Another one of those old, but worth-keeping books is Pat Penrose’s Take Another Look Tirohia Ano. Some of the pedagogical theory seems outdated, but there is a section on Observation in it that makes it worth a second look.
Penrose begins with advice on how to develop this skill. Reading through, I realise much of what is written here amounts to an argument for higher education, since a university education develops in students the ability to take notes accurately and quickly; to synthesise arguments/information/thoughts in a way that allows them to return to the original easily; to include and exclude knowingly. Consider point 11 in ‘Helpful Hints’:
“11. Your aims are to develop:
speed – the faster you can record the more you will gain from the time.
accuracy – to learn to see the same things that another observer would see, or to see where you disagree because you are looking at different aspects of the child. Remember to record facts, not your impressions.
completeness – to see each part of the child, not just selected parts (unless of course you are observing for something very specific).
objectivity – to learn to see and note everything without judgement, whether you approve or not.” (p.16)
These are skills learned at university, if you ask me. Since observation is an essential skill and often one that seems to be lacking, reading this just reiterated for me the importance of qualified staff, but anyway, … other points made by Penrose include:
“There are ethical considerations to take into account when we are observing other people’s children. We must ask ourselves about the purpose of the observations – what do we want the information for? Who are we going to share it with? Who will benefit?” (p.16)
Under ‘Confidentiality’, but also an ethical consideration when visiting, is the point: “There will be centres where things are done differently and you may disapprove, but certain things may be done for reasons unknown to you, so it will help if you can remind yourself that you are there to learn. Look and see if it works for that centre and if it doesn’t, try and see why. Then you have factual information on which to base your decisions.” (p.16)
‘How to Observe’ (the running record)
“Anyone working with children or with people for that matter needs to become observant. There are observation methods that can be learnt and practised to promote this. The method of observation described in detail here is known as the ‘running record’. It is the one most often used in early childhood training and once it is mastered then other methods of observing can be learnt.” (p.17)
“The running record is a running description of whatever we are observing over a set period of time. The time is stated and is usually 5, 10, 15, or 20 minutes. In that time you record everything that happens, for example where a child is sitting, his physical movements, expression, what he says, his body language, and so on, taking care to record only the facts and not your interpretation of them. In many cases you can learn or note a few things from a single observation, but clearly you are not going to gain a great deal of information about a child or activity from it. However, if you do a series of observations over a period of time (days or weeks) you can build up a very useful understanding about a child. … One disadvantage of the running record is the amount of time it takes. Unless there is extra help on a session you will be away from working with the children for a long time. … The biggest disadvantage is that there is often so much to record that the observer can become selective in recording or the record can be watered down. However, practice helps to perfect this skill.” (p.17)
“The most important part of an observation is that you record the facts as you see them and not your impressions. Your own impressions and comments may be added, … but it is essential that they are kept separate from the facts that you write down. Impressions are thoughts, questions, doubts, beliefs, and ideas that arise for the observer. … What is important is for us to be aware that our impressions are valid but need checking out. Our adult minds tend to want to place a reason on events and behaviour. In learning to observe we come to see that there is often more than one explanation for a child’s behaviour. But more importantly, we learn to work with the evidence in front of us and not with the imagined reasons for that behaviour.” (p.17)
Penrose goes through a sample observation and evaluation of the observation, followed by other ways of evaluating the observation, as well as other types of observing. It is all very simply laid out. Jargon can be useful, so here it is in a nutshell:
“This method is used to study an individual child or an activity. At regular intervals the observer takes note of what the child is doing or what is happening in that activity just at that time. The advantages of time sampling are that it builds a picture of what is going on over a whole session, and that it is a simple method for an involved person to carry out.” (p.21) “Over time this method would show which areas Rachel plays in and which she has not yet tried.” (p.22)
“The emphasis in this kind of observation is on an event you want to gain information about. You may want to know how often girls use the block corner or how often a toddler approaches another person. Time is not important but a careful definition of what is being observed needs to be made – does ‘approach’ mean go up to, touch with a hand, speak to, hit, take a toy from another child? Does it include an approach made to an adult? Every time the behaviour is observed, a mark is recorded.” (p.22)
“This method is used to plot how long a particular behaviour or activity lasts. It is useful for finding out how long children play at a certain activity.” (p.22)
“This method is very similar to time sampling, the difference being that a specific behaviour is being watched for a short time, e.g., over 15 minutes. A specific behaviour is identified and the ways a child may be expected to demonstrate this are listed. An observation is done over 30 seconds and then recorded over the next 30 seconds. This process is repeated over the 15 minute interval.” (p.23)
Penrose also recommends McMillan, B, Meade, A (1985) Observation, the Basic Techniques. Set Number 1. Wellington: Council for Educational Research which “little booklet goes into some alternative observation techniques in more detail.” (p.24) This may well be out of print, but there will be plenty of others, I’m sure.
Ref: Pat Penrose (1991) Take Another Look Tirohia Ano: A guide to observing children He momo arahi ki te tiro i nga tamariki. New Zealand Playcentre Federation: Auckland.