Valuing Young Children’s Signs of Learning: Observation and Digital Documentation of Play in Early Years Classrooms

Research Team Members: 

P.I: Rosie Flewitt, UCL Institute of Education

Co-I: Dr Kate Cowan, UCL Institute of Education
Grant programme:
Open Call Research Grant
Grant amount: £34,351
Project start date: 18/09/2017
Project end date: 18/09/2018

 

Project summary
Observations of play in early childhood education have typically been documented in paper-based formats (e.g. scrapbooks, written notes, printed photographs) as part of assessment practices. However, there is a growing trend in early childhood education towards using commercial software to record learning in digital formats, where video, audio, photographs and writing can be combined. These multi-media forms of ‘digital documentation’ offer new possibilities to recognise, represent and value children’s multiple signs of learning in new ways, and to share these narratives with parents and children. Yet there is little research-based guidance on digital documentation, so early education assessment practices run the risk of being guided by commercial drivers rather than by child-centred learning theories.


In this study, we worked with educators to develop an early childhood pedagogy of observation, documentation and assessment that brings Froebelian principles of the ‘uniqueness of every child’s capacity and potential’ and ‘holistic nature of development’ to documentation practices in contemporary early years settings. Fieldwork included case studies of children aged 3-5 years living with disadvantage and/or in the early stages of learning English in three diverse multicultural early years settings in London. The study design was framed by a multimodal social semiotic perspective on learning (Kress 2010) and an ethnographic approach to social science enquiry. Data generation included video recordings, examples of documentation of children’s learning, interviews with educators, parent questionnaires and video-prompted discussions with children. Thematic and finegrained multimodal analysis of video extracts resulted in rich findings regarding the opportunities and constraints of different approaches used by the participating settings in their observation and documentation of young children’s learning.


Key Findings

a.  Early childhood education settings have diverse approaches to observing and documenting                       children’s learning, depending on who and what the documentation is for, and this is linked to each           setting’s ethos;

b.  Practitioners found it harder to observe and document children who did not communicate                         confidently in English, who spent extended  periods playing outside/in physical play, and who did               not seek out  adult interaction or produce things that acted as traces of their learning (e.g.                           drawings, paintings). This highlighted characteristics of children whose ‘signs of learning’ are more               likely to go unnoticed;

c.  Practitioners valued observation and documentation as part of their child-centred pedagogy,                     yet felt this was in tension with the summative assessment requirements of the EYFS national                           curriculum;

d.  Parents appreciated documentation of their children’s learning, and found digital documentation             more accessible than paper-based formats. Parent perspectives on their child’s documentation                 added valuable insights for practitioners, yet most parents did not contribute to their children’s                     documentation, irrespective of the format;

e.  Children enjoyed reviewing and sharing their documentation, and this prompted metacognitive                 reflection on their own learning. However, most digital documentation software is designed for adult           use and does not currently facilitate children’s independent access or contribution to their own                   documentation;

f.  Video was identified as having valuable potential for observing and documenting children’s play,               giving value to aspects of play that might otherwise be overlooked, for supporting reflection, and for         letting parents and children know that play is valued;

g.  Video observations and documentation presented challenges: time needed to record and re-watch         material; impact of digital devices on interactions with children; the digital documentation software           design creating tensions with enquiry-based approaches to early learning;

h.  The participatory research design of this study supported practitioners to reflect critically on their                 own practice, address challenges, and creatively implement changes relating to the use of                         digital tools and the embedding of core Froebelian principles in their observation and                                   documentation practices.

 

Next Steps

Our plans to take forward the findings of this valuable and original study focus on the need to promote assessment practices in early childhood education that recognize and more fully capture the holistic nature of development and every child’s unique capacity and potential. Next steps towards achieving this include:

  1. Raising awareness of the need to recognize and value children’s silent signs of learning, which may be hard to observe and document and are often overlooked;
  2. Exploring the potentials of digital documentation for critical reflection on learning, including using video as a tool for prompting children's own recall;
  3. Supporting early educators to find ways to include parents and children in documentations processes;
  4. Working with digital software designers to explore more accessible, child-friendly documentation interfaces that support documentation of enquiry-based learning, and proactively encourage parental contributions;
  5. Developing an international network for research on early years digital documentation.

These aims will be achieved through ongoing activity, including: a dissemination event that brings together practitioners, academics and software designers to share key research findings and consider potential for change (London, UK, January 2019); presentation of findings at leading international education research conferences; publication of academic and practitioner-oriented papers to promote the value for educators, parents and children of observation and documentation processes that recognize and value children’s silent signs of learning; ongoing liaison with digital software designers; founding an international network that brings together likeminded academics and practitioners who share a commitment to improving early childhood education observation and documentation.

 

Progress Towards Achieving These Objectives
Interim findings were presented at the International Froebel Society Conference (Hiroshima, Japan. September 2018). Findings and recommendations were shared at the Reconceptualising Early Childhood Literacies Conference (Manchester, UK. March 2019), the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting (Toronto, Canada. April 2019) and the UK Literacy Association Annual Conference (Sheffield, UK. July 2019). 


The findings will be reported in: Cowan and Flewitt ‘Towards valuing children’s signs of learning’. In C. Cameron and P. Moss (forthcoming) (Eds.) Early Childhood Education and Care in England: Towards Transformative Change. UCL IOE Press.


Cowan and Flewitt are founder members of the recently formed, international network: Research on Early Childhood Digital Documentation (REDD), in collaboration with researchers at the University of Agder (Norway) and the University of Helsinki (Finland). As founders, Cowan and Flewitt plan to take forward the research findings through comparisons of international practice, fostering joint publications and symposia, and developing proposals for future research projects.

 

To view the full report, please click on the pdf below. 

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