The things that are easiest to see aren’t usually the things that matter most for kids. An alphabet sign on the wall doesn’t mean kids are really engaging with reading and learning. A daily email with a photograph of your daughter is nice to have, but it doesn’t tell you much about whether the teachers are talking to her in a supportive way or sparking her curiosity about science.
– Suzanne Bouffard, The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten and the Future of Our Children
I’m slowly making my way through Suzanne Bouffard’s excellent new book on how early education is becoming a bigger and bigger issue in the United States, and the passage above really stood out. It’s early on in the book, and Bouffard is discussing how quality early learning environments can be challenging to explain to families. They have pre-existing ideas of what children’s spaces should be, and are naturally more inclined to just accept things that celebrate their individual child like lovely photos.
One of the biggest challenges in advocacy for early childhood education is how multi-layered it is. Convincing Governments to better fund what we do is hard enough, but we also have to convince families, and we even still have to convince huge parts of the sector itself to take early learning seriously. We’ve got a big mountain to climb in the next couple of decades in Australia.
The research is mounting and becoming ever more conclusive that access to high-quality play-based early education is the best way to defeat inequality, challenge the idea that children’s destinies are formed just by the circumstances of their birth, and set us up for better and fairer societies down the track. But despite the fact we know how important the first five years are, the figures show that as a sector we’re struggling to implement what needs to be done to achieve those positive outcomes.
According to ACECQA, 20% of services are rated as Working Towards in Quality Area 1 (educational program and practice). Quality Area 1 is where we ensure that children’s learning outcomes are being properly planned for and implemented, and at least 1 in 5 services aren’t meeting the minimum requirements. QA1 is the Quality Area most likely to be Working Towards nationally, which is very concerning.
Since the National Quality Framework began to roll out in 2012, approaches to Quality Area 1 seem to have caused incredible consternation and frustration across the sector. People aren’t sure what to do, and according to the assessment and rating results, many are struggling to articulate how they approach curriculum and educational practice. It’s alarming that in 2017 this is still a big issue, but I’m now very concerned about an approach to documenting learning that seems to be sweeping over the country without question or critical reflection.
You most likely know a sector colleague who is using an app or software program to write and share “documentation” about children with families. Or, you’re using one yourself. I’m talking about products like Storypark, Pencil, Class Dojo and all the others. To be clear in this post, I’m going to talk about all of them generally not about any one specifically.
I’ve seen these products in action, and I’ve spoken to more and more educators who use them every day. And I’m more and more worried about what they are doing.
In broad terms, these products provide a nicely-designed and easy-to-use interface to take photos, write notes, and then upload them where families can access them. They usually include quick boxes to check and “link” to elements of the Early Years Learning Framework. They might “encourage” reflection – with another box. They are marketed heavily to services with terms like “save time”, “improve collaboration” and “quick and easy”. For a sector still struggling to wrap our heads around Quality Area 1, I see why these products are appealing.
But children’s learning, and educators’ intentional planning and teaching, are – in my view – too complex and important to fit into an app with one design, one framework and boxes that tell you what to put where. Yes, of course it all comes down to what educators are actually writing and saying in these products, but the whole way these products are designed is to take you in certain directions and narrow your range of thinking. There’s a big difference between a blank piece of paper, and a coded template with dropdown boxes, check boxes and typable fields. Yes, the blank piece of paper is more scary and requires more thought – but that’s the game we’re in.
But the real appeal for these products – and where the real issues are – is with families. Remember what Suzanne Bouffard said about the easy and obvious things not necessarily being what’s best for children. Of course families love seeing photos and notes about their children pop up on their phones and tablets. The young families we work with now have been primed and prepared to expect important personal news to appear on their phone in a quick app notification by things like Facebook and Twitter. New parents in their early 20s will barely even know a time when those things weren’t a part of daily life.
The end result of these products, from a family perspective, is a social media feed of their child in a service. They look exactly like variations of Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and whatever other social feed you care to name. Think about what that does to families’ expectations of documentation. It’s not about their child’s engagement in literacy and numeracy concepts anymore, or their developing resilience and executive function skills – all those things that are difficult to capture in a single photo or a paragraph of text. It becomes about a cute photo and a quick caption that they can click “Like” on.
Children’s learning, at the most explosive time of growth, development and neural connection, reduced to a Facebook feed. And we are aiding and abetting it, as more and more services sign on. Like. Share. Comment.
If you’re reading this and use one of these programs, you’ll say I’m overreacting. You’ll think “well that’s not how I use it”, and anyway “families really like it and they’re so engaged”. There’s a couple of things to talk about here.
Firstly, I have seen version of these apps that send reminders to educators if they haven’t updated a particular child’s page in a number of hours. Just imagine – you have a qualification as a teacher and educator, all your training has prepared you to guide and shape environments, activities and intentional interactions that will promote children’s learning. And you get a buzz on the device you have to carry around with you all time telling you what to do and when to do it. This is not only professional disrespectful and outrageous, it’s completely at odds with what the National Quality Framework tells us is important.
Because the second thing we need to remember as an early education profession is: Documentation is not for families. Print that out on an A3 page and stick it on your wall.
It’s that simple, and it says so in black and white in the Education and Care Services National Regulations. Yet when I speak to groups of educators and I ask the question: “who is the audience for your documentation?”, the overwhelming majority answer “families”. It’s bad enough that’s factually the wrong answer, but it’s what that answer says about the sector that really worries me. By buying into these products we are training educators around Australia to focus on what families want from their work, not what it’s actually for.
So what is documentation actually for? Contrary to all the myths we hear and all the angry posts on Facebook groups that say it’s not clear enough, we are told very clearly and simply in the Regulations – most specifically, Regulation 74(2).
74 Documenting of child assessments or evaluations for delivery of educational program
(2) In preparing the documentation, the approved provider —
must consider the period of time that the child is being educated and cared for by the service; and
must consider how the documentation will be used by the educators at the service; and
prepare the documentation in a way that is readily understandable by the educators at the service and the parents of the child.
This one simple part of the Regulations really tells us everything we need to know. “How the documentation will be used by the educators at the service” = documentation is for educators, not for families! You are the educator, you are planning for children’s learning, you are qualified to do so. Documentation should be supporting you to make good choices about what you do as an educator. It is not there to make families happy.
“Understandable by the parents of the child” = available, accessible and clear to families in terms of how you document and develop a program. But that is on your terms. Families don’t decide the content, type or goals of the educational program, but it should be explained and shared with them. Regulations 75 & 76 provide specific guidance about the program being “available” to families, but that does not mean they set the direction or that the program is developed to make them happy about the lovely photos they get.
It’s there in black and white, and anyone who tells you anything else is simply incorrect. Documentation is for educators to do their job, not for families to Like and Share and Comment. And products that exist not to improve “engagement” and “save time” but to make a profit are warping the sector’s view of what we are here for. Instead of having the difficult and complex discussions with families about how and why we document children’s learning, and why your child might not have a photo every single day because educators are busy educating, we bought the marketing and then bought the product.
We finally started to think differently about children’s learning and started to ditch things like stencils and colouring-in sheets that box children in and don’t allow them to develop creativity and individuality but just do things “the right way”.
I’m constantly amazed and shocked that we then immediately turned around and did exactly the same thing to ourselves. These apps are stencils and colouring-in sheets with nice design and a good logo, and stop creativity and individuality in educators in exactly the same way.
They just cost a lot more – both to the service or organisation buying the product, and the sector as a whole.
Almost 2 in 3 of the interviews I conduct for educators at Team Leader level and above answer the question “how do you approach educational program and practice?” with “I use this or that app.” And then they just stop. That, to them, has answered that question.
We are turning children’s learning into a social media feed, and we’re reinforcing families’ existing expectations that that’s what they should be getting. I speak with Centre Directors of services developing their own approaches to curriculum and not paying for an approach who have families asking which app they use. “We love getting a little photo of our child playing each day”. Those brave services, who have my complete admiration and support, are now having to spend more and more time explaining why they do things in a way that makes sense for their community of children, families and educators – not what a marketing page has told them is important.
We need to have a serious discussion in the sector about how quickly and how widely these narrow and limiting approaches to learning are taking over. We need to have the difficult conversations with families that quality intentional interactions are what is important, and they need to be prioritised over happy snaps. This will mean they get less photos, as we need to prioritise educators actually engaging with children.
Anne Stonehouse, as she so often does, has put it perfectly before. “We are not children’s biographers” she once said. I’d like to offer a small update given where we are now. “We are not children’s Instagram content providers”. It is not our job to make a lovely social feed for families.
It’s our job to set their children up to learn and succeed, and we need to set the stage for that. Delete the app, and brave the blank piece of paper. You’ll do fine.