The case for using stories to document a child’s learning journey
Learning stories are documentation “for,” not documentation “of.”
Dr. Annie White
Traditional assessment is documentation “of” — reflections on a child in checkpoint format. By contrast, learning stories are assessment for learning, documentation “for”- in an easy to read narrative format that allows teachers to fully capture the magic of a child’s journey, to share with and engage parents and collaborating teachers, for the purpose of individualizing learning for each child.
Learning stories help teachers connect to the aspects of early education that bring them joy and fulfillment, celebrating a child’s success.
Learning stories are the primary form of assessment in early childhood education in New Zealand and Australia. And now there is growing interest in learning stories for authentic assessment in North America. The US held its first National Learning Stories conference in May, 2019 and learning stories are an increasingly popular topic at ECE conferences, webinars and PD workshops.
Current US Assessment Approach – Concerns
Pre-K, Head Start and other government funding typically requires checkpoint assessments of each child supported by evidence 2-3 times a year. While the checkpoint approach creates a reason to reflect on each child, some have concerns, specifically:
- It’s time consuming for teachers
- Most of the work is eventually discarded
- Checklists don’t always do justice to a child’s journey
- Checklists do not engage families
Most snippet observation systems used in early childhood education require teachers to record thousands of pieces of evidence each year. That’s a long to do list each day that often becomes less thoughtful and reflective (as intended) and more busy work — quick, superficial observations that check a box. This data does eventually populate some great looking charts, but many feel the contribution these charts make to improved learning outcomes does not justify the effort required.
Because of the sheer magnitude of the data collection required, teachers tend to work backwards, starting with framework goals and looking for evidence to support each rating. This focuses the teacher on the framework measures, not the child’s unique learning journey.
There’s another challenge with all this required activity. It takes time away from reflection, time for a teacher to think deeply about a child and where the next opportunities for growth might come from. This is not the intention of checkpoint assessments, but often it is the reality.
No Keepsake Value
Checklist assessments are pretty dry to start with. But it gets worse. Because observations and other evidence are fragments, they are not of much interest on their own to anyone outside the assessment process.
And so most of the time these observations and snippets are discarded — by the teachers or by the parents — which is a shame as it’s the assembling of this evidence that takes up such a large part of a teacher’s day.
While checklists can be helpful for older children to measure academic growth where the markers are reasonably clear, they can be frustratingly confining in early childhood education. They do not allow teachers to capture and share all of those wonderful stories of firsts, of breakthroughs, of imagination and curiosity, of amazing outside the box thinking, of those unique loving moments – the magic of early learning. It’s this magic that gets teachers up in the morning, and it’s what engages parents.
Furthermore, checklists limit a teacher’s ability to connect to the substantial shifts going on in educational practice and theory. For instance, seeing children as capable and competent, on a journey of empowerment. A checklist can not do these developments justice. Another is concept of working theories — successful working theories require more explanation than a checklist provides.
Finally, checkpoint assessments can be deficit oriented, which influences the lens through which educators view their children. Removing this deficit-seeking mindset was a major factor in New Zealand’s decision to move away from checkpoint assessments.
Not Contributing To Outcomes
“It’s not about making documentation perfect. It’s about improving teacher performance on the floor.”
Ultimately though, it’s the distance between completing an assessment and daily teaching practice as it impacts learning that is creating an interest in alternative documentation approaches. Too much time spent recording evidence risks distracting teachers from their more important educational mission.
Furthermore, parents, the world expert on their child, are effectively sidelined in the current assessment process. This misses a wonderful opportunity to engage and collaborate with parents to help teachers constantly individualize learning for each child.
Enter Learning Stories
Learning stories are a different way to document learning and collect evidence of learning progress. They are a formative assessment method, these days called assessment for learning.
Learning stories are almost always about a child’s success, a learning growth moment – where the child is the hero. Learning stories have three parts:
- The story
- What learning is happening here?
- What’s next? (Opportunities and Possibilities)
In New Zealand this is notice, recognize and respond. The story, in a narrative format, often addressed to the child, gives teachers free rein to capture every aspect the event or activity and the ideas therein. The “What Learning” (#2) section is the analysis that makes it an assessment. And the “Opportunities and Possibilities” (now sometimes in New Zealand called, “How can we stretch this learning?”) is the reflection and planning piece.
Because the stories are about their child and about success, they are engaging for parents. Plus, they provide learning context in the “What Learning” section that helps parents understand the school’s approach and enables them to provide informed feedback. And if the “what’s next?” section includes a question, in most cases the parents will indeed respond thereby contributing to their child’s education.
Read more about the structure and magic of learning stories here.
How Learning Stories Work In Authentic Assessment
Authentic assessment is about regular and comprehensive reflection on a child’s progress.
That defines a portfolio of learning stories.
Each story is the culmination of teacher observation (“notice”) with a keen eye for events that represent growth or success for that child. And then reflection and learning analysis (“recognize”). The elements of using learning stories for authentic assessment are:
- Select a framework
- Write learning stories
- Link stories to framework domains
- Report on domains with stories as evidence
Teachers will then use the learning insights from the story and feedback from parents and peers with whom the story is shared to individualize learning and plan next steps for each child. Learning stories play a pivotal documentation and connecting role in the program cycle.
Choose a Framework
In North America, learning stories are already being linked to California’s DRDP (Desired Results Developmental Continuum) and Head Start’s ELOF (Early Learning Outcomes Framework). Both of these frameworks have developmental and attitudes to learning measures that encompass all assessment areas. Educa has a DRDP ratings tool that enables these links to be updated for agency reporting.
There are a number of state frameworks that are suitable. Note, it is easy to add and then customize any state framework in Educa, adding developmental milestones if required.
Write Learning Stories
This includes individual stories and group stories for shared experiences. Regarding frequency, for reference, New Zealand recommends one learning story per child per month – that could be an individual story or a group story. The need to populate at least two assessment periods in the US, might require a different frequency.
Link to Framework Measures
One well-written story can almost always be linked to multiple domains, and very often 10+ measures, replacing the need for snippet observations covering those measures.
The DRDP Essential View has 29 measures, DRDP Fundamental View has 56 measures and the Head Start ELOF has 59 measures. A handful of learning stories in each assessment period can comfortably touch on all measures in each domain.
This linking to frameworks is somewhat challenging using paper or publishing programs like Word. The ease of linking stories to frameworks is one of the two big value propositions that lead to the founding of Educa as an online learning story solution, the other value being the instant sharing with parents so as get their collaboration and input in real time.
Once the stories are written and linked to measures, it is a simple matter of creating a report of the framework by measure for each child.
Educa is creating customized snapshot views for each state and province in North America to help teachers see where they stand regarding covering all measures prior to period end. And it is creating customized reports for each framework can be exported – for example, into California’s DRDP Tech system — or formatted as a printable report.
Why Learning Stories
The magic of learning stories extends beyond their role as an assessment tool. Learning stories:
- Save time – link to multiple domains in one story
- Enable all learning to be captured
- Bring parents into the process – in real time
- Focus teachers on each child’s learning journey
- Integrate teaching, learning and assessment
- Allow teachers to make it personal
- Collect in a portfolio – for parents, the child and next year’s teacher
One learning story can replace dozens of observations and other evidence. Each story can be linked to a range of measures in any learning framework – there are almost always attitude to learning, physical, social and emotional elements in each story.
And so they save time.
As an aside, there is substantial momentum worldwide in the use of learning stories. Wendy Lee wrote this article on the US Movement To Learning Stories, notably California. And in 2019, a new non-profit activist group, SALSA, hosted the first national learning stories conference, also in California.
Narratives Can Record All Learning
Learning stories acknowledge the unpredictability and non-sequential way that students learn and they reflect this learning in a manner that may not easily be captured by other, more traditional forms of assessment.
The open-ended narrative approach can capture learning in all of its forms, and is not limited in any way. This is especially helpful in the early childhood education setting where learning journeys are always surprising.
Each learning story represents a significant touch point with parents inviting feedback. Parent reactions help steer teachers towards fruitful learning experiences and possibly away from less fruitful areas. Individualized learning improves outcomes.
Furthermore, the learning story process keeps teachers in the moment, with the child, on the child’s learning journey. The need to capture success turns educators into close observers. It’s less about busily collecting data points and more about reflecting on each child’s unique journey, and looking closely for those moments that represent success, growth or evidence of a strength for that child. These kinds of insights are crucial, and take a real understanding of each child.
Learning stories use events to identify learning growth here and now. That helps teachers be responsive here and now.
And when the learning stories are shared online in real time, as they occur, the feedback from collaborating teachers and from parents is more impactful in shaping next steps.
Finding the Magic
And because learning stories have a positive light to them, instead of worrying about “sugar coating” their assessments, teachers write learning stories that are all about finding the “sugar” – a strength, growth, a success – to write about. Documented success is empowering.
Children benefit from this positive and more individualized mindset.
Furthermore, learning stories give permission for a teacher to make it personal. Yes, this is counter to the objective assessment mantra of K-12, but it makes sense in the early years because early education is personal. Writing learning stories helps teachers connect with the magic of early learning and what got them into teaching in the first place, the love of children and the desire to help them succeed.
Integrating Teaching, Learning and Assessment
Learning stories protect and enhance learning communities through the development of a collaborative ” interpretation of the learning, whilst seeking the perspective of the student (Carr, 2001).
Amanda Josephine Picken
Learning stories are effective because they are real, memorable, and engaging. The recounting of an event can be enriching because it is meaningful to the storyteller — there is a particular way of seeing and interpreting a student’s learning progress that is compelling.
In an early childhood settings this meaning is developed through sharing, construction and reconstruction of stories with peers, families and the child. This interpretation, construction and re-interpretation process builds insight into the learner and provides valid, powerful assessment information to be fed back into the teaching and learning process (Carr, 2001).
The Child’s Voice
Many if not most Learning Stories are printed for “Journey Folios” and read to the child – often over and over again! These stories are engaging for children, since they are almost always about them doing something well – and they are generally written to the child. The stories help children see themselves as learners, to understand what makes them unique, their strengths and what they did right.
The ritual of reading Learning Stories to children has educational value. It builds the all-important relationship between adult and child – relationships are a vital ingredient for learning. And it gives children a chance to react, to feedback, to have a say in their learning – agency.
Portfolios Worth Keeping
Finally, learning stories are intended to be accessible for parents, and for children — they need to make sense to parents and children. Along with that goes attractive formatting – images, videos, page borders, etc. Learning stories are made to shared, saved and valued in a child’s portfolio. Valued by parents, by collaborating teachers or clinicians, and perhaps by next year’s teacher.
And most of all, children love their portfolio, What 4-year old doesn’t enjoy having stories read to her time and again where she is the hero?
Here is New Zealand learning stories guru, Wendy Lee talking about the mechanics of writing learning stories and how it evolved in New Zealand.
Learning Stories as a First Documentation Step
A regimen of summative checkpoint assessment 2-3x a year for every child is an overwhelming ask for many child care centers and for home-based family day cares. Learning stories represent a more manageable start to documentation. They are not only helpful in guiding teacher practice — observing, thinking about learning — they are engaging for teachers. Learning stories give teachers permission to make it personal and they transform relationships with families.
While learning stories in their most authentic form are individual, many centers start with group stories, learning stories about a class or a group who share an experience or who meet a common goal.
Learning Story Info
See how this looks in Educa learning story software here.
For ideas and tips on writing engaging learning stories click here. Spoiler alert, it’s not about perfect prose, it’s about capturing the magic.
“Learning Stories are more than just a form of assessment, they are a philosophical approach.”
Here is Wendy Lee talking about how learning stories became the assessment tool of choice in New Zealand.
Webinars on Learning Stories
To see a number of webinars on Learning Stories but thought leaders from around the world visit our webinar replay page.