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This essay will firstly present and historical overview of the origins of testing and the educational curriculums, in both primary and early years education. Secondly, it will compare and contrast two paradigms of curriculum, curriculum as measurement and curriculum as inquiry. Thirdly, I will critically reflect on the educational theory that underpins both. Finally I will make clear reference to the formative assessment methods of observation and questioning used in my own practice and demonstrate how I planned a learning activity for children in my setting based on my formative assessment of a child initiated learning activity, which will further underline how assessment and planning are interrelated.
The growth of public testing has its origins in the 19th century, as John Roach observed 'Public examinations were one of the great discoveries of the nineteenth century Englishman'. This discovery rested in large on the belief that, competitive, open and increasingly written examinations would eventually remove the undesirable consequences of unregulated favouritism, and would, if universally extended, have a salutary influence on society generally (Macleod, 1982, p.1). Underpinning the increase in public testing was the growing desire for social justice and the ever increasing need for trained professionals in a developing society (Black, 2003, p.69).
Following on from its initiation in the 19th century, the latter part of the 20th century saw rapid and successive developments in the testing procedure. The 1988 Education Act and the development of the National Curriculum were major influences on modern methods and procedures. The dual examination system that had been in place since the 1950's with GCE and CSE examinations were turned into a single system in 1988 with the GCSE examination. In addition to the GCSE examinations at 16 the National Curriculum brought in external summative assessments at 7, 11 and 14[accessed 22.12.09]. Research into assessment by Black and Wiliam (1998) found that, 'emphasis given to summative assessments in schools may have been unintentionally counter-productive for pupils, and made it harder for teachers to raise standards'. Their judgement on extensive testing was that it 'takes teachers away from formative work' and 'encourages rote and superficial learning'.
Similarly, early childhood education has also seen many changes. The most notable being the introduction of the Desirable Learning Outcomes (DLOs), The DLOs framework introduced stepping stones which children were expected to pass through to meet the early learning goals. There was an expectation that all children would achieve the early learning goals (ELG) by the end of the primary reception year. The criticisms levelled at the DLOs included, inappropriateness, not meeting the development needs of individual children and no uniform approach regarding early years curriculum between the ages of three and five year olds (Macleod-Brudenell, 2004).
Moreover, the Rumbold report (1990) reported that early years provision for under fives in England, was primarily focused on the content of delivery and not enough on the process of learning. As a result of the Rumbold report the Foundation Stage was introduced, and became part of the National Curriculum in 2002, however it was to be recognised as having its own unique and distinct phase of education. The Foundation Stage and its curriculum guidance superseded the DLOs, but still retained the ELG's the Curriculum Guidance (QCA, 2000) stated that three, four and five year olds;
'need a well-planned and resourced curriculum to take their learning forward and to provide opportunities for all children to succeed in an atmosphere of care and feeling valued.' (P. 8)
Although the aforementioned Foundation Stage began to improve the provision and education of three and four year olds, there were still criticisms that the framework was not child-centred enough and was heavily content driven rather than process driven (Aubrey, 2009). Following further detailed consultation, the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) was introduced and became the first statutory curriculum for children aged from birth to five years, in England (DCSF, 2008).
Moreover, the EYFS places greater emphasis on the importance of play and, of using formative assessment to plan and evaluate children's learning, within principle 3.1, where practitioners start with the child, through observation, assessment and then planning. This is quite a contrast to previous ways of doing things in early years, where traditionally we always started with a plan, then observed and evaluated the learning. The EYFS in my opinion is a more holistic, developmentally appropriate curriculum, that puts children right in the centre.
The aforementioned historical overview of both the primary and early years curriculums highlights the many changes that both have seen, but also the contrast between both, in terms of assessment strategies available to both practitioners and teachers. For example, Short (1991) described two paradigms of curriculum. He suggested that curriculum could be viewed as FACT, and as INQUIRY. In these two descriptions, curriculum as FACT refers to knowledge as a commodity that is 'transferable' and exists separate from the 'knower', whereas curriculum as INQUIRY is concerned with the process of creating knowledge in the classroom. It is within these two paradigms that the differences between the National curriculum, which is subject based and where upon children's attainment level is measured in how well they perform during end of key stage tests, and therefore I argue it is closely aligned to the curriculum as measurement paradigm. Whereas the EYFS, which is cross curricular and concerned with areas of learning, with no formal summative assessment, other than the EYFS profile, which is based on teachers formative assessment, at the end of the Foundation stage, and therefore more aligned to the curriculum as 'inquiry' model.
The curriculum as measurement paradigm, can be associated with behaviourist theories of learning, and the work of theorists such as, Skinner, Pavlov, Watson and Thorndike (Gardener et al, 2006). According to these theories the environment for learning is a determining factor. Learning is regarded as the conditioned response to external stimuli. Rewards and punishments are powerful ways of getting children to keep on task and pass relevant tests. However, the implications for teaching and the teacher's role as being to train children to respond to instruction correctly and quickly. The implications for assessment within the behaviourist approach are made more explicit by James (cited in Gardener et al, 2006) with the following;
'Progress is measured through unseen timed tests with items taken form progressive levels in a skill hierarchy. Performance is usually interpreted as either correct or incorrect and poor performance is remedied by more practice in the incorrect items, sometimes by deconstructing them further and going back to even more basic skills. This would be the only feasible interpretation of formative assessment according to these theories'. (p. 54-55)
In order for teachers to begin to move from a teacher directed curriculum (as measurement) based on the transmission of 'facts', to a more child centered curriculum (as inquiry) , which is underpinned by the constructivist theory of learning, and informed by the work of theorists, such as, Bruner (1977). Bruner believed that the constructivist theory was a general framework for instruction based upon Piaget's theory of cognition, and that the active process of learning was allowing children to construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current or past knowledge. By selecting the information and then making meaning out of this given information, the learner is able to make decisions, thus enabling the individual to look at their previous ideas in new light and enabling them to go beyond the information given [Bruner 30.6.09]. The further work of the theorist Vygotsky, added another dimension to the constructivist viewpoint, he believed, unlike Piaget, that children learn best when interacting with others, such as, adults and peers, which led to social constructivism. I therefore argue that the purposes of assessment , based on the methods used to collect information will need to be revised, in order for teachers to maximise the learners potential through formative assessment, which I feel would be more attainable if teachers embraced the inquiry/social constructivist model as opposed to the measurement/behaviourist paradigm. However I acknowledge the transition for teachers, will be a difficult one, as summative assessment is not going to be abandoned by Government. Therefore a balance will need to be struck between both formative and summative assessment.
Moreover, Harlen (2007) states that assessment of pupils' learning has two main purposes. One is to help and support that learning; this is referred to as assessment for learning (AfL). The other is to summarise and report on what has been learned, referred to as assessment of learning or summative assessment. Whilst formative assessment has the sole purpose of helping pupils' learning, summative assessment is carried out for various school and external purposes, including those of statutory national assessment.
Knowing how children learn is of crucial importance when assessing and planning for their learning. Within my pre-school setting the children learn through play, exploration and investigation, which are all key elements of the 'inquiry'/social constructivist paradigm. Therefore the physical learning environment is an important factor when planning future learning. The overriding message from the available literature surrounding best environments when planning for children's learning, is that the equipment and materials within the setting should allow children to be in control, to develop independence and a sense of autonomy (Douville-Watson et al, 2003, cited in Berthelsen et al, 2009), by planning a core provision, such as, malleable, water, sand, home corner and book corner, children are able to make their own choices, based on their own interests and prior learning.
At my setting the children are able to access resources which are stored in boxes at child height and have a clear pictorial reference on the outside, to enable them to make choices. When children are fully able to explore and investigate resources it enables them to make discoveries, which supports new ideas and learning. For example I had observed a group of children in my setting becoming very interested in water play, especially how objects were reacting when placed in the water. This spontaneous child initiated learning opportunity and my subsequent observation/ assessment of it, was the starting point for planning a sinking and floating activity, see appendix A. Having observed the children initiate their own learning and then actively participating in the planned activity, I was able to further assess their prior knowledge, which is an important factor when planning any activity for young children, as it acknowledges that children will have their own ideas about their learning, a view which is supported by Dyson and Gates (1987) who state that children do not come into the classroom as empty vessels waiting to be filled, but rather they come with existing ideas that they have already gained from previous education or from their own home environments.
One aspect of the success criteria of the activity I had planned was based on the children having an interest in it. Interest has been identified as a key component of motivation for learning and can have a powerful impact on learning (Gardner et al, 2006). In my early years setting all of our planning is first and foremost based on what the children have been assessed, through observation, to be interested in. Not surprisingly then, that children with a personal interest in particular activities, persist in them for longer, learn from them, as with the planned sinking and floating activity and enjoy the activities more than those with less personal interest (Gardner et al, 2006).
It would seem this is in stark contrast to primary teaching, where children must follow subjects, which they may have no personal interest in. The aim for teachers then is how they create 'situational interest' in which children want to participate in learning tasks that they do not initially find interesting. Formative Assessment can play an important part in deciding how to plan and deliver a lesson, how to make it more exciting, differentiating the lesson, so it appeals to all of the children, sharing the learning intention with children, so they fully understand what is expected of them and by allowing the children to work together, are all factors that could develop 'situational interest' into personal interest. (Harlen cited in Gardener et al, 2006). The aforementioned also demonstrates how analysing assessment material, such as observations and a knowledge of children's prior learning, are also key aspects, that aid planning a learning activity for children, which further highlights the interrelationship between assessment for learning and planning.
Another factor in formative assessment utilised in both primary classrooms and early years settings, is that of effective questioning. Advantages of using questioning as a formative assessment method are;
Encouraging understanding rather than rote learning
Providing instant feedback
Revealing flawed learning
Motivating children by allowing them to demonstrate their learning and reinforce it through practitioner / teacher response
Allowing the teacher in one-to-one questioning to diagnose the difficulties a child may be experiencing
Encouraging the development of high level thinking skills
My participant observation, see appendix C, of the planned sinking and floating activity, demonstrates how practitioner C, through careful and sensitive open ended questioning, enabled the children to re think their original hypothesis that 'all small stuff sinks' and think about other factors that may have led to the key sinking. Thus engaging in a period of sustained shared thinking. Sustained shared thinking is where 'adults and children work together to develop an idea or skill (Clark, 2007, p27). The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) project, also found that, open ended questioning and sustained shared thinking, led to better cognitive outcomes for children, within the report they stated the following;
'In addition to sustained shared thinking, staff who engaged in open-ended questioning, were found in the settings where children made the most progess and provided formative feedback to children during activities' (p.6)
The aforementioned period of questioning and sustained shared thinking, during the planned sinking and floating activity, led to child J re-examining the key. Child J was further supported by practitioner C scaffolding (Bruner 1977) her learning and in doing so, practitioner C, was able to assess child J's zone of proximal development (ZPD). Vygotsky, proposed that children's zone of proximal development is the area of possibilities that lies between what they can manage on their own - their level of development - and what they could achieve or understand with some appropriate help - their level of potential development (Lindon, 2006). Practitioner C, was able to support child J in achieving her potential development by asking a person centred question ' what do you think the key is made of J', which led to child J re examining the key. Child J said 'its metal, like this (holds up metal ball from tray) 'I think all the metal stuff will sink like the key'. This extract from my participant observation demonstrates how even young children are able to benefit from practitioners who ask appropriate open ended questions, which in turn can lead to periods of sustained shared thinking, which in turn encourages the development of higher order thinking skills (Bloom 1956).
However, it could be argued that the learning that occurred within the planned activity, would not have occurred without the practitioner's formative assessment of what the children were interested in and their prior knowledge of the concept of sinking and floating. The children's learning was further supported by practitioner C, extending their learning, by assessing the need to use effective questioning, which in turn led to a period of sustained shared thinking. The main point being that, if formative assessment is to aid children's learning and ensure they make progress, then assessment and planning will need to be seen by practitioners as being synonymous to each other and not as separate entities.
Therefore effective questioning and engaging in periods of sustained shared thinking are important factors when planning for children's learning, which in turn supports children to make progress with their learning, in both the early years and primary education. However, both these areas can and must be improved on, as the following two points clearly highlight. Firstly, that higher qualified practitioners are needed within the early years, as the The EPPE report found that;
'Trained teachers were most effective in their interactions with children, engaging more often in sustained shared thinking. Less well-qualified staff demonstrated significantly better practices when they were led by qualified teachers' (p. 6.)
Similarly, Wiliam and Black (1998) highlighted the need for improved questioning to encourage the development of pupils higher-order cognitive skills. Their advice included the structuring of higher-order and lower-order questions, and by allowing 'wait time'. A point supported by Afl, where they state;
'Wait time, a strategy, highlighted by Black and Wiliam, of allowing some time to elapse between asking a question and taking answers. The point is to enable pupils to think, and to link the question to schemata of knowledge they already possess, before having to articulate the answer. Also known as 'think time'.
The above highlights the need for both practitioner and teachers to continue with their professional development, particularly within the area of questioning, as the gains that children can make within their learning when questioning applied correctly have been well researched and documented.
In conclusion, both early years and primary education has undergone many reforms, as identified in the historical overview presented within this essay. The interrelationship between assessing, planning and evaluating learning are inextricably linked, and as such, should not be treated as separate events, that work in isolation to each other. My participant observation and planned activity have demonstrated, how well planned formative assessment methods, such as observation and effective questioning, support children to make progress in their learning. However, A balance between both summative and formative assessment, must be strived for. Pre-school leaders and heads of schools and departments must insure that practitioners and teachers practice is continually monitored and evaluated, so that the appropriate training can be implemented, which should ensure that formative assessment is adequate and that summative assessment does not take over creating a system where the only emphasis in teaching and learning is one which ensures passing the next test.