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Sifting out the Gems of Learning

Unpacking the Process of Analysis in the Assessment and Planning Cycle

By Jessica Horne-Kennedy, Manager, Professional Learning Gowrie NSW

For educators, embedding thoughtful and reflective processes of assessment and planning into patterns of work with children and families is an essential component of Quality Area One.

What do these thoughtful and reflective processes look like?

A central component of the Assessment and Planning Cycle is the process of analysis - the ‘sifting’ process of the cycle. However, analysis takes time – when analysis is rushed then opportunities for seeing the ‘gems’ of learning can be lost.

Gathering Traces of the Past

At the beginning of this year I was fortunate to travel to New Zealand – the place of my childhood.

Often on these trips, to visit family and friends, I find a spare moment to fossick through old possessions: books, notes and even objects. Many of the items that remain have become like traces from a time past - they embody special memories unique to my experience as a young child. When placed in my hand, these objects transport me back to this time, having the power to unlock significant memories. Padma Maitland describes the way that objects can be representations of the past – where the attributes of these objects are seen to be “imbued with layers of extra meaning and significance” (2014, p.ii). Susan Stewart also describes the way that objects evoke a kind of longing for nostalgia where they become the vehicle to take us back to a childhood past. In this way Stewart sees that objects are comparable to the way souvenirs can help us to remember a significant moment or experience in time (2014). By reflecting on the experience, of sifting through the significant remnants of my childhood, a question arose for me. I thought of the children that I have worked with as an early childhood teacher and I wondered:

Have I documented the children’s learning in a way that acts as a trace of significant moments experienced during play and learning?

Another question becomes important for our work: How do we, as early childhood professionals, know that the documentation we write for children is significant and meaningful?

Toni Christie’s words resonate here when she poses the question: ‘Who is it for?’ (August 2017).

When the children of today have grown into adults – will they treasure the documentation that we have created? Will they look at the observations that we have spent time writing and say: ‘my teacher knew me so well – they understood me’? Will our documentation act as a ‘souvenir’ in the way that Susan Stewart suggests? (1993).

When we consider these questions, we are presented with an important idea for reflection. Our documentation processes must be based on thoughtful and deep understandings of each child who attends our service – this ensures that it authentically represents the child and captures the story of ‘who they are’ at a specific time in their learning journey. When we understand each child as a learner, we can approach our Educational Programme with intention.

Providing Space for Deconstruction, Reflection and Reconstruction

Quality Area One of the National Quality Standard emphasises that a responsive approach to teaching: “…values, scaffolds, and extends each child’s strengths, skills, knowledge, interests and ideas” to ensure a commitment to child-centered learning that “…promotes children’s agency” (ACECQA, 2018, p.94). A key enabler to this approach can be found within the Assessment and Planning Cycle (Standard 1.3) of Quality Area One. As an early childhood consultant, a question that I am regularly asked is about the planning cycle – particularly: “am I doing it right?” The guidance I give, in relation to questions about the planning cycle, is for educators and teams to take the time to ‘unpack’ the cycle. Glenda Mac Naughton & Gillian Williams (1998) suggest that ‘deconstruction’ can be a powerful technique for supporting young children to understand concepts of fairness and inclusion in their day to day experiences (p.188). For educators -deconstruction is a form of critical thinking that allows us to take apart concepts and meanings through questioning those elements of our practice that “…normally go unquestioned” (p.187). By asking reflective questions about each component of the Assessment and Planning cycle, educators can arrive at a deeper awareness of how to implement the cycle in their specific service context. Questions asked will come from the shared values and beliefs about children, learning and the curriculum framework underpinning day to day practice. For example, at the ‘observation’ stage of the planning cycle, a service could ask:

Does the information we have gathered reflect the children’s voices and rights? – How do we know that it does this?

After this ‘unravelling’ through reflective questioning comes the process of reconstructing. Reconstruction is about making meaning and asking how we can put into practice the thoughts arising from our shared critical thinking. The process of deconstruction and then reconstruction can be likened to the process of assembling a patchwork quilt. Traditionally a patchwork quilt is made with small ‘patches’ of cloth in different shapes which are then carefully pieced together to create a whole. An important part of ‘quilting’ is the combination of different layers through stitching (“Quilting”, n.d.). The analogy of quilting can be useful for describing the processes of reflection that educators employ to make sense of practice and specifically the planning cycle. In the way that the patchwork quilt is a unique creation that reflects the ‘maker’ – each education and care service will choose their own unique way of engaging with the Assessment and Planning Cycle. No two services are the same and this diversity is essential to acknowledge as a reflection of the early childhood sector. When we begin to look at each stage of the cycle and ask questions about what it means for our context then we can engage with the cycle in meaningful ways that reflect our service culture, philosophy and values.

The Gathering Basket - A Starting Point for Engaging with the Assessment and Planning Cycle

In New Zealand, the Maori people call a basket woven from flax a ‘kete’ (“Te Ara”,2019). To begin thinking about the Assessment and Planning cycle, I ask educators to imagine a ‘kete’ for each child or group of children that they work with. Into this ‘gathering basket’, the educator places everything that is known about the child: their strengths, their interests, their home culture, their family background, their play, and their friends. This process of visualising a basket helps to describe the first stage of the Assessment and Planning Cycle – the stage of ‘observing/collecting’ information. The ‘gathering’ process is important and it is essential to emphasise that this early point of the ‘Assessment and Planning’ cycle is not about rushing into writing up a formal observation such as a learning story because the focus is initially on building a more complete picture of who the child is. Building this picture is deepened when we engage with the consecutive stage of the cycle – ‘Analysing Learning’. John Dewey tells us that: “Observation alone is not enough. We have to understand the significance of what we see, hear and touch.” (cited in: Cheesman, 2012 p. 1). Here, the important thing to remember is that in the process of gathering information, one must be curious and open to the meanings that arise – this allows for deeper understandings of the child and their learning to form.

At the ‘Analysing Learning’ stage of the cycle, the visualisation continues. Here, I ask educators to imagine a giant sieve – like the ones that children may use for play in the sandpit. Into this sieve we tip the contents of the ‘gathering basket’. Some items will fall right through the sieve, and some will remain. Those remaining items are like the treasures that the children find buried in the sand – they are the gems. In your day to day interactions with children, there will be many moments that you see but the key to implementing the Assessment and Planning cycle with intention is to determine which parts will build on the child’s emerging strengths, interests and abilities. Each educator’s ‘sieve’ is formed through the professional knowledge that they hold – it is a diverse combination of pedagogy, theory, personal philosophy and interpretation of the Early Years Learning Framework (Council of Australian Governments, 2010). Our questions and curiosities are essential at this stage. We must allow ourselves to ‘wonder’ and ‘muse’ about the child’s processes of exploring their world.

Often educators will gather a lot of information - it can be overwhelming to decipher the learning that is occurring. Effective deciphering requires time to ask questions about our observations of each child’s play. By asking: what is important? What are the gems? The process of analysis begins to go beyond seeing and hearing to think deeply about the significance and meaning of the child’s experience. Carr and Podmore (2001) provide us with ‘a series of questions that supports a child centered analysis based on the child’s voice.

Do You Know Me?
Can I Trust You?
Do You Hear Me?
Is This a Fair Place for Me?
Will You Let Me Fly?

These questions provide educators with a powerful set of tools to see the impact of teaching decisions and strategies on a child’s learning process. When we listen to the child’s voice in this way, we can ensure that the children’s voices are represented strongly and respectfully in the choices we make.

Slowing Down the Pace to Perceive the Rich Moments of Children's Learning

If we are to uncover the unique gems of each child’s learning experience, then the first step is to slow down the pace that it takes to embed the Assessment and Planning Cycle in practice. For educators’, time is precious and the decisions we make each moment of each day affect the children in our care.

Podmore & Carr, (1999) tell us that Early Childhood educators have been found to make 936 curriculum decisions in a six-hour day (as cited in: Educators Belonging, Being & Becoming, p.10). Both Joy Goodfellow (2008) and Mary- Helen Immordino- Yang (2011) talk to the importance of educators bringing their ‘whole self’ into awareness to perceive what is happening in the surrounding environment. This sense of awareness is about being present– to ‘catch our thought’ and to then act on the thought or ‘discovery’ in our teaching practice. For me, this was what happened in the moment that I was crouched over the dusty old boxes in the garage of my parents’ home in New Zealand. I was finding the gems that were leftover from my childhood and these, in turn, opened a window to understanding how I learned and played as a young child. Therefore, the message for our work as advocates for children’s learning is to take the time to slow down the pace of implementing the Assessment and Planning cycle. This ensures that our methods of gathering and interpreting information about children’s play and experiences of the world translate into documentation that children will treasure, remember, and use to understand their sense of becoming, both now and into the future.

*This article was first published in Rattler

Jessica Horne Kennedy presents

Unravelling the Planning Cycle

  Thursday 7th July 2022  Newcastle & Gosford

5.30pm - 7.30pm


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Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). (2018). Guide to the National Quality Framework. Retrieved online:

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