Dr Stella Louis is an author and leading early years consulting, specialising in Schemes, Observation and Characteristics of Effective Learning, Equality, Race and Unconscious Bias and Froebelian Practice and Principles.
In her first article for That Nursery Life, Dr Stella Louis explores whether the idea of observation has been reduced down to just one of its aspects, and whether it is being confused with simply recording.
Anna Freud, who advised educators to go with the child says that if the child goes somewhere without you, and is lost, you need to be able to find them.
That is what assessment is for – to enable educators to gain a thorough understanding of what children know, feel and can do.
This means being able to talk about the interests and learning styles of individual children at length, referring to incidents of their play that illustrated how they use their new knowledge in many different ways.
Observations matter as part of this process because they contribute in a major way to educators becoming able to assess and know where children are in their development and learning. Observations matter so much as part of this process that we cannot afford to be simplistic about them.
That said, there is a long-standing tradition of child observation embedded within the Early Childhood sector. However the well-respected method of OAP (Observe, Assess and Plan) has now been replaced with that of ‘noticing’. Educators are encouraged to reduce paperwork by noticing and noting down where children are supposedly ‘falling behind’ in specified knowledge that they need to learn. What is interesting to note is that there is no definition for ‘noticing’ in the reformed EYFS. Noticing is defined in the dictionary as ‘becoming aware’ whereas observing is defined as ‘noticing or perceiving (something) and registering it as being significant’ (Lexico, 2020).
There is a great deal of overlap between the definitions of the two words; however, while ‘noticing’ is an essential part of the observation process, it is notthe same as observing as we understand it in Early Childhood practice.
I was talking recently with a group of educators about reduction in paperwork and some of them were questioning whether this meant that they did not need to do observations anymore. It is important to be aware that words and ideas are often used in subtly different ways in professional jargon. Educators need to fully understand these concepts as used in their work in order to distinguish between professional and everyday usage. Also, there is a need for educators to reflect on these concepts and think their way into definitions that can then be used when they are asked to be accountable.
Educators often argue that observations are very time consuming. The argument that ‘noticing’ is a very useful term is a powerful one. It can be used against people who are trying to protect the traditional observational process and it’s an argument that I think needs to be challenged. In practice, noticing is about how we use all of our senses to register what we see and hear children doing. It determines what we pay attention to and how tuned in and empathic we are to children’s developing needs, interests and relationships. Noticing requires us to look at and below the surface of children’s actions and behaviours, so that we can make connections with their prior knowledge, first-hand experiences and what questions they are trying to find the answers to. Noticing also requires us to be aware of our own emotional responses to the things we see and hear babies, toddlers and young children doing.
Observation, however, is not just about what we notice – four other factors also come into play here.
The key issue here is that noticing is an important part of the observation process, but it is not out there on its own.
Gathering observations and acting on them involves three things:
Reducing the importance of the whole process of observations to ‘noticing’ brings a serious challenge to high quality practice and the possibility of de-skilling and de-professionalising the workforce.
Ultimately, observation provides us with a path to begin to get to know children better to work alongside and with them, and to know when to give them space to reflect and act alone, or with other children using initiative. In other words, observation can provide a means of getting to know children well, in a way that influences our teaching and our developing relationship with them, giving us insight into their interests, abilities, strengths, knowledge and skills so that we are then more able to support, extend and embed their learning.
It is possible that observing has been confused with recording. What is useful and meaningful to children is the ability of the educator to analyse and time to reflect on what has been observed.