Tom Drummond on the Power of Story Telling in Early Education

Why Tom Drummond wants teachers to become storytellers.

Tom Drummond

Tom Drummond, an emeritus educator of children and adults, watched as Josie, one of his preschool students, pushed the piece of paper she was painting toward the paint tray until it formed a hill.

She dipped her brush in the paint, dropped a blob at the top of the hill and watched it drip down the paper. Intrigued, Josie filled her brush again, added another drop of paint to the top of the slope, and pushed the paper closer to the paint tray, making the hill even steeper. Josie watched intently as the drop slowly made its way to the bottom of the hill.

In Josie, Drummond saw not only a painter but also a scientist.

Instead of giving Josie a grade or a gold star on a checklist of skills, Drummond gave her and her parents a story: “Josie, you discovered how to make paint draw a line by sliding down a hill. You concentrated on how it moved. You did an experiment. And you watched the effect of the hill on the drip that you caused.

That careful looking is how scientists discover how things work. You wondered about something and figured it out.”

A Learning Storyteller

More than a teacher, Drummond is a storyteller — a learning storyteller. For 36 years, Drummond taught preschool children and educated their teachers as an early childhood education instructor at North Seattle College. A visit from Wendy Lee of New Zealand introduced him to learning stories, a form of observation and documentation that describes what children can do and what they are learning in a narrative format.

He immediately recognized that learning stories could be powerful and meaningful to children, families and educators, becoming assessments that communicate more than a number or a score.

Although Drummond is retired, he hasn’t stopped working to create better opportunities for young children. On his website, Drummond shares resources for early childhood educators and families, from how to write learning stories to how to cultivate conversations with children to how to be stewardships of play.

Drummond sat down with Educa to talk about how personalized learning observations engage the educator and the parent and why learning stories should play a role in American early childhood education.

How do you define a learning story?

Tom Drummond: It’s telling a story about an unfolding event in a child’s life addressed to the children and the family:

  • Making explicit how educators think about their work;
  • Communicating the values of school for young children;
  • Providing opportunity for co-construction of understanding among educators; and
  • Using that co-construction for mutual planning.

What attracted you to learning stories?

Everyone can look at a story and understand that thoughtfully planned early education environments are more than simply caring for children.

TD: I saw Wendy Lee [director of the Educational Leadership Project in New Zealand] give a presentation on learning stories. I immediately saw how this was the answer to problems in assessment and professional development at the same time.

In focusing on what we want to see, what it means and what we’re going to do about it, it fixes many problems we have in early childhood education including the importance of early learning as an investment in a public resource.

It makes explicit the stages of learning to everyone — children and adults — so it becomes an expression of our common focus. Everyone can look at a story and understand that thoughtfully planned early education environments are more than simply caring for children.

What problems do you see in early childhood education?

TD: There is a dominant discourse that early education is preparation for something in the future, usually stated as kindergarten; that developmental psychology with its focus on ages and stages can be a framework for early education; that children need adults to fix them; that the natural caring of others, a strength of women, isn’t important.

These dominant discourses lead us away from closely examining the amazing events that happen in children’s lives every day that show how brilliant and capable young children are.

Assessment With Heart

When you see a story, your heart is present; you see the undeniable unfolding that is learning. Furthermore, you recognize you care about more than academic success. And you are engaged in an adventure of childhood enlivened with joy and discovery.

The academic approach to education treats it as a social science, as if the enhancement of other people’s learning could be discovered by generalizations from research studies and those discoveries would automatically define effective actions by human beings in unique circumstances and cultural contexts. Life doesn’t work that way.

We might all agree that a certain teacher we know in common is an amazing educator and marvelous human being. If we examine how this person became so capable, we would not list academic research as the source. We are more likely to agree that a skillful educator has learned from experience and attended carefully to their own behavior.

Learning stories lay bare exactly that. You can see how one learns from the events in a child’s unique life. You can see how the discussion of meaning informs educational practice. It’s genuine research based on showing children doing things we value and why we value them.

What are examples of “good” learning stories?

… the more photographs you have, the more your story can convey.

TD: To decide what is good is an evaluation question. A judgment needs to be made by somebody, doesn’t it? Who is that somebody? Me? You? The mayor? The ministry? That’s crazy.

All can agree that the people who are in a position to make a judgment about the value of a learning story are the child, the family, the educators who work with that child and other educators. It would be “good” if the story caused them to discover something and reflect upon its importance. You could assess whether a story had an impact by whether any of those audiences wanted to read it again and again.

We all have so much to learn in any helping endeavor. We learn by looking carefully, listening, seeing what we can see and making sense of it over time. It takes a while to be able to express what is valuable, too.

It’s kind of like a poem: We may recognize something interesting is here and not immediately understand what we read. It may take some time to be able to articulate how what just happened in this play time is beneficial for a lifetime of being an optimized human being.

You have to work on it. You have to work with others, too, because they bring different perspectives and enrich understanding. The great stories are almost metaphoric of something we know in our hearts but are difficult to express. It’s the story, the humanities of the story, that links our hearts. Learning stories are the humanities brought to young children.

A Learning Frame for Learning Stories

One challenge in learning to write learning stories is you always need to have a recording device at hand. Another is learning to look in the right place at the right time. I use a learning frame to define what to look at. All learners go through increasingly more complex passages in becoming changed as people, transformation, if you like.

So I use these six ordered passages to attend to when capturing a story:


→ Engagement

→ Intentionality

→ Representation

→ Benefaction

→ Reflection

First, I look for initiative. For example, a child on their first day at this care setting or school may choose to do something on their own without a prompt. It could be getting the toy bus off the shelf, such as Henry in the learning story I have on my website. That’s initiative.

So I would take a picture of Henry and the bus to capture that moment to examine the importance of that choice Henry made at that time. Why did he do that? What meaning did that have for Henry, for me, for his parents? What could we do for Henry tomorrow to build on that initiative? The next time I would be looking for engagement, the kinds of actions he took. Then, I’d look for intentionality, what he was apparently trying to accomplish, etc.

It is essential to have at least one picture of the child, and of course, the more photographs you have, the more your story can convey. Then you write the text from your perspective to accompany the photographs.

There Is No Right Way

People have written “good” learning stories many ways. There is no “right” way.

However, I like to begin the narrative of a learning story as a storyteller would. “Once upon a time … ” — without using those words, of course. I write from my perspective as someone who cares and is listening closely to discover what is happening.

At the end, I title a paragraph “What It Means” and write about the significance of what I saw. Next, I offer an additional paragraph titled “Opportunities and Possibilities” to describe what we — adults, educators, parents —  can provide next and give voice to what we think the future may hold.

Finally, I offer a blank page for the family to respond with their view. Like every good story, I learned to make sure to have a title.

What makes them different from checklist assessments?

When I use learning stories, I have more open communication with the parents. They are happier with the school. Parents are more aware of what teachers do at school. They value us more. They recognize the importance of having skills as a teacher. And they see how complex teaching is.

TD: “Assessment” is a word without clear meaning. Generally, assessment is anything we do intentionally to find out what is going on. We can count things, check off things, describe things, take pictures of things, etc.

Learning stories are assessments that use documentation of an event, usually on video or in photographs as a focus for discussion among those who care about a child or a group of children. The documentation brings context, complexity and uniqueness to the table for everyone who knows the children to talk about.

Together they can discover or uncover the meaning they see, which will be more than checking off a generalized category of things. Checklist observation forces one to look for listed things, which can have value, but it’s different. If I am looking for a learning story, I am not looking for children to do the listed item, I am looking for what emerges that I have never seen before. I like being open and waiting for something amazing and new to emerge. That’s where I learn to be a leader of the learning environment.

When I use learning stories, I have more open communication with the parents. They are happier with the school. Parents are more aware of what teachers do at school. They value us more. They recognize the importance of having skills as a teacher. And they see how complex teaching is.

What role do you think they should play in American early childhood education?

These [assessment] systems don’t display the children or talk to them or listen to them, and there is no evidence they make things better for anyone.

TD: I would like us to get away from centralized control of daily life of children and staff. It has been stifling of individuals, distracting from the central importance of cooperation and interdependence, and meaningless. No one really looks at all those forms and files that take up so much of an educator’s day.

I would like to replace control and prescription with an agricultural model, which illuminates the growing. We don’t make carrots grow. The farmer doesn’t sit checking off carrot stages on a check sheet. Carrots emerge from the genetic information in the seed. With optimal care and elimination of toxins, that information can be maximized to its fullest extent.

That’s how farmers learn.

The farming model for assessment

That’s what ought to happen with assessment: Children are the carrots. Educators are the farmers. Farmers do evaluate their work; their livelihood depends on a successful crop. The farmer can tell when the carrots are successfully grown by eating one, and if not, learn with others how to tweak some aspect of the environment to enable the next crop to be all it can be. If we thought of our work with an agricultural model, educators could focus on optimizing the conditions for young human beings to become fruitful throughout their lives.

Unfortunately, rather than trust teachers and provide resources for their continued, self-chosen professional growth, assessment systems are coercively attached to the provision of resources. The system forces particular kinds of assessment in order to get money. These imposed systems don’t have to improve the lives of the children. They simply have to exist as numbers, check marks, forms in a drawer or in computers. These systems don’t display the children or talk to them or listen to them, and there is no evidence they make things better for anyone.

Learning stories require experience

For most teachers of young children, assessment lacks meaning, joy and heart. The children lose opportunities, and the teachers feel distrusted. I don’t know why this is accepted by anyone. I think we could agree that having the teachers working together to carefully examine the carrots would be our focus. Learning stories provide this opportunity.

The problem is that, as Thomas Jefferson said, there is no such thing as a young farmer. It takes some experience to do a learning story. It takes years to see what really happens to children when they use clay.

What’s needed is an investment in a living wage so the people who are working with young children stay and develop themselves. That money is not “spending.” It is an investment with remarkable and substantiated returns. A public investment in resources that enable the professionalization of early educators directly benefits society and humanity.

Are there any trends that favor adoption of learning stories?

TD: I see an energetic focus on play and play-based learning help spread story telling in early education. A focus on play gets people back to looking at children and childhood as being a place of exploration and development of interpersonal competence.

We still need the investment in public resources for everyone’s children to give educators the time and experience to make learning stories a part of daily practice.

So what is the future of learning stories?

TD: It’s big. It’s the most important idea that’s come along in education in my lifetime. People who read learning stories learn about children and education. They see the importance of the investment in more optimal opportunities for adults and for children. The power of stories and what they mean will continue and will flourish where they are valued. Humans are naturally compassionate and caring, and this brings us together.

What do you see as your role? What are your goals?

D: My personal goal is to put everything I know about these things online so it’s available to other people. If people want to see it, it’s there. If people want to conceptualize what one’s looking for in learning stories, I offer the learning frame in a single-page chart. That’s all I think I can do personally. I love all the interest I see in learning stories internationally.


Thank you Tom for taking the time to share your thoughts with us on early education. Thank you also for your wonderful contribution to early education. To learn more about Tom, check out his website here.  It has a wealth of materials on learning stories and this note:

Everything at this site is open for you to use and duplicate. No permissions are needed. You can download anything you wish to use directly, keep for yourself, modify, or give to others.

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