The importance of observations in education

6 June 2016

Observation is the best tool we have to understand how children are learning and developing around us. Other than in a classroom environment, we can sit in cafes or listen to conversations taking place on a train. However, this essay will recognize the importance of observations in an institutional early years setting. It will then go on to reflect upon values, ethics and professionalism as we use these different strategies for observation. This essay will also consider the suitability for certain types of observation in particular settings.

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Sharman, Cross and Vennis (2007) showed that observations are means of noting down a fact or gathering information for a purpose during an activity. Beaver et al (2007) showed that observations help us to understand the patterns of children’s development, as well as clearly identifying difficulties a child may have, so that we can cater to their individual needs as they may require specific support such as speech and language therapy. Beaver et al (2007) explain how observations help the adult to understand the child as an individual as well as a chance to provide information about the child to the parents or any adults who have involvement with the child.

Observations should be thought of as tools that help us meet the needs of children and help us learn more about our own provisional settings (Palaiologou, 2008). One of the main reasons why we observe children in the Early Years is to see if the children in our care are following the flow and the pattern of our particular setting as well as measuring the progress and achievements of children against the recognized milestones and national targets. Completing several observations regularly over a course of time will clearly display the progress of the child in each of the different areas of development.

Palailogou (2008) cites The Statutory Framework for the EYFS (DCSF, 2008a, p. 16) asserts that Ongoing assessment is an integral part of the learning and development process. Providers must ensure that practitioners are observing children and responding appropriately to help them make progress from birth towards the early learning goals. Assessments should be based on practitioners’ observations of what children are doing in their day to day activities.

It is important to be as objective as possible as shown by Palaiologou (2008) that when taking out observations and keep an open mind to the information that is being recorded. It is vital that the observer has not “labeled” the child, whether it is positive or negative as this can affect the outcome of the observation altering the truth to what has been noted. Beaver et al (2007) explain observations should be taken out by more than one adult to see different viewpoints therefore enhancing objectivity and also enable the practitioners to compare and analyse their individual observation skills.

Beaver et al (2007) explain that observations are taken to show the quality of education that has been received by the children, and for practitioners to develop their professional practice. It is essential that all observers are objective and recognise every child’s values and beliefs. Palaiologou (2008) states The Local Safeguarding Children Board Regulations (2006) were set up as part of the need to promote and protect children’s welfare including bullying, accidents, discrimination and providing children with access to all well-being services. In Early Years settings that follow strategic frameworks, observers need to consider this set of criteria before taking out an observation. The observations that take place are in the best interest of the child; The observations will help the education programme;

The observations will help to understand the child’s development; The observations will inform practice and promote children’s learning; The safety and protection of the child is ensured.

“Participant” and “Non-Participant” are two main observation techniques illustrated by Schmidt (2005) to be used by practitioners. Participant observation is well known and often practiced within Early Years settings. An observation can have a great impact on whether how much a practitioner engages with the child they are observing or not. For example, if the practitioner talks to a child whilst observing them as they are doing an activity, they might make extra effort to please the adult in some way, which in turn affects the outcome of the observation. Schmidt (2005) also explains a participant observation is when the observer is directly involved in the activity in some way as they are recording the observation. This allows adults without special training to carry out an observation, however, this type of observation can be limiting as it can be difficult to include any detailed information, so may not give a clear picture of what truly happened at the time.

Schmidt (2005) illustrates that Non-Participant observations require the adult to sit separately from the task and to act simply as an observer of the child or the activity rather than a trained professional as they are writing the observation. Palaiologou (2008) shows that not being involved with the child can make it easier for the observer to be as objective as possible and to write about what they are seeing happen as the child is working.

A Narrative Observation is the most common observation technique used in Early Years settings. This is a record of events as soon as they occur. Usually the practitioner separates themselves from the activity or child and observes from a distance, being careful not to disrupt the activity. Each observation is brief and is written in the present tense. This is an excellent opportunity to record every detail noticed during the period of the observation including dialogues, movements and emotions. However, as the observer records there is room for bias to be influenced by the observers thought process, which may be interpreted in the wrong way (Palaiologou, 2008).

A Checklist is a very useful type of observation as they are carefully planned and prepared before hand. Checklists can be used to observe a large group or just one child. Practitioners in Early Years Settings often use this technique as a starting point to plan new activities for individuals or groups of children. A number of different observers can use the same checklists to ensure all of the information is correct and consistent. However an important piece of detailed information can be missed out of the
observation because it is not listed as one of the points to record. (Smidt, 2005) Diagramatic technique is a focus-based observation that can be carried out in many ways such as: Tracking;

The use of sociograms;
The use of histograms;
The use of bar charts and pie charts.

Tracking simply allows the adult to observe the amount of time a child spends on an activity, although it does not include an explanation as to why they chose it. Beaver et al (2007) explains this can be beneficial to Early Years practitioners as their schedules include time to free play during the school day.

A Sociogram is a tool used to observe children’s social development. This reveals the child’s ability to socialize with other children and adults and monitor their popularity through the group. (Smidt, 2005)

Histograms are taken over a long period of time to follow the areas of development and are similar to bar charts in that they allow you to focus on any area you choose. This would be useful to use if you were measuring behaviour in an Early Years Setting for example, as you would get a very clear profile at the end of the term.

Bar Charts and Pie Charts can be useful techniques for collecting information about groups or individual children. The disadvantage is that this technique does not allow much room for specific facts. (Schmidt, 2005)

The Time Sampling technique of observation helps to identify how and when a certain type of behaviour occurs. The advantage of this type of observation is that it helps you to remain objective, as you know what type of behaviour you are looking for. This also allows you to collect data on several children or on several behaviours at a time and the information is collected at certain decided intervals throughout a given period of time. However, because the information is collected at specific intervals of time, there
are things that are not recorded.

Event sampling also focuses on a specific behaviour than has been selected previously. This is used to study the conditions under which particular behaviours occur. As this technique looks at very specific behaviours, it can lack detail.

Media Techniques allow an extremely detailed form of observation. Although this method cannot replace traditional methods of observation, this offers very accurate information, which is unbiased and objective and can be used in all age groups and in a variety of settings. (Sharman, Cross and Vennis, 2007)

After the observation is completed the information needs to be collected, collated and then analysed before recorded as evidence. This can be very difficult as the practitioners need to look at the information considering all the facts whilst attempting to remain as objective as possible.

From the findings of my research and from my own five years experience as an early years classroom teaching assistant in the British educational system, I feel that both subjective and objective strategies previously mentioned may hold equal significance depending of the physical setting of the observation and the period of time over which these observations have been completed.

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