In the first half of this course, we introduced key principles for extending and enhancing learning in early childhood related to intentional teaching and early childhood assessment practices. We explored:
- Intentional teaching as a process in which teachers are deliberate and thoughtful in actively planning interactions and actions to extend children’s thinking and development
- Formative assessment as a practice for developing an understanding of children’s learning that is used to inform and support further teaching and learning
With careful and sensitive assessment, children’s interests and intentions for their own learning can be recognised and enhanced within a context of supportive intentional interactions that guide and extend children’s learning and development.
In Part 5, we are going to look more deeply at how assessments of learning in early childhood education can be presented to learners, their families and others using the learning story format. This format also enables teachers to communicate the ways in which their assessments will support them to teach in more intentional ways.
We are aiming to:
- Gain an understanding of the potentials and limitations of learning stories
- Identify high and poor quality practices in relation to learning stories
This will involve:
- Reading about the learning stories assessment approach
- Reflecting on the important features of effective assessment documentation
- Watching a video in which teacher Susan Hildred describes how assessment tools inform learning stories and intentional teaching at Hokowhitu Kindergarten
- Relating your learning to practice by using a rubric to analyse the quality of a learning story from your setting
You can also find suggested further reading on the topic of intentional teaching at the end of this section, and there is an option to discuss intentional teaching practices in the online forum.
Revisit your learning so far
In what ways does having a range of perspectives on assessment information support the validity of your assessment?
Once you have collected some interesting and rigorous assessment data on a child’s learning, and begun to consider what it means from a range of perspectives with the help of other people involved with the child, it is important to be able to communicate this information in an engaging way in order to stimulate further assessment and intentional teaching. The learning story is an effective vehicle for this. A learning story comprises careful reporting of assessment of children’s learning as demonstrated through their activity, environment, and interactions. It involves reflection on that assessment through processes of describing, recognising, and analysing learning, and planning intentional responses. Although there are a number of ways that assessments can be communicated, our focus in this course is the learning story. We offer a range of reasons why learning stories are so commonly used in early childhood education, but the processes and strategies for producing learning stories described here will be common to other effective assessment approaches and various forms of pedagogical documentation.
Read the following introduction to learning stories, noting the benefits and issues raised with this form of assessment as you read.
Why use ‘learning stories’
Assessment in early childhood needs to reflect the complexity of children’s learning and development, and the context of their interactions with people, places, and things. Less standardised forms of assessment are often the most appropriate for assessing complex learning in context. Qualitative and interpretive methods that focus on showing the learner and their achievements in the contexts of relationships and environment are better able to capture multiple and less pre-determined outcomes.
Learning stories are narratives created from structured observations, designed to provide a cumulative series of pictures about a child’s learning. They are observations that are reinterpreted as stories, then analysed and used as the basis for planning. Teachers collect ‘critical incidents’ or moments which seem significant for a child. By analysing several of these through narrative, teachers can come to understand the path of the child’s learning and the pattern of their learning dispositions. Several consecutive narratives can be pieced together to make a fuller picture, while remaining open for other pieces to be added.
A series of learning stories is often kept in a portfolio alongside examples of children’s work. This enables teachers to review learning and identify continuity and opportunities for development. Developing stories over time and space (in other words, linking separate stories or adding extra ‘chapters’ to existing stories) enables assessment documentation to show the development of dispositions in different situations, and enables better understanding of the learner in action. When the same sort of learning story appears in different areas of the curriculum, the disposition can be considered more robust.
However, other assessment strategies may also be required in addition to learning stories which do not provide the measurement tools required by the Ministry of Education for identifying specific difficulties or indicating the need for early intervention. Learning stories have also been criticised for a lack of validity, for focusing on one teacher’s observations and analysis rather than drawing on a range of colleagues’ input, for not demonstrating continuity and change in learning over time, for being produced infrequently, and having limited value in different contexts such as school. These are important concerns that can be addressed by embedding effective assessment strategies within the practice of learning stories.
Strengths of a learning story approach
• Encouraging involvement: Stories are generally more engaging and interesting to read than more objective accounts of observations. Using narrative and photographs, which are emotionally appealing and affirming, learning stories can act as a ‘conscription device’ inviting families and children to participate in assessment practices by engaging with the stories, and helping to interpret and plan from them. Learning stories also allow families a window into the practices and purposes of the ECE setting, and draw attention to the kinds of activities which lead to the development of learning dispositions.
• Ability to account for the complexity of learning in early childhood: Learning stories encourage detailed observations and analysis of learners, seeking connections and affirming complexity as an integral part of early childhood learning. By providing rich descriptions, learning stories convey the intensity and complexity of events. They also provide description of the environment and teaching interactions that accompany and support the learning. Stories might say as much about teaching as they do about learning, and therefore they can provide a source of validation for teaching.
• Generative of multiple meanings and interpretations: Learning stories can have various meanings depending on teachers’, children’s, families’ and community values. Learning stories recognise and value the ways in which teachers’ lenses are shaped by their own realities, histories and cultures. By adding other perspectives, including children’s and families’ views, Māori as well as other cultural perspectives, and the values and influences of the wider community, learning stories generate diverse interpretations and ongoing possibilities for sharing, negotiating, revisiting, developing and changing meanings. Such diversity makes space for the uncertainty that should accompany the complexity of learning in early childhood, as development is not standard or linear. Also, the integration of different voices in the assessment process addresses issues of objectivity or validity, so that a more robust analysis of children’s actions can be presented.
• Enabling children’s voices: Learning stories have the potential to develop children’s metacognition, in helping them to think about their knowledge, skills and learning. Inviting children to make their own self-assessments opens spaces for children’s voices and for crucial connections between their everyday realities and the curriculum, which might otherwise go unseen and unknown.
• Constructing competence: ECE assessment in the curriculum document Te Whāriki is underpinned by notions of promoting each child’s growing competence to participate in, and learn about, the world. Learning stories are congruent with this aim in both supporting children’s sense of competence and helping to construct competencies. Learning stories aim to recognise and strengthen children’s learning dispositions, and to create affirming stories that identify children as strong and capable in various roles and contexts. A portfolio collection of learning stories celebrates the child as a competent individual and acknowledges the child’s strengths.
• Enabling continuity: Learning stories can also document interconnections between stories, and aspects of children’s learning, by making links backwards (to previous events) and forwards (to potential plans, the outcomes of which are then documented). This recognises learning as continuous and open to development. Learning stories support ongoing continuity in learning, by identifying connections between and across interests and strengths, and by providing the materials to take learning in new directions.
• Supporting transitions: New Zealand and international research shows that negative impacts of transition to school can be overcome when effective communication channels are established between schools and ECE settings that enable assessment information to be shared and discussed. This sharing and use of assessment information highlights learning and progress over time, and enhances the links between learning that has taken place at an ECE setting and that which occurs at school, and helps children see themselves as competent, confident learners, making transition more likely to be successful. Assessment information empowers children with a strong learner identity as they enter school and, in connecting knowledge of home and the ECE setting with that of school, fosters children’s sense of belonging and engagement.
Click here to read the full version of this research review with references.
How convinced are you of the value of learning stories? Are there other forms of narrative assessment that could provide the same advantages as learning stories, as listed in the reading? What might seem to be the important features of a documented assessment?
So let’s consider how learning stories connect with what we’ve learned about the varied assessment tools that are important for really gaining a full picture of children’s learning. The use of multiple tools for assessment go some way towards addressing the perceived limitations of learning stories, in ensuring that learning stories are based on robust and trustworthy information that is collected and discussed by teachers working as a team, instead of a solo teacher’s perspective, and that therefore involves teachers in making comparisons to determine change and continuity in learning for children. We need a range of assessment tools to help us be really specific about what is happening for children, but equally, we need an engaging format in which to present this information to children and families. Learning stories are going to be more engaging and interesting to read than an objective account of an observation, or a list of the areas visited during a time-sample, or a list of words spoken while wearing a Go-Pro. Let’s look at the way one teaching team integrate assessment activity into assessment and planning records.
Watch a video
In this video, Susan Hildred from Hokowhitu Kindergarten talks about the way that she and her team are exploring the use of multiple assessment tools to improve their learning stories, assessment practice, and intentional teaching. Susan has been teaching with the Ruahine Kindergarten Association for the past 15 years, and for the last 8 years she has been a kaiako at Hokowhitu Kindergarten. In her time with the RKA she has been involved in a range of professional learning and research projects. Within these learning opportunities she has learnt new data collection tools and strengthened her knowledge and skills with assessment practices. She has also worked with other kindergarten teams to support them on their journeys of new growth.
At Hokowhitu Kindergarten, they find careful and varied assessment approaches to be highly important for writing effective learning stories. As their learning stories are increasingly based in a broad range of evidence, rather than on anecdotal observations, teachers find their stories have shifted from simple description of children’s activities to a more learning-focused story that recognises the link between children’s activity across a range of learning areas. By compiling several different pieces of assessment information, teachers can connect key moments of a child’s learning to, for example, their deepening work in gross motor development. This becomes a theme of analysis across several events recorded in the child’s portfolio, and builds up a strong picture of continuity in learning across time (we will talk more about this in Part 8). Learning stories also mention the planning that has been happening for a child, and the different ways that teachers have been collecting information about their learning. Teachers might write ‘this is what we’ve noticed’, ‘this is what we’ve seen in the information we’ve collected’, or ‘this is what we have discussed in our planning meetings for you’. In this way, teachers’ varied assessment methods and intentionality for each childr is made clear.
Susan talks about the way her team approaches the writing of learning stories only after they have compiled and interpreted the information from their different assessment tools. They begin with a ‘Child Reflection Sheet’, which offers a series of prompts and helps the team to see what they know and don’t know about a child’s learning. This is useful for ensuring a comprehensive picture of a child’s learning over all five strands of Te Whāriki, and enables teachers to plan further observation types to help them fill any gaps in their knowledge. For example, they might plan to undertake some more formal or structured observations, or they might have the child wear a Go-Pro. They find that different tools offer different perspectives, and that careful use of these tools helps them to confirm or reconsider the assumptions of children’s learning that they might have gathered from more anecdotal evidence. For example, one child who appeared to be ‘floating’ from group to group, and not really engaging with particular activities or peers, was found actually to be initiating relationships with peers and co-constructing activities with them. Imagine the learning story that might have been written without this additional assessment evidence!
One choice the teachers at Hokowhitu Kindergarten have made is to analyse children’s learning according to the dominant strand within which they believe a child is learning. This becomes the focus for the learning stories they write – the stories will be connected and refer to the child’s progress and activity within this dominant strand. Making a choice to focus their continued assessment and teaching around this strand helps teachers to be highly intentional, and leads to learning stories that are connected and coherent. Again, initial assessments, and teachers’ collective reflection, discussion and shared decision-making around these, improve the quality of the learning stories that are written.
Relate your learning to practice
Read this learning story exemplar, which consists of three connected learning stories written over two months. The children involved are four and four-and-a-half years old.Using the rubric provided below, analyse the learning story. Alternatively, if you are experienced with learning stories, you might like to analyse one of your own recently written learning stories. Complete this interactive table to analyse the story. This exercise will help you to get a sense of the important features of an effective learning story. Check a box for each of the statements to represent your assessment of this story, then print the page or save the file as a PDF from your browser.
Look at your findings. Which criteria does this story meet well? What are key areas to improve? How might these have been addressed (for example, what more information or discussion is needed)?
In addition, if you analysed one of your own stories, do you think this story would be representative of the quality of most stories for this child and across your early childhood setting? How well does the story demonstrate or identify intentional teaching, and in what ways was it used to inform future practice? What actions could you put in place to address areas where improvement is needed?
The key points covered in this part of the course are:
- A learning story approach to assessment in ECE has several strengths. These include capacities for:
- assessing learning in context,
- encompassing a range of holistic learning outcomes,
- inviting and integrating many perspectives, including those of children, families and whanau,
- engaging others and encouraging their involvement,
- constructing images of children as competent and capable,
- reinforcing what is valued,
- supporting transitions, and
- enabling and documenting continuity in learning.
- Learning stories are often richer, deeper, and more meaningful when based on a broad range of assessment evidence, which is compiled and discussed by teaching teams working together.
- Important aspects to include in a high-quality learning story relate to content (context, breadth, richness), analysis (working theories, dispositions, links to Te Whāriki, diverse interpretations), planning (participation of children and families, reflection, intentional practice), and continuity (reference to prior learning, alignment with centre priorities).
If you wish, use the Part 5 forum to discuss:
- What are some of the common challenges with learning stories (or other assessment formats you use) in your early childhood setting?
- Which aspects are difficult for you or your team to achieve?
Read Early childhood assessment in Aotearoa New Zealand: Critical perspectives and fresh openings (sciendo.com), which helps situate early childhood assessment practice in New Zealand within a range of traditional and contemporary approaches to assessment, and argues that the learning stories have potential to provide assessment that is credible, rich, responsive and morally responsible.
Read our guide to the features of high-quality assessment in early childhood. This resource shows how ensuring learning stories are of high quality means attending to issues of content and coverage, analysis, curriculum, learning priorities and links to Te Whāriki, accessibility, and collegiality.
Read the Education Review Office’s 2007 report which details their findings regarding quality practices for assessment in ECE, and has been used in the construction of our learning story evaluation rubric in the activity for this part.
Finally, you might like to read more about Hokowhitu Kindergarten’s experiences with using a variety of data assessment tools to inform their learning stories. Note that the paper refers to a CEOS, which stands for Child Experience Observation System, and involves the use of a tablet with software enabling the user to code basic information about different types of play and interaction, such as (for the focus child discussed here) who the child is playing with.