place towards linking Te Whāriki and The New Zealand Curriculum, as well as understanding children's language, culture and identity.
 
They spoke of priorities for assessing children's learning that involved a deep knowledge of Te Whāriki, an understanding of current theories and research, shared understandings, as well as knowing the children well to identify that continuity of learning. (It was also suggested a knowledge of The New Zealand Curriculum to support ECE learning.)

The ERO team stated that we now had more infants and toddlers than ever before which was why they published their report titled 'Infants and toddlers: competent and confident communicators and explorers'. They felt the need for improvement in identifying priorities for children's learning as well as an understanding of what a curriculum for two year old children looks like. Page 26 and 27 of this report lists self-review questions to promote positive learning outcomes for infants and toddlers.

ERO will also shortly be releasing another report around their findings on supporting children as mathematical learners. They spoke about a balance of deliberate intentional teaching on what children are interested in and spontaneous play that worked best. They felt that one should engage children in mathematics and assess learning to make mathematical learning visible.
 
They also felt that statements and responses should be specific, not like some of the examples given to them by services which they highlighted as:

  • Maths is everywhere.
  • We treat all children the same.
  • We don't teach children, we are child led.
  • Babies just need someone to care for them.
  • We don't prepare children for school.
  • We don't plan anymore
  • We have a formal transition programme because that's what our parents want.

The presenters then spoke about pedagogical leadership and stated that it was good practice to be a leader of learning, build a cohesive team, know about current research, and be clear about priorities. Improving pedagogical leadership involves modeling teaching practice, mentoring and capability building, leading evaluation and review, and developing a shared understanding of curriculum. It was also important to work with parents, valuing the expertise of whānau.

I have to say that this presentation had the desired effect on me, in that it certainly got me thinking and intently examining the suggested reflective questions to evaluate what I currently do in my evolving pedagogical practice. What I didn't like during an ERO presenter's constant reference to her grandchild which in my way of thinking implied that her perceptions were based on those references, a rather narrow way of looking at an extensive early childhood setting comprising different philosophies and flavours.

In conclusion, there is no doubt in my mind that assessment practices to document learning, self-reviews and reflections are extremely important to ensure quality services. In turn, this generates a whole new discussion around what comprises quality services in early childhood considering the different approaches and philosophies that exist in practice today. The essence of learning in any early childhood programme is based around dispositional skills, so much of what Te Whāriki states, in contrast to the key competencies referred to in The New Zealand Curriculum. In ECE settings we need to work with the intangible, and that is where the problem arises as different perceptions exist with each teacher. Assessing development and learning is not as easy as ticking a box and that is why documentation is essential to highlight strengths as well as areas that need to be worked on.