Seagulls flying low

Sue Gifford warns of the danger of allowing assessment to dictate good practice with three to five-year-olds and explains how to help young children succeed.

When there is so much good practice in the education of three to five-year-olds, why is there concern about the future of the early childhood curriculum? Those working with this age group have felt unsupported in how to implement the Desirable Outcomes for Children's Learning, published by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

The imminent introduction of base-line assessment raises anxiety about the danger of assessment driving the curriculum and of assessing superficial things.

Assessment should reflect what is important in the process and content of the mathematical learning of children, rather than solely what can be assessed through a checklist of items. Initial responses to the document show that some early years practitioners are making limited interpretations of them. In some cases, these interpretations are used to justify limited practice or inhibit the continuation of good practice.

The dangers of an assessment structure that drives the curriculum by narrowing it, compartmentalising teaching and de-skilling the teacher, have been made apparent at key stage 1 and beyond. We must not run the risk of the same thing happening to the education of three to five-year-olds.

Maths is a powerful means of communication. It helps children to make sense of their world, and is an integral part of a broad early years curriculum. Early years practitioners know that for pupils to succeed in maths, learning cannot be rushed because this leads to misunderstanding, lack of confidence and gaps in knowledge.

It is important that children develop their learning from experiences they have at home. In number, for example, they count the stairs. Good foundations will not be laid by providing narrow building blocks.

Too many people have experienced rushed learning in their mathematics education. Harder work is done without the benefit of time to explore and understand. If children are going to be successful at mathematics in later years, they need to spend time on the early concepts. They must build a broad foundation for understanding. This can be done by exploring early mathematics and giving children a chance to see the same mathematical ideas appearing in many contexts. They need to see and experience maths, to talk and think about their mathematical discoveries.

What is meant by a broad foundation? It is not setting children worksheets to practise sums such as 2+3=5. Let us look at 2+3=5 as an example. To adults, it seems a simple and meaningful statement, which can be applied to many situations. For children, it is a statement laden with symbols, which have little meaning. There is a world of mathematics to explore before this equation will have any meaning for them.

It is important to provide opportunities where there is a purpose for using number, such as recording their scores in a game of skittles. Children may use tallies to record and add their scores. They will begin to understand that the written numeral has significance and can be used as a means of recording. Discussion of scores will encourage early ideas of addition.

Mathematical challenges can be set through number rhymes: "Ten little seagulls flying low; two said, 'Sorry boys, I must go.' How many will be flying by?" Through everyday experiences like sharing raisins, children will use early ideas of addition and subtraction. This is real-life adding and subtracting, not a page of sums.

Children must understand the value of the numbers 2, 3 and 5 by experiencing real situations before they can understand such an abstract sum as 2+3=5. Young children's mathematical learning develops in an environment that allows exploratory and investigative play.

When planning mathematical experiences, it is important to consider the child and the role of the adult. The child should enjoy themselves and do stimulating and practical activities. They should have the chance to make mistakes and refine skills; and adults should build confidence.

Adults should understand the nature of the mathematics children will be learning, and use the language of number and mathematics with pupils. They should encourage mental imagery as well as questioning, discussing and reflecting on children's ideas. They should also observe, record, evaluate and plan effectively to develop learning.

This wealth of mathematical experience requires an assessment structure that is more rigorous than a checklist. Adults who make and record sustained observations can establish the children's level of understanding, which they can build on.

The SCAA proposal offers opportunities for children's mathematical learning to be observed and recorded while they take part in exploratory play. Assessments can be made over time, and in many contexts, reflecting the breadth of the mathematics curriculum, and the way children learn.

The early childhood mathematics group is composed of nursery nurses, teachers and teacher educators, from across England. The group is drafting guidance to the mathematics curriculum. This will focus upon an interpretation of the Desirable Outcomes for Children's Learning within an holistic curriculum framework. It will give examples of good practice showing how the outcomes can be achieved.

The guidance will encourage those working with three to five-year-olds to offer children opportunities to explore maths with enthusiasm. Early years practitioners will help children develop their mathematical competence and provide a firm foundation for future learning.

The Desirable Outcomes for Children's Learning can be attained through a rich mathematical curriculum. Good practice should drive assessment, rather than an assessment checklist driving the content of the curriculum into a narrow list of specific and isolated items.

For details of the early childhood mathematics group, contact Sue Gifford, Roehampton Institute London, Roehampton Lane London SW15 5PJ. Tel: 0181 392 3395

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