We need much more than data.

Today I read a thoughtful piece by Jan Dubiel, National Director of Early Excellence.  In it, he argues for the importance of collecting data on children in the Early Years.  Dubiel reassures people who are  weirded out by the word “data” (such as myself) that:

Data is simply another word for information, and the reality of life as an early years’ practitioner is that collecting information is a constant feature of what we do. We’re always picking up information about the child as a learner, their qualities and behaviours, as well as about what they know, understand and can do. This informs the decisions we make and how we support their learning from the first day of the school year to the last.

In short, early years’ practitioners, through the very nature of the job and the continual assessment that is part of that, are constantly collecting information on children and using this to achieve the best results for them.

Those who are against the data collection in early years (often labelling it the “datafication of childhood”) miss the point. Without knowing how we are doing and what progress is being made, how can we possibly teach effectively?

The first two paragraphs are lovely but the question at the end is a bit of a wild leap.  I think there are plenty of solid, relational, “everyday” ways to know how I am doing and what progress my children are making and I am not sure me spending time ticking the right boxes on Tapestry is the only or best way to skin a cat.

It might be worth explaining more about myself.  Right now half of my working week is working as a TA in a 2 year old morning program in a “high-needs” community.  I am contracted for 18 hours a week and if I am lucky, this gives me around 30 minutes at the end of most days to make sure the room is clean, get a few observations done and hopefully make an entry in our daily diary (which we are getting further and further behind in).  At my best I write observations that illustrate the power and deeper meaning of children’s play and observations that help me reflect on what to continue and what to change in my practice.  At my worst I am throwing together one more observation out in five minutes just because “it needs to get done” and that is all the time and energy I have left.

It should be recognised as a law of EY physics that any time spent on paperwork is time not spent with children or setting up the right environment for them  Any emotional reserves spent worrying about how to get the paperwork done are emotional reserves not spent patiently helping children through the trials of being young.  Even at the best of times, when all my two year olds are playing happily and not needing me at all, any time I am spending “efficiently” getting an extra observation done is time I am not being fully present and carefully observant of the children in my care.  Instead these children see me sitting with them with my face in an iPad, clicking away.  What lessons are they learning from my example.
I disagree that “a numerical score is a useful starting point for summarising…”  I can confidently disagree with this because I have seen where these numerical scores come from.  To be very blunt, they come from a field of overworked, underpaid and stressed out women who are doing the best they can every single day.  Many are passionate, brilliant and committed.  Many are burnt out for various reasons – including the increased paperwork – and continue to use developmentally inappropriate practices as well.  Many others of course have also left the field because they couldn’t continue working with professional expectations without professional conditions.

Dubiel argues further for the power of data below:

At an individual level, it allows practitioners to make interventions that have a positive impact. Move the telescope a fraction and you have information about children in a whole class or school, and their skills and capabilities. Zoom out further and we’re able to produce a nationwide dataset for a whole cohort – rich and valuable information for the Department for Education, researchers, advisers, practitioners and many others to comb through, find the evidence for what works and identify where specific developments and approaches make an impact. This allows us to put in place the principles and pedagogy that really will improve the life chances and opportunities for success of the children in our settings.

We should always be open to new research and practice, but we already know “the principles and pedagogy that really will improve the life chances and opportunities for success of the children in our settings.”  We have decades of research showing us what developmentally appropriate practice looks like and how it can be best delivered.

I wholeheartedly share in Dubiel’s goal of wanting “to develop a system that truly delivers for all children.”  I just honestly disagree that an over reliance on data should be our priority at the moment.  We are running the risk of  “confusing the map for the territory.” I know governments like data, but seeing how they are using SATS, should we really trust what they like to do with the data once we deliver it to them?

More than this, I feel there are more immediate problems facing our field.  First and foremost in my mind we need more high quality training on developmentally appropriate practice and respectful discipline techniques.  Of course what we really need is better pay, so there would be no room in the field for people not willing to adopt best practices, but that is too huge a topic that continues to get pushed under the rug.

Skilled EY practitioners definitely collect constant information on every aspect of the children in our care and it is a crucial part of our job.  When my two year olds had their hands in our taps at every possible opportunity I knew I needed to provide another way for them to explore the feeling of running water.  So we did just that by adding some big containers with spouts to our water table.  We’ve talked about this as a team before and after and reflect with each other when we can about how the children’s interest in water play continues.  Really, do things have to be more complicated than that?

There is something sacred and absolutely vital about simply being able to be present with and observant of babies and young children – and knowing when to let them be as well.  It is one of the most important things we can give the children in our care and it’s increasingly scarce in so many settings.  It’s the ability to be make another human feel that they are seen, listened to and respected for who they are.  Babies and young children need this just as much as any adult and the way we are “collecting data” right now is actively making this harder for me to provide on a regular basis.  I am not sure this feeling can be quantified at all.  I feel very defensive of it and I suppose that’s why I just spent my Monday evening writing this rant.

I agree with the importance of documenting children’s learning and progress but there are significant problems with how it is currently carried out.  I write this because I would like to see more EY educators have a real voice in figuring out how it should be done properly.  I hope any other educators reading this feel inspired to share their thoughts on this as well!


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