Early Childhood Today: What can assessment tell us about how children really learn?

Jacqueline Jones, Ph.D.: From my perspective, assessment is a way of trying to understand what's going on in young children's minds so we can create environments that will help them grow and be the best they can be. I'm most taken by the research on early literacy and language development. The language children come into school with really separates those children who have had rich language environments from those who have not been as fortunate. This means that we have to do a better job of making sure that young children across the board are exposed to very rich and exciting language environments. I think assessment is part of that. You can't figure out what children need until you understand where they are.

ECT: What does this tell us about how to assess children?

Jones: We have to start listening to children, providing opportunities for them to talk-and talk a lot-about themselves, about what they're doing, about where they're going, about how they're feeling. Then, we have to try to understand what they have said. Teachers need to make recordings of children's language and use their language as a source of data about how they are progressing. I don't think we do enough of that. And I don't think we see what children have to say as the really important source of evidence that it is.

We, as early childhood educators, have a responsibility not only to listen to children, but also to listen to the kinds of questions we ask them. We have to learn to ask questions that allow children to tell us what they know. Sometimes that means re-phrasing questions to make them open-ended.

In addition, we need to keep asking ourselves: What opportunities can I provide that will allow children to let me know how they are thinking? That's the assessment challenge. I think the best kinds of assessments allow the educator to probe, change the questions, ask children to tell you a little bit more, listen in when children are talking to each other or to themselves. That can tell you an enormous amount about what children are thinking and how they problem solve.

ECT: What else can you tell us about how to use assessments to challenge children? Jones: Assessment shouldn't be a test for young children. Rather, good assessment needs to be ongoing and based on children's daily activities. Observe children as they talk, draw, and create things. In this way, you can get wonderful assessment data and children don't ever have to know that they were being assessed. Also, I've found that children don't mind when teachers write down what they're saying. I heard one teacher say, "I've got to take this to my teachers and we're going to talk about your ideas because everybody's really interested in your ideas." It was amazing how many more ideas she got!

We must give children lots of opportunities to show how they understand things-understand in telling it to someone, understand by drawing, understand with some kind of construction. We should never settle for a child parroting a particular bit of knowledge.

ECT: How can teachers involve parents to make sure that their children are challenged in appropriate ways?

Jones: Young children are very different from one another, including the ways in which they learn best. It's critical that teachers and parents work together because each sees the child from a different vantage point. Children may behave differently in different contexts, but all of what we see has to come together to give us a complete picture. Parents and teachers can put portfolios together which include evidence from home-photos of what children have constructed, drawings for Grandma, a quick note on children's comments about a television show. When you combine this with what is happening at school, you have a better picture of how children really learn. Parents and teachers need to be educational partners in the development of their children.

ECT: How can teachers resist the pressure to make sure children learn according to set performance standards and expectations?

Jones: The power of child development is very strong. Children will learn when they are ready. We have to accept that and keep providing as many rich and engaging experiences as possible without expecting that all of a sudden an idea or concept will be fixed in a child's mind the way it is fixed in ours.

I'd like to underscore that as early childhood educators, we need to be curious about how children are learning. We need to let that curiosity guide us rather than be guided by a preconceived notion of an exact body of knowledge that children have to have. We need to foster an attitude of inquiry in ourselves, and then really appreciate what children have to say. Ask children what they wonder about. What would they like to know?

If we allow ourselves to really listen, to follow children's interests and then create environments that are engaging and exciting, then we won't feel pressured to push children beyond their current levels of interests and abilities. If we're going to do right by children, we have to find ways to honor what they think and create environments that allow their thinking to grow.

Jacqueline Jones, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist at Educational Testing Service in Princeton, NJ.