Using Images For Authentic Assessment In Stories

Using Images For Authentic Assessment

Photographs as well as learning stories that capture learning through photographs or video recordings are ‘authentic assessment’.

– Marilyn Rice

As an early childhood educator, do you occasionally wonder if the images you share are more ‘Instagram moments’ rather than telling stories of discovery and learning?

Educa recently conducted a poll on ECE Facebook pages with educators – some of whom were parents, too. We wanted to find out more about their practices, whether photography disrupted learning and how educators ‘packaged’ it for parents. Were they swayed by parental needs and feedback for information? Did educators feel parental pressure to regularly pump out photos of and chronicles about children’s learning? Is the end game focusing on children’s learning or more to promote the quality of education at your service?

By the way, you’d know that engaging parents with photos and learning stories fit into Quality Area 6 of the (Australian) National Quality Framework – [building] collaborative partnerships with parents and communities. These are “active communication, consultation and collaboration”.

The role of photographs in authentic assessment

While a picture may be worth a thousand words, their narrative descriptions can help us see the learning that takes place, says Marilyn Rice, an early educator specialist from Victoria Commonwealth University in Virginia, USA. Importantly, those descriptions also show “what took place before and after the picture”. Photographs as well as learning stories that capture learning through photographs or video recordings are ‘authentic assessment’, she continues.

“One important benefit of authentic assessment is that it does not disrupt children’s learning because it is happens throughout the children’s regular daily routine. This type of assessment serves to inform the teaching and learning process in a way that allows teachers to also give feedback to children on their learning that is individualized.

“When teachers participate in and facilitate children’s play, they ask open-ended questions related to what the child is currently doing. This questioning requires critical thinking on the part of the child that may not be captured in a traditional assessment,” says Rice, in the online publication Innovations and Perspectives.

Capturing an ideal image

Meanwhile, German early childhood researcher Marcus Shultz says in Children and Society that educators’ tasks of observing and documenting children stem from the ideal image of the learning child.

“The child can learn everywhere at all times; the staff, on the other hand, have to organise their time. In effect, the task must work within a temporal framework, which permits the observation of up to 24 children [for the services he researched] and meets the requirement for several planned observations of a child during the course of the year. This must then be integrated into the daily routine of the kindergarten.

“Such an approach assumes the existence of a difference between the adults who observe and document this situation and the children who act and allow themselves to be observed,” he says.

Playing to the camera?

Interestingly, he argues that children being observed try to find out what’s interesting to the educators in this situation and they [the children] “reconstruct its meaning for themselves”. Are you getting a sense of kids playing up to the camera here? Shultz continues that such activities aren’t shedding light on the learning, rather are themselves situations of learning [our italics].

“The situations become a place of learning as the participating children learn what the institution expects of them. Namely, that ‘a good kindergarten child’ has to ‘learn’ and this, in turn, can become the subject of written documentation,” he says.

“… the documents help to produce a specific image of childhood, that of a ‘childhood of institutionalised learning’ … The documents are therefore a material part of the institutionalisation of early childhood. Adn in so far as they initially provide proof of the efficiency and the educational potential of the kindergarten.”

In other words, photographs on their own and photos with learning stories predominantly document the educational quality of early learning services. It’s our sector’s proof that learning, as such, is happening within our constructs. And, you could argue that there’s the disruption to children’s learning because educators are deciding when and how to document it.

How photos play out in our sector

Educa’s Facebook poll showed there are different views and a lot of grey area how to tackle photos and learning stories in early education. (Check out our other blog for top tips on taking pics). After all, we expect parents want to know what their children are doing during the day, but we, as educators, don’t want that desire to disrupt the learning. It’s a balance that involves type, quality and quantity of content shared.

So, how do educators tackle it?

One said: “I am for mixing different documentation methods – a photo can be self-explanatory and sometimes more meaningful than a written story, depending on what the learning outcome means for that specific child.

Stories, when well written, are as delightful for families to read. So it’s all about identifying the best method to suit the moment,” she said.

Also striving for balance was another educator who said: “I think a good piece of writing is far better as it includes interpretation. But, photos are quicker. Good writing cannot be produced too often or in too large quantities.”

For example, another educator said Instagram was ideal for posting “pretty” and “reality” shots where the images tell the story.

Another educator does Instagram style photos with a “couple of lines of writing”. This is because all parents she’s spoken to say they just want to look at the picture.

“I try to do one to two quality observations every couple weeks per child, but they aren’t for the parents. They are for me and the cycle,” she says.

Going for both – the pic and the long story

Another educator says she does a “mix of both” using Instagram and a longer piece using a parent engagement portal.

“A good few pics to tell the story and then a short sharp learning occurring and how I’m going to support that further learning based on goals,” she says.

Educator Tracey Gallagher shared this: “When I add to StoryPark [parent engagement software], I write the observation and analysis of learning with the photos. When I post on FB, I include something like ‘today was really hot, so we cooled down with water play! We added coloured ice to the water to make things extra cold!’ with photos.

“All parents have stated on separate occasions that they prefer the FB style, with ‘less to read’ because to be honest they just care that their child is happy and having fun,” she says.

Another educator agreed saying “as a parent, I just want the photo and rarely read the story”.

But there was this comment from a different educator: “As a parent, I like the photo and written content as I’m also an educator who is very interested to know what my children are learning about.”

Another educator/parent said she wanted the photo and story of how her child was involved and what she did. But “as an educator, I understand time restraints”.

It would be time-consuming for educators of this mum’s children. She says she receives a “long daily journal for my kids”. What does she do with that?

“I skim read, but mostly want to see the photos of them, what they ate, did they sleep,” she says.

Parental push for Facebook

One educator said parental feedback was strong for Facebook at her service.

“They much prefer Facebook as they can see instantly what their child has been doing during the day. It’s something that’s a conversation starter rather than the ‘nothing’ reply when asking the child what they did today.

“They’ve said they don’t have to go looking for the info and, if they forget to look, it pops up on their feed anyway. We don’t post full-face photos on our centre page. Just enough that parents would recognise their own child, but no one else’s unless they knew them really well.”

Facebook has its benefits, but there are concerns about Facebook.

Cyber safety and security issues

As educators, we have a responsibility to guide parents about cyber safety issues around sharing of those images. And it could be as simple as directing them to the robust online resources for parents at the Australian government’s eSafety website. You can access it here, where there’s even a downloaded PDF guide to parents of preschoolers.

Meanwhile, digital portals, such as Educa’s, offer more secure ways of engaging with parents. A parent survey published in the Australasian Journal of Early Childhood found that parents raised security issues when such portals were introduced into the early learning service. However, those concerns were “largely mitigated through open collaboration with centre management” during the implementation phase.

The researchers described digital portals as offering parents “a flexible, accessible and functional way of accessing information and documentation related to their child’s experience in an ECEC setting”.

Rethinking documentation practices

“Digital portals also offer a timely opportunity for early childhood educators to reconceptualise digital documentation practices and further interrogate its function, form, visibility, accessibility and relevance for parents,” the researchers wrote.

But, keep this in mind as you explore that. One parent said: “We want to know what our kids did, as well as what the kid next door did.”

And that could create more security and privacy issues. The study heard parents actually saw the digital platform as facilitating connection with other parents. They didn’t just want to just receive information.

Striking A Communication Balance

That same parent was also critical of the type of information educators shared on the digital platform. Less curriculum-related information was her request.

She said: “… it deflates me when I have to read through all this red tape … I find it very tedious having to read through how we met requirement number one out of our quality framework … I think that’s not my problem, that’s your problem.”

Sure, this gives educators context, but consider what is worth sharing with parents and what you need for documentation. This boils down to how much, how often and what content you need to share to keep parents engaged. Potentially this will impact children’s learning, particularly if they feel the photography is too frequent and therefore intrusive. It’s a nuanced thing to work out if you’re actually disrupting their learning as you snap away and build meaning and insights into what you’re observing.

One more thing … a provocation for educators

In this story, the assumption has been educators have taken the photographs, but here’s a provocation for you: why can’t the child occasionally take the photo of what they’re learning?

Giving a preschooler the camera can help them express their creativity, says Diana Nazareth, a Canadian photographer and educator. Diana also runs photography outreach programs.

“Photography can help develop a child’s voice, vision and identity as it pertains to their family, friends and community,” says Nazareth. It can also strengthen connections between visual and other forms of expression.

“You could encourage [kids] to look for and photograph certain colours found in nature or shapes that look like a letter in the alphabet,” she explains. After your walk, ask kids to talk about their photographs. Why did you choose to take that photo? What is your photograph trying to say, she says.

Nazareth offers these 5 ideas to spark children’s interest in photographing:

    1. Things that remind them of their parents or grandparents
    2. Close-up shots of their favourite toys
    3. A selfie with their biggest achievement at the service that day
  1. Taking a sequence of pictures that tell a story
  2. What they ate today at the early learning service

And, it pays to remind them about not taking photos of others without their permission.

Collaborating with children about their own learning in this way may be an approach to reduce that possible ‘disruption’ to their learning when we observe, photograph and document their actions.


Australian Government’s eSafety website
Educa’s Facebook

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