Beyond Multiple Choice Podcast: How Learning Stories Make Assessment Meaningful

Last fall, Rachel Silva, Educa’s Vice President of Business Development in North America had the privilege of being a featured guest on the Beyond Multiple Choice Podcast with Kristine Hadeed. Listen to the episode below or read the full transcript and gain insight into how Learning Stories can be used to make learning more meaningful by engaging families and deepening student-teacher relationships.

Full Episode Transcript

Kristine: Welcome to Beyond Multiple Choice, a podcast exploring the future of assessment. Here you’ll gain perspectives from international researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and innovators about factors shaping our approach to assessment in education and the workforce. On this episode, you’ll hear from our guest, Rachel Silva about learning stories, an assessment tool that helps to authentically drive learning through student relationship building and family engagement.

Welcome to this episode of The Beyond Multiple Choice Podcast. I’m Kristine Hadid. I am excited today to speak with our. Rachel Silva, who is director of Development for Educa, a learning story software and professional development platform that facilitates open feedback, communication, and collaboration between teachers and parents.

Rachel, thanks so much for being on today.

Rachel: Thank you, Kristine for having me. I’m really excited to share.

Kristine: Absolutely. So let’s just dive in. What is your background and how did it lead you to your role at Educa?

Rachel: Thank you for asking that. So, my background.. I’ve worked in education for, gosh, over 25 years and my experience in education kind of collided with my background in business development. Over the course of many years, I’ve had the ability to collaborate with educators from all over the world, and I have found that many really awesome practices in education are rooted in work from New Zealand.

I’m not a hundred percent sure why. I don’t know if it’s, maybe they’re just a smaller country and they have the ability to collaborate and communicate together, the ability to grow quicker with best practices. And so over the years, I have found that many amazing practices have stemmed out of New Zealand, and I have taken the path of trying to bring some of those practices over to the United States.

I used to work in K to 8 reading and writing, but then I landed in Educa, which is more early development.

Kristine: So what is Educa?

Rachel: We call ourselves a learning story company. Learning stories are a form of assessment that is used to assess young children in a way that is a storytelling process. So it resonates with the reader, it resonates with families, it resonates with educators, and with children. It really took off in New Zealand and now we’re trying to grow that practice here in the United States.

Kristine: This is interesting, the difference. So Educa is a New Zealand based company that your role is basically expanding the software and practices and philosophy underlying the software to the United States. I know there’s some differences between how education systems operate in New Zealand and the States. Just to kind of set some context, can you articulate what some of those major differences might be?

Rachel: A hundred percent. So back, gosh, over 15 years ago, it wasn’t that different. In New Zealand, it was very similar to the way assessment tends to work in a lot of early childhood sites today. They were using checklist assessments back then to assess young children; really like every three months. Or three or four times a year, they would sit and they would check, check, check. ‘Have kids met these measures? Have they learned to share? Have they learned to walk? Have they learned to wash their hands? Are they using fine motor skills?’ All of this is really good information, but using checklist assessments for that was not really resonating with families about what learning their children were doing in the classroom and how they were going to grow.

 Early on, a lot quicker than here in the United States, they realized checklist assessments not only lent themselves to educators, seeing the child as an individual learner and growing at different paces and on taking different journey in learning, but the reports they were sending home to families were not being understood. They were checklist assessments and they weren’t even as clear as the examples I just gave you. They were like codes and numbers. That’s what we have here in the States, frameworks with measures.

A big part of early learning and development is getting to know the child, getting to know the families and caretakers, and collaborating on that child’s journey. So there were two educators that decided they were going to lead the charge in creating a new way. Those two people were Margaret Carr and WendyLee.

To put it best, I’ll use their quote. They said, “Practitioners and I wanted to cease the notion of assessment, shake it around a bit, turn it upside down, and find something that was part of enjoying the company of young children, not just check, check, check, checking.” So they created this practice of assessment called Learning Stories.

Learning Stories have three parts. First is an event, the actual observation that an educator sees in a child or group of children, the play, the learning, the experimenting, the journey. They’re writing to the child and about the child right there. It is completely different than checklist assessments because we are allowing educators to have a voice and to say, ‘I see your child. I see your group of children. They’re not just a number on a checklist.’

There is the second part of a Learning Story, which is ‘what learning is happening here?’ We’re lifting out that learning in language that our caretakers can understand. Same thing, writing to the child and about the child.

And then the third part of the Learning Story, which I often feel is the part missed in almost every assessment I’ve seen regardless of age and stage, is the ‘what’s next?’ What are the opportunities and possibilities to stretch this learning? What can we do to help this child on their journey? What can we do in our planning? What can we ask a family to glean more insight into this child’s home and their background and their culture? And are we asking families, are we on the right path and giving them sort of license to share with us?

I really emphasize that part of the assessment process because as I just said, I have spoken with educators in so many different schools, at so many different levels, and who still to this day give multiple choice tests or fill in the blank tests. And I say, ‘What do you do with this information when you’re done?’ and they give me blank stares.

I’ve had myself, my own children, who have come home with a test grade that isn’t so great and I’ll say, ‘Well, what did the teacher do?’ ‘Oh well, nothing Mom cuz we’ve moved on to the next subject.’ Assessment should be not just about the children, right? First and foremost it is. It’s about our students, but if we’re doing it right, shouldn’t an assessment be about the communication with the families and also about our own practice?

What are we doing with this assessment? How are we reflecting on these children? On the learning? And how are we using that reflection to make informed decisions? Do we need to go back? Do we need to shift? Do we need to teach differently? If we’re not doing that, we’re missing a big piece of the use and purpose of assessment. That’s the full cycle – the communication and the collaboration. Learning Stories are allowing us to do this.

Now going back to your question, New Zealand versus America. In New Zealand, once they created this practice, everybody started writing Learning Stories. That is the way they assess young children in New Zealand. Here in the States, not everybody, but the majority of educators are tied very much so to checklist assessments because they feel they have no choice, or the schools that are working in are forcing them to use tools that don’t really allow for their voice and learning stories. They’re kind of reverting to these checklist assessments. Part of that comes from the fact that they need reports and data for funding purposes or for state requirements and so on and so forth.

But the knowledge is there that data from checklists does not grow our children’s journey as learners or help teachers. If anything, they get caught up in these checklists three times a year that take a lot of time and really take away the love of learning. So there is this talk out there in our country about ‘what are we gonna do to make change?’ And there’s been a lot of interest in Learning Stories. One of the things we’ve done at Educa is we have a software platform which allows educators to write Learning Stories and still connect to the measures they need for those reporting purposes. But the Learning Stories come first as opposed to check, check, checking off these lists and then going back in and trying to fill in the learning. We’ve really created our software to meet the needs of the US educator, while bringing Learning Stories to the forefront of what they’re doing and educators love it.

We’ve also created an Academy website where we can offer training around this practice, because that’s what’s needed. So that’s really where we are today in the US. There’s a lot of change happening, but we’re not there yet, especially not across the board.

Kristine: Gotcha. So, wow there’s a lot happening in what you just said. A few things have stood out to me. I’m just gonna kind of process outloud, to hopefully help our audience understand the impact of what you just said.

So basically, if I’m understanding correctly, New Zealand kind of started out where the US is today. Where we’re very focused on these kind of standards-driven assessments, whether it’s, you know, check boxes – I think in early childhood specifically you’re referencing, they actually do use check boxes. But even in K-12 education, it’s to some degree doing the same thing, where you start with the standards with their codes and you kind of go through and try to make sure that you’re teaching things that align to what those standards are. Kind of beginning with the end in mind.

Rachel: Well, yeah, I mean, I think that, you know, look, we could get into standards and frameworks a lot, right? In New Zealand we have the Te Whāriki, which is their framework of where we want children to be eventually. It’s a guide. And so when we created frameworks here in the States, the intention wasn’t to use them as checklists. I think that’s just what happened without direction and purpose and training.

I believe the intention was “let’s provide standards so that a child who is in one state going into second grade and a child who’s in another state going into second grade, have the same goals and opportunities because their teachers have this guide. But they got kind of thrown off course when we as educators, were either told to (or didn’t understand them) align the teaching to those standards.

And that wasn’t really the intention. But in New Zealand, they got it right. And they used frameworks as guides, but they don’t use them as checklists. They use them to be “what can we be looking for?” “What opportunities can we give these kids as they’re going on their journeys and we are there to really lead the way and give them opportunities to experiment and grow” and then we’re reflecting on that journey.

Kristine: Yeah, so it sounds like New Zealand made this shift to where, like you said, we’re not using these standards as a rigid structure, but more as you know, more of a flexible guide and really kind of letting the learning journey itself drive the direction of teaching and classroom engagement and then seeing, pulling from those experiences, observing where the standards or objectives are being reflected in students’ kind of natural learning process. Is that kind of a reflection of what’s happening?

Rachel: A hundred percent. Right. And now what’s really exciting when I have this discussion with educators is they say, “We want to use this practice for our older students, or we want to use this practice for our observations of teachers,” and we have found that evolving as well. So whereas learning stories were created for the assessment of young children, they’re now growing into this kind of movement of: when a teacher is going and observing, or a director or whoever’s, going and observing a teacher in their classroom, for the purpose of assessing them. Why are we using a checklist for them as well? We could be writing to this adult, to this teacher. “This is what I saw you do. This is some amazing work and insight I’m getting out of it. Here are some suggestions.” So we have observation stories now.

And in the older grades, and when I say older, I mean anywhere third grade and up, I should say. What we’re seeing is this movement to have students writing their own reflection stories of their learning in the classroom and what they’re doing, having self reflection stories. This is what I’m learning and this is what I still need to know, or what I might want to find out or what I need support from my teacher with.

 So this practice of learning stories can really encompass all levels. Even though the focus was created for early childhood. Does that make sense?

Kristine: Yeah. And what I really love about this approach is it seems to really center two things that when I was an elementary school teacher get emphasized in training unit to a degree, but in practice they’re kind of an afterthought, unfortunately, which are relationships and families.

 It’s really drilled into teachers, I think, that you have to have a good relationship with your students and just the immense importance and impact of having family and parental involvement. But when we actually get into where the emphasis is placed, when it comes to measuring, learning and measuring teacher effectiveness. That’s not something we’re really evaluated on.

But it sounds like you all have developed an actual assessment process that really centers those qualities and those relationships, first and foremost.

Rachel: You’re taking the words right outta my mouth. I cannot emphasize enough. Let’s start with when I go into any site, any school, any classroom, and I’m speaking with any educator, I get two problem areas that they bring up right away:

 The first is, we need more parent engagement. We need more family engagement. Okay. There’s a lot of buzz about that. And when I say I get it, let’s work on that. What does family engagement mean to you? They give me blank stares or they give me answers that are actually family involvement. There is a difference between involvement and engagement. We have some very involved families that will bring snacks, that will go on trips, that will come in and help with art projects.

Engagement is a little bit different, right? Engagement means that we want feedback. We want to remind our families that they are actually their child’s first teacher. We are their second parent and we want to learn from them. To build a partnership with families by shedding light on their child’s success and seeking feedback is truly how we will get that engagement and extend the learning. We’re letting families know, we see your child or we see your group of children, because group learning stories are a huge factor, especially in early childhood, then as we get into the upper grades in doing group work together. We want to hear from you and we want to get your feedback and we wanna have that collaboration.

Now that I’m speaking with universities, same thing. I go into learning stories are being used everywhere. I have some universities that are actually using learning stories with their up and coming teachers who are going out and they’re doing student work to come back with learning stories. They use that to have inquiry groups and discuss what they see when they were out there observing kids and sharing and growing from there.

So it all comes back to collaboration. It’s a collaborative, communicative way of assessing, across the board. Stories are also meant to be shared with the kids themselves. Even as we’re sharing with families and each other, we do encourage educators to print out and have a portfolio of stories for every child in the classroom.

I know that there’s this really huge misconception amongst parents that their kids should be reading and writing by kindergarten. That’s not necessarily appropriate development. Let me just say there is no better model of reading and writing to a young child than to read them a story you wrote about them. When kids have this learning story portfolio and they can pour through it, there are a lot of opportunities to write another learning story, ask them what they see happening in the photos that are attached to that learning story. As you’re reading them the learning story, ask them what they think they were learning at that time. Would they like to continue down that path? And you know obviously when they’re infants, we have reading too, then we’re showing them the pictures, but they’re hearing you speak and that’s the first model of reading and writing, reading to kids.

I just can’t say enough about this practice. It’s a positive practice across the board.

Kristine: Yeah. And another thing that’s standing out too is that it seems very growth mindset oriented. You know, we have, especially since the pandemic, this whole issue of learning loss. Which is a loaded term and obviously there have been some delays in certain areas of growing due to the disruptions. But it seems like our current assessment systems in the US are not very well geared towards highlighting all the ways that students are learning every day, even if it’s not necessarily embodied in a specific standard. I love that with these, this process of creating a learning story, you’re really focused on the growth, not just the deficit. It sounds like more so if anything, you’re leaving it to the children and parents to decide where they want to improve, where they want to keep learning. But the teacher, it sounds like, is more in the position of highlighting where the growth is happening and helping build that confidence that progress is being made.

Rachel: Yeah, I mean, gosh, I have a couple of points on what you just said. During COVID, there was a lot of remote learning. We found that those sites that were already writing learning stories and had a platform like Educa to do so were holding on to their populations, the retention was higher. And part of that is the communication and collaboration between families were still intact and we were coaching our sites on how to encourage families to write what we call family stories. Where they would write in photos and snippets about what they were doing with their child at home, whether it was playing outside or baking or painting or just how kids are building things and knocking them down. And that enabled our educators to write “That is so amazing. Did you know this learning is happening and here are some other ideas.” And have that collaboration still stay intact and grow.

We found that the engagement from families during that time, was some crazy number. I have to go back and look at the exact percentage, but it was the February of that first year of COVID and everybody was remote that our engagement went up like 170- something- percent. That was early on. I’d have to pull the percentage for after that. That was so early on that I was like, If it increased this much now how much is it gonna increase two months from now? It lent itself to still having that connection. Then when the kids came back to those sites, the teachers had a little bit more of an insight as to who these kids are, who they are as learners, what their interests are, what do they avoid, because they had already had this communication as oppos ed to starting from from scratch again. So that’s one, one aspect that I did wanna point out to you as you were bringing this up.

The other piece is that in general, non COVID times, when we go from checklist assessments to learning stories, we see an increase in engagement of families who go from looking at some sort of a communication platform maybe one or two times a month, to on average 30 times a month which is pretty incredible. Definitely it lends itself to the families having a lot more engagement in the whole process and then teachers having the ability to guide and lend their expertise.

Kristine: I can totally see how, I mean, I don’t know what teacher or parents or even student wouldn’t be really excited by a system like this. What are you seeing in your work to expand use of the platform? Is the adoption like a no brainer and are people really embracing it, or are you encountering bottlenecks? Are you encountering any policy obstacles? What’s going on there?

Rachel: Yes, yes, yes. All of that. When I speak with individual sites that have their own choice of what to do, it’s a no brainer.

Well, let me start with it doesn’t matter who I speak with. Any educator, any early educator, admin, teacher, parent… I speak about learning stories and I speak about Educa and everybody says “I want it. I need it. I love it.” But private sites can do whatever they want, so it’s a lot easier to have them buy the platform or training. But we do want to bring this to populations that are diverse. We want to bring it to large districts. Most districts it’s a very long, lengthy process as there’s a lot of politics involved. A lot of sites within a school district, in the public school sector, don’t have the choice of what to do. So they’re being forced to use something that they don’t like. When they do have the ability to use Educa, they love Educa and they’re excited about Educa, so we are making headway, but there is political and red tape obstacles for sure.

There are some states that have tied themselves to one system and everybody has to use that system, and it’s mind boggling to me. I don’t know what that’s about. I don’t know if it’s about just finances or lobbyists. I’m sure there’s a lot of everything involved, but it is very hard and it’s very sad, and I keep chipping away at the political red tape trying to get in the door everywhere.

There’s a lot of successes as well. We’ve been asked to speak at a lot of conferences. We’ve been asked to speak both in public and private sectors, and we do have sites that are starting to make the shift and use us. But it is a long and harrowing road that I am on because I know we’re doing good work.

I have never ever in all my time doing this, I’ve been with Educa for over three and a half years and I’ve been in education for over 25, I have never had an educator while saying “I love learning stories. This actually makes my life easier because it’s what I want to do, and it comes naturally for me to write learning stories.” I’ve never had one educator ever say, “Oh, Oh, but I love my checklist. I am just cozied up to my checklist.” Most teachers dread them. They mean nothing to them. In fact, many educators, and I’ll say this on the record, I have had many educators say this to me “during my rating period, I go there and I just check, check, check, check, check… just to get it done because I know it’s nonsense and I know it doesn’t mean anything to me.”

When I talk about Educa and learning stories, they’re like, “I love it.” Now, I do want to point out that if you’re using our platform to write learning stories, and then you’re connecting to your measures along the way, you are meeting anywhere from 8 to 30 measures in one learning story. So you are naturally going to be able to get your data, but you’re doing it in an authentic way. I mean, really everyone talks about authentic assessment. We have to remember that authentic assessment is happening all day, every day. If we’re really doing our job, it’s happening as we’re looking and we’re listening and we’re getting feedback from families and from kids, and it’s a journey. Doing three time a year checklist assessment, that’s not authentic. It’s the opposite of authentic. Yet they throw the word authentic on there. Teachers find this a lot easier and more natural.

Kristine: It definitely seems to more closely mimic what learning is like outside of the education system, because like you said, we’re learning every day on the job, getting feedback from supervisors, you know, collecting artifacts and work samples. And I know, like you said, the authentic assessment and portfolio based assessment movement is really picking up because people see the value in that. But having a tool and a platform to really make it scalable and easy to share and document and connect those actual standards and objectives that can be used for reporting and accountability purposes as well is something that sounds really valuable. Yeah, that’s ideal.

Rachel: I feel like everyone should be using this everywhere. I also wanna point out that in a world or in a country where the focus right now is in equity and diversity, learning stories, especially when you’re using our platform, we have the ability to have translation, to have text to voice and voice to text in over a hundred languages. So we’re not just writing learning stories and sharing with those of our families that can read and understand English. We’re able to share and get feedback from populations that don’t speak English, or that maybe don’t have English literacy. The ability to have auto translate and voice to text gives the equity needed to bring all populations into the conversation and the collaboration of their children. And that is so important because it really puts process to the power of talk. So, you know, we speak about doing things. But it gives us an actionable way to do it. We also are able to, as educators we wanna not be biased. Nobody, I think, goes into early childhood with the intention of having bias, but when we’re looking and reading learning stories and reading them back to ourselves, we might be able to see some of that we weren’t aware of.

Like, I’m writing a lot of learning stories about boys in sports. What about the girls? Maybe I’m just not thinking about that. It creates a reflective practice, and to me, more than any takeaway, reflective practice only can encourage positive outcomes. And that’s a piece of the practice that I find to be super valuable that wasn’t necessarily even intended when it was created, but is a natural consequence of this type of assessment.

Kristine: It’s something that’s widely practiced in New Zealand. New Zealand has a reputation for being one of the leading educators in the world, especially the western world, when it comes to how they’re preparing students for the future. So that says a lot too. That this is the system that they’ve widely adopted.

Rachel: Absolutely.

Kristine: Well that is really exciting work that you’re doing, Rachel, and it’s really encouraging to know that there are companies out there, and in this case Educa, doing this work of developing a tool that really aligns with what we know is best for students and families and the learning process. And that at least there are solutions out there. Now it seems just a matter of spreading the word and getting the power behind actually implementing these solutions. We’re really excited to have you join us at our November conference coming up.

Rachel: I am so excited to be there, and I’m so glad that you and I met. We just have so many great things on the horizon, so thank you for having me.

Kristine: Absolutely. We’re really excited about the speakers that we have this year. So for everyone listening, you can learn more and hear more from Rachel at this year’s Beyond Multiple Choice Conference. It’s November 1st through third, completely free and open for everyone to attend.

 You can learn more and register at Rachel, thanks so much for taking this time to speak with us and for sharing about not just the product, but also the philosophy behind it and the work that you’re doing there.

Rachel: Thank you so much, Kristine. And if anybody wants to reach out to me,

Kristine: Sounds great. Thanks so much. Take care.