The following post has been written by Joce Nuttall, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education and Arts, Australian Catholic University and advisor to Storypark. It offers some provocative questions, astute observations and interesting ideas for educators.
I have a passionate interest in the learning and development of early childhood teachers. I know that Storypark was initially motivated by wanting to share stories about children’s learning. But my encounters with Storypark mostly end up with me musing on how it might help teachers think about their work. Inevitably, this leads me to also thinking about how Storypark can help teachers develop.
At the practical level, Storypark allows teachers to monitor a whole range of judgements they make when they observe: who they observe, what their stories are about, which tags they apply to the stories, how often they observe, how the stories connect with one another, and so forth. But so what? Why should teachers care about the answers to these questions, other than to make sure each child is being observed?
The answers to these questions are important because they have consequences for policy, practice, and – ultimately – children’s learning. I recently reflected on what’s happening at the policy level in the Te Tari Puna Ora o Aotearoa magazine Itirearea, when I wrote about the trend to ‘educationalise’ early childhood education through an increased emphasis on literacy and numeracy. Early childhood services have always focused on fostering rich play experiences for children because we know rich play experiences support the development of imagination, creativity, adherence to rules, friendship formation, fun, curiosity and collaboration, all of which are essential to lifelong learning. But we are now seeing a growing emphasis on concepts such as ‘outcomes indicators’ in early childhood services and there is a continuing fear of curriculum ‘push down’ from the schools sector into early childhood education.
I don’t have a problem with the expectation that early childhood teachers will monitor and assess children’s learning and development. Nor do I have a problem with early childhood services preparing children for school (provided that’s not the only thing they do). And I certainly don’t have a problem with early childhood teachers fostering emergent literacy and numeracy. The government makes a huge investment in early childhood education. The government also funded the development of Te Whāriki and Kei Tua o te Pae, both of which provide rich resources for assessment in ECE. It also makes sense for early childhood services and the first years of school to complement one another.
However the problem for governments that are trying to educationalise ECE is that educational practice relies heavily on teachers’ interpretations and judgements. Teachers make judgements in response to noticing how children are changing (or not) across time. Professor Margaret Carr’s work has underlined this point many times and this is the logic behind Learning Stories. But what if teachers don’t pay attention to the things governments think they should be attending to? And what if the stories teachers construct are silent on some aspects of learning?
Historically, the solution for governments has been to commission ‘teacher proof’ curriculum materials. These include scripted lessons that minimise the amount of preparation (and therefore reflection) teachers need to engage in, and such approaches run counter to the play-based ethos of most early childhood services.
But I think there is a middle ground between the over-specification of ‘outcomes’ or ‘standards’ and fears of a laissez faire approach that could leave children struggling to become lifelong learners. I think platforms such as Storypark can play a part in finding this middle ground because of the way it allows teachers to drill down into what they are documenting.
For example, recently I’ve been thinking about how provisionally registered teachers could use some of the stories they have constructed as evidence of meeting the Registered Teacher Criteria. Within centres, groups of teachers could also share and reflect on a range of stories (subject to parents allowing their child’s stories to be shared). This could help identify gaps in what teachers are paying attention to across the centre. At a broader level, de-identified analysis of Storypark entries might even be able to summarise what teachers are focusing on across regions or at the national level.
Here are some musings, prompted by the questions I started with, which might be useful in helping teachers take charge of their interpretations and judgements:
Who gets observed?
- Are boys observed as often as girls?
- Are infants observed as often as older children?
- Are children observed in groups or individually?
- Does the range of observations reflect the range of cultural backgrounds in the centre?
What are the stories are about?
- Do the stories rely on the meta-level concepts within Te Whāriki, such as ‘belonging’, ‘exploration’, and ‘communication’?
- Or do the stories drill down to the learning outcomes level in Te Whāriki?
Which tags are being applied to the stories?
- Are the stories mostly given pre-existing tags?
- To what extent are teachers developing their own tags?
- Are some tags used repeatedly while others are never used?
- Are there tags for specific curriculum domains such as literacy, science, numeracy, physical education, and the arts?
How often are stories constructed?
- Is this regular practice or just for ‘special occasions’?
- Are stories constructed systematically or just when a few minutes can be snatched?
How do the stories connect with one another?
- Are the stories in a child’s Storypark related to each other?
- Are there sequences of stories that form extended stories-of-learning-over-time?
By reflecting on questions like this (and lots of others that creative teachers will be able to come up with), teachers can drive the development of their own practice. Perhaps even more importantly, by using these kinds of questions to analyse the local data Storypark makes available, teachers develop more sophisticated ways of explaining the relationship between what they observe, the practices they plan as a result, and documented evidence of how those practices have influenced children’s learning down the track. Being able to develop and document these kinds of connections are the best defence against ‘teacher proof’ curriculum and assessment.