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Learning-Focused Assessment Practices: An Analysis of Subjective and Governmental Effects

Within the Te Whariki approach, assessment—as an ongoing practice of noticing, recognizing, and responding to children as learners—is understood as being integral to, and indeed coextensive with, the enacted curriculum. An analysis of documented assessments therefore provides a rich site for exploring possible effects of the approach. I turn now to briefly consider examples of documented learning story assessments. The examples are drawn from various ECE centers in New Zealand and have been published in professional development resources and in scholarly texts (Carr et al., 2005; Hatherly & Sands, 2002; Ministry of Education, 2004).4 A number of the assessment examples discussed below are included in the resource “Children Contributing to Their Own Assessment,” which is described as illustrating “how a number of centres in Aotearoa New Zealand are now finding ways to include children’s voices in assessment” (Ministry of Education, 2004, Book 4, p. 2).

Much has been written about the take up of as well as problems associated with operationalizing Foucauldian concepts in research (Graham, 2011; O’Farrell, 2005). Here, I briefly indicate important orienting understandings for my analysis. The idea of power and government as generative practices, and as inseparably related to knowledge and truth, informs my conceptualization of assessment as a technology of government, one that encompasses material, spatial, embodied, and conceptual practices. I approach ECE assessment as a technology that is productive (but not determining) of particular forms of conduct and subjectivity, and consider it to be active in shaping “the possible field of actions” (Foucault, 1982, p. 221). I also work with discourse as an overall analytic concept. This sensitizes me to assessment as a practice that mediates apprehension and experience (Mills, 2003) and is regulatory in terms of opening and closing particular possibilities for thinking, feeling, and acting (Fendler, 2010; MacNaughton, 2005) for children, as well as for others involved in the assessment endeavor. Particular attention is given to the productivity of the idea of the child as learner. I attend especially to how the micro practices of assessment—of noticing, recognizing, and responding to the child as learner—are generative rather than simply descriptive of a preexisting child nature (Foucault, 1982). In the following analysis I work to highlight some of the ambiguous and contradictory effects of this learner and learning-centered, voice-focused pedagogy. I illuminate some of the ways in which the Te Whariki approach—despite its self-conscious positioning as an approach that frees the child from developmental constraints and values plurality and diversity—may bring into play reductive, instrumental, and decidedly developmental relations with selves, others, places, and things.

In the analyzed assessments children’s varied engagements—dress- ing, moving around, watching clouds, talking about friends, making things, and so on—are documented. Yet, despite the broad and often lively activities represented, there is a reductive quality in meanings that are made of these engagements. The view of the child as a competent learner and the notion of the child as an active subject and driver (Carr et al., 2005) of their unique learning trajectories saturates the processes of assessment, informing what is seen and accounted. A baby pulling himself along on the floor is, for example, described as having “his own personal agenda” and being “self-motivated to be ‘on the move’ ” (Hatherly & Sands, 2002, p. 9). Elsewhere, a toddler struggling to take off her jumper who states “no” in response to an offer of help is described as demonstrating an “emerging ability to be responsible for her own well-being” (p. 12). A child’s screen-printing forays, over several days, are interpreted not, for instance, as an engaging, aesthetic experience but as evidence of the child’s emerging persistence and problem-solving capacity (Ministry of Education, 2004, Book 4).

Children’s affects, intentions, and actions are primarily apprehended according to the “truth” of learning as participation and engagement and the truth of the child as learner. A consideration of the operation of the child’s voice, a central, and I suggest highly rhetorical, motif in the assessment commentary, helps elaborate this point. A search of New Zealand scholarship suggests that “voice” refers to perspective, and to what matters to the child—a proxy for their intentions, expressions, and actions. Commenting on voice in relation to the Te Whariki approach, Smith (2007), for example, defines voice as “that cluster of intentions, hopes, grievances, and expectations that children guard as their own” (Pufall & Unsworth, 2004, p. 8, cited in Smith, 2007, p. 4) and adds that “agency is how children express their voice” (Smith, 2007, p. 4). Carr et al. also note that the child’s perspective or voice may be communicated by “gestures, sounds and facial expressions” (2005, p. 145).

A striking feature of the analyzed assessments is the frequent interpretation of voice—children’s affects, such as smiling or chuckling, their movements in space, and the expression of desires and inten- tions—as expressing a learning nature: learning intentions and desires for learning progress. The attribution of action and affect to learning intent and desire is exemplified in “Louie Going out the Door” (Ministry of Education, 2004, Book 4, p. 10), a narrative about a baby who does not yet crawl but who moves himself through toys and other obstacles in order to get outside. The assessment emphasizes dispositional learning and notions of progress in learning as strengthening one’s learning desire (Fendler, 2001) and engagement. Thus, in a short-term review of the learning narrative, a teacher describes the event as an instance of “great determination . . . [where] . . . he knew what he wanted and went for it, moving whatever got in his way!” Louie is also described as “carrying out his self-set goal: getting outside onto the veranda and pulling himself up in the trellis”; it is noted that “for Louie, access to the outdoors was an important opportunity for his learning.” Furthermore, it is suggested in the Ministry of Education (2004, Book 4, p. 10) commentary to the assessment that the teacher’s comment that Louie “smiled with great delight about being outside” indicates that the narrator recognizes the way in which Louis communicates that he has achieved his self-set goal.

The concept-practice of the child’s voice functions, I contend, is shorthand for the child’s now fully apprehended, post-developmental nature. It seems to refer to and be justified by the child’s now more fully understood nature, one that is primarily constituted by a newly appreciated “anthropological universal,” the “learning force” (Simons & Masschelein, 2009, pp. 391-392), or learning desire. This understanding of the child works in circular relations with concepts of learning, informing the interactive processes of seeing, apprehending, and, in Foucauldian terms, shaping the conduct of conduct, of the child, as well as significant others. Assessments that address parents often suggest this dynamic. For example, in a story about a toddler, Greta, playing with musical instruments, a teacher addresses the child’s mother: “Ruth, given the confidence and competence of Greta’s musical performance you’ll already be aware of her talent! What are we going to do about it?” (Hatherly & Sands, 2002, pp. 9-10). Here, Greta’s mother, understood as a partner “in the search for learning opportunities that have real meaning for the child” (p. 10), is called into relations of seeing and working with her child as a learner whose capacity to perform as a learner, must, it seems, be enhanced. The mother is addressed and invited to take up a position in relation to her child of what I term “an opportunity scout and a learning-experience broker and optimizer,” a subject who should aim to enhance their child’s key resource: their desire and capacity to be and to act as a learner.

But it is not only parents who are called to adopt a managerial attitude toward their child’s learning capital (Simons & Masschelein, 2009). Other assessments suggest the direct calling of children into calculating forms of self-reflection and action. For example, a series of stories about Dylan, a child who has made a figurine of a favorite cartoon character, include a parent’s questions about his future plans in relation to this interest. An aspect of Dylan’s response is that more photos could be taken of his teacher helping him to make the next figurine. And, later, having included this photo documentation, Dylan’s teacher addresses him directly: “Thank you for helping me Dylan. You have just documented your own learning” (Carr et al., 2005, p. 142). Yet other stories indicate children’s taking up of self-relations based on the imperative to extend the self and to self-reflexively document the processes of their engagements/learning. In calls such as “write about my moves!” (p. 144) and “I need some more photographs of me, don’t I?” (p. 146), there is a suggestion that children understand their actions as learning performance: something that should command an audience and be documented for future consideration. In these and other examples there is a sense of children developing self-knowledge and repertoires of action that accord with an overall principle of “permanent self-performance” (Tuschling & Engemann, 2006, p. 459).

In assessment practices such as those discussed here, it seems that concepts-practices such as learning opportunities, learning experiences, and the child’s voice function as normative moral injunctions and inscriptive devices. Positioned as learning-subjects in unbounded, life-wide spaces of learning opportunities (Tuschling & Engemann, 2006), children are encouraged to mobilize their affects and passions according to a perception of events as learning opportunities and to conduct themselves as learners—where learning is a performance of behaviors related to the intensification of learning dispositions. The extensiveness of the learning-opportunity space and the truth of the child as learner seem to produce a paradoxically reductive logic. In narratives such as “Louie Goes out the Door,” the child’s actions and desires are interpreted and made accountable within the logic of the learning scheme. A myriad of possible motives for his actions—a desire to be outside, perhaps to feel the elements, to move and experience his body, or to be close to other, or different, people—are subsumed within the overarching interpretive scheme of action/participation/ intent/desire as learning.

Alongside the reductionist aspects of assessment there is also a persistent developmental logic at work in the examples considered. The assessments are shaped, I contend, by a moral imperative to extract and extend the learning potential of any given event, engagement, and, indeed, the self. Within this moral economy, the empowerment of the child, as a competent learner, reflects a superpragmatic logic. Borrowing from Hultqvist, superpragmatic reasoning about the government of the self and others reflects a logic where “anything might be related to anything as long as it increases resources and wealth” (2004, p. 173). In the learning disposition focused assessments, it seems that worlds of people, places, things, affects, intentions, bodies, and actions are brought into visibility and account within a domain of government informed by the primacy of values such as opportunity and accrual. Children are, my analysis suggests, being called into instrumental relations with people, places, and things and to orient themselves to these elements as props and resources in the ongoing process of accumulating and performing learning intensity, desire, and capability. In this scheme, children’s relations with self and the wider world are promoted in highly “economistic” terms, where development and growth become “aims and values in themselves” (Biesta, 2013, p. 13).5

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