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Spring 2007

Curriculum for the 21st century

Curriculum accountability in the early years

Effective early learning requires a relevant curriculum and early childhood educators who understand, engage with, implement and monitor curriculum expectations. Elspeth Harley looks at ways to support early childhood educators working in preschool settings.

Context

Early childhood educators working in preschools (kindergartens) in South Australian Department of Education and Children’s Services (DECS) use the Early Years Band of the South Australian Curriculum Standards and Accountability Framework (SACSA) to plan for and monitor children’s learning. Accountability for children’s learning is reported against eight Developmental Learning Outcomes (DLOs), broad, observable and assessable consequences of the curriculum that reflect the integration of learning and development and allow for the different developmental pathways of individual children.

From August 2005–July 2006, sixteen preschools engaged in a practitioner research project to critically examine and investigate the interweaving of learning and pedagogical objectives, and to document children’s learning and development against the DLOs, using narrative assessment called ‘Learning stories’.

Accountability matrix

As part of the project, a draft matrix underpinned by a social pedagogical approach, was developed for piloting. The matrix has a focus on educational effort and commitment, shifting from expectations in terms of output to expectations in terms of inputs for each child. The emphasis is on promoting children’s identities as learners and their learning dispositions.

The matrix links the eight SACSA DLOs with eight pedagogical objectives. developed from the work of Ferre Laevers.

The matrix provides an inquiry approach to encourage educator reflection and assist with data collection and planning.

The following example highlights the interweaving of the DLO ‘Children are effective communicators’ with the eight pedagogical objectives.

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Learning stories approach to assessment

Learning stories are qualitative snapshots, recorded as structured written narratives, often with accompanying photographs that document and communicate the context and complexity of children’s learning. Developed by Margaret Carr in New Zealand, they acknowledge the multiple intelligences and holistic nature of young children’s learning, educators’ pedagogy and the context in which the learning takes place.

Outcomes from the project

There is evidence that the use of the matrix and the thinking behind it have had positive effects on the pedagogical practices of the early childhood educators involved. There is also evidence that the use of narrative assessment (learning stories) has enhanced educators’ understandings and documentation of children’s learning against the DLOs.

A snapshot from Stirling East Kindergarten

Our inquiry question has been: ‘How well do we know each child’s current interests and dispositions? How do we demonstrate our interests in their activities and make suggestions to extend their play?’ This question links with the DLO ‘Children develop a positive sense of self and a confident and personal group identity’, and with the pedagogical objective of involvement.

In reflecting on this question, we observed that we had a number of children running around playing superheroes. We wanted to look more closely at this kind of play and perhaps redirect children to more settled play. As part of our data collection processes we collected photos, written observations of play and information gained from conversations with parents. After observing and documenting the children’s play, we actually challenged and changed our own attitudes to this play and made a decision to value it more. From our observations and reflection we realised it was child initiated and socially valuable, in that it included many children in a network of friends, provided opportunities for physically challenging experiences, especially when it included the climbing apparatus. From our observations and discussion we realised it was more intellectually challenging than we thought in that children were engaged in: selforganisation, symbolic and role play, collaboration, representation, imaginative thought, classification, risk taking, recall and goal setting and many other skills. As a result of our observations and reflection we had a new view of some children and a greater depth of understanding about how they like to learn.

Over the course of the project we have written learning stories on the children and parents have received a copy of each story. We began to be more comfortable and confident with the writing process and wanted to reach out to children and families. Towards the end of the project we surveyed parents, asking them what they liked and valued about the learning stories. They said:

The stories give a more personal insight into the actual thoughts of my child during activities and the achievements gained. I feel the learning stories are a fantastic way to involve parents in how their children are interacting and developing at kindergarten. It is great to be able to feel part of an event/play experience that has happened. I think the narrative used makes it a much more personal and enjoyable read and Harry just loves hearing ‘Harry said’!

What we have learnt as a staff team at Stirling East

The matrix has helped us refocus our thinking particularly though the inquiry questions approach. Through our targeted observations and recording we are now more focused on children’s play and what their play demonstrates. Our day to day planning now focuses more on extending children’s play and less on staff-generated activities. Our relationship with parents has deepened as a result of sharing children’s learning stories with families. The children now see us differently. They have developed more trust in us, knowing we will support their play. They see us valuing different skills and interests in them through the sharing of stories and are starting to value these things in each other. We have had difficulty sustaining our efforts over time, and are learning not to set ourselves unrealistic timelines. Life in a kindergarten is busy and we want to enhance our work not be burdened. As a result we need to make choices about what we and the families value most and channel our energy to this end.

Practitioner research and innovation

Meade in Catching the Waves writes that ‘innovativeness’ involves doing something different from the typical program. Innovators integrate a different learning theory and pedagogical approach into their planning and practice. For innovators it is not simply about improving the quality of their practice by getting better at the same thing. Innovators decide that significant change is needed and the outcomes they seek are improvement in practice.

The Curriculum Accountability project has resulted in some innovative practice and significant change that is leading to improved learning outcomes for children. As a result of learning story documentation, educators are placing greater importance on children’s thinking, relationships and dispositional learning. The use of the matrix as a curriculum accountability tool is enabling educators to investigate pedagogy within their own settings and reflect on the impact of their pedagogy on children’s learning.

References

Carr, M (2001). Assessment in Early Childhood Settings: Learning stories, Paul Chapman, London.

Department of Education, Training and Employment (2001). South Australian Curriculum Standards and Accountability Framework, Adelaide.

Laevers, F & Heylen, L (eds) (2004). Involvement of Children and Teacher Style: Insights from an international study on experiential education, Leuven University Press, Leuven Belgium.

Meade, A (2005). Catching the Waves: Innovation in early childhood education, NZCER Press, Wellington.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Stirling East Kindergarten South Australia, Cathy Willoughby-Tuma, Diane McCarthy and Maureen Kennedy.

author picture Elspeth Harley is early years policy and program officer, Department of Education and Children’s Services (DECS).

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