Saturday, 3 March 2018

Assessment in the early years....

If you are reading this blog post, I am absolutely that like me, you did a little dance and leap for joy when the demise of National Standards was announced.

If you have been reading my blog for a while you will be well aware of my views on assessment or to be more specific 'testing'.  I have also talked a little about this in my last book My Journey into Play which is available in PDF through TPT in my Number Agent Store.

In my opinion assessment has taken over many schools, it has made the teachers role one of box ticking and created stress for children and adults alike.  It has taken a way a lot of the freedom and innovation and led us to believe that there is no other way.

I won't go much further into this, because this blog post is not intended to be full of my opinion, but to share what we are doing and where we are up to at the moment.

I did however want to share with you a little story that made me cringe...I am still hearing too often about visual assessment on classroom walls.  A recent story I heard talked about a display that pitted children against each other in a race to be reading at a certain level.  This kind of practice breaks my heart.  I don't for a moment think that these teachers are doing this to hurt children, but I don't think they have taken time to think about how the children feel.  How does this shape their view of what reading is or even learning is?   How does it promote a culture of shared learning and journey?  How does it speak to these children about failure and mistakes?

I came across another practice like this, not regarding assessment, but specific learning activities.  Children received a sticker on their chart if they chose a certain type of activity, but did not receive a sticker if they chose to play, because, well that is just play right, not learning?  This was supposedly a motivating strategy.

Would we as adults like to be pitted against each other in this way?  What would it do to our staff culture if we were pitted against each other in this type of competition?

Food for thought.

Ok, back to the point of this post.  It is really just a follow up, because I have blogged about this before and a lot of the info in here will be the same.  I have had many asking however about new entrant assessment and my opinions on readiness, so I thought I would create an updated post to cover off these questions.

Firstly my opinion on new entrant assessment....for some of you this will be quite confronting, but it is my intention to challenge current practice, just as I have challenged my own over the last few years.

I do not think that there is any place for academic (cognitive based) assessment of children on school entry.  I do not believe we should be doing a traditional SEA, testing children on aspects of learning that most are not cognitively ready for.  All this does is create anxiety in children right from the outset.  I also do not believe there should be a rigorous timeline that we stick to in terms of assessment.  No reports at certain times, none of that.  Assessment should be seen as part of the learning process and particularly for our youngest children needs to be governed by an individual timeline of development.  Take age off the table and think about developmental stage.

Why would you assess children on something they have no idea about, just to prove they have no idea?  Surely you could learn more by playing alongside and talking to the child?  What an earth is it that we are trying to achieve or prove.  There are other ways to show progress, that are far less damaging.

Yes, I said damaging, these practices are damaging, we need to own it, and we need to change it.  The growth in the level of anxiety can in the opinion of Peter Gray be related to the decline in play and the feeling of 'being out of control' for children.  I believe that the over emphasis on testing also contributes to this anxiety in children.  Children in traditional environments have limited control over what they are being 'tested' on.  They have no role to play in this, other than by being measured.  I believe we can still get good information on progress, while still allowing children to feel in control of their learning and involved in the process.

Ok, obviously I have strong opinions on this.  Obviously these are my opinions, but I have lived this change and observed the differences it has made first hand.  I know more about my children in my class now, then I ever did when I was using traditional new entrant assessments like observation surveys.  Children engage happily in the process of working through their developmental goals (which they are given after a month or two at school) and approach this process with a growth mindset and understanding that they are not being tested.

So what is it that we do?

Well we use this as our framework for how we approach each individuals journey.  This framework has been based on the development of the brain and allows us to engage with a child from the point they are up to.

From that framework we use this goal sheet that children work through with us as and when they are ready.

This framework and goal sheet is used as long as needed and you will notice that after working memory development, it starts to become more cognitive.  Age is not a factor here, the focus is on development and a child in Year 2 or 3 may still be working on developmental goals if that is where they are up to.

We also use this writing chart to track progress...taking a writing sample each term as needed. (this is not designed by me and is freely available online)

You will notice that we do not read with children straight away, and our children read interest books, rather than traditional readers.  When we do start reading, we used decodable texts so that the process makes sense and we working individually with children.

We use narratives via seesaw and class 'stories' in our learning scrapbook.  These show the progression from a narrative more based on dispositions, urges and stages of play, transitioning as the child develops to a more cognitive focused one that is based on the curriculum.  These narratives can be individual, small group, or whole class and we try to make them as specific to the learning as we can so that it is visible to those that are reading it.

We also use seesaw to focus in on dispositions and keep a class learning story scrapbook in class which children and parents can access.

In maths I use a lot of observational assessments through agents, but we do give children knowledge based goals to work on and track them ourselves through the stages.  We use JAM if we feel they are stage 4 and we need to know more about what they are doing strategy wise, but this is just one tool and often quite a narrow one.  We use video a lot and visual images.  Reflecting on these gives us a wealth of information and sharing these with the children throughout the day also enhances the process.

Dispositions form a huge part of our assessment of children along with stages of play and urges.  These are kept anecdotally in each child's assessment journal (we have one for each child.)

In practical terms we check in with each child once a week on whatever goals they are up to and full in their journal accordingly. 

This year I want to trial creating a mindmap for each child, describing them as a learner throughout the year, their interests, urges, talents, dispositions etc  I can see this painting a valuable picture to sit down with parents and talk about. 

I hope that this helps.    Have we got the process completely probably not.  I think we are always on a journey and things change accordingly, but if we always have children's needs at heart I think we will always go forward with the best of intentions.

We need to ask ourselves why we do what we do and who it is helping.  Assessment should be for learning, it is about improving, not proving. 

The crucial role of trust

We must trust ourselves,
we must trust our instincts,
but most of all, we must trust children.

Children are competent, capable human beings.  They are born competent, unfortunately we have created a stifling education system that instead of growing this competence, strips it away, layer by layer, until they themselves believe that they need to teachers direction in order to learn.

When we finally expect to see this competence as they get older, they disappoint us by struggling to be independent and we wonder why.

We have robbed children of the gift of trust and it is long overdue that we gave it back.

I am not blaming anyone here, I think it is so engraved in our psyche that we don't even know what we are doing.  We have absolutely come to believe that children need our supervision and guidance 100% of the time, because they are not capable of competently looking after themselves without an adult hovering somewhere in the vicinity.

We have developed a system based on class treaties, rules and timetables, in the assumption that if we didn't have these things, control would go out of the window.  We have created environments that are completely without risk, yet things continue to get worse.  Our job continues to get harder, children are diagnosed with a range of behavioural issues and everyday a new gadget is invented to engage and motivate them and to just keep them still.   People are earning good money designing convoluted positive behaviour management systems, because children simply couldn't behave without them.

Even when a school does include a little risk and allows a child to climb trees, they can't stop themselves from painting a line on the highest point a child can climb to, hey let's face it, a child wouldn't be able to judge the risk for themselves without this painted line.

I think we should be very worried.

If we took these things away, what would happen?
Obviously children would run riot, right?  It would be an absolute circus right?

I can just see the carnage now!

Sorry for the sarcasm, but I just want you to mull this one over for a moment.  At our place we discarded school rules a while ago.  I think we are going on six or seven years since we shredded them.  We didn't discard the rules because our children were not breaking them, far from it, we discarded them because we believed the rules simply were not helping anybody.

We've never had a more positive playground.  Very few accidents other than skinned knees, and the odd bump and bruise.   No need for any 'behaviour' management system.  Do our children run riot?
No, very novelly they actually look after each other brilliantly.  They show us their competence each and every day.  Yes they are children, they make mistakes, they learn from them and we move on.  If a child falls off a bike at our place there will be no shortage of people to pick them up.  If a child gets stuck up a tree, there will be a convoy of children to the staff room to let us know.  If they hit their thumb with a hammer, they learn to be more careful next time.  They look after each other  because they feel a responsibility and empathy towards each other, not because we will give them a special sticker or card at the end of it.

Since we have embarked on play-based learning we have had to transfer this same trust to the classroom.  I would be bold enough to state that it is just about impossible to run an effective play-based environment if you don't trust the competence of children.  Play is not something you can timetable or micromanage.   It is not simply children selecting activities from a 'can do' list while you are taking a group.

It comes down to letting go.  Our children have access to the outside most of the time, the outdoors at our place is quite vast, and we are not able to keep an eye on them at all times.  Children thrive on our trust, they don't need us hovering.  They do love it when we play alongside, or engage with them, but the don't need us to supervise them constantly.

This trust allows us to truly engage with children, to pay attention to a small group, without wondering what they others are up to.

If the do something to let us down, they know that they outside won't be an option for them for a few days...this is not something they want.

They grow in competence every day, instead of being stripped away by a prescribed programme, this competence blooms, their individuality and personality shines through and it is simply awesome to witness.

I believe trust is key.  We must bring back programmes and approaches that allow us to show a high level of trust in children, and we must also trust ourselves.

Rather than dangling carrots to encourage positive behaviour and manners, we need to build on the competence they enter school with, building on this competence will allow them to develop resilience, responsibility, independence and dangling of carrots required.    Does this happen overnight, of course takes time to allow children to develop back the competence that has been taken away.  It will take time, but it will be worth it.  Along with showing this trust, it takes a focus on empathy, kindness, citizenship and leadership.  It takes specific modeling and teaching of these things and approaches that encourage the process over product with a focus on dispositions rather than academic outcomes.

But ultimately we do this by showing trust.

As one of my lovely colleagues who is on her own play-based journey this year said..."it is about being confident enough to just let go."