Friday, 1 September 2017

Observations... easier said than done?

During the last two weeks of being with the educators from Jenin, Palestine I have had the opportunity to view Swedish preschools (Stockholm and Vaxholm) through their eyes...

One of their questions throughout the study trip has been how do teachers do observations... as all the teachers have talked about that the teaching is based on their observations of the children. Most of the preschools we only visited for a short time, so that made it hard for us to observe the educators observing the children... and the preschools we visited for a longer period of time said that they were not doing any activities with the children yet because they were observing them... but the educators from Jenin could not see how the children were being observed.
When I asked about this it became apparent that this was not something that was actually being sone at the preschool... and when you start scraping at the surface of this there is more to it than just it is not being done. The preschools we visited for a longer period of time are located in a suburb of Stockholm where there is mostly immigrants (and I say this not as a loaded word, as I too am an immigrant in Sweden, but my British passport has made me a more desirable immigrant and therefore easier for me to be accepted in the Swedish society - but I would also like to pint out it was not plain sailing for me either) - but in this suburb there is a need for high quality preschools, with well trained teachers... the problem is that attracting well trained teachers to this area is hard, and the ones that are working there are under an enormous strain as many of their colleagues working with the children have no education/training with young children or children at all.

Of course this was unfortunate for the educators from Jenin who were looking forward to learning how to observe the children... as the people they were shadowing were also in need of the same support. ( I will go more into this in a later post)

So this post is born from that... a need to take a look at observations...

After the summer holiday/vacation the children return to preschool, and for some reason some preschools have felt the need to start from scratch... even with children that have been with them for several years... no activities are put on because "we are observing the children"...
My question is what is being observed? Also, what do the educators need to know to be able to meet the children's needs...
These are questions that can be written down before the summer, almost like a standard cheat sheet sort of thing...
a teacher needs to know...

  • how has the child developed since before summer
  • gross motor skills
  • fine motor skills
  • language and communication
  • social
  • emotional
  • their interests
I think this is a good place to start... so to find out about these areas there is a need for activities to be able to see where the children are, and to be able to make plans for what each child and the group need for continued support through activities and interactions...

The educators need to think about how to check for the motor skills - providing activities that allow them to see how the child holds a pen, or uses the pincer grip, how they can sit on the floor or a chair, how the child walks, runs, jumps (with two legs, one leg) how they go up and down the stairs, how they climb... doing games, going to play spaces, working with beads, drawing and painting can all help the educator to learn more about the child - and through note-taking, photos, films and reflecting together with colleagues there is the chance to make plans as to what sort of activities are needed in the future... if many in the group have weak gross motor skills then there is no point doing lots of sit down activities and getting them to read and write, it is a much better investment to get outside (and inside) to do climbing, running games, exploring the forest (where the ground is uneven) etc etc where muscles and balance can be developed and strengthened that are all essential for concentration - even for being able to sit in a chair... weak stomach and back muscles make chair sitting hard (not that children need to be doing sit ups... but through climbing, crawling and balancing on logs/beams etc they can be strengthened)

How do you observe a language? This is something that needs to be discussed in your group of educators (as with all the areas)... you can look for do the children follow one step, two step or three step instructions? How complex are their sentences... a few words or more... how is the pronunciation... is there a need for blowing bubbles, eating chewy food etc to strengthen mouth muscles... are they following the thread of the dialogue or are they often going off topic (pragmatic language development)... Language can be observed and recorded by writing down what they say in group meetings (verbatim, including what the teacher says, so that you can see the interaction) - through individual interviews (where you can find out more about what they are interested in, what they like to play and also what they want to learn... I LOVE asking that question... you always get some interesting answers... and I always try to ask so that the children cannot hear each other and influence each other's answers). You can also observe language through listening to their play... writing, filming how they communicate with each other... is there a child dominating the conversations, are there others getting frustrated because they cannot communicate as efficiently as they want to? etc etc...

For the last five years I have started the year with International Fairy Tea Party... and through activities covering fairies and magic I have observed the children and listened out for their interests... I have also met with their parents to talk about what the children were interested in over the summer, what they have learned, if any fears have developed or any passions arisen... this then allows me to see the whole child... my observations, the children's point of view through the interviews and the parents observations... it gives me a better chance of getting the direction of our learning journey together right...

Also working with the same children over a period of years also helps with this so much, as I do not need to build the trust between myself and the children every year... we can just continue from where we left off, and that is truly a beautiful thing.

The fairy tea party has been a great way to start the year, magic and curiosity baked into the activities that have allowed the children to bond together as a group, as they share wonderous experiences together, this creates a feeling of safety, it also kick starts their imaginations and creativity that has really helped with projects that have followed on from the fairy tea party. And since we start with the same tradition every year there is no need to invent the wheel every time... just the need to tweak activities to improve them or adjust them to meet the needs of the group. This means that there is more time for the educators to observe and reflect on the children and group, rather than on the activities. And since we have done this for many years with children from 1-5 with different interests over the years, we have a wide array of activities, interactions, experiences for the children to participate in documented and reflected on. Of course the first year will take a bit more thinking and reflecting... BUT everyone has to start somewhere, and it is a good investment to have some kind of start-up tradition that allows educators to focus on observing the children in a manner that is structured.

Free play should always be a part of the day, so I am not talking about structured the entire day.

The director/pedagogical leader should be key in supporting educators in finding strategies into how to observe children, how to observe their learning, what learning needs to be prioritised (at any given time, maybe there are situations that need to be responded too), how these observations are collected as data, and how this data is analysed to provide the basis of continued learning.

Here are some posts that might help with learning more about observation making...

Reflecting on the usage of the light table - this post includes my reflections of my observations, so that I can better understand how the light table is being used and also how it can be improved.

Painting with one year olds - my observations of a session with one year olds, and the reasons this activity was chosen with that particular child.

Painting by letter/Testing boundaries - this post shows how my observations and a dialogue with others prompted this activity to further explore how the children interacted with each other when it came to boundaries, to better understand how I could support these children in their social interactions.

Clay and two year olds - this post shares my observations of a group of two year olds working with clay.

Observations - the Sherlock Holmes approach - this post explores some of the thinking behind observing children... how we can discuss with colleagues, how we can be aware of how we are observing and why we are observing.

Making learning visible - this post is about how the children were enables to observe their own development. I also knew that some of the children did not like to draw anything that was less than perfect... and this is why the Leonardo da Vinci project was in part suggested (and embraced) as da Vinci believed in learning from mistakes and practising until satisfied... this Really did help the children.


Pedagogical documentation - this is the first in series of posts about pedagogical documentation... this one focuses on observations and collecting data... 

Democracy as a relationship - this is a reminder that observations should not be done in isolation, but together with colleagues, the children and the parents...

Progettazione - this post was written together with Debi Keyte-Hartland  and is about a more in depth look at projects, the Reggio Emilia Approach way... how observations and interpretations of those observations support how to proceed with activities, projects and interactions with the children.

Co-documenters - this post is a reminder again of how the children are an important part of the process... that they too observe and have an opinion of how you collect your observations and that they can be interpreted together.




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