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What are online learning journals and why you should be using them

date December 1, 2020Rebecca Martland

Learning journals…where did it all start?

In 2008 the first Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) was introduced alongside a comprehensive pack of non-statutory ‘practice guidance’ which included the first version of ‘Development Matters’. The EYFS was extensively revised and slimmed down in 2012. A revised and updated ‘Development Matters’ was also published (Early Education, 2012).

With the launch of the EYFS 2008 the early years community was introduced to a new concept, the ‘learning journey’. Practitioners were encouraged to celebrate a child’s experiences in their Early Years setting by recording each child’s journey: including observations; assessments; planning ideas; evidence of progress; and contributions from the child and their parents, then compile this information into a comprehensive file known as a learning journal. The journal would belong to the child and move with them as they transitioned, for example, between rooms in a setting or to a new setting or school, and could be added to by multiple settings, where care was shared.


Learning journals: a blessing or a curse?

The concept was a sound one and eagerly embraced, with practitioners producing beautiful folders that became a source of pride. Photos were carefully cut out and glued into the journals alongside copious post-it notes. Soon there were templates to print out, stickers to highlight areas of learning and ‘footsteps’ stampers identify ‘next steps’. Development Matters statements were highlighted, trackers colour coded and ticked, reports written. Before they knew it, practitioners were buried in paperwork. Learning journals had stopped being a joyful celebration of children’s journeys and become a chore to be dreaded and endured.

pile of documents

Unnecessary paperwork

The Tickell Review (DfE, 2011) acknowledged the concerns of the Early Years community around the issue of burdensome paperwork and recommended that this be addressed in the revised 2012 EYFS. This was reiterated in the 2017 EYFS.

2.2 Assessment should not entail prolonged breaks from interaction with children, nor require excessive paperwork. Paperwork should be limited to that which is absolutely necessary to promote children’s successful learning and development. (DfE, 2012 and 2017)

There is currently no requirement in the EYFS to physically record any assessment data except the 2y-progress check and the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) at the end of the reception year. It is up to practitioners to use their judgement to decide what to record and how.


So why still do them?

In spite of the fact that Learning Journals are optional, settings continue to produce them. There are a number of factors contributing to this practice:


1. Ofsted

Ofsted have often been cited as the force driving the production of paperwork. Inspectors have historically insisted on seeing written evidence of children’s progress. Each new recommendation appearing in a report is circulated on social media and rapidly adopted. This has been in spite of the clear directive in the EYFS for no unnecessary paperwork and insistence from Ofsted itself that it is not required.

The new Education Inspection Framework and accompanying Early Years Inspection Handbook (DfE, 2019) makes it very clear that inspectors must not ask for any documentation that is not an EYFS requirement. This means that inspectors should not ask to see learning journals or similar records.

Settings should not be producing learning journals just for Ofsted, however. If they choose to use them it must be because they benefit the child and the setting in their care for the child. If a practitioner feels that showing a learning journal to an inspector will be helpful, perhaps to illustrate a particular point about a child, then the inspector should look at it and accept it as supporting evidence.

 childminder talking to parents

2. Information sharing

Learning journals are a fabulous tool to facilitate information sharing about a child. They can include starting points from home, initial baseline assessments and ongoing progress reports, as well as ideas to support the child further. Whilst none of this HAS to be written down, in a busy setting, with many different practitioners observing a child, it can be useful to have a written record that all staff can refer to. It is even more helpful if a child attends more than one setting, or if there are concerns about their development, with outside agencies involved. A childminder, working alone, may record very little as they have all they need to know stored in their memory. However, they may still choose to create a journal to share with others involved in a child’s care, to show Ofsted, to see patterns in a child’s development, or as a memoir of the child’s time with them

It is not necessary to record every single thing the child does. Practitioners must be balanced and proportionate in their approach, only recording observations that are useful or necessary. If they feel they are recording too much they probably are (see Top Tips blog).

boy reading in bed with dad 

3. Children and parents

I care for a child whose mum contacted me during lockdown to say that her child had been reading her daily diaries and learning journal instead of a bedtime story each night. THAT is one of the reasons why I continue to produce learning journals. I love to see the joy on a child’s face when they look back through their journal and see a photograph of themselves, hearing the joyful animation in their voice when recounting the memory this has triggered. Children enjoy contributing, asking to add photos of their drawings or constructions. They really take ownership of their journals, eager to share these with their parents, who in turn are able to see that their child is happy, engaged and progressing.


Liberation: the arrival of online learning journals

In spite of often being moaned about, Learning Journals have remained popular and common practice. Practitioners are loath to give them up and perhaps with good reason. They do have many benefits as we have seen. So how to reduce the burden and give them new life?

Online journals arrived like a breath of fresh air: freeing practitioners from the reams of paper and mountains of glue sticks they had become slaves to, enabling them to spend more time interacting directly with children.

Woman working on laptop at home

Benefits of an online journal

Online journals have all the benefits of paper journals and much more:

  • Easier to store, taking up no ‘physical’ space
  • More secure: kept on password-protected servers
  • More convenient
  • More accessible to all who needed them: online logins issued to staff, parents and shared settings who are all able to contribute
  • Parents can view observations and add their own
  • Share with children: can make their own contributions with staff or parent help
  • Transferable: to new settings using the same systems or as downloadable files
  • Observations can be uploaded with a couple of clicks; edited and published
  • Upload media and observations: photos, videos and audio, including images of written observations
  • Observations can be quickly assessed using practitioner knowledge and linked to assessment frameworks
  • Next steps and planning can be generated or added manually
  • Software enables progress tracking individually and by cohort so patterns can be assessed
  • Timesaving: more time to spend interacting directly with children
  • Flexible: can be printed if preferred
  • Many systems offer Integrated packages that enhance the service: e.g. accident records; diaries; registers; invoicing facilities, reducing even more admin


Using online journals appropriately

Many online systems use the statements within Development Matters as an assessment tool in order to track children’s progress. Whilst many practitioners may find this helpful, it’s extremely important to remember that Development Matters was never intended to be used as an assessment checklist – it says this on every page! It is not an exhaustive list and so is not fit for this purpose. What it does provide is examples of typical development that practitioners might observe and use as a guide, alongside their existing knowledge of child development and professional judgement.

The document also suggests useful ideas for how practitioners might support children at different stages of development but again, these ideas are not intended to be identified as things a child must do or must achieve and so should not be used as literal ‘next steps’.

Linking Development Matters statements to observations should therefore be approached with caution, in the knowledge that the resultant tracking reports generated by an online journal system will simply produce an indication of the child’s progress and not the whole picture.

To avoid relying on the Development Matters, practitioners should:

  • Remember that each child is unique and will develop at their own rate
  • Use the statements to supplement, rather than replace, their professional knowledge and understanding of child development
  • Use the Development Matters ideas to guide them and provide ideas, rather than see them as targets to be met

Childminder with doing an activity with children

Going forward

A new Development Matters framework was published recently, to be used from September 2021. This has been comprehensively redesigned to try to eliminate the current ‘tick list’ approach and it is to be hoped that online journal developers will take this message on board going forward.

‘’The document is not a tick list for generating lots of data. You can use your professional knowledge to help children make progress without needing to record lots of next steps. Settings can help children to make progress without generating unnecessary paperwork’’ (DfE, 2020)


Go digital

I use online journals in my own setting and would not consider returning to the paper method, having experienced the benefits of going online has afforded me. I will continue to create learning journals because I believe they are of value to me and the families who come to my setting.

When used appropriately, online learning journals are a powerful tool, that can benefit both practitioners and children. They are innovative, time-saving and effective in our increasingly digital society.

rebecca martland kinderly expert

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