Teachers respond selectively to evidence as it emerges during learning activities and especially in terms of what they record. Some evidence stands out because it seems to signify something in relation to what is already known about the learner. It may be a new or modified response, an initiation of some kind or confirmation of a pattern of behaviour observed previously. Because they seek meaning in what they observe, teachers theorise about learners. Evidence becomes significant when it either challenges, confirms or extends a theory the teacher currently holds in relation to an individual learner.
‘Theories’ we hold about a particular learner are not always overt or conscious but may become more obvious when we write a context statement (as in the highlighted text in these examples).
Dewey (1910) observed that as human beings we tend to stay ‘on auto-pilot’ in much of our day-to-day thinking, but reflecting upon what ‘theories’ we might hold can help to make us more aware and enables us to further develop a professional response.
In fact, we need to be clear that any assessment we make has an element of subjectivity reflecting our particular experience of, and relationship with, each learner. Such subjectivity is not necessarily undesirable. The Routes for Learning ‘Additional Guidance’ is explicit about this:
In their commentary on neuroscience and Education, TLRP (2007) present a model connecting the work of neuroscientists and teachers which demonstrates that, as teachers, we have to use another kind of theory as well. (The model is reproduced in the table below).
TLRP point out that whilst the factual basis for neuroscience is direct observation of the brain in action, for teachers, evidence derives from observation of learners’ behaviour. However, both groups of professionals are ultimately concerned with the mind and need to interpret evidence in relation to theories they hold about individual learners, including the developmental significance of what they observe. For teachers working with learners with PMLD, these derive from their knowledge of early cognitive and communicative development in particular and the ways in which these might proceed differently when multiple disabilities are a part of the picture.
The Routes for Learning materials
The Routes for Learning assessment materials (Welsh Assembly Government, 2006) provide a very appropriate framework for understanding the behaviour of learners with PMLD and for constructing, testing and refining theories about individual learning.
Their central element, the Routes for Learning (RfL) Routemap, represents early developmental landmarks as a lattice. Landmarks become more advanced as learning proceeds down the Routemap. What distinguishes the Routemap from developmental ‘checklists’ is the expectation that learning will proceed along multiple pathways, encompassing differing patterns of achievement (whereas, traditionally, the presumption is that all learners follow the same hierarchy of sub-steps).
The 43 landmarks or ‘Boxes’ on the Routemap reflect current knowledge of early development. Underlying theories and assumptions about this are explained in more detail in the RfL Guidance. In the Assessment Booklet, each landmark is explored, associated behaviours are described and suggestions are given for activities and situations within which these behaviours might be observed.
In general, RfL Boxes towards the left of the Routemap represent landmarks associated with social interaction and communication, whilst those towards the right tend to reflect interactions with the physical environment. More centrally, there are Boxes reflecting significant cognitive landmarks, including those coloured in orange which are considered to be the most crucial stages and likely to be represented in the learning pathways of most individual learners.
Creating a ‘Narrative’
Assessment using the Routemap is NOT about ticking the boxes. It involves actively constructing a narrative which is grounded in the behaviour we observe but takes account of what we know about the learner themselves and about development in general.
A narrative, in this context, is a positive tale about what a learner can do. As an approach to assessment it is much more developed in New Zealand where Margaret Carr in particular has highlighted its role in constructing a positive identity for each learner. See for instance Carr (2001), and Carr and Lee (2016).
The overall narrative for any learner derives from many small examples of evidence such as those shown above for Ben and Cerys.
When reflecting on such evidence, we might consider the following prompts:
- Is there something new, different, unusual or surprising?
- Does it say something about the learner’s own likes, dislikes, motivations or interests?
- Does anything indicate a need to adjust conditions for learning in any way?
- In this instance, is the learner responding primarily to people, or to the environment?
- Which Box(es) on the Routemap might this response relate to?
We’ll consider the last two of these questions, as though we know nothing further about the learners’ developmental level.
In Ben’s case, the evidence seems to involve a social interaction so it would be worth looking at Boxes towards the left-hand side of the Routemap, on the other hand, it could be that he is simply exploring his environment and happens to find a person (so we would need to consider the right-hand side too). We might begin by looking at Box 25: ‘changes behaviour in response to interesting event nearby’ and then consider Box 24: ‘Purposeful action on everyday environment’.
Cerys’s attention is much more directly related to an object. So, looking on the right-hand side of the Routemap should be instructive. According to this evidence, she is ‘visually tracking’, so Box 10: ‘Briefly follows moving stimulus’ is a good starting point, whilst Box 20: ‘Looks briefly after disappearing object’ would represent a more advanced landmark in the development of this skill.
It is important to go beyond the mere RfL Box title when reflecting in this way. On the face of it, many of the Boxes appear to have a very broad applicability, but reference to suggestions set out in the Assessment Booklet will clarify their relevance for specific learners and particular contexts. Evidence needs to be weighed carefully against these.
When considering whether a specific RfL Box is relevant, we should check especially whether evidence is consistent with the ‘Things to look for’ for that Box:
The evidence clearly shows that Cerys has ‘followed a stimulus with her eyes’, so it is evidence we can use for RfL Box 10.
In the Assessment Booklet, the ‘Assessment activities/Things to try’ column provides ideas for testing this more fully. ‘Teaching strategies’ offer further suggestions.
However, the evidence for Cerys may, or may not, reflect the ‘Things to look for’ for RfL Box 20. If further evidence confirms that she has a good grasp of Box 10, it would then be worth exploring whether her skill extends to Box 20. In the meantime, we might want to delay judgement.
Establishing a secure starting point
The critical factor when reflecting on evidence is to use the Routemap to establish secure starting points from which to help the learner progress. Verifying that the learner is achieving at an earlier developmental landmark (by continuing to seek more evidence) will be of more help to the learner than giving the benefit of the doubt for a higher level Box. Initial judgements need to be tentative and open to amendment as more evidence emerges.
Reflecting on evidence and organising it in relation to Boxes on the Routemap enables teachers to create a coherent narrative which begins to tell the story of the individual learner’s strengths and achievements and provides pointers about where to go next.