The general focus of assessment for learning (AfL) has previously been aimed at key stage 2 and above. However, because formative assessment is integral to foundation stage practice, although practitioners might not recognise the term they will be using AfL every day. This article demonstrates how the principles of AfL practice support those of early education and how young children are capable of being directly involved in the planning and assessment of their own learning.
Practitioners will be familiar with the various types of assessment: Baseline, the initial assessment that shows a learner’s current level of understanding and which is used to plan future learning; summative, most commonly associated with exams and testing and used to determine how much a learner understands at the end of a period of learning; and formative, the ongoing assessment that informs continuing planning and teaching, in other words, when ‘evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet the needs’ (Black and Wiliam, 2001).
Formative assessment is used continually to ascertain where a learner is at any given point in time and what interventions are needed to help that learner progress. The ARG define this as assessment for learning:
‘Assessment for learning is the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there.’ (ARG, 2002)
The underlying premise of AfL is that learners will be more successful if they are able to take personal responsibility for their learning. This means involving children in decision making about what they want and need to learn, as well as teaching them how to assess themselves.
The success of AfL depends upon how willing children are to contribute and how capable they feel of succeeding. This means helping them to gain the confidence and independence they will need to be able to participate in managing their own learning:
Feeling safe and secure: In order to feel safe in their setting the children need to feel comfortable with each other, as well as with practitioners. This means investing time in creating a respectful and comfortable learning environment. Initially this means assisting children in making friendships through community building games and helping them to become more confident at sharing thoughts and feelings during circle time. Then as time goes on, continuing to foster this throughout each day by encouraging open dialogue and mediating disputes.
Building confidence: Children need to believe that they can succeed. Practitioners can help children to believe in themselves by giving them positive constructive feedback. This means highlighting success and also offering advice about how to improve. If children can see what they need to do to move on in their learning they will be motivated and more likely to succeed. Their eventual success will give them a sense of achievement and boost their confidence.
Promoting independence: Part of building confidence involves promoting independence. Children need to feel in control of their learning. This means providing an enabling environment where resources are easily accessible and children are given time and space to engage in activities that interest them. Children who have been encouraged to be independent and autonomous thinkers will be better equipped to engage in AfL practice:
‘Pupil talk is the central feature of the classroom, the most significant element for pupils in enabling both an active learning environment, and the appropriate mindset to ensure that pupils see themselves as successful learners.’ (Clarke, 2008)
For AfL practice to work children need to be encouraged to share their thoughts so that practitioners can assess their understanding. This means teaching children how to communicate with each other, as well as the adults around them and helping them to organise, develop, share and discuss their thoughts and ideas. Furthermore, through developing such skills children will be able to begin self-assessing and getting involved in planning the next steps in their learning themselves.
Developing communication skills: Children need to be able to express their thoughts and listen to others. This means teaching children speaking and listening skills. In the foundation stage this involves playing speaking and listening games, as well as encouraging children to speak in a variety of situations, for instance, in pairs, groups or to the whole class.
Sustaining shared thinking: This is extremely important for the success of AfL. Practitioners need to be able to draw information out of children to assess how much they understand and what the next steps in their learning should be. They can then extend children’s learning by facilitating discussion that fosters their creative and critical thinking skills.
Helping children to respond: Children in the early years need help in sharing their thoughts and ideas. This means giving them time to think and helping them to formulate a response. Ideas include, allowing children to discuss their ideas with others before sharing, giving them options to choose from or asking older children to write it down.
Planning with the children: Perhaps the most straightforward way to ensure that planning directly meets the needs of the children is to involve them in it from the initial stages. At the beginning of a topic, ask them what they already know and what they would like to learn. Create a mind-map around the subject with them. Give the children ownership over their learning by affording them the opportunity to help decide what direction it is going to take.
Designing planning formats with AfL in mind: Include ideas for questions and vocabulary that will foster sustained shared thinking. Also, provide space for recording observation information and assessment notes, as well as space for noting the future implications of these assessments.
Furthermore, be flexible with learning objectives. Planning does not have to be set in stone. Assessment during an activity might reveal a gap in knowledge that should be addressed, a skill that needs developing or a particular interest that a child might want to follow up. Take time to do this before moving on. Move with the child and make the most of any learning opportunities that arise. This means being prepared to rearrange or reorganise planning:
‘A teachers’ planning should provide opportunities for both learner and teacher to obtain and use information about progress toward learning goals. It also has to be flexible to respond to initial and emerging ideas and skills.’ (ARG, 2002)
AfL is about empowering children and giving them the tools they need to become independent learners. It is possible to involve even the youngest children in self-assessment by engaging them in discussion and asking them to reflect upon their learning.
Making the children aware of the learning objectives and success criteria: In order for children to understand the purpose of an activity they need to be aware of the learning objectives and success criteria: ‘Planning should include strategies to ensure that learners understand the goals they are pursuing and the criteria that will be applied in assessing their work.’ (ARG, 2002).
Share learning objectives with the children using child-friendly language. Help them to understand how they can meet the objectives by asking them to think about what they need to do. In other words get them to help decide upon success criteria. This helps children to understand what they are aiming for, what good quality looks like and what they need to do to achieve it.
Helping children show how well they understand: It is useful to give children tools that they can use to communicate how well they understand something. With young children visual signals are best. For example, after explaining something, ask them to show you whether they understand by putting their thumb up or down. This can be done at regular intervals to see who is following and who is not.
Helping children to assess themselves: Keep children on task and help them to remain mindful of success criteria by involving them in discussion throughout activities and asking them what they need to do. Reflect at the end of an activity by looking at photographs or video and discussing what the children are doing to meet their objectives. Ask the children to explain what they are doing and why:
‘Even very young children have been found to be capable of thinking about how they feel about their learning and, over a longer period of time, they become more able to reflect upon the learning in relation to the agreed criteria.’ (Harrison and Howard, 2009)
Formative assessment is central to foundation stage practice. Every day practitioners observe the children in their care and gather a wealth of information about their interests and learning. This information is used to inform ongoing planning in order to ensure that it meets the needs of the children. Although early years practitioners may not be familiar with the term, this practice is assessment for learning.
However, AfL goes deeper than this. It entails directly involving the children in the planning and assessment of their own learning and helping them to consider how they can improve on their learning by engaging them in ongoing thought-provoking discussion. Furthermore, AfL involves asking children to reflect upon their learning and to think about what they have achieved and how they can improve and progress.
Formative assessment is already integral to foundation stage practice. It is possible to take this further and establish AfL techniques that directly involve the children in the planning and assessment of their own learning.
Assessment for Learning in the EYFS by Marianne Sargent offers advice on how to establish AfL practice in the foundation stage setting with many practical examples of AfL techniques that support the ideas in this article.
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