Evaluation or reflection – how are these different and what are the implications for Early Years practice?

This is a question which came up during a European research project (EYE on Practice – Observation and Reflection in Childcare and Education) which I led and reported upon in 2012.

The Oxford dictionary defines evaluation as “the making of a judgement about the amount, number or value of something; assessment: the evaluation of each method.”
Reflection is defined as “An image seen in a mirror or shiny surface: Serious thought or consideration.”

Evaluation practice and reflecting upon our actions can sometimes become confused – I have on a number of occasions found that the two terms and actions are used interchangeably.

Evaluations usually involve making a judgement about a particular thing e.g. how a particular lesson plan worked with a particular group of children. This is of course important. After all, offering activities which young children do not find engaging or stimulating will not aid their development or lead to learning.

Whereas reflection is about putting up a mirror to oneself or a situation in order to think deeply about how the actions or consequences of such occurred. Both are learning processes but are in my mind quite distinct.

Reflection upon practice is different to evaluating the way in which an activity in the classroom was received by a group of children and may lead to consideration of how the activity could be set up differently.

The process of reflection involves being able to stand back and regard an aspect of practice with a “critically friendly” eye. Asking oneself questions about why particular practice is used, what was the impact, how did the situation feel, how did the children or other adults respond – all of these questions can help us to learn and give insight into professional practice. Schon (1983) suggests that the capacity to reflect upon action, in order to engage in continual learning is one of the defining characteristics of professional practice.

During the EYE research project practitioners engaged in proactive and mutual reflection which extended personal learning and led to new practice to benefit children. Comments from practitioners involved in the research demonstrated how they grew their understanding of reflection and its value e.g. “While reflecting on something you easily start judging it and that is not the intention of reflection – it’s about asking why?” and “I feel that I am able to support and challenge other staff members in the “correct” way and not to judge what I see but to reflect and think deeply.”

The self awareness which came from the reflections during the project supported the practitioners to have informed input and a level of control over changes to practice within their settings. It also encouraged some to embark upon further professional development and overall we saw an increase in confidence and feelings of job satisfaction.

Evaluation and reflection each play their part in helping to assess the impact of staff actions and the services/activities provided by settings upon children’s development. This key consideration is assessed by Ofsted as they inspect Early Years provision.
At inspection each setting needs to provide evidence of a robust self evaluation process. The inspection will assess the impact of the setting’s practice to enhance children’s skills across the Early Years Foundation Stage. Therefore it is important to combine the defined aspects of evaluation and reflection in order to demonstrate a depth of understanding of why and how the setting delivers what it does.
The judgement made by Ofsted is important and all settings wish to gain as high a grade as possible but the focus should be upon how the knowledge gained from reflections and evaluations are used to further develop young children to enjoy learning, rather than “doing it for Ofsted.”

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