Is baseline missing the bigger picture?

21st November 2017 at 20:00
Efforts to formalise the assessment of children in the early years are doomed to failure because policymakers fail to understand the basics of brain development, argues academic Pam Jarvis. Here, she explores why accountability measures such as baseline testing only provide a limited snapshot of our youngest pupils’ potential

"Keeping your happy thoughts, Jonny?” asks Granny Jane.

It is Jonny’s second week in Reception. Both Jane and Jonny are dedicated Peter Pan fans.

“I’m trying, Granny,” says Jonny.

His mother, Katie, is walking behind, pushing the nine-month-old twins in their pram. After they safely deliver Jonny to his teacher and turn to walk back home, Katie says: “Jonny is doing that baseline test today.”

“What’s that for?” asks Jane.

“To see what a crap parent I am, I suppose,” says Katie.

“Don’t be silly,” says her mother.

“No, really,” adds Katie, “they are going to present him with an iPad and ask him to pick things out so they can assess what he knows.”

“But he didn’t seem all that happy today,” says Jane. “And what with the twins screaming all night with their teeth, he just might not be in the mood for it. And he’s only just turned 4… surely they won’t assess him in the same way as Archie?”

Archie is Jonny’s cousin, who turned 5 last week, and has just started Reception at a school in another county.

“Oh, yes they will,” says Katie, thrusting a letter at her mother. “They want to put some kind of score on a graph, so the kids all have to answer exactly the same questions. And you know Jonny, if he’s not interested in what they’re saying, he’ll just ignore them. And he hardly knows the teacher anyway; he only just started last week.”

“But he’s only just turned 4,” repeats Jane, incredulously.

“Yes, I know that, and you know that,” says Katie, grimly. “I said that to the headmistress last week and it was pretty obvious that she knew that, too. But she said the government says she’s got to do this.”

 

This, if the Department for Education gets its way, will be the sort of conversation happening in primary school playgrounds from September 2020. And the baseline assessment is only the start of a range of ideas in the pipeline for the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). The attention of policymakers is firmly fixed on our youngest students.

It’s a focus that has been building. Early years education has over the past decade been churning under a deluge of initiatives. Typically, these do not take into account the fundamental human developmental process. The baseline assessment currently proposed is similarly framed within the same misunderstanding.

Policymakers appear to have grasped the importance of environmental experience upon early neuronal growth (1), but seem to think that human development is entirely linear and predictable. This belief is highly misguided and contrary to both theory and empirical research evidence, as you shall discover if you read on.

The developing brain

It takes 25 years to build an adult human brain (2), although the most rapid development occurs during the early years, with another significant burst of activity during adolescence.

The early years development of the brain involves a complex and extensive neuronal-connection programme.

It might be helpful to imagine the brain of a newborn baby as a brand-new personal computer. S/he comes equipped to run certain programs in certain ways, but these programs do not yet have any contents beyond the manufacturer freebies, such as rooting towards the nipple, and the startle (moro) reflex (3), which are ancient primate reflexes that disappear later in development.

A more complex program present at birth is the preference to look at human faces (4), which, within hours, develops into a preference for the mother’s face (5).

Of course, a baby’s brain is infinitely more complex than a personal computer and does not only go on to store contents, but to link concepts together in infinite networks via intricate neuronal pathways that are built through experience within and upon the environment, most importantly involving interactions with other human beings.

Intriguingly, some of these changes do not involve strengthening, but weakening neuronal pathways. For example, babies are born with the ability to discriminate between all sounds that human voices can make, but by the end of their first year, they have begun to lose the ability to discriminate between sounds that are not present in the language that surrounds them (6) – the basis of the “foreign accent” that arises when additional languages are learned in later life.

In the first three years of life, synapses are formed at a faster rate than at any other life stage. As indicated by the example above, surplus connections are also gradually eliminated – a process that has been called “blooming and pruning”.

As this early neuronal connection program unfolds, children’s ability to organise thought exponentially increases, as does the ability to focus attention without becoming distracted by the intrusion of non-relevant thoughts – so-called “inhibitory behaviour” (7), which leads to an increasing ability to self-regulate.

Cambridge-based psychology researcher David Whitebread recently proposed that self-regulation abilities increase in tandem with vocabulary, which gradually develops as children are immersed in a world of language. The everyday world of the typical human infant in Western societies contains a lot of speech directed towards them, as well as conversations overheard between others. In 2015, I described this process as follows:

To be truly what psychologists call “intersubjective” – able to communicate our meanings to other people and to grasp their meanings in return – such interactions must be completely spontaneous. Each party – the child and the carer – must freely respond to the communications of the other. To give an analogy, as every jazz musician knows, in order to “jam”, you have to learn how to tune into the rhythms of others. The way in which human beings naturally “boot” this system in early childhood is through spontaneous, play-based interaction with both peers and adults.

Whitebread additionally points to a body of practice-based research undertaken over a long period of time, starting more than a century ago with the pioneering practices of Rousseau-inspired education pioneers – for example, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Montessori and Malaguzzi (8). This research indicates that following children’s interests, rather than attempting to transmit information from the perspective of an adult agenda, creates a far more supportive environment for generic intellectual development (9).

Why might this be? Because the younger the child and the less mature his/her language skills, the harder s/he will find it to manage incoming information, particularly when it does not sufficiently relate to any existing concept stored within the memory – a point made by renowned memory experts professor Robert and Elizabeth Bjork in their interview for Tes Podagogy (bit.ly/PodBjork).

The analogy I use for my students is that it’s far easier to find something in a tidy wardrobe with all the clothes hanging neatly on hangers than jumbled at the bottom; the more developed the neuronal network into which an idea is introduced, the more “hangers” are available to which it may attach.

What does this mean for teaching in the early years?

A wealth of empirical evidence suggests that early years teaching regimes that are too formal, too quickly, are counterproductive. Drawing upon this body of knowledge, eminent American developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik proposes that direct teaching at an early stage in a child’s development “leads children to narrow in, and to consider just the specific information a teacher provides”, and that delaying the start of formal schooling to the age of 6 or 7 gives children the necessary time to “explore, inquire, play and discover” (10).

At the early stages of learning, rather than relentlessly inputting adultcentric ‘stuff’, which has the tendency to become jumbled without the relevant ‘hangers’ to hang it upon, the adult focus should be upon facilitating stimulating environments in which children can play freely, while engaging in associated conversation with peers and adults.

 

In the world of developmental psychology, the most widely cited example used to illustrate the problem with introducing ideas to young children in formal and unfamiliar frames emerges from the experimental practices of Jean Piaget, who engaged children under 6 in formal conversation about unfamiliar situations, generating results that indicated their understanding was poor.

Later researchers, who framed their questions more informally within situations with which children were more familiar (eg, having a “naughty” glove puppet knock counters out of line rather than an adult moving them deliberately, while questioning and requestioning the child), found children far more able to correctly respond to questions similar to those posed by Piaget (11).

Teaching and learning in a more informal and socially embedded environment helps children to organise their understanding of the world. At the biological level, this supports the rich construction and coordination of neuronal connections within the brain (12) that, as the neuronal-construction program progresses, will later underpin more flexible “disembedding” or extrapolation of ideas within more formal interactions and unfamiliar situations.

This is a fundamental point not always recognised within policy and practice – a current example of which is the Year 1 statutory phonics competency test.

Magnetic resonance imaging shows fundamental differences in neuronal activity when novice and expert readers decode a text (13). While neurologists do not yet have a complete picture of how reading skills are encoded within the brain, they have ascertained that the process requires a considerable amount of focused attention from the learner in order to manage all the operations required.

The act of reading requires the reader to simultaneously:

* Control the eye, so that it moves in the direction of the relevant language. Some languages are written left to right (eg, English), some right to left (eg, Arabic) and some vertically (eg, Chinese).

* Convert a visual stimulus into sounds.

* Make meaning from the decoded word.

* Hold that meaning in memory sufficiently to allow the reader to make overall meaning from the text as a whole.

The isolation of phonics within the testing process forces the learner to demonstrate competency in only a small percentage of the operations utilised by fluent readers – so, as a predictor of future reading ability, it is doubtful how useful it can be.

In addition, it’s quite possible the test could be counterproductive – it is not yet clear how it might affect the way that subsequent neuronal connections may form in response to training to test. Whitebread proposes that there is a clear risk: introducing children too early to formal literacy concepts might negatively affect the neuronal development that underpins literacy development.

There is, therefore, no empirical evidence to indicate that, in schools minister Nick Gibb’s words, emphasis upon phonics puts young children “on track to become fluent readers” (bit.ly/GIBBPhonics). The practice certainly trains in skills relating to the conversion of visual stimuli into sounds, but there is as yet no evidence to indicate whether or not this places the meaning-making process associated with literacy into the ‘back seat’, as the neuronal pathways associated with reading are formed.

Veteran literacy researcher Margaret Clark states categorically that while the use of phonics is effective within a broad programme of initial literacy learning, there is no empirical evidence whatsoever to support its use as a standalone teaching strategy. She says: “Lacking so far is any assessment of the effects of these developments of young children’s experiences of and attitudes towards literacy” (14).

Not all about that baseline

The concept of baseline is premised upon a similar, oversimplified model of a very young child: that one overall score generated from a testing episode undertaken between 48 and 60 months can be reliably used to calculate a pupil’s progress after six years in primary.

Ministers plan to use this number as the baseline for an ongoing accountability calculation to evaluate the competence of teachers and schools, as the child progresses through the system. However, human beings are not factory-constructed mechanisms, they are complex biological organisms (15) – naturally evolved creatures who have an inborn developmental schedule that transacts in a highly complex fashion with myriad factors that arise from everyday life in both the home and school environment.

The DfE’s most recent report, Primary Assessment in England, details its plan for baseline testing to begin in 2020. This document also makes it very clear that the DfE does “not intend [baseline] to be an observational assessment” (16), implying a discrete assessment exercise, which will presumably have similarities to the experimental process used by Jean Piaget, hence all the same potential pitfalls.

Additionally, the DfE expects the testing process to take place alongside “existing on-entry assessments”, creating the maximum possible inequality between older and younger Reception children.

The oldest September-born children arrive in Reception as they enter their 60th month, hence with 20 per cent more maturation time than the August-born youngest, such as Jonny in the previous example, who has only just passed his 48th month. The comparative neuronal immaturity of these younger children will mean that the majority will be less able to engage with the unfamiliar adult mediating the test, both in terms of their linguistic development stage and their ability to regulate attention sufficiently to deal with such an artificial, adultcentric interaction.

In an accountability culture, children who are construed as behind their presumed peers on school entry are also far more likely to be diagnosed with additional needs as soon as possible to avoid the staff or institution being held responsible for any “failure”. There is robust evidence to indicate that summer-born children are statistically overrepresented in this group (17). The impact of a simplistic one-size-fits-all baseline test upon summer-born children would only serve to exacerbate this already highly discriminatory situation.

In summary, there is no empirical premise for such a process, and it seems highly unlikely that such an assessment exercise will be able to accurately calculate generic progress, due to the neuronal immaturity of children in their 49th and 60th month of life. This is a worrying prospect for teachers of children born from September 2015 onwards, who, if current plans are enacted, will likely find this baseline statistic imposed upon their performance-management documents from September 2021.

And, it would seem, the imposition of baseline upon early years education is just the beginning of the current government’s ambition. In the aforementioned Primary Assessment in England report, it was made clear that the government intends to change the EYFS learning goals so they are more in line with expectations at KS1. In other words, impose even more formal modes of instruction upon children under 5, regardless of the body of evidence that suggests the inadvisability of such a policy.

The fact that baseline testing is already being touted in the press as a “school-readiness test” (18) will mean that parents such as Katie are highly likely to presume that it is a summative assessment of their parenting skills, creating what psychologists refer to as “evaluation apprehension” among parents of children under five. This will exert pressure on parents to coach their young children towards performance on a standardised test before they even enter the classroom for the first time. No doubt “supporting your child towards baseline” publications will begin to appear even before the very first tests are inaugurated.

Taking all these issues into account, Alice Bradbury and her co-researchers (19) predict that the imposition of baseline will condemn the nation’s children to a future of “hyper-governance and datafication”, constructing them as “abilities machines”.

In the final analysis, it will, however, be up to the parents of children born since September 2015 to decide whether they will support the imposition of baseline testing. As a chartered psychologist and grandmother of a child in this age group, I currently have a considerable number of misgivings.

For the sake of my grandchildren, though, I am still trying to keep my happy thoughts, despite becoming increasingly beleaguered by concerns about the instigation of a dystopian Neverland within their educational environment.


Dr Pam Jarvis is an educational psychologist at Leeds Trinity University

 

References

1. The Urban Child Institute “Baby’s brain begins now: conception to age 3” (bit.ly/BabysBrainNow)

2. Blakemore, S and Mills, K (2014) “Is adolescence a sensitive period for sociocultural processing?”, Annual Review of Psychology , 65: 187-207

3. American Academy of Pediatrics/healthychildren.org (2009) “Newborn reflexes” (bit.ly/NewbornReflexes)

4. McClure, M (2012) “Infants process faces long before they recognize other objects, Stanford vision researchers find”, a Stanford University report (bit.ly/InfantsProcessFaces)

5. Bushneil, IWR, Sai, F and Mullin, JT (1989) “Neonatal recognition of the mother’s face”, British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 7/1: 3-15

6. Best, CC and McRoberts, GW (2003) “Infant perception of non-native consonant contrasts that adults assimilate in different ways”, Language and Speech, 46 (pt 2-3): 183-216

7. Abbott, R and Burkitt, E (2015) Child Development and the Brain: an introduction (Policy Press)

8. Jarvis, P, Swiniarski, L and Holland, W (2016) Early Years Pioneers in Context: their lives, lasting influence and impact on practice today (Routledge)

9. Whitebread, D and Bingham, S (2011) “School readiness; a critical review of perspectives and evidence: occasional paper 2”, Tactyc conference (bit.ly/TactycOccPaper2)

10. Gopnik, A (2011) “Why preschool shouldn’t be like school”, Slate (bit.ly/PreschoolSchool)

11. Donaldson, M (1978) Children’s Minds (HarperCollins)

12. Whitebread, D (2017) “Quality in early childhood education: the contribution of developmental psychology”, pp.319-334 in International Handbook of Early Childhood Education (Springer)

13. Abbott, R and Burkitt, E (2015) Child Development and the Brain: an introduction (Policy Press)

14. Clark, M (2015) “An evidence-based critique of synthetic phonics in literacy learning”, Primary First, Issue 12

15. Jarvis, P, Newman, S and Swiniarski, L (2014) “On ‘becoming social’: the importance of collaborative free play in childhood”, International Journal of Play, 3/1: 53-68 (bit.ly/OnBecomingSocial)

16. Department for Education (2017) Primary Education in England (bit.ly/DfEPrimary17)

17. Shepherd, J (2013) “Summer-born children suffer educational inequality, study finds”, The Guardian (bit.ly/SummerBornChildren)

18. Lehain, M (2017) “Five reasons I’m pretty happy about the latest education announcements”, Tes (bit.ly/HappyReasons)

19. Bradbury, A, Lee, S and Roberts-Holmes, G (2017) “Hyper-governance and datafication in early years education: children as ‘abilities-machines’ or ‘like sausages in a factory’”, The BERA Blog: Research Matters (bit.ly/BERABlog)

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