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Practicing Authentic Observations

As a natural observer, myself, I really enjoy the process of authentic assessment; to me it is a natural process. John Dewey, one of the founding fathers of today’s early childhood education, stated, “I believe that only through the continual and sympathetic observation of childhood’s interests can the adult enter into the child’s life and see what it is ready for, and upon what material it could work most readily and fruitfully” (Dewey, 1897).

Observations are most effective when the subject does not even know they are being observed; authentic assessments can be non-obtrusive and can become a part of the everyday routine. Many teachers participate in daily observations without even realizing it; an anecdote about a child washing her hands, or wondering why a child will not rest at nap time are all examples of informal observations. I also like the fact that no special materials or curriculum are needed for these types of assessments; simple journals are a good start for beginning observers.

I have come to learn, though, that objective observations are not easy for all teachers, and training needs to be provided. Kistelnik, Anne, and Whiren (2011) explained ...

The need for well-designed assessment and evaluation to help professionals make informed decisions in early childhood education is growing. In addition to learning more about how individual children think, learn, develop, and behave across time, educators need to collect and document information to inform instruction, to identify children who might benefit from special help or additional health services and to report children’s progress to their families. (p. 188)

As mentioned earlier, through my experiences, I have learned that objective observation is not an easy skill for many teachers. I believe that practice, and using different methods to learn how to observe are important.

• Focus on learning how to observe children and write objective observations and anecdotes at the beginning of the school year, during teacher in-services. A brief description of the authentic assessment definition and process should be introduced. The goal for the school’s use of authentic assessments can then be discussed. Teachers will be asked if they had used any of the assessment methods before: observations, anecdotal records, parent-involved screenings, checklists, etc., and time should be allowed for them to share their experiences and thoughts.

• Next, divide teachers into pairs. These pairs should sit next to each other as the entire group watched a vignette of an observation being conducted. The pairs should discuss what they saw and report to the group. Another vignette should be watched, this time with the teachers making their own observations. These teachers should work in their pairs to discuss their observations and report to the group. The group should discuss and reflect upon the observation process.

• The next day should be arranged so that the same pairs would work together and observe actual classrooms at a designated year-round center. The teams should be divided among classrooms and playgounds; each team should be assigned a certain child to observe in the classroom for approximately 30 minutes (so as to not completely disrupt the teachers). Once the teachers return to their own classroom, they will continue to work in their pairs to combine their observations, design a way to record their observations for a child file or parent presentation, and plan what the next step could be for the child they observed.

• These observations, records, and plans would be presented to the group on the final morning of the in-service training. Time for sharing ideas and reflection will be designated, and the entire teaching team can then decide on how they want to implement authentic assessments in the school. A uniform approach should be decided upon for the school year; at the first staff meeting, the teachers will discuss their successes or weaknesses implementing the assessments thus far, and changes can be made.

NAEYC ( in Penn State Extension, 2015) stipulates that “learning and development are most likely to occur when new experiences build on what a child already knows and is able to do… After the child reaches that new level of mastery in skill or understanding, the teacher reflects on what goals should come next; and the cycle continues, advancing children’s learning in a developmentally appropriate way.”

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