How Our Image of the Child Informs Authentic Assessment
When we are assessing the development of children in Transitional Kindergarten, it is crucial to reflect on our values and beliefs about children. As many preservice teachers do, in my credential program, I learned about what Paulo Freire (2000) coined as the “banking system” of education, in which teachers are considered the sole holders of knowledge and their students, as empty vessels, passively receive, memorize, and repeat the knowledge that their teachers give them. We were taught that this type of education was of course not how we should approach teaching because it perpetuates oppression and leads to students who are devoid of critical thinking skills and creativity. However, this way of thinking about education still permeates public elementary schools, and as such has trickled down to TK classrooms.
As much as we shift towards a play-based approach in our TK classrooms, many teachers still feel the pressure to work towards “Kindergarten Readiness” by drilling students with literacy and math worksheets, falling into this idea that our students are empty vessels that we must fill up with information in order for them to be ready for Kindergarten and beyond. This of course then informs our assessments, in which we ask children to regurgitate the information we’ve taught, and if they don’t know it, we think they’re not ready. Don’t get me wrong– foundational math and literacy skills are important for children to have, but if these skills are the only focus of our teaching and our assessments, we are missing so much of what our young students have to offer. We are seeing them with a deficit view, instead of opening our eyes to the incredible power, wealth of knowledge, and range of skills that they already have. We are limiting them to what we think is important, instead of creating an environment in which they can be limitless.
In a Reggio Emilia-inspired approach, the child is seen as “strong, powerful, rich in potential, driven by the power of wanting to grow, and nurtured by adults who take this drive towards growth seriously” (Wurm, 2005, p. 16). This is the very opposite of seeing a child as an empty vessel. Holding this powerful image of the child at the core of my values has truly shifted all aspects of my teaching. Over the past two years, the TK team within my district has been creating and implementing a vision for our program that is inspired by Reggio Emilia values. We have reinvented our classroom environment so that it is the third teacher, refined our inquiry stance and play-based curriculum, and used observation and documentation to understand how and what children are learning. We’ve also tossed aside our paper assessments and instead begun to use the DRDP as our primary tool for assessing children’s learning and development. And let me tell you– it has been beautiful. My classroom is a joyful space, full of independence and collaboration, play and exploration, as you can see in this clip of children playing together at the water table.
While I still have so much to learn about a Reggio-inspired approach and utilizing the DRDP, I’d love to share some of what has worked for me in my journey thus far to better support the development of my students and authentically assess their learning. As you read, consider your own “image of the child” and values and how these inform the way that you create opportunities for children to show you what they know.
Open-Ended Materials and Multiple Experiences
In a Reggio-inspired approach, open-ended materials or “loose parts” are key to creating a child-centered learning environment (Beloglovsky & Daly, 2014; Edwards, et. al, 2012). Materials are often set up in an open-ended, yet intentional way, in order to provoke thinking, exploring, and questioning. In Reggio these are called provocations or invitations to play. I have found provocations to be an incredibly enriching way to support children’s learning. There are endless opportunities to integrate math, literacy, science, and social studies concepts into provocations, and the tangible, hands-on nature of them leads children to grasp the concepts more deeply. While children are playing, I have also found it to be an important time to observe and document what I see and hear.
In my classroom, one such example of the power of provocations was with our identity inquiry, which began by learning about our physical features. Through provocations, children had the chance to explore shades of skin in a variety of ways such as paint mixing, collage, and self-portraiture. These explorations continued for weeks. While they were mixing, drawing, and painting, I heard children using vocabulary and asking questions and I saw them look at their own skin and compare it to others in books or their friends.
This identity inquiry is something I have done with every class since I began teaching. But this year, I found the learning to be much deeper than in previous years, and I attribute that to the way in which the children had many opportunities to explore the concepts in multiple concrete ways. In turn, their learning was also made visible to me in multiple ways.
I came to realize that a child might understand or know something, but if we do not provide opportunities for them to demonstrate their understanding, then we will never know. This is why it is so important to provide an environment rich in a variety of open-ended materials and intentional experiences for children to learn and show their learning with. This is supported by the Preschool Learning Foundations (2008) and Universal Design for Learning (2023), which state that best practice is to provide children with multiple means of expression– many ways for them to express what they know beyond just verbally.
Creating Opportunities for Spontaneous Moments
Another shift in my teaching that I have made to align with my values is to allow children to choose where they play, and because of this I have found that they are more engaged in their learning. Thus, it is much more likely that authentic moments will occur where you can assess their learning.
In this video, you’ll see two of my students who settled down in the library together during our morning play time. They were both very interested in the book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and began looking at it together. They then began to spontaneously retell the story, and I was able to capture the tail end of it. In this one short moment, there were many DRDP measures that I was able to observe, such as LLD 5: Interest in Literacy, ATL-REG 7: Shared Use of Space and Materials, and SED 4: Relationships and Social Interactions with Peers. This moment may have been missed if I didn’t build time into our day for children to explore based on their own interests.
Another time that children are able to choose where they learn is during our literacy centers. I struggled to make this shift at first a few years ago, because I thought that every child needed to experience every center. But when I let go and allowed them to follow their interests, I noticed that children chose a center that was at their developmental level, moved between centers fluidly, and continued to gain important literacy skills. In this clip of a child during literacy centers at the beginning of the year, he went beyond what was explained to do at the center (match the letters) and actually named each letter while pointing to it. Again, in this moment I was able to observe multiple measures: not only his literacy skills, but also his initiative in learning (ATL-REG 4) and English Language Development, since he is an emerging multilingual learner.
Making the Walls Speak
At the beginning of each school year, I used to fill my walls up with store bought posters and charts. Now, on the first day of school the walls are empty. As the year progresses, they are slowly filled up with photo documentation, thinking walls, and artwork. While this might seem like a small change, the message it sends to children is powerful. Not only do the children feel valued, the artifacts on the wall serve as a constant reminder of their learning, a reflection of their thinking and learning process (Project Zero, 2001). I often notice children pointing to the photos or their work and discussing their observations and ideas. This can create opportunities for me to assess their learning as they reflect on it. It can inform their play as well. For example, photo documentation in the block area of children building together might inspire future creations.
As I continue my TK journey, I know that I will find other ways to further align my authentic assessment practices with my values and image of the child. I feel very lucky to have the support of my district in implementing these important changes in my classroom, and the freedom to do what truly supports the development of the whole child. However, I know that many teachers face extreme pressure to push their students towards this concept of “Kindergarten Readiness” that focuses primarily on academic skills. If you are in this situation, I urge you to find ways, as small as they might be, to honor your students by providing opportunities for them to explore and play, and show you what they know in a variety of ways. We must create space for all of the ways in which children learn and express their learning to us. We must truly support the development of the whole child by creating a classroom environment that values the power and brilliance of our students.