An Introduction to Learning Stories by Kelly Goodsir

The What, Why, How and When of Learning Stories as an Assessment Tool

The great thing about learning stories is that they fit within the pedagogy of relationships and focus on highlighting the strengths, persistence, mastery and curiosity of the child.

As a follow up to a recent Educa webinar, Kelly Goodsir provides this introduction to learning stories.

What are Learning Stories?

Learning stories are a narrative form of assessment that focuses on the strengths of the child.  It is about the adult seeing the potential of the child, in what they do, what they seek to understand, master and be accomplished at.

This requires a shift in thinking or viewing children as one with ‘needs’ but with strengths and interests of their own.  Kelly advises that exploring your image of the child is important work in the context of learning story pedagogy.

Learning stories are subjective, which requires the author to have a strong understanding of the child and professional knowledge to maintain integrity of the assessment. Typically many forms of assessment are objective asking the observer to not include or reflect their own thoughts or insights. However learning stories invite you to include your professional insight.

They also are written in a way that invite families, children and teachers into the conversation about learning. The process is inclusive taking in all perspectives and should encompass many lenses.

Kelly describes learning stories as a more relational way to document the moments when we notice children making leaps in their learning, interests and development.

What are Learning Dispositions?

Learning stories often describe growth in learning dispositions.  Kelly describes dispositions as ‘frequent and voluntary habits of doing.” The educator’s role is to cultivate, acknowledge and make visible positive dispositions that reflect children as strong, capable and curious.  Dispositions might include kindness, self-control, reasoning, bravery, etc.

Learning dispositions + skills + knowledge = meaningful assessment.

On the continuum of dispositions, there are desirable and not desirable dispositions.

“Dispositions can be greatly affected by environmentally sensitive attributes. Interactive experiences with adults can acquire, support or weaken the habits that children learn, for a positive or negative learning capability.”  This highlights the impact of the educator’s role and the significance this can have in a child’s early years.

Also check out our thought leader interview with Sarah Bien on learning dispositions.

How Are Learning Stories Used in New Zealand & Australia?

Kelly has noticed that learning stories for teachers in New Zealand have advanced significantly since their conception and implementation in the late 1990’s by Dr Margaret Carr.

In particular she has noticed many kiwi teachers using ‘Teacher Stories’ as a way of documenting their own learning and development, a way of writing a story about your own pedagogy.

Learning Stories are still a relatively new way of assessment in Australia. However, it has been embraced significantly since the introduction of the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) in 2009.

Kelly feels it is important to focus on the educator’s practice first, not the documentation.  An educator’s image of the child, her knowledge of early childhood development and her relationship with each child and family will always impact WHAT and HOW you write a learning story.

When each of these aspects are nurtured and woven together, the technical aspects of a learning story are easily connected.  It is important to not over-simplify the relationship between practice and documentation, to rush to get to the product of a learning story.

What is the Magic in a Learning Story?

Kelly strongly believes learning stories speak to the heart of teaching.

Assessment in a learning story is not fragmented. It flows through the process of noticing, recognizing and responding. Teachers are able to communicate learning in the context of the whole child.

It is about celebrating the competent child!

Kelly explained in a previous role as a Validator for the Australian Quality Assurance Scheme she interviewed hundreds of educators about their practices, documentation and educational programs.  After a number of years doing this is became obvious to her that there was a strong disconnection to the way educators talked about children and how they wrote about them.

Verbally, there was a sense of knowing, connectedness and genuine delight when explaining a child’s development and learning. However, when reading about the child in their portfolios or documentation, this passion was not there.

The missing element Kelly explains was the connection between the ‘head and heart’ – the relationship. Here is an interesting article on this aspect: Becoming a Reflective Teacher by Margaret Carter.

How Do You Write a Learning Story?

For Kelly, the process first starts with noticing.  From this place of identifying an area of significance, we discuss the observation with others, typically children, families and colleagues.  You will find what emerges from those conversations is a sense of wanting to better understand and to make meaning from the observation.

Which takes us into the next phase where we start to describe the learning.

This all happens in practice.  At this point Kelly explains there is no documented learning story – just working notes.  However, we are now better prepared to start documenting and deciding on where to next.

So don’t be in a rush to document!

The typical format of a learning story is as follows:

  1. A great heading
  2. The author and date
  3. Notice – the observation, anecdotes, artefacts that support the story
  4. Recognize – what it means? This may include reflections  – questions to the family.
  5. Respond – Where to from here, how to strengthen/extend/pursue the child’s learning

All aspects of a learning story can and should reflect the child and family voices.

Are All Learning Stories Written to the Child?

In Kelly’s opinion, there is not a right or wrong way here. It’s about your personal writing style and how you connect with what you are writing about that will determine how you direct your learning story.

Writing in the first person ‘I’ and ‘we’ immediately demonstrates it’s your point of view and shows that subjectivity.  Writing in the second person ‘you’ and ‘your’ directs the learning story to a particular audience, in this case the child.

When Should You Use Learning Stories?

Can they replace assessment entirely? The obvious answer here is no. Learning stories are one type of assessment that holds a particular pedagogy and suits particular occasions.  Other assessment tools such as checklists, anecdotes, jottings all have their place too.  It is important to understand what you are trying to capture, measure or understand in a child’s development and learning and use the most appropriate assessment tool.

The great thing about learning stories is that they fit within the pedagogy of relationships and focus on highlighting the strengths, persistence, mastery and curiosity of the child.  Learning story pedagogy asks you to ‘think and reflect on’ the following actions:

  1. Taking an Interest
  2. Being Involved
  3. Persisting with a difficulty or challenge
  4. Expressing a point of view or feeling
  5. Taking responsibility

What If Your Teachers Have No Time?

Kelly appreciates that you can only do what you can do in the time you have, so be realistic!  You want documentation to be a pleasure not a pain. And so the following ideas might be helpful.

Carrying a journal is a valuable tool to create ‘working notes’ which you come back to later. This process of jotting down, capturing particular moments and quotes is the space where you practice the art of defining the important features of learning.

Quotes from the child, different theories of play, or even a photograph that demonstrates new growth are perfect to capture in the moment then reflect on later.

Use your downtime like rest/sleep periods to start discussions about learning so when creating the learning stories its less time encompassing and smooth. Why not write stories together as a team during rest periods?


Suggested Reading

About Kelly

Kelly Goodsir is an Educa Advisory Board member and long-time provocateur and advocate of learning stories. She has a consulting practice and runs study tours to New Zealand.