In this blog I describe in detail forty-eight hours in the life of Charlie, three years and nine months and reflect on what an amazing learner he is. I then wonder what is happening to him in his pre-school as they prepare to assess his readiness for school this year. The activities planned in his pre-school are posted each day on the classroom door and show how each is designed to help him achieve the learning outcomes deemed necessary for moving to 'big' school. I argue that this is the earliest example in our system of the assessment tail wagging the learning dog. Drawing on my descriptive account of Charlie’s life I question and critique this system that now determines how Charlie, an expert in planning and negotiating his own learning experiences, spends his day at pre-school. I’d love to know what others think.
This week Charlie moved home for the second time and this time he seemed to settle very quickly. On January 7, I arrived to help with the unpacking and childcare. The following is an account of the next forty-eight hours.
Day 1 started around 6.15am when I heard Charlie and his brother Edward in the living room and joined them. It was lovely to see Charlie’s face light up with pleasure and his shout of “Nana” as he ran towards me.
He came into my bedroom and found some of my training materials – a bag of small world play figures and brought them into the play area of the living room and emptied them out. He quickly settled on two pirate finger puppets and announced that one was a “good captain pirate” and one was a “bad captain pirate”. Both pirates have cutlasses in their hands and Charlie wanted to simulate fighting. The good one has a smiling face and the bad one has a downturned mouth. I asked him why one was good and one was bad and he said the one with a parrot on his shoulder was the good one. My daughter brought me a cup of tea and we went back to my bedroom and Charlie asked for a story about pirates. I began by drawing a pirate ship and Charlie announced that this was the “good pirate captain’s ship”. He asked me to draw a ship for the bad pirate captain. I asked him how we would know which ship was which and he told me the bad pirate ship would have a skull and cross bones flag and so I drew one. “That’s really good, Nana, but you need to put some eyes in.” We talked a bit about the ships and about features of the ship, the crow’s nest, the scuppers, the sails and so on. He asked me about skulls and explained that we all have skulls as part of our skeleton underneath our skin. I told him that after we die our skeleton is left and our head is called a skull. Charlie seemed to be thinking about this but didn’t comment.
Later Charlie chose a baby owl from my collection and then went running upstairs to his bedroom and brought down a large owl. The owls were from the story, ‘Owl Babies’ and for a while he started playing and telling the story of the mummy owl and the babies. But it was the pirates who were really capturing his imagination. He picked up a toy ostrich and put one of the pirates on his back: “He’s going riding on the ostrich along the beach.” And off he set running around the house.
Soon after this we decided to go for a walk to explore the area around the house. Charlie had his scooter, Edward was in the pushchair and we went to a path alongside open woodland just behind the house. Charlie decided we were reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh. He had been Rudolph in the school concert, but today he didn’t want to be Rudolph, he wanted to be Blitzen and announced that Edward was cupid. “Which reindeer do you want to be Nana?” I decided to be Dancer. For the next hour and a half Charlie led the role-play as we pranced our way along the muddy paths. Our journey was punctuated with extracts from the story, “The Night Before Christmas” that Charlie had learned large chunks of through repeated readings during December.
Charlie loves his scooter and I was impressed by his physical control as he showed me how he could ride on his scooter whilst at the same time lifting one leg up parallel to his body and turning round to shout, “Look, Nana!” During our time out I showed him the school where he will be going in September and we went to the little playground opposite. Edward was asleep for much of this time. Charlie’s physical dexterity was further demonstrated as he climbed on the play equipment until a misjudged jump led to him banging his shin and he dissolved in tears and wanted to go home. We stopped at the corner shop on the way and he enjoyed choosing a snack to eat. As we approached the road where the new house was Charlie pointed ahead and said, “There is our new, new house.” He had recognized the white fence that surrounded the house. I also loved the way he was using language to distinguish the new house from the other two houses he has lived in in his short life. His first house he refers to as the ‘old house’, his second house, where he lived for only six months, is the ‘new house’ and the house he has just moved to is his ‘new, new house’.
When we arrived home he immediately went to play with his pirates. I found him on the sofa making up stories and animating them as he did so. He really enjoyed playing with these small world figures and accompanying this play with story.
The rest of the day was spent unpacking boxes and sorting out his toys, mediating between the two boys and generally talking. Charlie has a kind of a telescope that acts like a kaleidoscope when you look though it. He was looking through the telescope at the new rug in the living room that was white with large ‘buttons’ of bright colours and wanted me to see the patterns, “Look at this, Nana.” Following on from his love of Robin Hood dressed in his Lincoln Green he looked more closely at the colours on the rug and announced, “this green isn’t Lincoln Green – what green is it?” I told him it was emerald green. Then he looked at the two different shades of blue and pointed out they were different. I agreed and told him that one of the blues was “navy blue” and the other was “royal blue”. He went through all of the colours and wanted to distinguish what kinds of colours they were. “What kind of red is this, Nana?” “That’s pillar box red”, I said. “What kind of yellow is this?” “It’s mustard”, his Mum said. “This one is just pink,” said Charlie. Later this interest in colours would be applied to the story I would tell him.
At bath time he wanted me to tell him a pirate story. I suggested there would be a boy in the story – “Yes,” Charlie agreed.
“What shall we call him?”
“I don’t know.”
“How about Peter?”
He liked this choice and so the story began.
“Once upon a time there was a poor boy called Peter. Peter had no mummy or daddy; he was an orphan and had to live with his wicked uncle who was not very kind to him. Peter wanted to leave this house, he wanted to be a cabin boy on board a ship and he decided to find a ship to stow away on. [I explain what stow away means] Peter went down to the harbor and begins to look at the ships.”
Charlie interrupted the story and said the ship he would choose should be navy blue. I found it interesting that he wanted to try out his new way of thinking about colours by choosing a colour for the ship. Having established that the navy blue ship (I noticed later that the ship on the cover of one of his books about pirates was also navy blue) would be the one Peter would choose, I continued with the story.
“Peter was worried that if he stowed away on the ship that the pirates would be angry with him and might make him walk the plank, [Charlie had earlier told me that walking the plank was something that happened to bad pirates] and he decided he would look for something to take on the ship that the pirates would like. He decided to look for a cat. Why do you think he wanted to take a cat on the ship Charlie?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you remember what cats are very good at on ships from our Dick Whittington story?”
Charlie’s face lit up: “Catching rats.”
“That’s right, catching rats. Peter knew that ships always have rats and that no one wants rats on a ship because they eat all the food and sometimes nibble their toes and that’s not very nice, is it?”
“So Peter waited until it was dark and then he went down to the rubbish dump and waited for the cats to arrive. Just as it was getting dark the cats started to appear and Peter watched carefully. He wanted to make sure the cat he chose was the best at catching rats. Just then a big, black cat came to the dump and Peter watched in amazment as he caught lots of rats very quickly. ‘That’s the cat I want,’ he thought to himself and he waited patiently. Peter knew that cats love milk and so he had brought a little bottle of milk with him. He put the milk on a saucer and waited. Soon the big black cat came over and started lapping the milk. Peter was waiting with a big bag and popped it over the cat and captured him. The cat was cross and he struggled and meowed in the bag, but Peter talked to him and told him he was going to be a ship’s cat and he would have all the rats he wanted. Soon the cat calmed down and went to sleep. Now Peter went down to the harbor and, waiting until all the sailors on the ship were asleep, crept on board. He went down into the scuppers and found a little corner to hide in with the cat and soon fell asleep.
When Peter woke up he could feel the boat rocking in the waves on the sea and he could hear the sound of seagulls. He decided to go and find the captain’s cabin and knock on the door.”
“Captain Pirate,” said Charlie.
“Yes, Captain Pirate. He knocked on the door and the captain opened the door and was amazed to find a small boy standing there. The captain was very cross and, just as Peter had feared, said he would have to walk the plank as a punishment for hiding on the ship. Peter said, ‘before you make me walk the plank I have something to show you that I think will make you change your mind.’”
“What’s he going to show him, Charlie?”
“Yes, the cat. Peter led the Captain and some of the other sailors,
“Pirates”, interrupted Charlie.
“OK pirates, went down to the scuppers and Peter shook the cat out of the bag where he was still sleeping. The cat stretched and yawned and smelling the smell of rats went to work and quickly caught three rats. The captain was amazed and so were the pirates. ‘What an amazing cat,’ they said and straight away decided that Peter could stay and become a cabin boy on the ship. And that was the beginning of Peter’s adventures as a cabin boy on a pirate ship.”
One story wasn’t enough for Charlie, he wanted more and I duly made up another adventure about ‘Peter and the Pirates’.
“I really like these stories, Nana.”
Day 2: Charlie was again up early and before he went to school he brought me a pirate book to read. “The Pirate’s Underwear” was a story about the golden underpants that had been stolen by the bad pirates. In the story the good pirates find the ‘baddies’ and using their cutlasses cut the elastic on their underpants so when they try and chase them their pants fall down. The good pirates take back the golden underpants and continue triumphantly on their way. Although he had had the story several times before Charlie had a question, “What’s elastic Nana?” I explained and showed him the elastic in his pants and I adapted a Michael Rosen poem, “Something’s drastic, my pants are made of elastic, something’s drastic.” Charlie loves words that rhyme and he has also become very interested in the sounds the first letter of a word makes. Throughout the two days he frequently interspersed the sound of letters into his speech, “c c c c cup”, or “b b b b baby”, or “p p p p pirate.” He also constantly found words to rhyme with other words, sometimes they were real words and at other times they were nonsense words. I joined in and going through the alphabet would try and find as many words to rhyme with the word he was interested in. He usually recognized when the word was a nonsense word and this made him laugh. That morning before he went to nursery we continued to talk about the good and the bad pirates and Charlie wanted to know what bad pirates do and what good pirates do. He really wanted bad pirates to reform and become good. He took his pirates to pre-school with him and kept them safe in his drawer.
When Charlie came home from pre-school he was pleased to find more of his toys unpacked. He went and got his ‘Mike the Knight’ jigsaw puzzles.
“Let’s do these, Nana.”
“OK, let’s do it. But first we have to sort out the four different puzzles [all the pieces for four different puzzles were in the same box]. Which one do you want to do?” Charlie pointed at one that had a red border.
“OK, first we have to find all the pieces that have red around the edges.”
As we began to sort them and start the puzzle I realised that Charlie had very little awareness of shape, instead he was using visual clues to find pieces of the puzzle by relating them to the picture on the box, for example, “this bit has squirt on it” [a dragon in Mike the Knight], “this is Evie,” ‘this is Gallahad’s hoof and this is his leg.” When I tried to ‘scaffold’ him by asking him to find the corner bits or the straight edges he had no idea what I meant. I am not a visual learner and I found it very hard to see the clues in the pieces that Charlie picked out.
Doing the puzzles was hard, especially having to sort out the pieces for four different puzzles and Charlie got frustrated. He was tired after school and he just wanted to watch some DVDs and so we watched several short PIXAR cartoons/films before bath time. One he was really intrigued by was an animation about a uni-cycle that dreamt he could be a great juggler in the circus. Charlie and I had been to a circus a year earlier and we talked about it. He remembered the clowns and the uni-cyclist.
After watching the DVDs it was bath time and Charlie wanted more ‘Peter and the Pirates’ stories and I made up a story about Peter being promoted to be the look-out in the crow’s nest. His job was to look out for bad pirate ships. I explained that Peter had a telescope. Charlie put both his hands up to his eyes and made the shape of a telescope and said, two telescopes are called “binoculars”. I told him that “bi” meant two and explained that someone who was bilingual could speak two languages. He immediately started talking ‘nonsense’.
“Is that another language Charlie?”
“Yes”, he said laughing.
Charlie knew that bad pirates flew the skull and crossbones and that they would attack the ship. I told the story where Peter was the hero who spotted the bad pirate ship and in the ensuing battle the good pirates won. Charlie didn’t want to leave the bad pirates to drown; he wanted them rescued from the sea. “OK”, I said, “The good pirates lowered the rowing boats into the sea and rowed towards them and rescued them all.”
We stopped to have a discussion about rowing boats and oars and I reminded Charlie of the song, “Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream etc” which we sang and acted out the actions of oars. I continued with the story.
“When the bad pirates came on board the good pirates put them in the scuppers and sang a song.” Charlie joined in.
“What shall we do with the naughty pirates,
what shall we do with the naughty pirates,
what shall we do with the naughty pirates, early in the morning.
Put them in the scuppers until they’re good,
Put them in the scuppers until they’re good,
Put them in the scuppers until they’re good, early in the morning”.
After the story Charlie started talking about some of his bath time toys which include an alien, a rocket ship, a spaceship and astronauts. He told me that without gravity we float and astronauts could float in space.
“You’re right Charlie – how do you know that?”
“Kirsty told me.”
“She is in my pre-school. She tells us things about space. I like her.”
“Why do you like her?”
“Because she is always smiling”.
I asked him what Peter the cabin boy would think if something he dropped from the crow’s nest floated up into the sky instead of falling to the ground. Charlie knew that would be a source of surprise and laughed at the incongruousness of this idea but then after some reflection said,
“But it could be a balloon.”
Day 3: In the morning Charlie came into my room and started talking about the uni-cycle cartoon:
“Nana, it was just a dream wasn’t it.”
“You mean the red uni-cycle who wanted to juggle?”
“Yes, he was just dreaming wasn’t he? He was sad.”
“Yes he was sad, he wanted to be a great juggler, but it was just a dream and he was sad when he woke up. Do you have dreams?”
“Yes, I was dreaming about that last night.”
Later in the kitchen as I was clearing up after breakfast Charlie started talking about being dead. “Nana, if you are dead you can’t see anything can you?”
“No, you can’t.” Then,
“If you are dead you can’t hear anything can you?”
“No, you can’t.”
“My pirate is going to fly on this big parrot.” (He had taken a large parrot from my collection of small world play toys and ‘flew’ around with it).
Then I recorded on my voice phone a conversation we had. Charlie came into the kitchen:
Charlie: “Good pirates here now. I killed them now, I killed them, I killed them.”
Me: “You killed them.”
Me: “Did you sink their ship?”
Ch: “Yes, I did.”
Me: “Are there any crew in the water we need to rescue?”
Ch: “There’s good pirates in the water.”
Me: “We have to save them.”
Ch: “cos they’re good.”
Ch: “We need to save them.”
Me: “We need to put out the small boats to collect them from the water.”
Ch: “I got the small boats, it’s picking up them.”
Ch: “Help, I fell in. I fell in.”
Me:“Save me, save me.”
Ch: “Help, I fell in. You’re my captain crew, get me out, said…”
Me: “You can’t let them drown.”
Ch: “I rescued them already.”
Me: “Oh good. Are they all in the boat now.”
Me: “You bringing them back to the ship?”
Ch: “Yep, (noises of action) there we are, we are at our big ship, now we’re getting out Mr. Boot (?).”
My daughter comes in at that moment to talk to me and in the recording I can hear Charlie making sound effects as he finishes his story.
Discussion and reflection
Forty eight hours with Charlie – what an amazing thinker he is. He is able to read the myriad of words, gestures, symbols and objects with which he is surrounded and make sense of them. As he negotiates the social world in which he is embedded he reveals himself as a unique thinker. I am struck by all that he knows and can do; not yet four he not only knows his colours, he is intrigued that colours can be further classified into different types of blues and greens and reds. His visual awareness is acute; he can see fine details on puzzle pieces and recognize his new house from a distance. He enjoys looking at my inept drawings of pirate ships and making distinctions between the ships of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ pirates. He identified visual clues to decide which of his two pirate finger puppets were good and bad.
Charlie is becoming a story-teller and incorporates fragments of stories he knows when making up his own stories. His imagination is strong, he can sustain interest in the imaginary world of pirates and uses his small world figures to actively play with and create his own stories, not only about pirates, but about owls and other creatures. He can make up his own stories and use them to explore what it means to be a good and a bad pirate. He makes it quite clear he prefers good pirates and wants to make bad pirates become good. His imagination is so fertile; he can direct his own fantasies and involve those around him. He directed me to role-play being a reindeer and included his sleeping brother, he incorporated his knowledge of a Christmas story and songs about reindeer into our play. He is intrigued by words and wants to know their meaning, nonsense words make him laugh; he loves to experiment with sounds of letters and rhyming words.
Charlie has a keen sense of humour and laughs at nonsense words, or at the consequences of elastic in pants being cut; he laughs when he is asked to imagine things that should fall to the ground floating up instead. He also knows that words are used to explain concepts and was able to tell me that without gravity you would float. He is wondering about the consequences of death. He loves songs to illustrate and explore ideas.
His body is growing stronger and he revels in his control over it as he does daring things on his scooter and at the park and quickly recovers if he falls and hurts himself; he has a strong drive to overcome physical difficulty and despite hurting himself returns to try things again.
In recording the things that Charlie does, the things he says, I am trying to understand his unique pathway to meaning-making. I want to get to know him better and understand what makes him tick. Charlie acts with intention and purpose in his quest to make sense of his world and it all happens so quickly! I am amazed how much he has changed in the last month and how quickly he is absorbing and learning from what goes on around him and how he uses his imagination to help him make sense of it all. His love of story continues and his access to stories of all kinds from oral stories to books, to film, theatre and TV is feeding his imagination as his understanding of the world becomes increasingly sophisticated. I wonder how I can keep up with him!
What will happen this year as he is assessed for his readiness to start school? His teachers are required to assess him against the pre-determined learning outcomes of the Early Years Foundation Stage framework. Already they will be charting his progress against these learning objectives and outcomes and noting things that he can’t yet do. These indicators pertain to tell us something about a child’s development but worse than that, claim to tell us something true about the child. Such claims to understand children, put forward by psychologists and therefore have the seal of approval of science, has resulted in adults exercising more control over children, since they can claim to ‘know’ how young children learn and what evidence they need to assess learning. It follows that teachers feel the need to design learning environments for young children that will help them achieving the EYFS indicators. Teachers justify their teaching approaches because it helps the children achieve the learning outcomes. The indicators therefore dictate the activities and experiences Charlie is exposed to for the express purpose of assessing him against those indicators. This is the earliest example of what dominates in our system – teaching to the test. Assessment is the tail that wags the dog.
Underpinning this regime is the laudable view that children learn best through activity and experience, but we need to ask: what activity? What experience? To what end?
The EYFS framework provides descriptive accounts of children’s development as part of the child’s journey towards adulthood. The discursive structures produced by the framework control our ways of looking and responding to the child. By assessing all children against the same pre-determined outcomes we present childhood as consisting of stages of development that are universal, that all children will progress through them, albeit at their own rates. This denies what is obvious to any parent who has more than one child, that there are multiple ways in which children learn and grow. The discursive structures invented by developmental psychologists have created a regime of truth about children that controls our way of looking at and responding to the child in front of us. Just because we have decided to measure and chart children against learning outcomes does not mean it tells us anything true about the child, yet such assessment is widely considered to be ‘real’ knowledge.
My observations of Charlie show me he is very capable of directing his own experiences, of choosing his own activities. He is a knower and a creator of his own knowledge. He wants to be self-determined as he creates multiple worlds in his stories and his play. Unfortunately his play will be largely directed as school towards gaining skills so he can be judged against a set of universal indicators which purport to describe the ‘normal’ child. Woe betide any child who doesn’t measure up to those indicators – they will be labeled as having learning difficulties or worse. I don’t want that for him.
How will teachers respond when asking him to identify his colours when he distinguishes between Lincoln green and emerald green? Will they label him gifted and talented? What will happen when his lack of interest in using a pencil means he can’t form the letters of his name? Will he be labeled with a learning difficulty? A tick-list of competences is clearly an inadequate way of describing the richness of Charlie’s world. I want teachers to see Charlie as he is in all his complexity, not to judge him against some pre-determined criteria determined by experts who have never even met him.