Sue Allingham: What Is The True Purpose of Next Steps?

Time to tear down those next step boards.
March 5, 2019
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In her first piece for us, early years expert Dr Sue Allingham explains why ‘next steps’ should be viewed as a resource to govern our teaching, rather than a checklist target for a child – and why next steps boards should become a thing of the past.

The expression ‘next steps’ is part of the daily language in early years settings of all kinds. But how often do we reflect on what it actually means?

I have worked with many teachers on their understanding of ‘next steps’ – and I say teachers on purpose. It’s important to remember that we are all teachers, no matter what our background or qualifications. In everything that we do and say, we are teaching the children something.

There are two important things to remember when deciding what it means to have a ‘next step’:

  • Every child is unique (one of the four Statutory Principles).
  • Development Matters guidance is not to be used as a tick list.

Keep these in mind as you read on.

A Case Study

It’s a warm day and the children from the Preschool Room are playing outside.

A little boy takes a bucket of water and a large paintbrush out with him. Crouching low to the ground, he dips his brush in the bucket and starts painting a series of large circles at his feet.

He watches as the water evaporates, then paints some more. The circles get bigger and bigger, and the little boy goes to fetch more water so that he can continue.

During this time his key person is looking on and making notes. She might also take some photographs. She does not join in by working alongside the child, as he is already so involved in what he is doing, but she might move some resources further away so that the little boy has more space to work.

The little boy in this example is 37 months old. The key person concluded after this mark-making that the ‘next step’ should be ‘To learn to write his name’.

What would you do?

The problem with the term ‘next step’ is that it has become part of our common daily vocabulary and has gradually begun to dictate a method of ticking off a linear progression through a set of statements – in particular the statements from Development Matters.

This is a very useful document, and I recommend everyone I work with has one as a reference point. Not to tick off – as each and every page in the document warns against – but to inform their practice.

Instead, it has become common practice for teachers to record an observation, then choose a ‘next step’ by looking through the Development Matters statements and deciding on a point to write down. Observation formats are published that require this, as do some electronic systems.

Where do these next steps end up?

What happens next often goes one of two ways:

  • The ‘next step’ is written into planning for the next day or week. Or, if this is already completed, the ‘next step’ is taken forward to the next time that a plan needs to be written. Sometimes this can be as distant as four weeks, or even half a term away.
  • The ‘next step’ is filed away, ticked off, and then left.

But that’s entirely missing the point. ‘Next steps’ are not something decided from a statement, and then recorded to stand alone. They are on-the-spot decisions that inform our immediate practice and interactions.

Remember the Unique Child, the very first statutory principle. Although the teacher in our case study wrote what she saw, she didn’t recognise the role she played by moving the equipment to create a larger space. By doing so, they share a unique moment that doesn’t have a statement to reflect it in any guidance document.

By enabling him to have a larger space to explore what he was doing, the teacher had actually moved his thinking forward – a ‘next step’ was made in the moment. Sadly this understanding has been lost somewhere along in our drive to record ‘next steps’, particularly when it comes to maths or literacy.

As a result, the teacher felt under pressure to note that name writing must come next. By doing so, we are limiting learning only to our assumptions.

Reclaiming our next steps

We need to reclaim the expression ‘next steps’.

The phrase is not about linear movement through a series of statements. They are about understanding what is happening right there and then and what our role is in the interaction.

For example, imagine that you notice a child is enjoying a jigsaw and you are sharing the experience. As you interact, you get another – more difficult – puzzle from the cupboard saying “I wonder if we can do this one?” The ‘next step’ has happened. We observe and cover ‘next steps’ hundreds of times a day, challenging learning and making teaching points as we go.

Not all these opportunities will be worthy of recording as significant for the child. But the observation should include how the learning was developed by the teacher. The ‘next step’ is integral to the observation, not an ‘add on’.

That is not to say that we don’t identify focuses for further teaching. But these are not targets for the children – they are our own ‘next steps’ to focus on in order to inform our teaching.

Should our next steps be on display?

It’s important to remember here that anything our observations tell us is unique to the child. This does not translate to a display board of ‘next steps’.

I am often asked how to do these displays, as so many teachers feel that they have to have one. It is not a requirement, or indeed good practice, to do this. If you reflect on everything I have written above, it is clear that any display of this linear kind is inappropriate. It’s good to celebrate observations of significant moments for the children by having them on display for all, including families to read and enjoy.

But remember, ‘next steps’ are integral to the learning that happened during that interaction. Not a tick list of steps made through an area of learning.

Dr Sue Allingham has both an MA and a Doctorate in Early Childhood Education from the University of Sheffield. She is the author of Transitions in the Early Years and writes regularly for Early Years Educator – EYE – magazine where she is Consultant Editor. Sue is also an independent consultant and trainer with her company Early Years Out of the Box Consultancy.

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