The recent TIDE conference held in Suzhou is a large gathering of educators from primarily bilingual or international schools across China. It is a fixture within the conference calendar and offers an opportunity for educators from the full spectrum of schools across China to exchange ideas and engage in professional learning. Wellington College China Institute of Learning (IoL) contributed to the TIDE conference as two of the key note speakers, leading workshops, speaking on panels and sharing ideas with media.
The intention of IoL staff attending educational conferences allows professional learning, strengthening networks across the educational landscape and challenging preconceived ideas on education. Education is awash with initiatives, each the panacea to redeem the damage inflicted by the preceding new idea fad. Seldomly are critical questions asked, and even more rare, and answered about the veracity of these educational fads. The IoL seek to engage with the education community in evidence-based practices and strategy, which may contest common held views on education. This was the case at the TIDE conference when existing perspectives on STEAM education and assessment in early years education were challenged.
Beware the fallacy of STEM, STEAM, STREAM and PBL
The rise of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) movement across the USA, and now the world, represents a looming danger to education. The genesis of STEM was the ailing number of graduates in the sciences, technology and mathematics and weak preparation of graduates in these areas for the work of work. In the context of a school, STEM related learning commonly involves pupils engaging in open-ended projects within the fields of science, technology and maths. The assertion being that collaborative approaches to learning that links knowledge across disciplines in order to solve problems or devise solutions. A tangible and appealing initiative?
We propose that a focus on STEM, STEAM (a link with Art) or STREAM (including Robotics) or any other variation on the theme weakens education in the sciences and maths and further dilutes readiness to enter the workplace. This is based on the following rationale:
To think critically or creatively, knowledge is a prerequisite.
The underpinning concepts and principles of the sciences must be taught and learned. Acquiring knowledge through inquiry renders learning chaotic and fraught with misconceptions. Robust cognitive constructs must be developed as the foundations for fluency or purposeful thought.
Clarity on the desired outcome, what will be assessed?
STEM is not how knowledge is acquired or assessed. Therefore, what is it for? Rarely is there a specific definition for the outcome from STEM, let alone one that can be measured. Benign statements of improved critical thinking, problem solving, communication and creativity do not satisfy the requirement to hold a sophisticated grasp of what each entail in practice and how it can be developed and assessed. STEM or project-based learning (PBL) creates the opportunities for independence, criticality, creativity and problem solving, but each must be deliberately modelled, taught and evaluated. These should be the desired the product of STEM, and teaching for STEM, should instead be teaching for:
- Purposeful and productive thought
- Teamwork and leadership skills
- Concepts of evidence
- Synthesis of established knowledge
Thus, this article suggests that more a considered and measured approach is required STEM (or whatever) or PBL. This is the focus of ensuing work being led by the IoL with schools across Pudong in Shanghai.
Truths and myths about Early Years assessment
Assessing what young children know and can do is, at best, a sophisticated process and at worst, very difficult in terms of accuracy. This is especially the case when children may be non-verbal or when they speak a different language to the adult assessing their progress. Currently, the fires in England are raging around the assessment of children on entry to their first year in school and this debate around Baseline has been in the Early Years arena for some time. So, should we assess children in their earliest years in school or nursery and, if so, what is the best way to do this?
Without a doubt, how we assess our youngest children is of vital importance but what we assess plays an equally significant role in supporting teaching and learning in the early years. Assessment is an implicit statement of our values as educators and so if we believe that young children’s characteristics of effective learning are the building blocks for future success, then we need to think of ways to assess and monitor these as well as their attainment in areas of development such as communication, motor skills, mathematics and literacy. Well-Being and Involvement are also critical indicators of deep level learning and tell us if a child really knows and understands the new concepts being taught in school as well as checking if our teaching is supporting him or her to operate at the very edge of their capabilities. These indicators can be measured very effectively by using the Leuven Scales which, via a 5-point scale, show us if children are, as described by Prof Ferre Laevers, happy in their own skin and deeply engaged in their learning, showing mastery and high levels of motivation and persistence. Finally, our bilingual schools need to assess a child’s second language acquisition to not only make sure that they are really understanding the new words and phrases they are learning but also that our models of delivery are effective and give young children as many chances as possible to apply their new language in meaningful ways within a play-based environment.
In terms of the how we do it, assessing young children is a process more than an event. This is because the most effective way of finding out what a child can do is from observing them within their play and should be inextricably woven into day-to-day practice. Due to the way we teach in the Early Years, our assessment systems should be part of our pedagogical behaviour and a constant feature of how we interact with children. Testing young children and bombarding them with closed questions simply does not tell us the full knowledge and potential of a young child and should be avoided.
Observational assessment has been seen as the most effective methodology for this age group for some time and this way of spotting the signifiers of key areas of new development and knowledge by watching children in self-initated activity gives us the most authentic information. When children are observed in their play, children are able to draw from their experiences, their taught skills, their perceptions of the world and utilise their learning dispositions to achieve their fascinations and personal interests. However, the role of responsible pedagogy must not be forgotten and sometimes children do not show us their capabilities unless we create learning conditions and give them time to do so. Multiple perspectives of a child’s development are also really important, especially when teachers of a different linguistic and cultural background may be making the assessments and therefore, the contributions of parents and native language speakers in school are of paramount importance.
How the observations of young children’s progress are documented efficiently and in a meaningful way are often debated and it must be recognised that whilst ever an adult is taking an image of a child or involved in writing on a post-it note, they are not engaging or interacting and therefore, not teaching. “Remark on the remarkable” was a piece of advice taken from a HMI OFSTED inspector in the UK some time ago and is a most useful principle when deciding if evidence of learning needs to be documented and used to inform judgements.
Finally, we must remind ourselves of why we assess. A definition from Vicky Hutchin is a useful one and states that “the purpose of the assessment process is to make explicit children’s achievements, celebrate these with them and then help them to move forward to the next goal”.
Mary Jane Drummond also provides us with a definition of assessment that poses 3 questions:
What is there to see?
How best can we understand what we see?
How can we put our understanding to good use?
Assessment and reporting progress must be to help inform us as educators if our teaching is effective and what more we might need to find out or do to support learning. External pressures and articulating progress to senior leads of large through/K to 12 schools can be daunting and accountability is important, for governance and for parents. However, any assessment data is only worthwhile if it raises questions and asks us “so what?” about our practice, learning environments and our knowledge of what motivates and fascinates children to enable deep levels of engagement and a life-long love of learning.
To note – accurate, effective and meaningful assessment will be the Early Years focus at our October conference and include case studies from recent developments at WCC.
Upcoming workshops and conferences offered by the IoL offer educators across China, and beyond, the opportunity to engage in professional learning opportunities in the areas covered in this article and many more. To register for an event or to make an enquiry please scan below QR code.