Documentation is an ongoing process of trying to understand and respect how children are constructing meaning. It requires teachers to take on an attitude of inquiry and to ask, "How is this child trying to make sense of the world?" "What prior knowledge do these children bring to the discussion?" From these types of questions, teachers can expand children's experiences, guide their questions, and help them understand more of the world around them.
We have great respect for early childhood educators; they play a critical role in shaping a child's experiences during some of the most important learning periods of an individual's life. As we learn more about assessment in early childhood, our work has been guided by several principles of sound assessment practice:
1. Utilize many different forms of evidence from many different sources. Artifacts from the real life of the classroom are the most important and certainly the strongest evidence of learning. There's nothing more compelling than photographs of the children at work, samples of their drawings, tape-recorded language, journal dictation, and a picture series of a project. Concrete evidence gives teachers and parents something to sit down and look at and discuss: What's been going on in the classroom? What conversations went on about the salamander? Parent participation is so important because while teachers and parents are trying to put together a picture of the child, together they can create the most complete profile.
2. Evidence should be collected over time. This is a very important piece. Young children's learning is extremely variable. An assessment given in April may not capture growth from September and January. It seems much more appropriate to have pieces of evidence that have been collected across the year, or several years, to give a sense of how each child is growing.
3. Collect evidence that really tells what children are thinking. Teachers need to listen and create an environment that encourages children to talk. Sometimes the assessment itself can hide what children know. For example, asking a question that has a specific and limited answer, such as "What are the parts of a flower?" may elicit a limited response. In contrast, asking "What do you know about flowers?" gives the child more room to demonstrate what she knows. We know that the nature of the prompt really determines the kinds of response children give. We have to offer children opportunities to show what they know. They are worth the extra effort. LJ