Observing learning: best practice guide

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By Fe Luton

It is well known that observation is an essential part of the EYFS. We observe, we analyse, we plan, we create an effective learning environment and associated opportunities… and we observe again. The cycle is an accepted approach to facilitating learning and progress. But what are effective observations, and how can we ensure that we do the best for our children as a result?

teaching observation

How should we be observing?

There are essentially three types of observation. All are important and should be included. Each has its own strengths. Sometimes your observations come from planned observations where you stand back and observe ‘from afar’. These observations should be focused on a specific child or group of children. At other times, your observations come from snippets of learning that we glimpse across the day. These ‘spontaneous’ observations, when a child does or says something that demonstrates a moment of learning, could be of any child in your setting at any point across the day. The third type of observation is what the social sciences refer to as ‘participant observation’ – you are interacting and involved with the child or children and are part of the learning that you are also observing. These are the observations that tend to be the most subjective as you are ‘in the moment’ alongside the child. You are also in a position where you may (subconsciously) be influencing outcomes.

It is important that we distinguish between these three forms of observation in order to ensure we implement all three on a regular basis. The reason for this is that each achieves a different end:
  • Planned (or focused) observations allow you to watch a child at play in a pure child-initiated context. This is the richest context for learning and gives you an overarching view of the ways in which the children learn – you can see who and what they naturally interact with, their pure level of confidence, the arguments they have and the decisions that they make. You will also find that you naturally gather information about a child across the seven areas with these kinds of observation. They give you a more holistic picture of the child’s learning as well as what is interesting and motivating them.
  • The more spontaneous observations offer useful ‘snapshots’ of children’s learning. They tend to be brief and usually focus on just one or possibly two aspects of learning but are great at highlighting the small steps that our children make on a daily basis.
  • Participant observations allow us to understand the context of the learning. They also tend to be more focused on specific, identifiable outcomes.
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