Collaborative Learning

The Power of Deep Observation in the Early Grades

Paying close attention to how young learners interact and collaborate gives teachers valuable clues about their developing skills.

June 5, 2024
Hispanolistic / iStock

Let me share a very common scene for K–2 teachers. Several learners play with construction blocks. They interact, exchange opinions, share ideas, try different ways to pile up the blocks and create various walls. One child starts counting the blocks, another insists on changing some blocks for others, and still another child starts bringing dolls to this “house” they’ve built. Another child, however, insists that the walls are part of a barn, so they start negotiating while another group of learners browse among storybooks and choose different books to look at. Others decide to play with sticks and pebbles they collected the day before.

What do teachers do while all this happens? They observe. Why is it important to observe our learners in early years and lower primary classes? Observation stands as a cornerstone in children’s education. According to educator and philosopher John Dewey, however, “Observation alone is not enough. We have to understand the significance of what we see, hear, and touch. This significance consists of the consequences that will result when what is seen is acted upon.”

It’s essential, therefore, to be aware that observation facilitates an understanding of a child’s growth, skills development, interests, strengths, challenges they face, and play decisions and preferences. 

The following guidelines can shed some light on the observation process. 

When to observe

Observation can be spontaneous—whenever the teacher finds a child or group of children doing something that calls for attention regarding any aspect of the child’s or children’s development—or it can be carefully planned. When it’s planned, generally teachers decide beforehand what aspects of the children’s development they want to observe, what for, and how to do it.

It’s important, however, to inform children about the purpose of the observation and to assure the children and their families that the observation evidence and photos are used only for the purposes intended.

Where to observe

Anyplace, indoors or outdoors where children are interacting with each other and/or with different resources (books, construction materials, coloring or painting utensils, sticks, pebbles, grass, mud, etc.), is a good place to observe.

Be sure to check, though, that while you’re observing a child or group of children, the other children are in a safe area with a colleague taking care of them. 

What to observe

It’s paramount that teachers have in-depth knowledge of the curriculum and especially of the learning outcomes. When this is the case, it’s easy to see evidence of children’s progress in just about everything they do. Below are just a few examples of what to observe.

  • What calls the the attention of the child/children, what sparks their interests. 
  • The depth of the child’s interaction with the learning context, if they manipulate the different items, if they prefer to observe the surroundings or peers for a while. 
  • How children use their spoken language and body language to communicate, the lexis they choose, the vocabulary, their articulation, and how appropriate their gestures are, according to the cultural context and background. 
  • How children solve different situations, how they reach agreements with their peers (or not), which strategies they use; then assess how effective those strategies were. 
  • How children handle different tools and toys, as well as how skillfully they use a pencil or a brush. 
  • In the case of reading and writing skills, if children recognize written language, differentiate uppercase letters from lowercase letters, and differentiate words; how they trace letters, lines, and circles.
  • If children are capable of grouping and classifying items according to different numbers of attributes. 

How to document the observations

Teachers can choose from different alternatives; here are a few ideas. 

Note-taking: This tool allows teachers to make quick notes on something they observe, with simple comments to describe a scene. Teachers may also include some reflection or even transcribe a comment the child makes or dialogue between children.

Here’s an example from my experience as class teacher: A boy, age 4 (let’s call him Martin), is building a stable on the ground for his horses, using stones, pebbles, and sticks. Liam (not his real name), age 4, approaches, looks interested. Martin looks at him but is not ready to invite him to play. Liam says, “This stone is better for that wall” and gets closer with a stone in his hand. Martin looks at him and says, “OK, help me here.”

This interaction and construction scene show how far these two children have gone with collaborative work. The teacher may take notes about this, as well on the characteristics of the construction, the material used, the complexity of the stable. At the same time, the teacher may evaluate how interested the children are in construction or the needs of horses (just horses or farm animals, too?). This may lead, for example, to considering if this interest could be the starting point for an inquiry-based project.

Photographs: Photographs of observations have the capacity to depict how a child engages in an experience, offering insights into their growth, abilities, and interests. When supplemented with a concise analysis, a compilation of photographs can illustrate the progression of their development, their skills and play over time. While this is a tool that’s quite simple and easy to use, it’s important to get permission from the families and to let them know when the photographs will be taken, what for, and how the children’s privacy will be ensured. 

Audio and video recordings: As with photographs, it’s very important that the children’s privacy is respected. Having said this, audio and video recordings give teachers the possibility to add sound, words, and/or oral interactions to the images, so these recordings are a powerful resource to foster reflection and facilitate assessment. 

Teachers practicing deep observation become keen watchers, attentive listeners, and discerning thinkers. It’s important to watch closely, not assuming that a quick look tells everything. Observing children carefully over time shows their play patterns, friendships you might not otherwise know about, reasons for their frustrations or bad behavior, and development of skills and strategies.

Deep observation and measuring learning in the early grades also requires dedication to pause and really listen to what children say, have longer talks with them, and focus completely during conversations. Deep observation is an invitation to enter the children’s world—enjoy the privilege!

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  • Collaborative Learning
  • Pre-K
  • K-2 Primary

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