Regardless of where you live and teach in the world, planning for and assessment of learning will be a huge component of your daily, weekly, monthly, and annual process for documenting and evaluating learning.
Now more than ever however there is divided opinion as to how effective planning and assessment is or whether we should be planning for and then assessing learning at all.
This is a provocative issue, one that has a lot of layers and comes with years, decades of tradition and perceptions of how children learn and what our role seems to be as early childhood teachers. It has however become a passion of mine, not to continue to validate our use of planning and assessment in children’s learning but to try as much as I can to disavow the use of it in any educational setting, and I do so without any remorse or emotion toward our historical practices.
So, in order to break away from our reliance on planning and assessment as a way to ‘measure success’ we need to consider what it is, why we use it, and why it becomes irrelevant to children’s learning and their view of themselves as learners and participants in their world.
What is planning and assessment?
Planning in Te Whariki (New Zealand’s Curriculum document) is defined as:
“Planning involves deliberate decision making
about the priorities for learning that have been
identified by the kaiako, parents, whānau and
community of the ECE service. All children
should have opportunities to learn across all five
strands of the curriculum and to pursue their
strengths and interests in depth. “
Assessment is defined as:
“Assessment makes valued learning visible.
Kaiako use assessment to find out about what
children know and can do, what interests them,
how they are progressing, what new learning
opportunities are suggested, and where
additional support may be required. “
Consideration: An important question to consider when reflecting on these two statements about planning and assessment is – who decides what the priorities for learning are and what the valued learning is?
Why do we use it?
This is perhaps the most important question we should be asking ourselves and those who continue to persist in putting an emphasis on planning and assessment in our curriculum documents.
I have to say, I was a little perplexed when planning (for learning) reared its ugly head again when the updated version of Te Whāriki was unveiled earlier this year. What were they thinking?! I asked myself over and over again as I read through it. Well, a few things crossed my mind as to what they were thinking…
- We have to have some kind of proof to show we’re doing our jobs
- We have to show the ‘public’ that we have some way of measuring success/outcomes for children
- We can’t have education without some kind of planning and assessment process
- It’s what everyone expects there to be
There are certain terms and jargon associated with planning and assessment these days. If you’ve been through some sort of curriculum evaluation (an Education Review Office evaluation for New Zealand ECE settings) then these terms will be intimately familiar to you: Extending learning, complex learning, intentional teaching, provocations, learning outcomes, continuity of learning, learning priorities, deepening learning etc. etc.
Planning and assessment seems to be a means to justify or to find ways to prove that we are accomplishing or living up to the intent behind all of those terms and ECE jargon. It is a process that is underpinned by socio-cultural theory – particularly the concept of scaffolding and constructivism. The idea that teachers need to notice, recognise, and respond to the interest and learning needs of children and then respond by providing ‘learning experiences’ based on that perceived learning.
That’s not to say that there is anything wrong, counter-productive, or invaluable in noticing and recognising (speculating on) learning. It’s the response that I think we have largely approached incorrectly and continue to do so.
We assess and plan for learning primarily because we are/have been forever looking to measure learning or to find learning measurable. It has been the paradigm for education in the ‘western world’ since the industrial revolution. As long as we have measured success by how well someone does in their career, or how much wealth they have acquired – there has been a need to measure how well children are doing in their learning environment.
There has always been a correlation between how well a child does academically and how well they are set up or ‘prepared’ for financial success later in life, and generally as a rule – financial status has been historically linked to social status. Therefore, the common assumption created for children is that if you succeed in excelling in your academic skill, it will have a direct impact on your social success as well.
It is the same argument those who oppose standardised testing in primary schools (myself included) have against formal assessment and achievement measured using academic proficiency. The argument is that we are largely ignoring the true factors that have the biggest and most significant impact on children’s lives as they get older, factors that I will go over toward the end.
Is planning and assessment a valuable tool for supporting children’s learning?
It certainly seems to be doesn’t it? And our curriculum seems to indicate its necessity. But is planning THAT necessary? I would argue that teachers planning for learning is a redundant process because it is highly speculative. Our view of what children are learning, and the meaning/sense they are making from whatever they are engaged in is rooted in assumption and speculation. We can’t really begin to understand what children are thinking, feeling, or living out as they are navigating their play environment.
We can know children thoroughly and deeply and still have no idea what meaning they are drawing from their play experiences. It’s a language that as adults, or even as people that we will never understand and will only ever gain intermediate proficiency in.
So it would pay not to even try to decipher the meaning they are acquiring from their play. But to watch, observe, celebrate and even at times, engage in their play (thoughtfully and deliberately) and then re-tell what we’ve seen and experienced from our eyes for the benefit of those who were not there to see it and for the child as a way to re-imagine past experiences. Re-telling experiences (from our perspective) is an important means to memorialize events that children might want to re-imagine, and their families might want to share in but when it comes to documenting children’s play – that’s as far as it needs to go. No ‘where to next’, no ‘possible outcomes’, no ‘in the future.’
Now when I have had this conversation with other early childhood professionals before, the most common response I get is…
“But doesn’t that just make us glorified babysitters? Doesn’t planning show everyone that we are professionals?!”
The true show of professionalism for us can never be measured, not by piles of paperwork, mind-maps or daily planners anyway. To measure our success as early childhood teachers we would have to sit on the shoulders of the children who journey through our centres as they navigate life and become confident, capable, caring, and compassionate adults. That is something we may never see, unless of course they become public figures.
So, how do we show our professionalism?
There are two processes that I think are fundamentally important to us as early childhood education and care professionals, that both demonstrate our professionalism and also our commitment as life long learners and advocates for children, colleagues, our families and our wider community (local, national and global)…
Evaluation or self-review
There are differences between evaluation and assessment. Assessment is usually a process that involved measuring learning against outcomes. Evaluation is more focused on the systems, policies, processes, and practices that teachers have primary responsibility for. Evaluation or self-review usually starts from a question e.g. How well do we foster positive relationships between children in our early childhood setting? There the focus is on the teaching team, their policies, processes, practices, and environment (physical) and not the child. By focusing on self or team evaluation and self-review we plan for our teaching practice and our environment using critical thinking, collaboration, research and participation from all stakeholders. This process helps us to lead our learning and development rather than leading the learning of our children.
Professional Learning and Development
The other crucial element to our roles as teachers and professionals is our constant development and learning. Keeping up to date with latest research and advances in observational and longitudinal research as well as research in the area of brain development is vital as we look at how we adapt, change and evolve our teaching practices. If planning for learning (in the traditional ‘extending learning’ sense) is to become obsolete and unnecessary, then ensuring we are accessing adequate and appropriate professional development and then implementing new knowledge into our practice, the environment and our evaluative processes becomes extremely important.
Children should have the opportunity to plan for themselves
If the materials and resources are plentiful and varied, if our inside and outdoor environment remain open and accessible, if we utilize self-review and evaluative processes to mold our practices to better support an open, child-led, child-centred environment then children will actively and rightfully create and plan their own learning opportunities.
Working Theories – refining, developing, generating is mentioned in Te Whāriki (2017) 23 times. The greatest way for children to refine and develop their own working theories is through having the opportunity, time and space to explore and experiment independently or as a participant in a group, not when experiences are being planned for them. Refining, developing and generating are all words that are intrinsic in that they are own mind-driven rather than externally prompted by third party sources or in most cases – adults.
Making sense of it all….
Despite my obvious opposition to how we approach planning and assessment for learning, I think it is important to reflect on the why and how of planning – why are we planning and after reading this blog if you are still certain that planning is necessary, how are you going to create a process that is child-centred and commits to the aspirations of the child first, and families and teachers after that. Imagine how much time we would have to ‘sit’ and marvel at children’s learning though if we expelled planning from our daily or weekly repertoire and focused more on just being there and present for children to lead and plan their own learning.
There are factors that I believe contribute to children having life long success or having happy and harmonious lives, and it does not include academic success, at least not in the first eight years of life. These factors are: Safe and healthy homes, passionate and knowledgeable teachers, emotionally and socially supportive and responsive communities, inclusive and equitably social policy. Perhaps most important of them all, love and kindness.