We’ve all seen them right? Maybe even sat and worked at one? You know, the small table in the classroom where children are “invited” to join us and show what they know and can do? For example, we might have invited children to label colors and shapes, or print the letters in their name.

preschool girl with science experiment

Sound or look familiar?

As you think about it, how many would say this is a reasonable way to get at the “truth” – to get at what children really know and can do?

four preschoolers at writing table

To me, it seems a reasonable practice only from a management perspective. Meaning, a reasonable way to manage the number of children I’m assessing or evaluating, manage the materials, supports, and models to which children are exposed, and manage the number of protocols I have to complete at different test periods.

It seems less reasonable to me that this process will help me get to the “truth” (i.e., get to what children know and can do in the context of daily activities). More importantly, it seems unreasonable that if a child is struggling with let’s say labeling colors or writing the letter “m,” that I’ll gain valuable information as to why they are struggling.

Take for example, the child you invite to the table and who ignores your request, or the child who comes to the table, but quickly loses interest in what you have to offer. How about the child who “guesses” almost faster than you can ask questions, or the child who holds the marker so tightly that it’s nearly impossible to determine which letter he or she wrote?

These are things that will occur; however, they often go unnoticed or are seen as slight annoyances that are keeping us from completing an assessment, an evaluation, a report card, or some other checklist needed for accountability purposes.

I’ve experienced it, too. I’ve found that when I “invite” a child to come to a de-contextualized space in the room and perform on demand, I lose sight of the richness of what I can and should be learning about the child. I lose sight of the information that I actually need in order to plan and revise instruction. Instead, I get almost militant in my desire to score, check, or otherwise document the child’s responses to preset indicators.

Further, I would argue, that how a child performs at a small table where I’ve managed the space, the support, the materials, etc. isn’t the “truth” at all…it is merely how a child responds in a de-contextualized, well-managed space.

preschool girl drawing

So, how do children perform “out in the real world?” Isn’t this the question we want to answer? Isn’t the “truth” found in the “real world versus at our “testing table”?

Not all teachers agree with me on this point…particularly in this age of accountability where they are responsible for assessing 20+ children in the morning and another 20+ in the afternoon. These conditions can cause any of us to hear “shark music” out of a fear that we’ll never get the assessment or evaluation completed, let alone have time to worry about getting to the “truth” of the matter.

But it is possible, it is doable, we just need to turn down the “shark music” long enough to consider alternative practices in terms of how we gather information about a group of children.

For example, my colleague, Dr. Jennifer Grisham-Brown, and I have worked with 100s of teachers on designing and conducting authentic assessment activities. Specifically, we’ve developed strategies for completing a comprehensive curriculum-based assessment (that contains 100s of items) on all children served, over the course of just a few days.

Click here to learn more about using assessment activities for engaging in authentic assessment with groups of children, even in this age of accountability.

In addition, I’ve found that changing or flipping my mindset is another strategy for getting to the “truth” in a reasonable amount of time. Specifically, I work at thinking of myself as a play partner, or as a keen detective who is tasked with watching children in their “natural habitat,” versus being an assessor, an evaluator, or worse, yet, a drill sergeant.

When I change my mindset, I avoid the temptation to sit the child down to learn what he or she knows or can do; and rather, sit beside. When I sit beside, I can learn not only what the child truly knows and can do; but I can gain a better understanding of why the child may be struggling or why development has stalled.

Here are three specific things you can do immediately, to flip your assessment and evaluation practices to truly learn what children know and can do:

  1. Connect first, meaning instead of asking, directing, or telling, be an observer. Your task is to watch for subtle cues that the child is ready to follow your directions, share your attention, and/or answer your question.
  2. Start your interaction with silence or a motor imitation of what the child is doing. Again, avoid assessing only by asking questions as if you were interviewing a guest on a talk show. For those who find it a challenge to be quiet, give self-talk a try. Learn more about self-talk here.
  3. Enter a child’s play by matching your actions to the child’s. For example, if he or she is using simple motor actions, you too, use simple motor action (e.g., dumping, stacking, patting, banging)…instead of doing what we often do, which is to ask any and all children to engage in elaborate, pretend play.

Ready to give it a try? Remember, all you need to do is connect, imitate, and match!

These simple actions will get you to the truth in no time, will help you capture the why behind instances when children struggle, and you’ll still be able to complete required paperwork.